I’m absolutely devasted to say goodbye to this top chap, today.
I cannot quantify the impact he had on my life. He was most certainly the most important mentor I ever had. Even after he was my boss, (he’d always roll his eyes when I addressed him as Boss!) he stayed in touch and willingly offered an ear whenever I had a new pathway to choose in life.
As my boss, he showed me how to lead with compassion. He supported me when my wife had a cancer scare and her associated surgeries – I’d only been working for him for a few months at that point. He wrapped a security net around me and made sure I had every I needed to function as Helen underwent several, scary surgeries. Later, when she and I were trying to start a family and struggling with fertility, he was so supportive. It wasn’t something we widely shared so when last minute appointments occurred (because you can’t time these things), he made sure I was able to disappear without any workplace gossip. He’d even cover my classes. He wrote a reference for us when we were going through the adoption process and, by this point, we were no longer working together.
I had my first teaching management role thanks to Niel. He took a chance on an excitable and focused 26 year old and believed I could work with him to turn around a struggling subject. In the interview, I remember he asked me where I wanted to be in five years… I pointed to his huge, lavish desk chair and replied, “There looks pretty good.” Tipping his head back, he roared with laughter and offered me the job about an hour later. He championed my department as we battled the ever-changing education landscape. In fact, he was an honorary member of the English team because, of course, that was his subject specialism. As a headteacher, he’d still roll up his sleeves and teach: covering classes, running revision sessions, presiding over debate club competitions, and being interviewed by students for spoken language coursework (there will be other English teachers who remember the misery that was the spoken language coursework, I’m sure). One year, he even agreed to play the role of a nefarious stooge (and murder victim) for a Year 9 surprise CSI project. He let me film him breaking into the school safe and take pictures of him contorted on the floor, covered in ketchup. Students had to figure out whodunnit and whenever one would approach him at breaktime to say, “Hey, you’re alive?!” He’d reply that he wasn’t Niel McLeod but was actually his twin brother, Nigel McLeod. He’d claim the Governors had asked him to step in undercover, during the CSI investigation, so that the school remained stable. All delivered with a straight and earnest face.
Whenever I presented a harebrained idea, he’d encourage me to try it and, more often than not, squeeze the budget so that we could make it happen. He was also there during the dark days – the challenging kids, the tricky parents, staff shortages, the changing GCSE criteria, the disappearance of subject advisors and the countless Ofsted inspections. Including an HMI inspection of just my department which was announced on a snow day. An actual snow day. Everyone else was at home, making snow angels and drinking hot chocolate. We were in the building, preparing for the next day, planning lessons, tidying up and freezing. Of course Niel turned up to check we were ok and to make tea.
Niel was always person-focused. He not only promoted me and gave me opportunities in senior roles, he also provided the leadership coaching I needed to be effective in those roles. Equally, he took me seriously when I was struggling to decide whether or not to leave teaching. We weren’t working in the same school then but he was the first person I wanted to speak to when teasing out the problem. Like Niel, I could never turn off that part of me that is a teacher (nor would I want to), but in that conversation, he also showed me that I could channel it into other settings.
We last spoke in 2019. I had left teaching (twice by this point!) and was undertaking my MA. For my dissertation, Niel helped me to connect to people in Portsmouth – because there isn’t a soul in Pompey he didn’t know! Later that year, we spoke again about how the dissertation had fared and about my plans to do a PhD. I was nervous and didn’t think I was smart enough. He made short shrift of that concern. In that call, we made plans to go for a coffee early in 2020 for a proper face to face catch up. Covid robbed us of that. And now it’s heartbreaking to know there will be no more catch ups.
If Niel was here now, I’d make damn sure he knew how he had impacted my life. I wish I had told him, explicitly, when I had the chance. Thank you, Niel – for everything.