Difficult conversations

During my time in Education and as I’ve managed people I’ve had numerous difficult conversations. Having never been told how to handle these I’ve had to work my way through quite a few to know what the best approach is. I’ve had to tell teachers they smell and need to wash more thoroughly, that they need to be kinder to their colleagues, that they are not kidding anyone and the whole department knows their books aren’t marked, that kids have commented on their animosity towards them, the list goes on. My saving grace is I make a real effort to have positive conversations to counteract these!

So here is my advice. The way I see it difficult conversations can be categorised in three broad areas (If we do not cover unprofessional behaviour which should be covered by school policy with next steps depending on the seriousness of it). These are:

Not their fault bad news

This is where you have to deliver bad news and the member of staff has not done anything in particular. Redundancies is a classic example. Unfortunately in secondary education due to options coming in and out of fashion this can happen more often than you’d like. In this case you should really have had the conversation a while before to prepare the member of staff. If numbers seemed to be dwindling you should have spoken to the member of staff about retraining. If this is a no go then you have to tell it straight and as soon as possible to give that colleague a fighting chance of finding a job they love elsewhere. Again how redundancies are handled by the school will be in the HR policy so not all the steps below will be needed but can be used as a guide).

Bringing people up on how they behave to other members of staff

This is something that I have had to do surprisingly often. The majority of teachers I have met are fantastic team players, I believe you have to be to survive the pressures of teaching. Unfortunately, every now and again I come across a staff who is incredibly negative. What these people will cost you is priceless, it will be camaraderie, positivity in whichever dept they function in, positive attitudes in the classroom, so you have to bring them up on it straight away. I have only ever had two reactions to bringing people up on their negative attitude and that is crying or aggression. Either way you have to keep a straight face, state the facts and move on (sometimes hoping they will to).

Performance focused

There are some members of staff which suddenly find themselves in an education world that they did not enter. This can be incredibly hard and the best way to deal with this is by offering clear examples of how things can be changed with a caring support plan. They will need a lot of time and support and I have put several members of staff through these and am pleased to say only two have chosen to leave the profession and actually go on to things they feel more passionate about and are aligned with their skillset but most have found their way back and gone on to a wonderful career in teaching.

A guide to handling difficult conversations

1) Get clear -Before you have the conversation about get clear about three things.

a) About the actual problem and make sure you have evidence

b) What a good outcome looks like for the school and your colleague. You have to know what you are working with and working towards.

c) What support can you/or someone else provide

2) Be honest – once you have evidence and are clear about the above be honest with them about what it is you are trying to address. By being honest you are doing them the greatest service. Dishonesty or flowering things up will most likely mean you don’t get the outcome or acknowledgment of the problem you need to move things forward and most times you are doing it so you don’t feel bad as opposed to doing what the person needs.

3) Sit in it with them but don’t try to soften the situation – this is hard. At this point the person you are addressing will either try to justify their behaviour or just get very emotional. You must sit through it with them. Sometimes this can reveal their journey in getting to this point and help you understand why you are both sitting where you are. This is good. I had a colleague who was addressing poor performance with a colleague but had assumed she had been teaching for several years because she was a mature teacher. She had however been an LSA for many years and he’d never known! This encouraged him to provide more layers of support because she was earlier on in her career than he’d known. If the person is getting very upset and defensive keep coming back to what it is the students/staff in your school need and how their behaviour is not meeting that need. You are all in it for the students and to improve the life chances of every child in your care.

4) Ask them how they see things improving. On some occasions you may have to be prescriptive about next steps however if possible get them to come up with them so they are invested in the change

5) Set corrective course and tell them how and when you will check in with them to monitor their progress.

6) Document your conversation. This is incredibly important both for yourself and for them so you can measure progress from the time you have had the conversation.

Unprofessional behaviour

Schools should have policies on how to address this but again this must be documented and evidence recorded. Follow the school policy as the extent of the unprofessional behaviour will determine next steps.

I hope this helps!

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