Maybe it’s the pressure of performance related pay or the higher expectations of the new Ofsted framework; or maybe it’s because performance management meetings have started or maybe it’s because some schools are being led by unqualified individuals who wouldn’t know about the complexities of running an effective if school even if they were hit about the head with the latest copy of ‘A Dummies guide to running a free school’; or maybe it’s because the state of education is in chaos with government consultations suggesting terrible ideas to move things on popping up more rapidly than a series of regional NUT strikes; or maybe it’s because it’s nearly half term and everyone is knackered: I don’t know…but for some reason, this weekend, school senior leaders have got a hammering online.
First there was @TessaLMatthews blog on ‘What makes a good school leader?’ which offered up her highly unpleasant experience of an SLT encounter http://tabularasaeducation.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/school-leaders/ . Then @oldandrewuk gave us some sound advice on ‘How to be a bad SMT’ (which can be found at http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ ). Now, you know you’re onto something when even a teachingbattleground post doesn’t divide opinion: judging by the comments that followed both posts they have either only been read by colleagues at the same schools (this is possible but highly improbable unless the school employ a combined total of about 8000 staff) or (and this is more likely) many school leaders are either a) not very nice; b) not very competent; c) both a) and b).
So here I am to defend us poor school leaders because do you know what? You lot…you teachers just don’t get it! All you’ve got to do is come into school and teach but us, we have whole schools to run. We have a million things to keep on top off and getting you lot to do your bloody job shouldn’t have to be the hardest thing to do every bloody day. For once could I just ask you to do something and expect you to get it done? For once could I tell you how we’re all going to teach without having to see your eyes roll and your arms fold with the old teachers sardonically wittering things like ‘oh, we’re going back to that way are we, I remember when we tried that in 1972..ha!’ and the young teachers crapping on about Ken Robinson and moaning how I don’t know what it’s like to be in the classroom anymore-I do actually so shut up and try taking some advice rather than just expecting to give it all the time. Seriously-do your job and no one gets hurt: Got it?
And breathe. Relax. Breathe again and before you click the ‘report abuse’ button, count to five and believe me when I say: only joking. I just wanted to try it on for size and see what it would be like to be ‘that kind’ of leader. Doesn’t really do it for me never has. Tried it once and I just felt like a bit of a prat and it didn’t get me anywhere except made at least one person thought I was a prat (well two if you include me)
However, I was genuinely thinking a couple of weeks ago about my approach to leadership in terms of am I too nice – which is normally a euphemism for too soft – which is another euphemism for ineffective. I had a meeting with a local authority school improvement officer (who I like) and they were challenging me about my ability to ensure the effectiveness of a member of staff. As they were talking I was reminded of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ character Pauline, the job centre re-start officer, who maintained that you should treat people like pens: ‘If they don’t work, shake them. If they still don’t work, bin them.’ I was trying to get across my slightly different approach of utter transparency, lots of support and lots of reviews. ‘Don’t worry I have a system’ I kept saying, that allows me to be nice, fair and could actually allow this person to succeed and if it doesn’t work we also have a system that will take care of that in a way that is professional, fair and impossible to disagree with. ‘But how long will it bloody take?’ was the comment getting repeatedly fired back at me.
Time is important you see. Everyone wants impact in the shortest possible amount of time. HMI want impact within six weeks of RI which means the local authority want it by five. Headteachers therefore want impact by four weeks which means subject leaders have to show it by three. This leaves teachers with the rather hard task of making impact within a fortnight. If anyone challenges this time frame then they get accused of having low standards and a stubbornness that is a barrier to improvement.
What this then does is create pressure and as we know pressure can make some individuals behave in appalling ways. The buck however stops with the headteacher and simultaneously, the example, should also start with the headteacher.
The most effective way I have found to achieve this is by being transparent, honest and actually quite nice to the people I work with. I want people to want to work in my school as much as I want them to know what we’re all up against. There are no hidden agendas. Schools should be exciting places to and people should feel proud of their achievements. If they are struggling I want them to feel supported – not shamed into it but actually helped along the way. Challenging conversations occur all the time – but they’re so much easier to have if you have shared your direction, expectations, vision at the very start. Now if you hate my vision my direction of the school then your heart won’t be in the school I’m leading anyway so you’re best off out anyway. But even then – we can be nice about it.
I was talking to a teacher the other day who had once worked for a really horrible sounding headteacher. Everyone was terrified. Public humiliations at staff meetings, throwing of stationary, staff crying daily in the staff room. I naively said that I can’t imagine that kind of leadership is tolerated any more. From reading some of the blogs this weekend it seems as though I was way of the mark. I pity the leaders who are this stressed and frustrated that they take it out on teachers and support staff but more so I want them to stop. Stop and think about the damage they are doing.
I know, I know the pressure, the pressure! Pressure does not equate to being able to act like a shit. We get paid more – suck it up. The more pressure a school is under the nicer you should be – seriously. The more you should work with the leaders beneath you to make sure they have a handle on how to improve their areas. Doesn’t mean you can’t get frustrated. My office often sounds like a dock-yard as my potty-mouth is quite frankly disgraceful. Never AT people you understand – well maybe at them occasionally but certainly not while they’re in the same room. When I am working with people however, at the back of my mind is the question all leaders should have: am I enabling this person to operate at their highest level?
If the answer is yes, then it is normally because I have them on my side, I’ve been honest with them and supported them and they recognise that I am actively investing in their development. Okay, that’s what I’d like them to think I’ve done, it may a be a slightly ‘heightened reality’ version but it certainly isn’t because I’ve stabbed them with a pencil, called them a useless **** and told them to input all that data again because at the moment it’s about as helpful to me as teats on a boar. (Like I said earlier, tried this approach once and it didn’t work)
Maybe I’m a coward – I don’t like confrontation and between you and me I try to give people want they want (within reason) as I’ve learned that’s quite a motivator and bargaining tool. But I do have my non-negotiable terms I have my expectations and so far no one has suggested that they are unreasonable and so far no one has left. (one member of staff has even requested to go back to full time since I started my school – and bearing in mind we require improvement and I’ve got them working harder than I’ve ever seen any school work, I think that’s quite good).
Because no matter how ‘up against it’ you are, keeping the troops on your side is the best weapon you’ll ever have – and if I need to take out a second mortgage to keep the staff room cake levels at a constant high, well that’s a price I’m prepared to pay.