The oft-quoted Dylan Wiliam put it powerfully when he told the SSAT Conference in 2012 that “Every teacher needs to improve not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” I’d say that the best teachers are those committed to being even better teachers, and the best leaders are those determined to become even better leaders.
However, I fully understand that there may be a range of possible responses to Wiliam’s comment. Some might feel that constant learning is something which motivates and energises them. Others may feel pressured by it – ground down by the feeling that however hard they work and whatever they do, it won’t be deemed good enough.
How should heads square this? How can they ensure their school continues to develop and move forward, embracing new initiatives and looking to the future, while still respecting the capacity and willingness of those they lead to take on new things?
If, as a head, you return from a conference fired up about a new idea that you think will strongly benefit the school, how can you communicate this in a way that’s positively received, rather than just another thing for staff to manage? I suggest that heads bear the following in mind:
1. Explain your reasons
When introducing something new, ensure that the reasons behind the decision are fully explored, explained and discussed. If staff see the rationale, and particularly the potential positive impact, they’re far more likely to be receptive than if the new way of working is simply imposed without debate.
2. Consider the implications
Be mindful of capacity and workload. Where possible, when introducing something new take something else away. Consider carrying out a workload impact assessment and be transparent and open about it. Consider what support might be necessary so that those involved can take on the new requirement without undue strain.
3. Listen and engage
Listen carefully and demonstrate that you are listening, so that staff don’t feel they have no influence and agency. Ideally, you’ll need to generate emotional as well as rational engagement, so that those who’ll need to make this work feel invested in doing so; that won’t happen if they believe they have no voice.
The main sources of stress for those working in schools seem to be a perceived lack of control over their workloads, and a sense of having little influence over their working lives.
The two are clearly related, and crucial with respect to the successful implementation of new initiatives and working practices. Heads who ride roughshod over the anxieties and fears of their staff will never get the best from them.
Heads need to take courageous and sometimes unpopular decisions, and can be required to ‘hold the line’ in the face of staff opposition. If they heed the above advice, and do all they can to get staff on-side, they may well find themselves spending less time and energy on dealing with resistance, allowing them to channel their efforts into working alongside staff to make things work even better for the benefit of the whole school community.
Jill Berry is a leadership consultant and former headteacher; her book Making the Leap – Moving from Deputy to Head is available now, published by Crown House