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!

Fail Fast, Learn Fast in 2020

I once heard someone say ‘You can have 5 years of experience in 5 years or 1 year of experience in 5 years it’s up to you,’ and that just stuck with me and got under my skin.

I was just starting out in teaching, shifting from a different career and I thought about my previous career and really asked myself how many years I had wasted doing the same thing over and over or going through the motions. I would guess at least 40% of my actions were a repeat, rehashing the same things and not trying new things with risk. At the same time I was beginning my career in teaching and realised that Leadership teams in any school I worked for were desperate for enthusiastic teachers to have ideas and run with them on the condition that they would be self-evaluative, critical and share their thoughts. So I had a prime opportunity not to repeat my past.

How we should educate has always been an area for debate even amongst non professionals, take some of our political leaders for example who have never set foot in a classroom but claim to know what is best. However, we are seeing a flurry of new material and research in the field. The only way to know what is and isn’t worth pursuing is to discuss it in education spheres and then try it.

This has been a thoroughly enjoyable blog to write. Casting my mind back to things that I have tried but have not worked has made me laugh, cringe and eventually feel proud at the things I have tried and tested. Here are some examples of things I have tried and may have failed depending on what we are looking at for an outcome:

NQT year, I took the hardest to reach group of girls in Year 9 with no aspirations other than to marry drug dealers (their words not mine) and did 11 1 hour sessions with them on careers. To be honest this was a pretty easy sell to the principal who just desperately wanted someone to keep an eye on them and wanted them out the corridors so he literally said ‘How much?’ I’d seen an online package for £250 and we went through it. The package failed, was clunky, boring and is no longer in circulation but I had some great conversations with the girls about their dreams. I showed them online listings of the average earnings of numerous jobs and they hadn’t heard of 98% of them. So we would discuss what different jobs did. We calculated the costs of wanting to live the lives they dreamed of. Did it change their GCSE grades, nope. Did it teach them better maths or English or science. Nope. Did it make them feel like someone at school was listening to them and invested in their future. I think so, yes. Failure or success? You decide.

Do you remember the craze with ipads in classrooms? I heard about schools giving ipads to every student in Year 7 to enhance learning. My Principal at the time was considering it. I started an initiative to train a small group of teachers to try incorporating technology into the classroom more regularly. It was a mess. To be honest in my heart of hearts I thoughts I pads could add some value but I’ve always believed in traditional teaching methods and direct instruction over snazzy apps. Failure? Absolutely and thank god for it. I’m so glad that fad is over.

On to my next IT failure…..I love screencasting (basically filming your screen whilst you talk  over it and have used it to give feedback to students on their essays.) I tried to get my dept to take it on and soon realised not everyone feels that way. To be honest it only worked with my A level classes and even then only one class. I don’t know why I got so attached to it, perhaps because the idea was more effective in my head than in real life. Luckily, my dept staff telling me to stick that laptop where the sun don’t shine soon brought me back to my senses.

My first Inset to organise for the Trust. Imagine over 400 teachers. I can honestly say this is more daunting then standing in front of 400 students. Teachers are a hard bunch to please. I booked a speaker who is really popular online. Really popular. I’m not going to tell you who but you will have heard of him. I also booked another in the morning who was not even on twitter but who’s work I read and thought was brilliant. Due to the second in my mind being an unknown entity I vetted him on the phone a lot more. The blog guru I didn’t. On inset day, my unknown speaker was an absolute triumph and the well known blogger killed us with boredom. Now I vet them all equally and politely cancel anyone I don’t get a good sense from. It’s not worth the humiliation, trust me.

My very first observation as a department head was a complete failure. I was desperate to show I was a good dept head. It was the first post I had in that position. I was struggling with a few of my classes but didn’t want to show it. My first observation was with THAT class. It was terrible. When I say terrible I mean my students actually heckled the observer. I could feel beads of sweat down my back. My cheeks were so red with embarrassment I felt like I’d been slapped. In fact that seemed like a better outcome than the observation outcome I was about to get. Long story short. It was awful. I cried all the way through the feedback. I’m talking snot bubbles cried. The amazing AP helped me with the 3 students who made it impossible for others to learn in the classroom. She supported me with the parents. I have never taken behaviour like that in the classroom since. And I have never been able to thank her enough for showing me what kind leadership looks like. Failure? On the day yes. In hindsight no. And it didn’t kill me in fact the same AP encouraged me to apply for a leadership post when it came up and I got it.

I’m sure I have introduced lots of stupid ideas in my time of leading teaching and learning and made more fumbles then I care to remember. But the great thing is whilst writing this there are many I don’t remember. Maybe that is why I don’t mind failing fast. Maybe I’m going senile. Or maybe, just maybe they weren’t that big of a deal in the first place although they felt that way in the moment. I think we spend too much time promoting our successes and are too nervous talking about things that don’t work. There is real gold in that too. So my hope for you in 2020 is that you work through lots of things that aren’t working so you can double down on the stuff that does. Be brave.

Stop waiting for your hero

This may sound like a strange blog to begin with but I think it sets the tone for what is about to come. This blog is about what you can do to take control of your own leadership journey. It is not about pointing fingers at who has and has not helped you along the way. So if you need to leave something behind in 2019 make it the search for your hero or educational saviour, the person with the golden key, the answers and a personality that sets the room on fire. We have a tendency to really lap them up in education, the next big thing, but we all know they go as fast as they come.

I’m going to be honest I’m a sucker for a hero, I watch all the marvel movies, I love the underdog, I love the triumph of good over bad, I love wise people taking others under their wing and I have been looking for my hero for a long time. Someone to take me under their wing and show me how this god damn education thing works, The Mr Miyagi to my Daniel Son (Please reassess your life if you do not know what movie this references ;))

I have looked everywhere, Conferences, Unconferences, work, obviously, Twitter, Facebook and my hero is nowhere to be found. Before you roll your eyes no I am not about to tell you that you are your own hero and turn this into some blog that will lead you to your spiritual awakening. But what I can tell you is every time I have settled upon a role model/hero/mentor whatever you want to call them they have disappointed me not because of who they are but because of who I need them to be. I need them to be a superhuman figure who has all of the answers. What I really need to get my head around is that if they are human they are figuring it out just like me. I said this to my husband earlier this year when I exclaimed, I don’t know if I can’t find a mentor because I don’t like people or because I’m a pain to manage and there is probably a grain of truth in both of those statements. But each time I have been disappointed in a role model or mentor it is because they have acted in accordance with themselves rather than me. I have resented them for acting in a way that is not in line with my values. But they are just that, my values. So I need to stop expecting other people to live up to them.

In the end I have come to the conclusion that you are better off surrounding yourself with lots of  people that you admire for lots of different reasons, their reasoning skills, business acumen, empathy, ability to get people to carry out instructions, but good luck with finding or being someone with all of them. The first time this really struck home was when I was meeting teams doing lesson study. I was going round meeting lesson study groups and discussing what they would be focussing on and asked some challenging questions. This may have caused some groups to rethink what they were doing. When I got back to the office a member of staff popped in to tell me that I had upset a lot of people. At first this really upset me. As that was not my intention at all. But then I can honestly say after thinking about it I had to let that go. Because those questions needed to be asked, and things to be straightened out. I may not have done what staff wanted me to, such as agree with them after a long day, but I did what was right. In the same way I hope my previous heroes don’t give a hoot what I think either. I hope they keep strutting their stuff and are their own heroes rather than pandering to my needs.