On the Friday lunchtime, with the day of SLTcamp finally here, I had a school dinner, then went to wipe off the painted spots from my face. I had dotted up for Children in Need. My wife however had used a creosote version of face paint, and 20 minutes later, they were still not coming off (this doesn’t justify my roses red glow all weekend – that’s always there!).
This, combined with an overly-long delay at school meant I was chasing my tail, in the school minibus, by 2.30pm. We had the venue from 4pm, and there was a lot to do before the campers arrived. I love the fact that everyone just used campers as a term!
Obviously, I hadn’t reckoned on Reigate, and sat there trapped for a while before finally getting away and parking at the YHA at Holmbury St Mary just after four. Baking Supremo Penny Leach and SLTcamp mentor and guest Jill Berry were also there, and immediately began helping me unpack the minibus which was crammed with all sorts of things. They put up the bunting and started filling the goody bags. As a father of four, the quality of your course or conference is judged on what you bring back, so we worked hard to have a brilliant goody bag for everyone, filled with actual stuff people wanted. We also kept a few things back and drip-fed the gifts, but our notebook was in there – a personalised notebook, with everyone’s blogs, the camp menu, sponsor details, and all emails, together with some graphics to use, some lined paper, and a few odd diagrams.
Almost as soon as I had arrived and emptied the minibus, my brother arrived. He is the catering manager of a huge school, and the best chef I know (in fact, he’s the only chef I know), and I’d strong armed him into helping me with the food. Many of the campers’ forms had indicated how important food was, so I told him to make it hot, tasty, and make lots of it! Brief introductions over, Jill whisked me off to Gomshall station to pick up Sarah. It was a relief to see her waiting for us, and highlighted how nice it was to share this adventure with someone else. A quick stop off to pick up keys from Mrs Sherlock, and we were back at Camp HQ, signal-less, in darkness, and with only a few cars.
Inside, the atmosphere was already fun and highly sociable. People had found their rooms (and pillow chocolate!), dumped their bags and headed for the bar – the area outside the front door. We had perhaps over-estimated drinks needs, but we thought it better to have some left over for next time than not enough this time!
It was a strange atmosphere – a bit like a reunion for people who had never met before. There was the genuine pleasure at being happy to talk about your school and job with passion, yet without the guilt of loving your work, teaching and pedagogy. I tend to steer well clear of teachers socially, yet I felt at ease with this hulking group of strangers.
Obviously there were technical problems with the projector at first, with the brilliant Phil Stock leaping in and helping out. Obviously it was a mistake to put on a playlist which featured George Michael and PJ & Duncan. Obviously the drinks flowed at an incredible rate, but by around 8.30pm, the vast majority were here, save one or two (Andy et al).
We began with Stuart Lock, who spoke passionately and emotionally for a few minutes about CDH UK, a charity which he had found brilliantly supportive when his lovely daughter was born, given only a 50% survival rate. We were all tired, and felt incredibly choked up at the difference that this charity had made on his daughter’s life. Finding a teapot, we asked everyone to thank the sponsor for the drinks over the weekend,and instead put some money into the pot for CDH. Ten short minutes later, over £400 had been given, and people really were incredibly generous. Thank you.
Tears pushed aside, we started the Teachmeet at just over 9pm. Only two hours late! Our twelve speakers spoke with enthusiasm, passion, excitement, thoroughness, reflection and thoughtfulness, and the atmosphere turned to one more focused than I’d ever experienced before. The biggest difference that looking back I think there was was the total and utter lack of signal. Everyone stopped reading emails, tweeting the talk and looking up the weather, and instead simply listened, some making notes, others reading through other pages in the book. Human connection was redefined and it was wholly liberating. Speaking to some of the campers, they too agreed that sometimes the way forward was analogue.
We’d been grazing all evening on Lasagne and Apple Crumble and custard (which someone fed back as saying “homely, just what was needed on a Friday night”), and at the end of the Teachmeet, I saw my brother at the back, who’d been planning to leave quite a while earlier. “It’s incredible. 11pm and you’re all sitting here listening to talks!” He told me later that they were some of the best talks he’d heard, and I’d have to say it was my personal favourite Teachmeet, not just through relevance. Everyone spoke with passion, conviction and focus. Technical faults were ignored, ideas poured out and lots of brain food was laid out.
