Can you ask Tim* to pop in and see me for a second, please?” I ask a colleague heading his way. “Tell him he’s not in trouble.”
This is the sort of thing I say when I want to talk to a usually naughty kid who has been reported for good, rather than poor, behaviour. But Tim is not a naughty kid – he is one of my senior leaders.
I need to have a quick word with him about a relatively trivial matter, but I know how he will react if I don’t add that last part to my request.
Tim arrives. His smile is sheepish.
“Thanks for that,” he says, “I still get the fear.”
I have worked with Tim for three years. He is one of the best senior leaders I have ever worked with: professional, unflappable, trustworthy, stoic, balanced, honest and extremely reflective.
Give teachers a chance
Tim spent a considerable amount of time at a school where his headteacher would criticise and demean him professionally, both in public and in private. He barely heard a positive word about his performance – only negatives. He never worked hard enough, nothing was ever good enough. Although he coped and eventually escaped, he still becomes extremely anxious if he is called into my office or receives an email asking for a chat.
Tim is not alone. He is one of a significant number of staff I work with who suffer from a form of school-related post-traumatic stress disorder. I call it “PTSD”, for lack of a better term, though this is not to devalue those experiencing a far more serious version of the disorder, linked to terrible abuse or violence. The impact of poor leadership practices at previous schools on this group of teachers has left them with long-term work-related anxiety. They do not volunteer this information to me but I can spot it, because I’ve been there, too.
Eventually, some become more open about their experience, but the lack of confidence remains. Last week I received a text message from another head of department. She was at a strategy meeting and had just spotted her ex-headteacher across the room. The text said: “Just seen that *insert relevant rude word* woman from *insert school name*. It made my stomach turn. It also made me think about what I’ve got. Thank you so much for giving me a chance. I genuinely owe you so much for taking a punt on me.”
I did not take a chance on her. It was evident within five minutes of meeting her with my chair of governors that she was going to be one of the best middle leaders we had. She will soon be an amazing senior leader.
This was the impact that her previous school had on her: acute anxiety when she thinks back to what was only four months at that school.
Let me be clear: my school is a very long way from perfect and I’d never hold myself up as a bastion of amazing practice. Only last week I made a poorly judged jokey quip that deeply upset someone.
I do everything I can to create a workplace the very opposite of what some of my staff have experienced at other schools. I support every professional who works here, even when things go wrong – particularly when things go wrong – because things always will go wrong.
Learning and support
Someone once told me to celebrate in public and criticise in private. Of all the challenging conversations I have with people behind closed doors, none is ever purely critical. Instead, we seek to find what we can learn and what support is needed to make it better.
As heads, we need to remember to do this, even when our own stress levels are at bursting point and our frustration is at its highest.
I’m not sure what it is that can sometimes lead to people being so poorly managed in schools — but it is leading to people quitting. Few of us are properly trained in people management. Most of us have incredible pressures relating to targets, outcomes, improvements, budgets and being held accountable for things we often can’t control.
However, that is no reason for stripping professionals of their dignity.
So, this year, remember Tim and the others mentioned here. Remember what effect your actions can have. Remember to monitor new staff closely. Look out for those struggling, those anxious and jumpy or those low on confidence. Once you know them better, have a conversation about their experiences and learn how to avoid anxiety-inducing moments. Look after them. Look after all your staff. As heads, that is what we are paid to do.
* Tim’s name has been changed
Keziah Featherstone is head of Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol, a co-founder of #WomenEd and a member of the Headteachers Roundtable. She tweets @BLC_Head