“Headteachers relate well to children and young people. They are effective communicators within the school and the wider community and build effective relationships. They listen well, give clear expression to their ideas and feelings in person, give feedback well and can shape effective organisational communication. They are comfortable using a variety of modern media.”
So, there you are then. Communication is just another competence area to be overtaken by developing school leaders. Or is it?
Speak with any head of establishment and they will always identify that the hardest part of their job, the part that seems to take up most of their valuable time, is leading and managing people. Why is this? Is it because there are lots of terrorists out there, determined to resist change and disrupt school improvement plans? Maybe.
In my experience, however, it is often a breakdown in communication which leads to difficulties in managing people. Staff in schools are no different from people in other walks of life. They all have their own idiosyncrasies and each will respond slightly differently from their colleagues in any given set of circumstances. The art, therefore, for school leaders is to understand what makes individual staff tick. It is also important that all staff in schools are familiar with local human resources policies, e.g. grievance, discipline, bullying and harassment, competence. These policies exist to support staff, not to make life difficult for them. Teachers need to know what is expected of them, and the policies ensure they are always treated fairly.
You wouldn’t expect a teacher at the start of his/her career to have the same outlook on life as a teacher nearing retirement. But what about the cliché of colleagues “coasting towards retirement and doing an absolute minimum”. Should such colleagues exist, what should we do about it? Well, what we shouldn’t do is ignore it. It may be less challenging to accept this and simply wait for a teacher to retire, but that’s not doing the teacher or the school any good at all. And it certainly isn’t leadership in action to pretend it isn’t an issue.
Communicating effectively means we have to talk with such a teacher. We need to identify exactly why there is a problem and inform the teacher. We need to be able to produce specific evidence to support our concerns and we need to sit the teacher down and talk (informally in the first instance) to him/her about these. We need to listen to him/her. It is possible that the teacher has personal issues or health problems and that these are affecting his/her performance. By engaging in conversation and tackling the issues, some kind of support for the teacher can be identified, which will allow the teacher to operate more effectively. Every local authority has excellent support mechanisms available for employees, e.g. counselling services.
We hear a lot about teacher competence these days. While we struggled to identify teacher competence 20 years ago, we now have the Standard for Full Registration to identify all the areas of competence expected of teachers. School leaders would be well advised to use some of their staff development time to discuss this document with all staff so that staff fully understand their responsibilities. Too often I meet with staff who have not even heard of the Standard. If school leaders have issues with staff who do not seem to meet the Standard, whose performance is less than satisfactory, then the Standard will allow for informal discussions to take place with such teachers, with specific areas of the Standard to be addressed, and for the teacher to be supported to perform satisfactorily. I have experience of many cases where teachers have responded very positively to such support programmes and who are, as a result, now happier at work.
I don’t know how often I have heard teachers on support programmes say that “nobody complained about my teaching for the previous 30 years, so why are they complaining now?” If there are issues, they should be addressed, or, like Topsy, they will grow and grow.
By the same token, school leaders will have to deal with staff who may be disappointed by their lack of promotion, or with staff who come to them with crisis after crisis.
The same rules apply – communicate effectively! Why is teacher X not achieving promotion? Tell him/her what you think. Suggest ways in which teacher X can make himself/herself more promotable. Why does teacher Y come to you with a new crisis every week? Discuss this with him/her. Suggest coping mechanisms whereby the teacher does not always come running. Propose alternative responses the teacher might develop. Be specific and make sure you can evidence your opinions, but be honest. He/she may be blissfully unaware of the impact of his/her behaviour on other people. The teacher may even thank you for your honesty!
Effective communication will not solve every situation for you, but at least you will have tried. And if the matter can only be resolved through formal procedures, you will at least be able to demonstrate that you attempted to deal with the matter informally.