How to handle a maverick

Gerald Haigh finds that talented young staff are a boon to any school - but they need careful management

You're visiting a big community comprehensive. It's run quite formally, with tight discipline, uniform, and exam success. As the head takes you into classrooms, pupils leap to their feet and wait to be told to carry on. The control is tight enough to allow teachers to teach and pupils to learn without disruption.

Then the head takes you up to the art department and says as you go in:

"Every school should have one of these."

Inside is an Aladdin's cave of art and sculpture. Rock music is playing and the children carry on working, oblivious to the head's presence. You have to look hard for the teacher, who doesn't look much older than her pupils, although her dress is far removed from the school uniform. She is absorbed in helping a group of children with their work. Eventually, she acknowledges you, but it's clear where her priorities lie.

The contrast with other parts of the school, not least in teaching style, couldn't be more marked. What we have here is the classic maverick - consciously different, and perhaps a bit difficult to manage.

Every organisation has its rising stars - talented, certain of themselves, sometimes impatient with more experienced people, and in their own eyes more able than any of their senior colleagues.

Does your staffroom have one? Perhaps it's the young maths teacher who won't come to departmental meetings because he's (maybe a bit self-righteously) doing extra time with his adoring pupils. Or maybe it's the music specialist who's driving a coach and horses through the timetable in her bid to get the school orchestra booked for a European tour.

So how do you lead people like that? Do you slap them down or build them up? Is your attitude to these rising stars in any way - and be honest now - driven by just a teeny-weeny bit of jealousy?

Everyone needs encouragement; there's nothing worse than feeling you're not appreciated. But you can overdo it.

Brian Sherratt, head of the 2,400-pupil Great Barr school in Birmingham, says: "When I was less experienced in headship I may sometimes have encouraged some talented teachers a little too much. Perhaps I led them to be too confident."

One consequence, he says, is that the person starts to apply for jobs that are a little out of reach. "When they don't get the jobs, they feel disappointed," he says. "They were told they were good, after all." The answer, he says, is to support talent but to avoid constant personal praise. Tangible support, with suggestions for improvement, is surely more useful to the able teacher.

Mr Sherratt adds: "You might have a highly talented musician who puts on huge performances, writing the music and the words and doing the choreography, but very dependent on the goodwill of others. It would be fatal to recognise only the talented person and not the others who do all the background work."

The best overall strategy, he believes, is to make sure the good teacher's abilities are kept within the bounds of the school's values. There should be freedom to take risks, but within an agreed framework.

"I talk about our values at every staff meeting and every assembly," he says. "And I refer to them in every newsletter to parents. Consequently, people have a shared sense of what the school is about."

It's a philosophy echoed by another successful head, Dave Steward of Beacon Hill, a special school in Ipswich. One of his first acts when he arrived five years ago was to get the leadership team to agree on a set of core values. "It was a sort of 'lock us all in a room for three days' scenario," he recalls.

He believes a framework of agreed values gives people the freedom to be creative and the touch of restraint that can help to avoid serious conflict. One of the problems with very able people, he suggests, is that they can be single-minded to the point at which they forget the whole-school picture. "It's a crusade," he says, and this can test the patience of other teachers. "When things break down between colleagues, you have to put them together, give them dedicated time and make them speak out about the issues."

Agreement is easier to find within an agreed framework of values. And this is where the maverick art teacher fits in. A lesser headteacher could be threatened in such a situation, but hers can see that the teacher is focused on children's learning, maintains good discipline, cultivates respect and produces excellent results.

In the end, all her practice remains well within the framework of values to which she and all her colleagues subscribe. "Never be afraid of talent," says Dave Steward. "After all, somebody has to manage Paul Gascoigne."

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