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Say Yes as if you mean it

Advice for seasoned practitioners

Once, when I was a head of house in a comprehensive school (a period of my career that was mercifully brief), I sent a memo to the head asking him if I could accept an invitation to give a talk in London during school time.

His reply, written by hand on my memo was, "I suppose so."

You can hear him saying it, can't you? Now why didn't he just say No if that was his gut feeling? The answer, I suspect, is that, like most teachers, he wasn't programmed to refuse. So when he didn't want to say a straight Yes, he came up with a grudging formula that made me feel bad. On another occasion, as an eager young deputy, I pitched an idea to my wise and experienced head. Although I didn't realise it at the time, he was convinced that it was unworkable. So, when I asked him if he agreed with me, he replied, "To a certain extent, yes."

See. He said Yes, didn't he?

That sort of ambiguity bedevils our profession more than it does others, I suspect. In some walks of life - the police force, home of sunshine management, comes to mind - the answer to my memo might have been delivered in person, without rancour, with the words, "Who do you think you are, mate? You'll effin' stop here and do your effin job." (The correct, carefully deadpan response to this being, "So that's a No then, Boss?") Teachers, by contrast, are uptight in their hierarchical dealings with each other. There are recorded instances of people emerging from encounters with the head unsure whether they've been told off or complimented. ("Come on then! What did he say?" "No idea, frankly.") All we want, then, is clarity. Here are some comparative examples. "I'm a newly qualfied teacher. Am I doing OK so far?" Old answer: "To a degree, yes." New answer: "Frankly, no. There are weaknesses that we need to look at."

"Can I start the term late because of my holiday flight?" Old answer: "Not sure about that. I'll check with the office." New answer: "Of course not.

We criticise parents for keeping their kids out of school in term time, for crying out loud." "I'm thinking of applying for the headship of Grunge street. Do you think I have a chance?" Old answer: "You won't know till you try." New answer: "No. You need more experience, and I don't feel able to write a supportive reference."

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