At the end, we had one of several indulgences. Sarah had been fantastic at responding to my random texts at all hours in the lead up to the event with ideas, sometimes with a ‘no,’ other times with a ‘go on then.’ The power of having a sparring partner never more magnified! I’d already asked the YHA if we could have fireworks and they’d said firmly no. Then, at a firework display I saw lots of sparklers and got the nod from Sarah. Remembering something I’d seen David Rogers show in a photo a few weeks before, I bought 20 packs of sparklers and said we were going to do some sparkler writing outside. As I warned in the final email ‘some elements of SLTcamp could be carnage,’ and this was one I worried about, but everyone got into the spirit of things, especially with their SLTcamp beanies on (Thank you Awesome Merchandise!). These were another indulgence which were a real hit, and there were lots of promises of wearing them on break duty that week! I hope that they at least start a conversation – my staff immediately mocked me as a nerd when they saw me wearing mine. Some hope!
Most people drifted off to bed, and after a bit of clearing up and a meeting with the daring duo @TeacherTweaks, one of whom was most unimpressed she had to get up to leave by 8am in the morning, I had a final drink (or two) and went to bed, where I lay, dizzily analysing the evening, (branded) pillow chocolate beside me!
Saturday was soon upon me and I got up to find some people already up, and happily setting up the room for breakfast, which I requested as being a ‘stonking fry-up.’ Copella Juices had donated a mammoth amount of their bottles, which was drunk with gusto, along with tea and coffee, and our SLT shaker bottles also decorated the table. I didn’t have a huge appetite as I was nervous about the unconference ahead. I got the school miniubs and picked up Debbie and Mel, and we headed off to our Day Camp, in the rudest village in Surrey, Peaslake (seriously, look it up – innuendo central). We’d hired the hall for several reasons; so we could more effectively break out into groups, to avoid drifting, and so we could allow Day Campers to join us. I’d had some SLTcamp roadsigns made up, and we put these on lamp-posts en route to help the cars know where to go – they looked amazing and totally like a real roadsign!
Debbie and Mel had been asked by us to lead a Teambuild Bootcamp – an hour-long warm up session for us all to get to know each other and work with other people. It was good fun, and obviously wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but certainly got us all warmed up and talking together.
Next came the terrifying moment – the unconference. Stuart Lock, I have to admit, is just as cantankerous as he might appear on Twitter sometimes, but he is also one of the good guys, and he’d said to me just before, “the worst thing that could happen is that people just end up chatting, which is the real intention, right?” and he was spot on. Sarah had brilliantly filleted out what people wanted to talk about, and got some conversation questions set up. We reorganised the hall into five ‘pods’ of tables and chairs (and tonnes of sweets), with a makeshift ‘cafe’ at the end, where there were cold drinks and tea/coffee. We agreed ground rules, found a (brilliant, brilliant) scribe for each table, and left everyone to talk.
This was really magical – everyone simply fell into the groove and chatted. Sometimes people would listen to one person, other times, people would split into several sub-groups and chat. It was liberating and relaxing; people wandered around getting drinks, joining other groups if they wanted a change. There really was no ‘pressure’ to stay with one speaker for fear of offence if you left. I flapped around for a bit until Sarah told me to stop and just join a group, and I got to one table just as the fab Phil Stock started sharing his work on deep questioning through multiple choice.
The day panned out like this. a Primary (#goprimary) table emerged, and people voted simply on what table they woudl start with, and the sessions flowed at around 45 minutes. As people who have and probably like control, it was lovely and again liberating to be part of something so organic. We had a hot soup/jacket lunch, and ate some of the frankly ridiculuous number of cakes from our bake-off. Imagine a stage filled with calories, and you have our bake-off. Penny Leach had surpassed herself with 48 (branded) iced muffins, enough for everyone, and these went down a storm. After lunch, we had another two sessions, the last one probably around an hour long, at which point Sarah and I decided that we had probably reached burn-out. It was 4pm. We announced that we could either stay here, or go back to camp as it was beer o’clock. I asked for a few people to stay behind to help tidy away. Wrong thing to ask – EVERYONE helped pack up, and the room was cleared in minutes! People are amazing; the goodwill was phenomenal.
We headed back to basecamp for drinks. At this point several of the weekend attendees announced they were heading home. This was personally quite gutting, as neither Sarah or I had anticipated this at all, and with no warning it completely threw several plans, as well as the catering. I appreciate very much that a weekend away is a lot to ask, but the commitment of a weekend was the intention; I’m a father of four, so fully realise that any time away from home is a sacrifice, but it was the unexpectedness that stung a bit if I’m honest. Having said all that, suddenly the bar seemed far more well-stocked….
Again, the campers had quickly redecorated our main room ready for Mexican night, complete with Mexican hats and knotted bandanas everywhere. Everyone was obviously quite drained, but music and drink, complete with spicy snacks kept the energy levels up. It was time for our prize draw.
