How to tackle gangs (in school leadership)

Senior leaders operate in two ways – they are either ‘groups’ or ‘gangs’, according to one theory. Gangs develop out of fear and can be devastating, spreading anxiety through school – but there are steps you can take to make things right, says Maria Williamson
27th November 2020, 12:00am
How To Tackle Gangs (in School Leadership)
Maria Williamson


How to tackle gangs (in school leadership)

It's 7.15am and the Year 4 teacher is in school even earlier than usual. He wants to make sure that everything is perfect before the senior leadership team's planned learning walk.

But the morning gets off to a bad start. He opens his computer to find that the headteacher has already emailed to say that she walked past his classroom yesterday and saw that the sink area was "not acceptable".

In what other job would overturned cups cause such heightened anxiety? The Year 4 teacher can't help feeling that the leadership team are always out to get him - they are little more than a gang of bullies just trying to catch teachers like him out.

Unfortunately, this level of hypervigilance and paranoia occurs far too often in schools, where anxieties have trickled down from management into the classroom. This is typical of schools under external pressure to demonstrate capability and development: for example, those rated "requires improvement". However, leadership can take on a gang-like mentality in any school, and this can have a serious negative impact on staff wellbeing.

But how do you know if you are part of a leadership team that is creating a culture of stress within your school? And what can you do to turn that culture around?

According to psychotherapist Hamish Canham, there are two states in which teams operate within institutions: group and gang. Ideally, leadership teams should operate in a "group state": this allows them to better tolerate and explore differences and tensions, making them more effective as leaders.

What does this look like? In a group, there will be a general understanding that the school needs a mix of teachers with different qualities. This will prevent stagnation and narcissism among those in charge and encourages group members to feel concern for each other at an individual level.

A school with a leadership team that operates as a group will have a predominantly positive atmosphere: teachers teach in different ways and this is celebrated; there is potential for creativity; there is no heavy reliance on excessive paperwork or teacher scrutiny. The ordinary everyday pressures of the classroom still exist but staff are not in a permanent state of paranoia.

"Gang-like thinking", on the other hand, often emerges when a leadership group becomes overwhelmed by anxiety. This type of thinking is black and white: gangs split the world into "good" and "bad", as an early defence to manage anxiety by making the world more predictable.

Leadership gangs will group teachers and lessons into "excellent" and "useless" - with little in between.

Anxiety is often experienced as a threat - and the need to unconsciously identify someone to blame for this feeling can be extremely powerful. When you're in a gang state of mind, reflecting on your own weaknesses and vulnerabilities feels intolerable, so you project these aspects of your personality on to others.

As a result, certain teachers may be branded "old-fashioned", "disorganised", "lazy", "dramatic" or, at worst, "useless".

The aim of the gang is to prevent the organisation from weakening, and this is achieved through closely controlling its members. In the case of a school, this may take the form of micromanaging. Staff will be closely monitored through an excessive reliance on data, learning walks, book scrutinies and observations.

While some level of conformity and monitoring is necessary and, indeed, useful within a school, a leadership gang will take those things to the extreme, to the point where staff feel constant, anxiety-provoking pressure. In these cases, the SLT's need for rigidity and perfectionism is likely being fuelled by fear, rather than a desire for the school to thrive and grow.

So, how do you prevent this happening at your school? Or, if you suspect that you are already part of a "gang-like" leadership team, how can you fix things?

The current climate makes this particularly difficult. On top of all the usual stresses and strains that a school leadership team might face, Covid-19 has created legal and physical barriers to flexibility, creativity and autonomy in the classroom.

Now, more than ever, schools have a tightrope to walk: balancing the need for high expectations with avoiding staff burnout. Here are some ideas on how you can get the balance right.

1. Listen

It is crucial that the SLT is listening to and engaged with the wider staff experience of the school, despite the fact that it may feel easier to put this out of your mind. Anonymous staff feedback forms will give an opportunity for staff to give feedback on management in a safe way. These can be used by SLT to reflect on and acknowledge the difficulties of the work environment.

2. Support wellbeing

Offering more wellbeing support will reduce overall anxiety. But remember that protecting teacher wellbeing is not as simple as a token yoga session or a box of chocolates at the end of the year. Gestures of appreciation may be welcome, but supporting wellbeing is about consistently providing opportunities for staff to regulate their levels of stress every day.

A small step in the right direction would be to ensure that staff don't feel pressured to use all breaks and evenings to prepare for monitoring and data collection.

3. Take a look at yourself

As I stated earlier, gang mentalities often arise from a need to control feelings of stress and anxiety. With 84 per cent of senior leaders currently describing themselves as stressed, according to the Teacher Wellbeing Index published by the charity Education Support, maintaining a group state of mind will not always be easy.

That's why, above all, leaders need to be self-reflective. If you are feeling angry and overworked, and have an excessive need for control, your staff are likely to feel the same. Escaping the gang starts with taking a long, hard look at yourself, and working to put things right internally first.

Maria Williamson is a therapy assistant studying for a master's in psychoanalytic observational studies and a former primary school teacher

This article originally appeared in the 27 November 2020 issue under the headline "How to tackle a gang culture (in school leadership)"

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