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Don't rock the boat too soon

Joan Sallis Answers Your Questions

Instead of a single question this week,I am dealing with issues that teachers raise in queries from time to time that I think should be treated as a group. The way they come to me and their style make them seem impulsive (late at night?) and perhaps not as thoughtful as many that I answer here. But they need answering. As a conglomerate they amount to: Our (usually new) head has upset everybody. Changes are introduced without consultation, individuals are picked on, long-established rights and routines are disrupted. The head is thick as thieves with the chair of governors and won't let us have a staff association unless he or she has a right to attend: can we pass a vote of no confidence and what will the governors do about it? Or we have passed a vote of no confidence and the governors have ignored it. Can we use the grievance procedure?

I am not saying hundreds of teachers are dissatisfied with the leadership or that they work each other up in the local after work over trivialities, or that many heads are bossy and unreasonable, especially when new. None of those things. So don't over-react. And it isn't a sackful of letters, just one or two appearing not often but pretty regularly.

To new heads I would say: take it all in but don't overreact to long-established perks and postures. Schools are small communities and small communities thrive on honoured privileges and shibboleths. You'll get there if you keep looking at the big picture.

Don't react immediately unless it's a real danger to the big picture. If there's real abuse of any position or situation which stops short of actual misdemeanour record everything, privately for now. Remember you were appointed competitively with enormous care and in most cases judgement, and the governors' panel believed you could manage the big picture and the little irritations, and will support you. I hope this doesn't sound presumptuous from someone who couldn't manage a sweetshop never mind a school, but I don't like to think of clouds on new horizons. I feel presumptuous addressing the subject at all, but it's hard to ignore.

Now teachers. Facts first. You can pass as many votes of no confidence as you like, but frankly, they don't have any special status. The governors are most unlikely to question their own hard-won choice in a hurry unless it's something pretty fundamental. Your school should have a grievance procedure, but once again, if it's early in the settling-in process, you may not have much success, and it does you no good to sound trivial even if you are not.

Remember a newcomer will want to establish authority, but will soon relax.

The staff association issue is more difficult to judge. Personally I think teachers should have some means of discussing issues that affect them at work without censorship, but there's nothing in law about it and I can all too easily imagine how threatening it might seem to a first-time head.

Patience again, or welcome the head to meetings until he or she has so many meetings that the novelty wears off as soon as it is apparent that they are not threatening.

Finally: governors. You have a very big responsibility to back up your choice now. That is the most important thing for the school by far. Show kindness and tolerance to the staff if you think they have a case on some issue, but keep your focus on the big picture and encourage them to do the same. If you are chair, your priority is to build a good relationship with the head in which problems can be raised and rationally discussed. Growing confidence will solve a lot of problems.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see where all answers will appear. Joan does her best to answer all letters, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum, since we aim to provide helpful information for ALL readers and always protect the identity of schools and individuals. Joan Sallis's column now appears on this page every three weeks

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