Why I like (writing) assemblies

Teachers have a rather odd relationship with assemblies. There are some who will do all they can to avoid even attending them, such is their loathing. They hide in distant classrooms or time their arrival just as the doors shut and the hymn begins. It is always a little surprising to me that some colleagues feel assemblies are not part of the deal, not what they signed up for and therefore to attend them is to place an unnecessary burden upon them. They tut and shuffle in staffroom briefings when Headmasters and Headmistresses make their termly reminder to attend assemblies in order for them to be “part of the community”. Of course more sympathy can be felt if their attendance is simply a matter of crowd control. No one wants to take on the role of ‘steward’ first thing in the morning and, contrary to popular pupil opinion, there are not many teachers who actively enjoy hushing children during mass gatherings.

There are those teachers who are more than happy to attend an assembly as long as their role is entirely passive. They absorb what is going on and can even express dissatisfaction with its contents, although they would never want to be involved themselves. Whenever it is their tutor group’s turn to take charge they swiftly pick the most vocal and eager tutees and let them get on with it, offering enough encouragement as and when required. I could well have ended up in that group if it had not been for my first school. All teachers were on a rota to lead an assembly maybe once or twice a year. As a new teacher the mere thought of this was enough to turn my stomach, add into that that the venue for aforementioned assembly was a cathedral and you can see why I began to dread my date many months in advance. In the end I sort of semi-cheated. I wrote half the assembly and the other half consisted of a friend of mine who happened to sing like an angel and looked like the latest object of schoolgirl desire. Not surprisingly his presence helped enormously.

Even though I have never worked in a school with the same kind of teacher rota, I ended up going onto a job which included organising and/or delivering four assemblies a week. It is not surprising that twenty years later I imagine I have written at least thirty thousand words of assemblies. Just writing them because you have to is one thing, but liking assemblies and enjoying writing them is quite another. Why do I like assemblies? I think that assemblies are a genuine opportunity for gathering together on a regular basis. This is particularly important if you work in an extended community with junior schools and infant schools as important parts of your world. I used to love it when the ‘little ones’ came in and fidgeted their way through your carefully crafted message. Somehow you had to speak to six year olds up and eighteen year olds with equal meaningfulness not forgetting your gathered colleagues who you always hope to impress in even the smallest way. Where else would you have the opportunity to speak to such a varied group? I think you have a real sense of ‘the school’ when everyone is together. It makes you think that new building developments for schools and academies that don’t include some kind of communal hall are missing a key ingredient of school identity.

Another reason why I think that assemblies are a good thing is that an assembly message is unlike any other kind of lesson that might be delivered. Ideally you want the assembly to have a meaningful message, whether it is a thought for the day, a moral dilemma to be considered, a reflection to take with you into the day or a spiritual encouragement. It is often an opportunity for genuine inspiration to be shared and for leadership to be demonstrated. It is an opportunity for imaginations to be stimulated in ways that perhaps they are not always able to be, just due to time and subject constraints. As it is often, but not only, leaders that deliver those messages it is also an opportunity for genuine connection to be made between members of the school community that otherwise might be usually distant. There is nothing quite like that feeling of walking out of an assembly hall with the rest of the school after a really great assembly.

Finally why do I like writing assemblies? Well there is an element of ‘Just a Minute’ quality to being able to respond to the challenge of coming up with, instead of 1, 8 minutes of funny, interesting, challenging and thoughtful material on a subject that is given to you. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to connect a big life-changing concept or idea to everyone’s everyday experiences. I think one of the reasons why teachers understandably do not like doing them is that they are or can be hugely personal and revealing about your own thoughts and ideas. Standing up in assembly there are no specifications to hide behind, ideas can be fully exposed. Most people will have childhood memories of a teacher who came out and swore, or had a cigarette in their mouth or offered to give away cash as a shock-inducing gimmick that would inevitably lead to a thought for the day. There are those that feel the best way to ensure compliance and acceptance in the vulnerable position of delivering an assembly is the hurling of fun size mars bars, in a way that rattles the Health & Safety officer. I think that smacks a little bit of cheating, but then maybe its because I’ve been the one who’s had to stay behind to pick up wrappers between seats on more than one occasion.

So there it is, I like (writing) assemblies. I’d be happy to respond to the challenge on twitter (@imisschalk) of coming up with an idea for an assembly based on any idea that’s thrown at me. Assemblies can be amazing, memorable, challenging, long-lasting, laugh inducing, tear inducing, vision delivering, tone setting and uplifting. Of course they can be excruciating too, but if that’s the case…at least it’s over in another five minutes!

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