6 ways to keep your cool during difficult conversations

Talking to staff about complaints or poor performance can be daunting, but follow these tips and you won't go far wrong

Geoff Barton

School leadership: How to handle difficult conversations with teachers

As soon as you are promoted in education, your responsibility shifts sideways. Whether you step up to become a subject leader, course organiser, deputy head of year or headteacher, the successes and failings of other teachers are now your patch. Their performance is your performance.

From parental complaints about unmarked homework to wider concerns about performance, these are now your problems, as a school leader. So you have to find the best possible solution in the best possible way – and that will often entail a difficult conversation.

Many books and courses will tell you that leadership is all about having a vision and knowing your values. But, in reality, few of us lose sleep over a lack of vision or a confused set of values. It's the prospect of these awkward exchanges that gnaw away at us in the hours of darkness.

Although I still find these conversations tough, more than 25 years in leadership have taught me not to view them with the same dread I once did. They are rarely as bad as you expect, but there is a wrong way of dealing with them and a right way. The right way looks like this:

School leadership: Tips for difficult conversations with staff

1. Have the right attitude

In the troughs of the school year – when the pressure is relentless, when the sunny optimism of September's fresh start has long gone and when it feels as if all you do is scrape up messes made by other people – having to deal with complaints about teachers can be demoralising. It can seem as if no one is doing a decent job.

But this attitude is neither productive nor conducive to a positive outcome. No teacher wants to be a bad teacher; no one wants to be perceived as hapless or hopeless.

Many staff would be mortified if they thought that people in the middle or senior leadership teams perceived them as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

2. Ask yourself: is it me?

If a teacher is doing a mediocre job or getting lots of things wrong, it is unlikely that it is all down to them. Indeed, it may be down to you.

It was Canadian researcher Professor Michael Fullan who pointed out that 20 years of experience may simply be one year repeated 20 times.

In other words, without support, coaching, feedback, intervention, praise and some uncomfortable conversations, any problems will fester and bad habits may set in. So look at your own practice alongside the teacher's.

3. Get the time and tone right

It is better to hold these conversations early in the day using a tone that is calm, professional and supportive. Start with something like: "I hope you don't mind me mentioning this, but I've had a complaint about you from a parent."

We all hate being told that we've done something wrong, but the best approach involves being open, providing evidence for the complaint and showing clearly what the impact is.

For example: "The parent says you haven't marked her daughter's books since October. Is that right? How will the student know how well she's doing without feedback? Can we look at that group's books this afternoon?"

4. Be confident in your position

What you need to remember is that teachers in good schools know there are professional standards. They know that processes such as appraisals and performance-related pay are now the norm, and they know that the school's leadership will use them.

They should know, therefore, that if they haven't been marking their books, they are clearly at fault. It is one of their professional duties.

5. Deal with any underlying issues

Sometimes discussions can expose a problem that wouldn't otherwise surface – a teacher not coping, for whatever reason. More often than not, the colleague will thank you for opening up the issue. You must be prepared for this outcome and offer support.

6. Take a firm line when you need to

In some cases, the meeting will reveal that the teacher was coasting, or not doing something as rigorously as they should have been.

In such circumstances, a warning is needed, plus a written note. Catch up with the teacher in a few weeks so they can demonstrate that the issue is resolved.

Problems are rarely resolved themselves

You should never shy away from confronting problems. Doing so would be to neglect the requirements of your role and leave you open to awkward conversations with the people you have to answer to. The fear should not be of the discussion itself but of conducting it in the wrong way.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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