“Still cheery after all these years …”
In the week that included world happiness day I interviewed Cor ad Cor’s very own Mrs Very Cheery - Teresa Verrecchia. Her twitter handle simply reflects years of people getting her name wrong but is very apt. Cheeriness and positivity characterise her approach to life and work.
Reflecting on the interview with Teresa it seemed apt to structure her answers around four quotes from a range of key people.
Firstly, Teresa displays “unwarranted optimism, regard(s) crisis and complexity as fun”[i]. These are key components for successful leadership and improvement. Four years ago, Teresa's school was destroyed by fire. Thankfully all the children had gone home and everyone else got out safely. To say there were no casualties is factually correct but it masks the sense of loss and devastation felt by staff at all levels, pupils, parents and the full community in the town. Teresa was tenacious and insisted the ‘school’ be kept together – as such they were decanted and spent the next 3 years as tenants on the first floor of a neighbouring secondary school.
Teresa dealt with the logistical, the personnel, the PR and the immediate actions required for the initial move and in keeping the school thriving over the next three years. Teresa admits that she was (and still is) affected by the loss the fire caused – but no one other than her family at home would know. She wore her business face, she wore her resilience on her sleeve and she wore her yellow hi vis jacket!
The ‘gilets jaunes’ became part and parcel of the staffs daily ‘uniform’ as they shepherded children onto buses each morning across from the destroyed building and transported them to the ‘big school’. The fact that staff – both teaching and support – took part in these extraordinary tasks before a full working day shows commitment on their part but real leadership on the part of the headteacher. The main lesson the fire taught her was that the teachers and other people are the key resources in any school and not the materials which went up in flames. She kept spirits high, she found laughter in crises and she modelled leadership behaviours for others to emulate.
Teresa took this ethos into the school too. She recalled a new boy asking her “hey, miss where’s your nurture room” to be met with the response – this is it as she opened her arms to display the HT office. He wasn’t impressed but it exemplifies her philosophy that nurture rooms can be non-inclusive and Teresa favours a nurturing approach in all classrooms. She led and managed this extremely well. She is quite taken with Paul Dix and his philosophy that adult behaviours can be the key to better pupil behaviour[ii]. She endorses “we can be strict without being nasty – maintain boundaries without cruelty and correct children without aggression” but disagrees a wee bit about the need for always having scripted interventions. Teresa tells great stories of improvising to get the best from children who are distressed and ‘acting out’. However, because she consistently models positive relationships it became the norm in her school. No one came into the yard or building without a ‘meet and greet’ experience. This led to teachers adopting this at their classroom doors and welcoming children with smiles and positive words. She claims it wasn’t a school policy but it most definitely a school ritual. However, the discipline system, which recognised positive behaviour, was developed collaboratively with all staff and adopted as whole school policy.
Teresa was in post for the opening of the new building and she revelled in bringing the community into a brand-new standalone purpose-built primary school. It is a wonderful learning space. However, Teresa has two pieces of advice for school planners and architects. These should be fewer open plan spaces and a designated staffroom. As headteacher she made a point of joining her teams in the staffroom at least once every day for a coffee and a laugh. She also has advice for headteachers that chime with the John Le Carre line “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”[iii]. This applies to schools too. The headteacher should be in and around teaching and learning: this is our core business. Maybe school design should put the HT office in the centre of the school rather than separate – but the layout is less important than the determination to get out of the office and engage with the school. The school is the pupils and staff and parents.
The last quote that I think sums up Teresa’s leadership approach is from Sir Harry Burns. In terms of public policy, he says we should “increase the temperature of the water to melt an iceberg”. Applying this to leading a school community in closing the poverty related attainment gap, in getting it right for every child and in reducing the impact of adverse childhood experiences sums up the approaches deployed by Teresa in her headship. The example set by @Mrsverycheery increased the temperature of the water in the school and led to better outcomes for children and families.
As the last question, I asked Teresa why she decided to become a teacher and she replied “I thought it’d be good fun – and right to my retirement after more than 40 years I can say without a doubt – it was!”
[i] The A-Z of School Improvement: Principles and Practice: David Woods, Tim Brighouse
[ii] When the Adults Change, Everything Changes: Seismic shifts in school behaviour: Paul Dix
[iii] Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: John Le Carre