Leadership - Support staff through trying times

Put systems in place to spot signs of trouble and protect teachers' well-being

"Why don't they just do their job?" is one of the most frequently repeated complaints made by school leaders, often with the addition of one or more expletives.

Unfortunately, schools are infinitely more complex than we might wish. We delude ourselves if we think they can be reduced to those neat moral homilies we present to students - bon mots such as: "The only people who never fail are those who never try" (courtesy of US novelist and actress Ilka Chase).

The reality is that teachers and staff have a life outside their jobs and it is often this that makes schools such compelling and, at their best, satisfying places to work. But real life will often intrude and disrupt good intentions as much as it can enhance them. As a result, you cannot be one of those reclusive leader types who, from the darkened bunker of the office, spends the day gazing at spreadsheets and managing by email. A good school leader will be alert enough to spot when a staff member has a problem.

Even the most buoyant and confident workers will sometimes betray signs that all is not well below the tranquil surface of their work. They may be coping with the uncertainties of ageing parents, illness in a close family member, their own health scare or a relationship that is on the brink of collapse; they may be in a spiral of depression or over-reliant on alcohol; or they may feel that they are not coping with the job and outer confidence can no longer conceal a deep-rooted insecurity.

A good school will be attuned to this and will have early warning systems of some kind, however informal, to sense that someone is struggling. I began my teaching career in Leeds, England, where, with impressive humanity and prescience, every school had a post titled staff tutor. This was in the days before formalised training sessions, performance management and team-building workshops. The staff tutor was usually a senior member of staff. They oversaw the appointment and induction of new teachers but also, more intangibly, what we would now call the well-being of staff.

They knew the telltale indications of someone not coping: the increasing patterns of absence, the tearfulness, the unconvincing brave face, the early signs of students losing confidence in the teacher's knowledge and seeking guidance from others - a sense that the attention to basics was no longer there.

We must not ignore these signs, and having a staff tutor or equivalent system should ensure that does not happen. A trusted colleague giving support and advice can be a fantastic tool. The sense of staff supporting staff - quite separately from formal procedures - will, in many instances, be all that is needed.

But sometimes more is required. Most schools buy into a well-being service that provides a confidential hotline to offer detached support and guidance. Many staff are initially reluctant to use this, feeling that it is a sign of weakness; in fact, it is the opposite. The mere act of talking to someone outside school can begin the process of regaining an equilibrium.

Occasionally other agencies are necessary, too. We increasingly rely on occupational health doctors to interview staff members, assess their fitness for work and advise on whether we need to provide extra support, such as a changed timetable allocation or mentoring.

I have been a headteacher for 11 years and I still have those "Why don't they just do their job?" moments of frustration. But I now know that lots of people will be thinking the same of me. School life is not always simple and when cracks appear we owe it to our colleagues, and to the students who benefit from their work, not to turn a blind eye.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, England


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School leaders crave the simple satisfaction of everyone doing their jobs properly and with minimal fuss.

However, real life - be it illness, bereavement or relationship troubles - often intrudes and can cause any member of staff to struggle.

Schools need to respond to any issues through a staff tutor or equivalent system that allows colleagues to support each other.

The problem may require outside intervention, such as from a well-being service.

However it is done, a leader must tackle problems, for the sake of teachers and students.

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