The lighter touch

A friend who recently became a headteacher is wondering whether she was wise to take the job. "It's the staff," she says. "One or two are worse than the children."

Well, headship is a funny thing. You've got several hundred children to make a success of, a similar number of parents to satisfy and staff to keep happy and enthusiastic. Whatever's happening in your own life, it's important that you always go to school in a positive frame of mind. It's easy to be autocratic and brook no dissent. You can do it because you're the boss. But I don't think that can be called leadership.

As a deputy head, I learned much about managing people from my headteacher. She had earned respect from her staff because she worked exceptionally hard. If snow stopped the buses running, she'd rise at 5am and walk to school. She valued her staff and strove to draw the best from them. And she was always polite, whatever the provocation.

I remember a staff meeting when the music teacher didn't attend. She was part-time and didn't feel she had to. The headteacher sent for her but she still didn't come. The teacher was sent for again and when she appeared she flung her handbag down in irritation, scattering its contents. The head merely smiled, picked the bits up, thanked her for coming and said her views were as important as anybody's. The teacher was immediately deflated.

You rapidly gain experience in people management, of course, but my early headship had some demanding moments. At that time, if you had a vacancy the local authority just sent a teacher from its pool. I once got a young man whose behaviour management was non-existent. His classroom became chaotic and when he took his pupils out of school he would stride out in front and fail to notice what the stragglers were up to. Fortunately, he decided after a year that teaching might not be the career for him.

On another occasion I was sent a 58-year-old who travelled daily to London from Brighton. She was an infant teacher, I had only a Year 6 class to offer and she was already tired when she arrived at school. In a fortnight the class was out of control and she appealed for help. I put everything aside and taught the children for two weeks while she watched. As soon as she was back on her own, chaos reigned again.

A local colleague offered to do a swap. She'd been sent a teacher who preferred older children but she needed an infant teacher. The swap proved disastrous. My children spent hours staring at notes on a projector and I discovered that the "older children" the woman had taught were very able 15-year-olds in Australia.

But problems sometimes resolved themselves unexpectedly. One member of staff couldn't get her pupils across the road before the traffic lights went green when she was taking them swimming. She insisted I phone the council and tell them to increase the time on the lights by 30 seconds at 10.30am on Tuesdays. "Thank you so much," she said a week later. "That 30 seconds made all the difference."

Which was interesting, because I'd been so busy that week that I'd completely forgotten her request.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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