We’d had the most incredible support from some very generous sponsors who had given us licences for their products, or had funded upgrades on our plans, and we were able to present several people with prizes (another reason to have stayed on…). Next came the prizes for those remaining who’d written blogs. One of our sponsors, who I won’t name (Mike Bostock) kindly funded the purchase of 12 copies of Mick Waters’ book “Thinking Allowed.” We managed to get Mick’s email through Ian Gilbert, and Mick agreed to sign them all. When the 12 books arrived at my house, he’d individually put a quote in each one. As we gave these out, people were amazed by this thoughtful touch, and it was really lovely to see. At the end, the lovely Gill had secretly organised a gift and card for both Sarah and myself – thank you everyone!
We had vast amounts of fajitas to graze on, as well as Spanish beer, and greeted Graham Newell, an ex-Head and now CEO of IRIS, who was taken aback by the whole event. He was also remaining sober for the evening, which was probably a wise move! Everyone knew we had something planned, and there was just the slightest hint of nerves from everyone; I think so at least. Right on schedule, Renato and his partner Jo arrived, and I announced to the campers that no Mexican night would be complete without a salsa class! This was another highly risky ‘carnage’ moment, and indeed, the announcement was greeted with both gasps of horror and delight (as well as a very funny pottymouthed tirade from one camper!), but sure enough, 15 minutes later we were ALL up and dancing, and it was enormous fun. You can’t help but smile while dancing, and I loved the fact that Renato at some point got really cross because we were all laughing and talking so much he couldn’t hear himself. The atmosphere was exactly what Sarah and I had hoped for.
When the class ended later, we sat around, chatting. People were still talking about school, and learning and Twitter; it was incredible that we still wanted to talk shop. It was a late night for some…
The next morning I woke stupidly early again. The tables from the night before had been littered with quite a few bottles and drinks, and I went down with some trepidation, as you would the night after a house party. I needn’t have worried; the legendary surviving campers had blitzed our room and got it ready for breakfast – continental, and beans on toast (a surprising and popular option). Everyone however looked quite tired and zoned out, so we decided to launch our reflection time as quickly as possible. We said goodbye to Davidc Rogers who had organised to run a 10k after a mere 36 hours of CPD with us!
Everyone packed up their rooms and came down with their iPads and notebooks, and Sarah led a time to relfect and create some form of action plan based on what they’d thought/learnt/taken on board. She was helped by three videos pre-recorded by three huge advocates and supporters of SLTcamp who hadn’t been able to join us – Rachel Orr, Jill Berry and Ross McGill. Their videos were great, and it has been lovely this week to dip into YouTube and see that they are getting lots of repeat viewing; a legacy of SLTcamp I would hope. Sarah finished by asking everyone to write for ten minutes, which almost all of us did. With Tom Boulter’s talk on accepting failure from Friday’s Teachmeet still bouncing around in my head, I did something quite bizarre and wrote down all the things I was not happy with myself as a leader, and noted which of these I was able to change. I then wrote myself a mission statement, which I wrote on a post-it the next day and put in my wallet and on my office wall. I’d gained a huge amount from the weekend, but if I’m honest, I’d learnt even more about myself by organisibng the event. I’d admitted to Sarah (and everyone in the notebooks) that I was very much a starter, and was working hard to become a finisher, and SLTcamp really was the culmination of that. I was enormously proud of the whole weekend, that as someone had said on Twitter afterwards ’50 strangers had met up for a weekend together and it was like meeting friends.’ This may sound very indulgent, but it really was like that, and after we’d packed up (enormous thanks to Phil, Gill, Andy and Penny for helping the final clear-out), and I’d dropped off Sarah at the station (looking as glam as she’d arrived), I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. I got home to an empty house and unpacked the minibus, and like a sucker, read some of the lovely tweets that had started appearing, now we had a signal!
I can’t quantify the thanks I need to give out; to Sarah, for being such a brilliant co-host, partner-in-crime and sounding board; to the sponsors for allowing us to put on such a great weekend; to all those who supported via Twitter and video; to my family for letting me go (and losing me for about the past two months); to Philip for catering an event he thought was ‘bizarre’ before, and ‘incredible’ afterwards; most of all, thanks to the campers, for taking a punt, putting money down on an unknown idea, sharing a weekend with strangers and coming away smiling. Validation is flattering, empowering and humbling at the same time, so thank you all.
The future? We’d love to do another one, but most importantly, we’d rather others did them with the same values: no egos, everyone participates, discretion assured.
Too often SLT are seen as the bad guys of schools; it was fantastic to meet some of the good guys and girls; those who know they aren’t perfect, want to improve, and perhaps most importantly, want to help ignite change.