1.’How Was Your Weekend?’
Sounds obvious, but asking someone about their life outside of school (and actually listening to the answer) is an essential part of building a positive working relationship. It is also the first thing to be jettisoned when people get busy or stressed. Taking a little time to chat in this normal, everyday and courteous way shows that you recognise your teachers are more than just the sum of their parts, and makes it all the more likely they will come to you when they need help.
2. ‘What can I do to help?’
As a class teacher, I love it when the Head Teacher arrives at my classroom door, because it means an extra pair of hands. Getting round classrooms is something all school leaders know they should do, but few manage to prioritise. Other things get in the way. But actually, what’s more important than knowing what’s going on in your school today? What kind of an experience your learners are getting today? Which teachers are doing amazing things and which ones could do with some support? Without knowing how things are right now, how can you be sure the measures you are taking to move the school forward will be effective? So get into classes. And I don’t mean with your clipboard. I mean arriving unannounced, with your sleeves rolled up, ready to help out with whatever we are doing. Yes, some teachers will freak out, but only if you only ever do it once. If popping into classes and lending a hand becomes part of your normal practice, it will also become a part of theirs. And the benefits are huge. You will get to see what’s really going on. You will be able to have real conversations with teachers about learners and how to get the best out of them because you will have that essential ingredient to all discussions about practice- context.
3. ‘I’m heading home now, see you tomorrow.’
I did a placement as a student teacher in a school where the teachers literally competed to see who would be the last to leave each night. It was a badge of honour to be there last, a true sign of your commitment to the job. The ethos of that school was ‘unless you’re here til 6.30pm, you must be a slacker.’ Now, I like to think I am pretty decent at my job. I care. I try my very hardest. I am conscientious. But I’m not there until 6.30pm every night. And why should I be? I’ve got kids of my own at home that need me. I have a life and commitments outside of school that I am entitled to embrace. Having a healthy balance between my work and home life is essential if I am to continue to be decent at my job. Lack of balance leads to frustration, exhaustion, unhappiness, burn out. So lead by example. Go home by 5pm at least once a week. Be conscious of the ethos in your school after the last bell rings. Show that you too have a life outside of school and that you are protective of your own work-life balance. Your teachers will notice and be grateful for it.
4. ‘Tell me your plan for dealing with this.’
A teacher comes to you with a problem and they want you to solve it. Which is fine, you probably can, but do you really need to be adding to your own to-do list right now? So push it back across the table to the teacher. Imagine that teacher is me. Ask me what I think the solution to the problem might be. Support me in working out a plan for dealing with it. Tell me you are here to help. But be very clear with me that it’s my plan and I need to go and implement it. I might not be best pleased (because it’s always easier to dump a problem on someone else than solve it yourself) and it might mean you need to spend twice as long supporting me in dealing with it than you would have if you’d just sorted it yourself, but you are building capacity here. You are helping your teachers forge the confidence, creativity and resilience to solve their own problems, and that’s something worth investing in.
5. Nothing At All
I’m working with a teacher just now who has a really challenging class. Every day brings some new disaster or confrontation and by the end of the week she is often on her knees. Every day I am in that school, I make sure hers is the first classroom I visit after the bell rings. I make up some reason to pop in and while I’m there I ask her if she wants a cuppa. Then I take it to her and I let her talk. And I mean I let her talk. I have a secret rule that I don’t speak at all until I’ve finished my cup of tea. I just listen. Because an interesting thing happens when you create silence- people need to fill it. I’m not saying anything, so she keeps talking. We get quickly past the trivialities and into the nitty gritty of how the day went. She starts analysing, asking and answering her own questions, she identifies the wee glimmers of good stuff in another challenging day. She starts to formulate her plan (her plan, not mine) for the next day, based on how today has gone. In short, she debriefs. And I want it to be me she debriefs to, because then I know how her day has gone and I know how she ‘s feeling and I can work out how best I can support her. Most important cuppa of the day.
6. ‘We need to make this change because…’
School leaders are all about the big picture. They have the blueprint for future success and they share it with teachers so everyone knows what we are working towards. Sounds great. But what does that actually look like in practice? As a class teacher, do I understand why the changes I am being asked to make actually matter? Do I understand where these changes fit in with the master plan? Can I see how these changes are going to benefit my learners? If the answer to any of these questions is no, something has gone wrong. Explaining the why of change is just as important as explaining the how. Because teachers not on board with the why will never implement the how.
7. ‘How are things going?’
This is a good staffroom conversation starter. So is ‘What’s gone well so far today?’ ‘How’s wee Jimmy getting on with his Maths this week?’ and ‘What did you decide to do about that reading group you were telling me about?’ This is you checking back in following your ‘pop in’ visits. This is you showing me you remember me and my class and you are interested in what I am doing, beyond what’s on your clipboard. This is your golden opportunity to ensure what I’m doing as a teacher fits with the master plan, and your chance to gently nudge me in the right direction if it isn’t.
8. Please don’t say ‘My hands are tied on this one.’
Unless you are physically bound to a chair with cable ties, I don’t want to hear this one. Don’t make out like the thing I just asked you for isn’t within your power to agree to. Maybe it isn’t, but as a class teacher, you represent the top of the tree. If you are going to tell me why I can’t do a thing, I want to know your reasons why, not just a casual, palms-raised ‘I wish I could but I can’t’ shrug. If you don’t like what I’m asking for, tell me that and the reasons why. And if you do like what I’m asking for but it will mean a change from the status quo, or you having to shake the tree further up, tell me I’m going to have to convince you it’ll be worth it. Put the ball back in my court and give me a shot at it. I’ll respect you more for it and it might just lead to something new and brilliant.
9. Please don’t say ‘I’m going to need it by Friday (on Wednesday afternoon)
For all of the work-life balance issues discussed above. And because if it’s Wednesday now and you need it for Friday, it’s you who should be better organised, not me.
10. And finally, please don’t use jargon.
I don’t care if it’s an ‘actionable event that, across the piece, is a best-practice example of blue-sky thinking that we should run up the flagpole and touch base off-line about then share with colleagues before the grass grows too long.’
I just think it’s super-annoying.
Susan Ward is a Principal Teacher and a class teacher in the Scottish Borders.
Come and talk more about teacher-friendly school leadership at #TMBorders