Discussing sensitive topics is never easy, more so in writing where one can be quoted. Imagine if leaders feared the state of being vulnerable – we could never cultivate cultural and ethos changes.
With this in mind, let’s explore the sensitive topic of being vulnerable, with a view on education.
Have you ever heard people say ‘That’s not my job’ or ‘It’s not in my job description so why should I care?’ Such comments are thrown around appraisal meetings in all sectors but in education they can be detrimental as teachers impact the next generation. Is it acceptable that one teacher negatively impacts the wellbeing or learning outcomes of a year group for three years in a row? Of course not, since young people are impressionable. Students get one chance at each stage and they deserve the best year on year. No teacher is perfect but to our audience – the student – we can be. They place their trust and faith in us to steer them right and to be that ‘champion’ who believes in them, despite who they may be, where they come from or what they may become in the future. After all, education is built on hope and hard work.
Teaching is far more than standing at the front of the class, spurting knowledge and expecting students to hang on to every word being said. Our role is far wider today. We know this, yet we still feel anxious about unpicking what makes teachers come to work through questions such as ‘Do you like your job?’ or ‘Do you like working with students?’ Yes, teachers have regular monthly pay. Yes, we (teachers) get school holidays, although we work part of these and the weekends. Yes, it’s a stable job, but if you truly don’t love the complications of the job, it can be demanding, soul destroying and feel like a never-ending story. Teaching is about ‘care’. Caring about the quality of your teaching, being hard on yourself to do a better job, raising the outcomes, not accepting the norm or defeat, striving to have an impact, and realising that the job is never done, ever!
Strong teachers are self-driven; they are invested in their own development and those in front of them. They ensure their students and their families get the best every day that they walk through that door. These teachers don’t necessarily blow their own trumpets. They leave contented when they know their students have walked away in a firmer place than where they started. But when someone mentions their job description, they need to be reminded that teaching is about human connection, relationships and the duty of care. These are unwritten contractual agreements – one fundamentally cannot do the job well without the notion of care. Instead of thinking ‘How great am I’ or ‘How high did my students achieve’, the emphasis should be on ‘I am not accepting the current picture; I am going to make a difference.’ That difference may not always be measurable but it starts with caring and with seeing students as humans, not data.
So, how do we broach these challenging and sensitive topics with staff? It comes down to Ethical Leadership. As leaders and teachers, we should have our own personal ethics, the moral compass that helps us weigh a perplexing situation. It is at the core of developing a positive attitude that radiates across teams and distinguishes teachers that make a difference by pursuing their own ethics out of interest instead of obligation.
However, behaviours and values such as trust and integrity can be misused in education. These qualities may not always be part of the school ethos even though leaders may claim otherwise. For instance, their teachers may grimace at professional development opportunities.
This leads to the question – how do we support those who loathe the notion of anything that is beyond what is written on paper? The answer, once again, lies in effective leadership. Leaders need a shared language and vision; they need to be singing from the same hymn sheet. The process simply comes down to open yet supportive conversations with teachers. This means saying the real words and not sugar-coating facts. We must put our ethics into play, role model to others and hold them to account. However, it is important to remain kind and honest. Open conversations about professional development, appraisal and effectiveness can be sensitive and challenging but if we don’t confront these behaviours, they can spread and become the norm across the school.
Lastly, by asking what someone has never asked before or even asked themselves, we may help them learn something about themselves, their values or their passion. Remember the quote ‘Whatever you do, do it well.’ Don’t be terrified of having conversations where it may conclude that teaching is no longer for them; there is no shame. After all, reflection and vision are the key to success.
We have outlined the initial conversations that can take place at mutual or colleague level, or through coaching and mentoring. The next step would be to think about the autonomy that leaders have to address underperformance or the wellbeing of staff. Leaders have a wide resource bank of strategies to support these, such as, team-teaching, 1:1 coaching, lesson study and reaching out to specialist support such as counsellors. Another important resource is the use of professional development targets and appraisal systems that are strategic and in line with the schools aims. To ensure accountability, it is fundamental that targets, their implementation and success criteria are all personalised. Allowing staff time to talk to line managers and asking probing questions to help filter down to the core are also crucial to developing trusting relationships.
Working with people is complicated. We are all unique and so strategies and approaches need to be individualised. Students need individualisation including feedback, time to build relationships, and time for care and support. We should not be intimidated or embarrassed to ask for support, guidance or direction. Nor should we be afraid to ‘rumble’ with challenging conversations that may appear negative. However, the realisation may make a huge difference to students and to the individual staff member.
Teaching is a lifestyle; it absorbs all aspects of your life. It is not for everyone, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to discuss this notion or decide when the role is no longer our core business.
- National Governance Association: Walton and Darkes-Sutcliffe, British Education Research Association, 2021
- Courageous Leadership, Diana Osagie, 2021
- Dare to lead, Brene Brown, 2018
- High Challenge, Low Threat, Mary Myaat, 2016