The first time George came to our school we were in a period of unrest. Our principal was on long term medical leave due to stress, an OFSTED inspection was looming and our staff, consisting of six ladies from the ages of twenty two to fifty two, was feeling the strain. George was older, retired and completely awesome. He knew what he was doing, needed little direction, he was wonderful with the kids, and more importantly he was wonderful with us. He was the consummate gentleman, ensuring each of us had hot steaming cups of tea waiting for us in the staffroom, and once we were all settled in he would entertain us with tales from his long career in education. He quickly became a favorite and was a regular visitor; he somehow brought stability during that uncertain time.
During one lunch break I asked George why he had retired as he obviously had a lot more to give as an educator. “I couldn’t hold up my umbrella anymore,” he replied quietly. I was obviously confused so he explained that when he retired he was a principal. He expected his teachers to be like umbrellas to students, shielding them from educational storms and reforms, protecting them from scary unknowns so that under their care, children could learn and grow safely and happily. He perceived his own role as an umbrella for his teachers, shielding them from similar storms so that they as educators could learn and grow safely to better serve their students. The school board was his umbrella; theirs was the local education authority and theirs the legislators. Each umbrella protecting those below so that at all layers of education people could feel secure enough within their realm to take risks, fail forward and ultimately do their best to ensure quality learning was happening.
“At some point,” he said, “the umbrellas above me began to collapse. The storm became too strong for me to withstand and when I couldn’t hold up my umbrella and protect and shield my teachers, I had to leave.” I don’t think I ever saw him look so sad and then understood why we were all so drawn to him; he had made us feel safe. I also felt the true weight of my own responsibilities as a teacher, seeing clearly for the first time that a classroom simply has to be a safe and happy place for students to realize their true potential.
Summer is a time for educators to mend holes in their umbrellas; to recover from the storms of the previous year, to reflect on their effectiveness, to follow their own learning journeys, to restore their sense of self. When we take time to re-evaluate and care for ourselves over the summer, we can ensure that as umbrellas, we return to school robust enough to weather another year. I hope the umbrellas above me are taking the time to do the same.