Roy Blatchford reflects on the value of sabbaticals and secondments…
In 1992 I was six plus years into my first secondary headship. One Monday morning my trusted secretary Janet said she thought I was flagging. I looked in the mirror: I was enjoying the leadership role and didn’t think the time was right to leave the school. But as her words were usually my command, I explored ideas for a sabbatical.
My incorrigible chair of governors urged me on with the memorable words, ‘graveyards are full of indispensable people’. Three months later – courtesy of the English Speaking Union – I arrived in Florida on New Year’s Day to take up a post as an honorary professor in the English Faculty of a good university.
Living and working on a beautiful lakeside campus from January through April, the weather just got better and better, the flora and fauna more exuberant. The university had a US champion water ski-ing team and the student body sure knew how to enjoy the outdoors.
On the weekends I travelled to the famous East coast beaches along which you can drive your open-top Chevy for miles and miles. Together with the numerous Canadian ‘snowbird families’ who descend upon Florida in the wintertime, I watched space rockets launch from Cape Canaveral. And of course the Everglades and Ernest Hemingway at Key West beckoned. Driving the Florida Keys was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, matched only by driving Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles a couple of summers before.
I took a number of busman’s holidays and visited local schools where I was received generously. An article I wrote at the time for the TES slot ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ documented one such visit:
Friday: Morning announcements remind seniors that the end-of-term bash is to be held in Disney’s Magic Kingdom and that cap and gown orders for graduation are due; various pairs of sunglasses lie unclaimed with the school secretary and the ethnic picnic for sophomores will start at 11.30 am on the bandfield. I move that way at the appointed hour to see all 800 sophomores sitting down in groups tucking into samosas, sushi, taramasalata, key lime pie, curried rice – a rainbow curriculum in all its glory.
As to the university work which was my focus, teaching a course on the English short story to American undergrads was a wholly reinvigorating professional experience. It helped that this was a period when I was General Editor of Longman Literature and was reading new fiction voraciously. I was back in the classroom doing what I came into the profession to do, far removed from the relentless demands of secondary headship.
I enjoyed generous amounts of non-teaching time in which to prepare engaging materials and mark students’ essays. I also learnt for the first time about ‘grade-point inflation’ in the academic world. After three weeks I was summoned to the Dean’s office. I had – honestly and innocently – given essay marks of B+ to a couple of hard-working students in one of my teaching groups. The Dean firmly told me that these students’ grants depended on their maintaining a grade point average of As. I was therefore to remark their work accordingly.
That difficult moment aside, university faculty treated me royally, inviting me into their homes and taking me on outings across the State. Memorably, one evening we drove a round-trip of 300 miles to listen to Tim O’Brien, author of ‘The Things They Carried’. Only in America.
The four-month sabbatical was both a professional and personal tonic. I went back to my roots teaching English. I deepened my love-hate relationship with all things American. I returned to school for the summer term refreshed and ready for further years in post.
My deputies thought I had come home with too many bright, new ideas and they had to restrain me – a cautionary note if you take time out and return to an institution where, despite your absence, life has continued very nicely thank you.
Further back in my career, in the days of the pioneering Inner London Education Authority, I had interviewed a legendary London primary head about what she was going to do during her term’s sabbatical.
‘Do?’ she fired back, looking at me witheringly. ‘I’m going to be‘.
Doing or being, sabbatical or secondment, call it what you will. Do I recommend the experience? Yes wholeheartedly. Do I think teachers and leaders need ‘time out’ in their professional lives? Yes unequivocally. Indeed the best state and independent schools I know have for many years built such opportunities into their budgets and professional development opportunities. It is time this became custom and practice.
Think about it. Enjoy your job more… by not doing it for a while.