I recall a conversation with a friend who had visited a school that I knew well. She described how dreadfully she was welcomed.
She was left alone in the reception area, with little acknowledgement or consideration. She sat and waited and watched as the receptionist huffed and puffed, busying herself, unaware of the perception she was creating.
I found myself having to convince my friend that, despite these first impressions, this was a good school, and that they were kind, open and friendly.
The perception created by the school receptionist means everything. From my days as a head teacher, I was blessed with some truly great office staff.
But what is the job really about? Some words of advice for a potential employee:
“Dear prospective applicant,
We are looking to appoint a receptionist. Please read the following advertisement carefully and consider if this the job for you.
Are you alright with blood and other bodily fluids? Children often bump heads or suffer a nosebleed. We sometimes forget to mention that you will also be a first aider, with the ability to calm and reassure a distressed child.
As you assess the damage, you will gently humour them to generate smiles. If the parents are required, you will clean up the patient and change their shirt to avoid distressing the parent on arrival.
You will realise that this aspect of the role has nothing to do with administration, which may tell you quite a lot about the type of person that we are looking for.
Sometimes parents turn up with a concern and will be difficult because they wear their heart on their sleeve. You will understand their feelings and have already applied the groundwork to create a good relationship.
This enables you to relate to the parent, and be sincere and fair. As you settle the complainant, you will make a discreet call to the head teacher to give them a heads up, allowing for a positive outcome to be reached for all parties.
When professional partners and guests arrive, offer them a hot drink and a biscuit, if you have some. This will also come with the familiar little joke about the colour of the tea. ‘American tan?’ you will ask.
You will understand that inspections are a big deal. They affect everyone and you are proud of your school. You are aware that you have a starring role, and so you will make arrangements to be in early, without being asked. Smiling and ready. Smart and professional.
You will not be a gossip. But you may occasionally share the inside story, in confidence, with the school leaders. You will have the ability to be both inwards facing and outwards facing.
This is because you know and understand this community. When things appear on Facebook, or there is unrest in your corner of town, it can be helpful to inform the right people.
Do you have a mischievous wit? Children will find this adorable. On those days when a stressed parent turns up with a crying child, you will intervene with jokes and stickers for a successful handover.
You will also remember to text them when their child is safely back in class. This is because you understand how difficult it must be for them to leave a distressed child behind, as they walk away with tears in their eyes.
You will do all of these things and more because you will love your job. You have a positive outlook, which permeates through every interaction. We look forward to appointing someone very special to our exceptional team.
Please take a good look at the job spec. This involves a lot of other important words like ‘managing’, ‘administration’, ‘sorting’ and ‘answering’.”
Let’s not underestimate or undervalue the importance of a good school receptionist. This is could be the best – or the worst – PR money can buy, and is one of the most significant appointments a school can make.
The requirement for self-awareness, trust, integrity and intelligence will grease the wheels for everything else to successfully take place.
David Rushby is a former headteacher and director of Nautilus Education.