Headteachers and other school leaders are responsible for, and responsible to, lots of different people. Indeed their job involves talking to these people on a frequent basis. Why not learn something about them?

On the surface, this seems easy enough.

Then the ‘business’ of a school day takes over: people at your door; the phone is ringing; there is a tough discipline problem to deal with; an overdue return to be made to the local authority; an angry parent arrives to complain and your emails keep screaming to be opened.

Everyone involved in school leadership knows the many demands made on him or her. We have become so task orientated in school that there is a danger that we forget the people. But I think the very best of our leaders build into this reactive process opportunities to be proactive. They engage in a myriad of conversations, ‘slivers of opportunities’ for dialogue with pupils, parents, staff and their wider communities. They do this by taking unscripted moments. They ask questions. These questions are not the stuff of rocket science. They encompass, for instance, “How are you feeling?”, “How’s the family?” , “What did you think of the rugby game on Saturday?” and so on.

I often ask groups of headteachers, “What is the most important thing that you each do on the first day when all the staff return to school after the summer holidays?”. Answers range from:

“The presentation I do to staff”,

“Answering a backlog of emails”,

“Running the management team meeting”,

“Preparing for the coming week”.

But for many the response is simple. They answer that they go round every individual on their staff, teaching and support professionals, and say things like, “Good to see you back” or “How did the holiday go?”.   It starts a dialogue. The colleague answers and in turn reciprocates by asking how the leader’s break was. By making simple personal connections interesting things begin to happen. Personal sharing of stories, no matter how trivial, is vital to the process of relationship building.

You start to identify with the colleague as an individual, as a person with definition above and beyond their role.   A simple question or query leads to a simple conversation. It shows your interest in that colleague. It shows in a small way that you care for them and that this care is not conditional on how well they do their job. Above all it helps develop the process of trust. And it is this trust that you need when times get tough or you are introducing major change.

Timing is everything here. It is one thing to go round staff at the beginning of a session asking how the holidays went, quite another in the middle of a terse diatribe from a parent to ask about how many miles to the gallon their ‘4 x 4’ gets. Moreover some people may not respond. Such is life. But effective leaders play a percentage game and many will respond. When this happens the conversation can lead to other issues. The challenge for the leader is to not only to make the time to listen but to actively listen with patience and attention.Both hard given the demands of a busy job.

The key thing is, as Gawande says, ‘If you ask a question, the machine begins to feel less like a machine!’ [P.252]

Graham Thomson, SCSSA


Gawande, A. [2007] Better. London: Profile books