Why we must avoid surface-level fixes when issues arise

School leaders and those in support roles need to know that when a problem comes to light, there are likely deeper issues at play that need investigating
6th December 2020, 10:00am
Sadie Hollins

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Why we must avoid surface-level fixes when issues arise

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-we-must-avoid-surface-level-fixes-when-issues-arise
Tip Of The Iceberg

When working within a support capacity at a school, you encounter a wide variety of different problems, ranging from friendship problems to family issues to mental health issues.

What is often interesting is that the presenting problem is not always the most pressing or important problem that requires help.

Sometimes a student might pop in after falling out with their friends and discuss the details of what has happened at great length.

But what may be more helpful to focus on is the cause of the problem in the first place. The falling out is the red herring that can mask deeper issues that need addressing.

Delving deep

For anyone who has experienced counselling, either individually or with a partner, it is quite an eye-opening and challenging process.

After discussing the initial presenting problem that has brought you to counselling, the conversation may be gently directed towards your own role in that situation and where that stems from.

In any type of relationship issue - whether familial, platonic or romantic - there is often an enabled person and an enabler. Human beings and their needs and behaviours are complex, and are shaped by their individual histories and experiences.

It is important not to see this as a clear-cut issue, but instead to observe our own part in any personal or professional problems that arise and identify where there is a choice to change.

Uncovering issues

What is interesting about counselling is that the problem you enter with is rarely the problem you actually need to work on.

An article that really resonated with me on this theme was Mark Enser's Why schools need a fresh approach to new initiatives.

He made the important point that when it comes to implementing new initiatives at school, "we need to stop looking at solutions in search of a problem and start identifying what problems we actually have".

If we were to reflect on this statement with regards to leadership, I think it stands very true and is the type of approach that can be readily seen in good counselling.

Honest reflection

For example, when those of us working in leadership or management look to examine issues relating to staff in our schools, it is important not to simply fall for the 'red herring' - i.e the presenting problem - but to also examine our own role in the issue.

If staff are disgruntled and unmotivated, we need to make sure we don't take this to be the sole problem that requires fixing. Of course it must be addressed and taken seriously in the first instance, but to truly solve it, we must then ask why the problem has occurred in the first place.

Do staff need motivating, or do we need to examine why they are unmotivated? Is the problem that needs fixing theirs, or ours? Is there something fundamental in the school that has caused this: workloads, school culture, poor pupil behaviour?

Time and space

Lofty ideals, but how often do we revert to fixing the first problem, to seeing the simplest solution as the best? The red-herring response?

After all, an immediate response makes us look responsive and as though we take action.

But it may not necessarily be the right course of action for permanent and successful change. This is not to say that the immediate action is not needed - it probably is to show staff or pupils that we care, that we will fix what we can when it makes sense to do so.

But it is the actions that follow that will be the most vital. These will require more time, more thought and probably a few more uncomfortable conversations - particularly at the management level.

But problems don't happen in a vacuum and a red herring shouldn't be our catch of choice. If counselling has taught us anything, it is that problems are usually more complex than they appear.

To move forward in the right way, we must give greater consideration to the problems we are faced with and avoid the temptation of a "quick fix".

Sadie Hollins is head of sixth form at a British-curriculum school in Thailand, and has been teaching internationally for two years

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