Leadership - Seven habits of highly protective heads

If school leaders want to inspire their staff to follow them to the gates of hell, this is the way to do it, says a classroom teacher
10th April 2015, 1:00am


Leadership - Seven habits of highly protective heads


The modern-day headteacher is a species of infinite variety, from the good to the bad and even the borderline psychotic. I've worked for some leaders I would willingly follow to the gates of hell - and others I would willingly deliver there.

Although I harbour no personal aspirations towards increased responsibility (I get nervous when I see my name on the dishwashing rota), I am full of admiration for those brave souls who are willing to stand up and lead in this climate of accountability and fear. Headteachers start each day with a multitude of people to placate: inspectors, parents, governors, the school caretaker, secretaries, cleaners and, of course, teaching staff.

But purely from a class teacher's perspective, if you are a school leader who wants to get the best out of your staff, this is what I recommend you do.

1 Keep your door open

We know you have a ridiculous amount of paperwork to complete, but if you are held hostage in your office by spreadsheets, can you please leave the door open? Sometimes we have a quick query that only the headteacher can answer. If your door is open we can nip in and tell you stuff. We can even ask your advice. We're busy, too; we don't have time to trek along corridors only to hover outside a closed door.

2 Let us get on with it

You may be perfectly entitled to sit on our windowsills all day with a clipboard, but if you've seen us teach recently and you're happy that everyone is learning and no riots are taking place, then please leave us alone to get on with it. If you spot something you like in our classrooms, tell us. If there is something you're not happy with, inform us straight away. I've known teachers whose confidence was drained by headteachers regularly appearing with a stony expression and absolutely no explanation. And while we're on the subject of classroom appearances, please don't come in to discuss assessment data when we're halfway through a mental arithmetic test.

3 Throw a little praise our way

We don't need marching bands but the odd "well done" when we've pulled off a decent lesson or class assembly can make all the difference. Although the current trend has praise firmly harnessed to improvement, staff morale will rise faster if you occasionally hold back on the "Even better if." section and just leave it at "Well done. Now have a cup of tea."

4 Don't doubt us when we call in sick

Teachers are a stoical lot. If we ring to say we are too ill to come to work, we mean it. Even when phoning from the bathroom floor after a night spent hugging the toilet bowl, your average teacher will be engulfed with guilt at letting everyone down. Believe us when we say we would be there if we could; don't make things worse by punctuating the conversation with heavy sighs and giving us the third degree on the exact nature of our illness and whether we will be back in for our afternoon lessons.

5 Lead by example

High standards of behaviour in schools can usually be traced back to the headteacher. If you have outlined a strong, clear behaviour policy that the children know you are actively implementing, then our job in the classroom will be a whole lot easier. I know how hard it is to work in a system where responsibility is constantly delegated downwards. All teachers need backup in managing behaviour - they shouldn't be forced to hide problems in case they get the blame.

6 Show an interest in the kids

This sounds like a bit of a no-brainer, but there really are headteachers out there who give the strong impression that they've forgotten schools are all about children. You are unlikely to foster loyalty and respect in your staff if you know the levels of every child in a class but not their names. Teachers are fiercely protective of their cohorts and headteachers who treat these children as statistics invariably fail to inspire devotion.

7 Remember, you are still a teacher

It may be many years since you last wielded a marker pen but you are still in the business of teaching. Theoretically, the headteacher should be the best teacher in the school, so any criticisms you dole out must be paired with advice. If you don't like something you see in a lesson, tell us how you would do it. If you're not happy with our classroom management, give us some tips to improve - or better still, show us. Use staff meetings to lead discussions about teaching and share advice. Bear in mind that the support needs of experienced teachers are unlikely to be the same as those of new teachers, so don't treat us all the same.

It is no coincidence that you often hear great headteachers talk about their "wonderful staff". The teachers who work for them are wonderful because they are allowed to thrive: they are encouraged and supported in a non-threatening environment, and this filters down, resulting in wonderful teaching assistants, wonderful work and (most importantly) wonderful children.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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