With a retention crisis in full swing, those of us still in the game know only too well the impact that a school’s leadership team can have on staff wellbeing.
In short, who you work for matters. A headteacher and their particular approach can mean the difference between loving your job and loathing it, so it’s no surprise that a change in leadership is a hugely nerve-wracking upheaval for teachers – made worse by the fact that they’ve absolutely no control over it.
No control over a change that could have a lasting impact on their careers and home lives.
Anyone who’s experienced a change in leadership will recognise just how disempowered teachers typically feel at such times.
The recruitment often takes multiple rounds – that’s multiple sets of learning walks with strangers, any of whom could potentially be your new leader; multiple rounds of nervous getting-to-know-you lunches, and months of scrutiny and uncertainty.
It can take a toll on even the most enthusiastic teacher. By the time a new head actually starts, their arrival will often very welcome – yet the staff are still likely to be nervous and exhausted by the appointment process.
The whole school will need time to heal. The staff will need their experiences over the past year to be understood, their strengths to be celebrated and their school to be loved.
They don’t need to be formally graded in the first few weeks of term. For their practice to be reduced to a single phrase. For their confidence to be reduced to a nub.
Yes, all teachers need to improve, and a passionate new head will want to make their mark – but a bullish performance management approach upon entry is more likely pull apart an already fragile team than galvanise a culture of reflection and continuous improvement.
Any incoming leader will naturally want to implement changes and make the school their own, but I’d be careful about using phrases like ‘This is my school…’ to assert your authority. Ask yourself – is it your school?
At what point can you claim that? Do schools ever become one person’s belonging?
To an already disempowered staff, phrases like that can rankle and have an insidious effect over time. Schools ultimately belong to their stakeholders, so if anything, it’s surely ‘our school’.
Take the time to explore the culture and community of your new school, and try not to leap to judgement.
Undoubtedly, you need to lead, be true to yourself and shape the school. But listen to what staff have to say, try to understand the reasons behind their actions and don’t blame them for the shortcomings of the previous leadership. They might not have agreed with the way things were done either.
Most of all, I’d implore incoming leaders to keep an open mind and leave their labels at home. If you don’t want staff to label you, don’t label them. The process of leadership change takes time to recover from. Being judged at your most vulnerable can damage the confidence of even the best teachers, and we need them now more than ever.
Please bear that in mind, and tread lightly as you make your mark…
Emily Tenenbaum is a primary school teacher based in Hampshire.