Today, as I drove down to East Wittering for my half term break, I kept getting visual flashes of standing in front of a room, leading a community of students and staff in an assembly. One of my favourite aspects of the job. Actually, my favourite. Perhaps I miss being a Head of Sixth Form, when I was able to lead a weekly assembly. Or perhaps my head turns towards this subject after a few weeks of remote-assemblies due to a rise in COVID cases at school. Whatever the reason for these visions, after almost two years without regular communal time, I needed to reflect on the power of an assembly, and what I’ve learnt along the way.
Even as I begin to write this blog, memories from over a decade of assemblies continue to come flooding back. The moments where I stared out at a sea of indifferent faces in my earlier attempts, when I over planned and under delivered. Those moments of emotion coursing through my veins as I shared something personal, or a piece of literature or film that moved me. I have a Band of Brothers assembly that I struggle to get through. Don’t even get me started on when I talk about Lion. But what I remember mostly, is connecting with a room full of people, and feeling the tangible buzz that what I just said helped to build us as a team. A culture. A united group on a wonderful journey of community and learning.
Without wishing to become too nostalgic, here are some lessons I l have learnt along the way:
Build culture and values
When you are a head of year or similar, leading an assembly is a chance to create and sustain your team. You must decide which values and messages are key at the beginning of the year, and your assembly is a vehicle to over communicate them, celebrate them, and realign them. Never underestimate the effect of a respected adult standing in front of young people and telling them what really matters to them – what this community is aspiring to, and how it will achieve this. You can keep going back to your year group’s, or school’s, mission for that year. In my head, each assembly takes another step towards every person in the room becoming confident with your overarching message. Confidence breeds conversation. Conversation and discussion creates the shared language and culture to which you aspire.
Refer back to the assembly
Once you have set out your stall in an assembly, the work has just begun. It is time to circulate during the school day, linking back to the content and questioning students about it. How can they see those themes or ideas in everyday life, not just in a quiet assembly hall on a Monday morning? Like good retrieval practice, it is important to keep quizzing and discussing the assembly itself, so that it becomes an important and memorable part of the week. Anything that gets mentioned once for 15 minutes in the week lacks prominence.
Of course, this is an opportunity to listen, too. In the first instance, they listened, you talked. The rest of the week is a chance to ask them about their own views or experiences.
Referring back to the assembly should also feed into a focus for the week, perhaps a form time activity or pastoral curriculum link. It also forms an important part of day-to-day student conversations regarding their choices. ‘It’s so fantastic that you chose to ______ after our assembly this week, I really value how you’ve exemplified…’. Or, ‘we agreed in assembly this week that as a year group, we are kind and loving. I know you buy into that, but it hasn’t worked out in your decision this time. So, let’s…..’.
Over the course of the year, you can build on previous assemblies. One year, I was writing a novel. I told the Sixth Form in September what I was doing, and what I hoped to achieve. I told them that I was nervous and that there would be many bumps in the road. That in six months time, I might not be finished, but my daily habits would have helped me get a lot closer. Once a month, I updated them. Word count update. Emotional update! Goal update. As the year went on, this became a hot topic of conversation, but was also a topic that mirrored their studies. For them it was two years of academic endurance where many steps built up to a final goal. Mine was the same – we journeyed and shared together.
Another long-term project I like to set out in assemblies is the use of Kiva, a micro-loan website that helps people from around the world secure loans for their businesses or education. It’s a wonderful tool that focuses on sustainable development instead of one-off donations. I usually set out what Kiva is at the start of the year, and we vote which of 3 causes we will send a loan to (I secretly loan to all 3). Then, throughout the year, we lend to more causes, and check in on those who have used our money already. The satisfaction that students get when you show them that $1.50 of your loan has been repaid because the loanee’s business is growing and succeeding, is just fantastic. It’s important to show students that we see projects through, that things matter for the medium and the long term.
As authority figures in a school, our role is to set values and rules, and to uphold them. An assembly is an excellent opportunity to share who you are and any pertinent vulnerabilities that may help build rapport or relatability. At certain moments, I like to talk about how I was adopted. I want the students to understand the struggle I faced with my identity as a teenager, not to gain their sympathy but to share the message that each one of us carries their own insecurities and difficulties – often unbeknown to everyone else that walks through the school gates each morning. This is a key factor in building empathy among a cohort. We all have our stuff, and I’ll get us started.
If an assembly leader can share vulnerability, they model it to the children. It’s okay to admit a ‘weakness’ or emotion. It opens doors. Conversations. Sharing in the future. It means when you are counselling students, they understand that you are an open and authentic person.
The key is to take your piece of vulnerability and to make a link to relate to everyone in the room. If I talk about how I skived college to read Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac during my A-Levels (true story) because I was overwhelmed by parental divorce and friendship issues, I can then discuss this with them to reflect on how they cope with difficult moments. What is their tendency? Do they make better decisions than I did? How can they improve on my choices? These moments should be transferable and provide lessons learnt!
Exposure and education
Assemblies, are, of course, a brilliant way to expose students to values, experiences, and cultural capital. Reading James Handscombe’s A School Built on Ethos, I was inspired by how many poems, novels, speeches and moments in history had been discussed in his school. What you speak about in assembly will be noted as important to your students. This is why we must plan carefully and think about inclusion, diversity, and cultural references. I was, earlier in my career, given some feedback that I talked a lot about the wisdom of white, male sports coaches. There was nothing sinister in that feedback, and what I received was that I need to appeal to the audience in front of me by broadening their horizons– it’s not enough to educate the children about what they already know or are exposed to. That was a valuable lesson for my future planning.
Sincerity is the greatest fuel
Some assembly leads spend a long time working on the visuals behind their assembly: PowerPoint, videos, etc. But visuals are no match for the authentic gaze of a sincere speaker. Someone speaking from their heart, whose every glance towards the audience, every connection made, is an opportunity to share their soul and sincerity with those in the room. This is why it’s so important to speak humbly and sincerely, to engage with topics that light your fires; anything artificial, such as a borrowed idea from someone else, will fall flat.
While I miss the volume of assemblies that I used to lead, I know I have a few more in my locker. It took years for me to feel confident of my delivery, and happy with my planning. I’d love to discuss assemblies with others – one of the brightest points of every week.
Hopefully these reflections will resonate with others. Happy assembling!