Balancing lives at Belvedere
Gerry Foley, headmaster, Belvedere College, Dublin
I wake early and email from 5am. It’s amazing how many colleagues respond at this hour. The smartphone has changed communications and not entirely for the better.
Meetings in school begin at 8am. There are several subcommittees of the board of management, or parent volunteer meetings. This week began with parent volunteer meetings reviewing the Family Festival Day and sponsored cycle, which raise funds for our social-diversity programme. Other groups are involved in raising funds for Guide Dogs for the Blind and Temple Street Hospital, and of course our Sleep Out in December. Parent volunteers are a key source of enrichment in the life of the school.
After the 8am meetings, I try to get around the college to meet students, check homework journals and visit classrooms. I am conscious of the need to be a visible presence and available to staff. I can’t say I always achieve that balance.
As practically all teaching staff are involved in after-school activities, many teachers meet before school and at lunchtime. On this particular Monday, we have a lunchtime meeting of the care team. We deal with the myriad issues that face families of all social backgrounds in Ireland. Families are under huge pressure and I think young males are particularly vulnerable. There are no simple answers or solutions, just determination to care for each of our students. We’re also focusing on the opportunities and challenges posed by the new Junior Certificate. One of the benefits of working with highly motivated teachers is that while they see the difficulties posed by the changes proposed, they focus on how we can develop as a learning organisation.
I arrive home shortly after 10pm and my kids are already in bed.
I usually arrive in the school at 7.30am. Many staff and several hundred students are already there. I listen to the musicians rehearsing – more than 300 students are involved with four major concerts – and drop by the gym, where staff and students are training. I used to go the “staff wellness” sessions organised in a bid to help staff maintain a healthy exercise routine, but there seems to be less time.
I meet sixth-year students on an individual basis and at this time of year, part of the meeting involves preparing references for overseas universities.
I meet the head of IT and discuss our plan for addressing digital intelligence and the evaluation skills students must learn to avoid replacing rote learning with rote technology. We also discuss the issue of appropriate use of the internet and multimedia and the need for the anti-bullying workshops to incorporate the issue of cyberbullying and internet safety. I make a note to follow this up with the parents’ association so there is a coordinated approach.
I cover classes for absent colleagues and it gives me an opportunity to talk to students and see what is happening across the year groups. After school there is a meeting, and at 5pm I observe a Chinese class. First-, second- and third-year students study Mandarin, and Chinese studies is provided in Transition Year.
The morning starts with a meeting with the Jesuit rector of the college, Fr Cassidy SJ. Unfortunately our meeting is cut short as a student-welfare issue arises and I have to discuss the issue with external agencies. The cutbacks have affected all schools. For example the loss of post holders will have a direct effect on student welfare.
The recent survey of the impact of cutting guidance in schools makes for depressing reading. My experience of the social services and the Garda has been really positive, but as with all public services, understaffing and scarce resources are endemic.
I meet the students back from the soup run, where students visit homeless people on the streets after school every week and provide company as well as food. It’s uplifting because it’s idealism in action. The students are meeting a local politician on Friday to discuss their views on homelessness. Many of the students are also involved in home visits to elderly people and people with disabilities after school on Fridays. A large number of students teach English to non-English- speaking students in local schools.
After dinner I catch up on the emails and follow up on correspondence. My wife is also a school principal, so we know what the demands are.
I was born in Kerry and my father and grandfather were primary-school teachers. I taught in Limerick and Galway as well as in some of the most deprived parts of the east end of London. I have been headmaster in Belvedere for almost 10 years: I’m the first non-Jesuit headmaster. It’s great that my wife and I can share ideas. The access to email is both a blessing and a curse. My wife insists that I do not go near my phone for at least one hour each evening.
I email education articles to staff in an ongoing effort to raise awareness and provide information. The topics vary. Last week the articles were about effective use of tracking assessment results, ensuring academic achievement. I am passionately interested in education. Today, it’s staff-formation opportunities and professional development.
I get a chance to edit a policy document, Cura Personalis, which outlines the procedures that ensure each student is cared for in the college. There is a huge staff handbook on the college server; it’s a reference manual rather than a pocket guide. After each incident or important event, we review the procedures or policy and update the handbook. It’s time consuming, but it ensures that we build on our shared experience.
Two weeks ago, 20 principals from China visited the college. Their feedback was very useful in that they focused on how students here are expected to be active learners as opposed to the traditional lecture style of class. Fostering innovative thinking and critical research skills is not a curriculum subject; it’s a pervasive approach and lies at the heart of education as opposed to training people to sit an exam.
On return to my office I pick up voicemails that require phone calls. Some are from parents, others are about forthcoming events. I meet the supervisor of after-school supervised study for a quick update. If I was to stay until midnight, I would not clear my desk, so I take work home every night.
I write up my notes on a lesson observation and the extensive preparation that has gone into the teacher’s plans is inspiring. It’s a late finish.
The day started early as there was an issue with our exchange in Beijing. After a flurry of emails shortly before 6am and superb support from the Confucius Institute, the matter is resolved and all is well. As principal, one always dreads the phone call at odd hours. Groups of our students are in France, Spain, China, Boston and Austria, on exchanges.
On Friday mornings there is Mass for those who wish to attend. The chapel is at the heart of the college. Unsurprisingly, it tends to be busier in the approach to exams, but young people still have a hunger for spirituality, even if numbers attending their parish church have fallen dramatically. The chapel is a place where many take time out. It’s where we gather for assemblies, to pray and to reflect.
And then it’s Friday evening again.
This week I was . . .
Reading: Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?; and Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
Watching: Homeland (with Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, right) and The Big Bang Theory
Listening to: Michael Thomas-Advanced French course– not as much as I should
Visiting: TED.com– ideas worth spreading