Stop making us all look bad


I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve defended leadership on twitter. I often cannot get through a clean swipe of my twitter feed without stumbling upon a number of anti-leadership hashtags or links to blogposts outlining a range of grievances, that are then followed by a multitude of ‘Yeah, all leaders are all rubbish aren’t they?’ comments from readers. Any leader, it seems, can be used for target practice: senior, middle, senior-middle, middle-junior, junior-senior-middle, senior-phase-to-the-middle. According to Twitter, we all suck!

And whenever I read the comments, the complaints about lesson observations, work monitoring, marking policies, performance management, and all the other tasks that leaders are put on trial for, I can’t help but feel frustrated.

‘But these things are important!’ I want to scream. ‘They help make things better!’

And, I really believe that. I’m a leader. I’m a leader and I do all of the above. If I didn’t, my school wouldn’t be where it is today. I tell my teachers that these things matter. I tell my teachers that if they engage with these processes then they will get better. Even if you’re my ‘best’ you still deserve my time and expertise so that you can develop further. I also, really believe, that what I have to offer you, in terms of my insights into your effectiveness, is valid advice.

So, to see generic outpourings of hate for school leaders hurts me. It hurts me because it shouldn’t be like that. It hurts me because deep down, I truly believe that leaders care about education and that this dismissive attitude towards leadership hurts education.

Teachers should be more open. Teachers should respect their leaders so that together they can improve the quality of education for everyone.

That’s what I believe, and I don’t care who knows it.

So, imagine my absolute horror when I was shown, from another school, a second year teacher’s appraisal targets. This teacher is terrified and when I saw a summary of their targets it was easy to see why. Target one had achievement targets such as ‘85% of pupils to achieve mastery in writing’ and target two clearly said that every lesson observation ‘must be judged outstanding’. There was then a list of all the monitoring that would take place over the year: 12 book looks, 6 observations, that sort of thing. What I found particularly alarming about this list was not the quantity of it throughout the year but the added caveat that although teachers will know the week that observations are taking place, they would not know in advance the precise day or subject.

Now, I don’t know the school, and I wouldn’t presume to judge it based on a second-hand perspective so I offered up some questions that the teacher may want to ask their line manager. These included:

  1. What are you classifying as mastery?
  2. What does 85% of children achieving mastery equate to in terms of rates of progress from the end of the previous year?
  3. Why are lessons still being judged?
  4. Why am I, a teacher in their second year, being expected to perform so highly?
  5. What support is going to be put in place for me if I am only judged to be ‘good’?

I felt that these questions would be acceptable for any teacher to ask their boss, especially in the world of performance related pay. Now, as I said, I don’t know the school and I only have this teacher’s perspective, but as I read these targets a single thought began buzzing around my brain like an angry wasp that is stuck in a jar without any jam. That single thought was:

Oh man….Twitter was right!

Now, there’s plenty of things that I consider to be odd/inappropriate/wrong with this teacher’s appraisal targets, but, like I said, I don’t know the school, so I can’t comment. But the one point I cannot let go; the one point that really makes me cross is this one:

You’re not going to tell people when they’re being observed or in what subject?

Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just irresponsible leadership. And don’t give me that ‘well it shouldn’t matter what lesson it is, you should always be trying your hardest’ justification nonsense. What you’re really doing is trying to play the big bad boss. You’re acting tough by being mean. You are pretending to set high expectations but all you’re really doing is fostering fear through a culture of high-stakes performance management. I do a ton of monitoring. Me and my leadership team are all over the planning, the books and we’ve done more lesson observations this autumn than I had during my own NQT year. But at least my teachers know and understand that it’s all developmental as opposed to judgmental. They might find it ‘uncomfortable’ but they don’t fear what I’ll have to say afterwards. This ham-fisted approach to accountability (jumping out of a cupboard with a clipboard declaring this lesson not to be outstanding) will only serve to push your staff further away. They will fear you rather than respect you. They will hear your ‘next steps’ but they will not be listening to anything that they will value. You have forced their hand into considering themselves to be more professional than you and I can’t say I blame them. You may consider yourself a leader but I doubt anyone truly follows you.

So please, enough with the tough talk. You make all of us look bad. Leadership is hard, don’t make it harder by acting like a tyrant.

6 thoughts on “Stop making us all look bad

  1. conorheaven December 10, 2015 / 7:17 am

    When leaders use these tools developmentally like yourself, then you won’t hear many staff moaning about leadership. My current leader has helped me and others grow amazingly as teachers. Most importantly, performance management is a discussion, targets are relative to us and also to prior attainment/progress. I won’t be moaning about SLT but singing their praises.

    In a situation like you described with that poor teacher and their targets, it’s more common than you think to experience the leadership you have described. Those are the leaders that get complained about as they have created cultures of fear and survival. Unfortunately, they are the ones dragging down the name of leadership.

    Great blog.

  2. teachingbattleground December 11, 2015 / 7:05 am

    We have a system where 42% of teachers have management responsibilities of some sort. It is hardly a surprise that to keep this many managers in work, managers end up doing things that have no benefit to teaching and actually just get in the way of teaching. Twitter isn’t out to get managers on a personal level, it’s just that the system is not set up for good management.

    • theprimaryhead December 11, 2015 / 1:18 pm

      I would say that there are problems with ‘some systems’ not ‘the systems’ are not set up for good management. I am amazed at how many leadership tiers exist in similar sized schools compared to mine, I wonder how schools can afford it more than anything, my budget is tighter than a local authority officer at the Christmas do. We have a proportional and secure set of leaders all working towards the common goal: support teachers to help children achieve. Lack of ego and senseless checking helps

  3. Stacey Taylor December 30, 2015 / 4:00 pm

    I’m currently a Deputy Head and in my experience (not at my current school, I might add) the over fifty percent of the teaching staff were on the SLT. This created a great deal of monitoring that was not purposeful as the SLT were expected to “hold people to account”.

    When I proposed working together to create a monitoring programme where leaders worked together to streamline the process and make it more developmental, I met with a very negative response from the Executive Leadership Team.

    I see my job as a leader as an opportunity to develop teachers to be skilled professionals. Suffice to say I moved on quickly to a school where monitoring is part of a professional conversation rather than a tool to beat teachers with.

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