Leadership – getting the message right almost before we start

This is probably a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but I have been meaning to write this blog since before the start of term and have finally gotten around to it just in time for appraisal season. 

More so than ever I believe that headteachers and their leadership teams create the climate in a school, the strengths and weaknesses of the head are often the strengths and weaknesses of the school. This is why it is vital to get the message right from day one, in fact before that first INSET day which sets the tone for the rest of the academic year. 

The biggest factor which influences the year ahead for a great deal of existing staff happens in the middle of the summer holidays, the behaviour from leadership teams regarding examination results days. This is where a headteacher can either unite their teams or alienate staff for the thirty nine weeks that follow. I’m fortunate in having lots of friends who work across many schools so I get to taste what it’s like in a number of settings for teachers at all stages of their career. I have found that results days can either be done very well or very badly with no room for in-between. They either create a culture of trust and teamwork or one of mistrust, blame and paranoia. In managing this day poorly, headteachers fail to realise that the ripple effect which has been created will then set the tone for the rest of the year and beyond. I’ve known of schools who won’t give examination information to teachers who have come in on results days until the students are coming through the doors and of schools who don’t give members of their own leadership team the details until the ship has sailed. These practices seem ludicrous yet they do take place. How difficult must it be for teachers who have come into work in their holidays to support the students and the school not knowing when to counsel and when to celebrate with individual children? How easily could this awkwardness be avoided if they were forewarned? How must it feel for that member of SLT being asked questions which they don’t know the answers to? How sad is it that they are made to feel inferior to the other colleagues on the leadership team which they are part of? And as a headteacher, are you telling your staff that you value their professional integrity or that they cannot be trusted?

Trust is vital. 

Instantly, those whom I have struck a nerve with will jump to the excuse of the teachers post all over social media defence. Being someone who uses a great deal of social networking sites both professionally and privately, I have never seen anyone break an embargo or be unprofessional about a school’s exam performance. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but is it not the responsibility of the headteacher to challenge those individuals privately rather than treat the majority (who are doing the right thing) with contempt? This in itself sends a resounding message to staff and we haven’t even got to the start of term! 

The opposite of this approach is the scenario where everyone is included, information is shared and professionalism is championed. Where the atmosphere is buoyant irrespective of the result because there is a feeling that everyone is equal, everyone has tried their best and we’re all in it together. It’s an environment where we can all improve irrespective of who we are. This mentality creates a results day that is all about the students (as it should be), where success is celebrated and disappointment is dealt with sensitively. It’s not about competition between individual teachers or departments or the quest to tick a performance management box, it’s about the students and the school. The positive atmosphere ensures that staff act in an emotionally diligent way and that students who don’t achieve the necessary grades get the right advice in an reassuring environment. I’m lucky to work in a school like this, where people come first. And thankfully, there are lots of schools like us. One local headteacher, whom I have the utmost respect and admiration for, brought an ice cream van into school on results day to set the mood. It was a chance to say well done to students and staff, thank them for all of their hard work, and for those who didn’t achieve as well as expected it made the bitterness of disappointment taste a little sweeter. This type of behaviour is indicative of the way he leads the school. The complement of staff in school on results day was almost at full capacity (they didn’t have prewarning of the Icey Van),  as was ours which is impressive in the middle of August on a non-compulsory attendance day. The schools where little trust was apparent had very few teachers in. How must the students who were receiving their results felt when it appeared that no one cared? As I said, the headteacher creates the climate. 
For many classroom teachers and heads of department the night before results day is a sleepless one, as is the night before the first INSET day of the year. This is why the messages given on that day are so vital. Does your school spend hours publicly scrutinising examination results with a table of shame projected for all to see? If at the same time you’re a senior leader who complains about how league tables have destroyed education then shame on you. It is important to celebrate success but not at the detriment of the self-esteem of everyone else in the room. You’re also giving a clear message that exam results are all that matters. 

This year, there was very little public focus on the performance of individual departments from our SLT. The emphasis of our Headteacher’s message was on thanking everyone for their hard work and that quality first wave teaching and high expectation makes the difference. This was supported by a focus on developing students’ personal accountability, acknowledging that staff could not work any harder but that we need to encourage our students to be more responsible for their own learning. It is our job to help children develop the tools required to be good learners. The rest of the day was given over to our triad development, departments and individual class teaching preparation. This gave a clear message that teaching and teamwork are what matters and that our expectation was that of a commitment from everyone to focus on improving their own practice. No one left feeling superior or inferior but there was an absolute sense of clarity and unity amongst the staff. This has resulted in the most focussed and organised start to the year that I’ve seen. 

The message from our Headteacher was reiterated within departments and across teams. Its simplicity key to its delivery. That doesn’t mean that the accountability of individual staff and departments was ignored, it meant it was just that, particular to the individual so would be addressed privately with them. Because of the climate created staff are reflective enough to identify areas for development themselves and come to us with suggestions for improvement. Those who struggle to self-reflect actively ask for help and feedback. Professionalism is appreciated and as a result the majority accept responsibility rather than look for excuses and try to pass the buck. This is a result of the environment they are in. Headteachers make the weather. 

At this time of year there’s an easy way to see what type of school you have nurtured as we come to the annual review of performance (which in itself if a ridiculous notion). When you sit down as an appraiser with your appraisee listen (truly listen) to the conversation. If it is filled with the notion of a top down you must do better and bottom up it wasn’t my fault rather than a bottom up  I’ve thought about this and this is how I think we can get better then perhaps you need to look at the climate you’ve created. And it’s not just headteachers and senior leadership teams who need to reflect but middle leaders too. 

It is too late to start the year again but it’s not too late to create the right atmosphere within appraisal and performance management. Listen with the intention of hearing and remember that we set the weather so if we don’t like what we see then it’s highly likely we’ve had a part to play in it. Only by being congruent in our words and actions can we create the best environment for our school community.