I recently read this tes piece from the wonderful Emma Turner, about the power of assemblies and how she misses taking them. I also enjoyed this one from Gavin Simpson about what can be gained and learnt from the experience of taking assemblies – something which is perhaps particularly important to those who aspire to headship at some stage.
I remember the first assembly I ever took, and how nervous I was. I was a young teacher in my first school, and in my third year of teaching I was promoted to a pastoral position as Assistant Head of House (in a school where the pastoral structure was a house-based, rather than a year- or section-based one). It was autumn 1983 when I planned and delivered my first assembly. I woke that morning with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, before I remembered why. I had planned it carefully and practised it thoroughly. I walked into the empty room before the children and staff arrived and made my way to the table at the front. This was 36 years ago, and I remember it so vividly! On the table there was a note from a senior colleague who was the Head of House I had worked with for three years. I still have this note, stuck with yellowing sellotape in a scrapbook:
It made me feel so much better! Someone who knew me well, and who had always encouraged me, had faith in me, and that helped me to have faith in myself.
In that assembly I chose to talk about loneliness, and how it’s possible to feel lonely in a room full of people. I talked about the importance of building bridges rather than walls. I remember I used the Stevie Smith poem, ‘Not waving but drowning’, and a piece by Clare Francis about the experience of sailing the Atlantic on her own. I explained how lonely I felt at that moment, leading my first assembly. And as it was the start of the autumn term, I was aware of how many members of that audience – pupils and staff, who were also new to the school – may have felt the same. Could we build bridges to connect with others who felt less secure than we did?
In autumn 2000, 17 years later, I used a version of the same assembly in my first full senior school assembly in the school I had just joined as head. It seemed particularly pertinent! Interestingly, I now connect with many former pupils and members of staff through Facebook, and when the twentieth anniversary of my appointment to that headship came round in June, I posted this:
and two former students commented:
So assemblies can be memorable for those who lead them, and those who hear them!
Between my first assembly in 1983, and my last in 2010 (see the header pic for a shot of the girls in that last assembly – it was my final full senior school assembly as a head, with girls sitting on the floor of the sports hall – the only way we could get them all in there) I took a significant number of assemblies in all my roles: as Assistant Head of House; as second in, and then Head of, English (often as a tutor with my tutor group); as Head of Sixth Form (both with the sixth form and with the full school); as Deputy Head in a 4-18 school (and, for me as a secondary specialist, assemblies which included 4 year olds were a particular challenge!); and then throughout my ten years of headship.
Like Emma, when I look back on years gone by, I realise taking assembly is one of the things I miss. It is a tremendous opportunity to share something that matters to you, with both students and staff – something which you hope will encourage reflection, and perhaps make a difference to those who hear it. What you say in assembly, and how you choose to take advantage of the opportunity it presents, says something about you as a person, as well as a professional. I remember ‘favourite’ assemblies over the decades, and how I used and adapted them as I moved from one role, and one school, to another.
And I learnt from the experience. In the early days I would decide on a topic, and then try to find suitable material to use, and this – in pre-Google days – took me ages. Later, I decided just always to be on the look out for interesting and useful articles, extracts, poems, pictures or artefacts and then to decide how I might structure an assembly around them, and this worked far better for me. I also labelled, filed and saved everything, for possible future use. Even today, nine years after leaving headship, I occasionally read something and think, “Oooh – I could use that”, before I remember…
I think I also gained from taking assemblies in terms of learning from successes and mistakes, and I am sure I got better at it over time. I certainly became much calmer and more confident. It became a stimulating and satisfying challenge rather than a daunting one, to find something which might resonate and connect with those who were listening. And it certainly helped to build my public speaking skills.
Last Thursday I gave a keynote address to a group at a Women Leading in Education event in the West Midlands, and it struck me that the pleasure and sense of achievement I derive from such opportunities is not unlike what I feel I gained from taking assemblies. A week today, on Saturday 13th July, I am speaking at my first TEDx event in Norwich, and I look forward to being able to connect with the audience there, and to many others via YouTube subsequently. I can’t say that I feel nervous about the prospect, and think this is in many ways thanks to my assembly-taking, and other public speaking experiences, over a 36-year period! See this short clip about TEDx and how I am interpreting their ‘Look Again’ theme.
So I agree with Gavin – if you have the chance to take an assembly, do step up to the challenge. It may be initially nerve-wracking for some, but it can be a tremendous and privileged opportunity to share something you believe to be important, to increase your confidence and your public-speaking skills, and it can be stimulating, rewarding and hugely satisfying.
Photo credit: John Berry. My last ever (?) assembly…
Postscript, September 2019: If you have ten minutes to spare, this is the YouTube video of my TEDx talk. We were asked a couple of weeks before how nervous we felt at the prospect of speaking at the event. I said I felt fine, really. When the order of speakers came out I found I was LAST – speaking at 6pm on a day which started at 9.30am! Serves me right…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5TAPmlVGfA