There is one in every class: a star pupil who models good behaviour and supports the whole group with thoughtful contributions to lessons. But this isn’t only true of the classroom – it’s true of the staffroom, too. Star performers help to raise the attainment of the school. They are reliable, ambitious, and – most importantly – collaborative.
However, new research suggests that, although crucial to the success of an organisation, high-flying individuals can often be driven away by the resentment and jealously of peers.
Elizabeth Campbell, an assistant professor of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, found that high performers not only left organisations for better opportunities, but also because “the social dynamics were challenging for them to navigate [and] they often had some internal squabbles with peers or managers”.
Schools cannot afford to lose their best staff. So, what is the best way for school leaders to hold on to their star performers? And how can star performers be managed in a way that will provide them with the right support and challenge, without compromising relationships with other members of the team?”
It all starts, Campbell suggests, with the mixed reactions that star performers can provoke from their peers.
“Peers think, ‘You may teach me new techniques that are really beneficial, and that better my performance. But, at the same time, you’re threatening my pay and the attention I’m getting from my manager,’” she explains. “That dual cognition is so damaging for the high performer.
“We see this in the classroom, too. The high-performing students are the most likely to be targeted by bullies, compared to their peers. It’s not that we see these people as just damaging. We see them as both beneficial and threatening.”
Onwards and outwards
Executive headteacher Helena Marsh has experienced this first-hand. She found that some of her peers reacted negatively when she was fast-tracked to leadership.
“Some colleagues were dubious about my involvement in leadership development so early on in my career,” she says.
“I have been on the receiving end of comments about ‘young upstarts’ and perceived as a threat by established teachers.
“I did move on from a school in which I was told by my line manager that I rubbed others in the team up the wrong way, so wasn’t suitable for promotion there.”
Marsh does not think that her experience is uncommon. Particularly when performance-related pay, the threat of redundancies or overly punitive accountability regimes come into play, star performers can be seen as a problem and can be subject to negative treatment as a result.
Campbell’s research has found that these reactions can be even worse within a collaborative environment.
“A collaborative environment is where we really value harmony, solidarity, and we see ourselves as a collective unit. If you really think about it, it makes sense that someone who is differentiating themselves with their performance [might be penalised].”
Schools, of course, are highly collaborative environments, in which staff are actively encouraged to share resources, to plan together and to contribute collectively to overall objectives. But does this therefore mean that high-flying teachers have an even tougher time than star performers in other workplaces?
Not necessarily, Campbell says. Unlike their counterparts in the business world, star performers in education tend to be more willing to pass their knowledge on to others.
“People who join and devote their life to educating our young people are generally more service-minded. In nerd speak, we call that ‘pro-social’. Teachers who are high performers tend to be personally motivated to benefit others,” she says. “I wish that people would become teachers because the pay was incredible, but they become teachers because they really want to have an impact.”
This “pro-social” attitude means that teachers are less likely to lash out at star performers. Instead of focusing on the threat, they tend to recognise that high performers care about the collective mission and the team’s overall achievement.
This is an attitude that Mark Enser, head of geography at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex, recognises. “Expert teachers are a benefit,” he says. “Education is too important for competitiveness. Teachers are naturally collaborative. We share schemes of work, invite people into our schools, give up our Saturdays to present at teacher conferences.”
Yet even in the most collaborative of environments, this underlying social dynamic can be challenging to navigate. If not managed properly, high-flying teachers tend to leave quickly, says Campbell.
High performers need to feel encouraged by managers to share good practice, but should be dissuaded from being condescending or patronising, she explains.
“Instead of saying, ‘I think you need to be doing this,’ you should [encourage people to] say, ‘This works for me. I don’t know whether it will work for you, but I want to share it with you because I really care about our collective success.’
“It’s important to not impose your tactics on other people, while still asking those really important questions, bringing things to people’s attention and sharing ideas without an air about you.”
Leaders also have to target praise sensitively. “Most people know who the high performer is around them, but often we don’t want to draw more attention that way. To hear that someone is amazing and be told that we should be listening to – and taking example from – them creates a weird dynamic,” says Campbell.
According to Marsh, avoiding this “weird dynamic” relies on school leaders creating a climate in which everyone’s skills and contributions are valued equally.
“Creating a collaborative culture in which colleagues are open and generous with each other helps to foster a positive and productive climate in which everyone can thrive and flourish: students and staff alike,” she says.
And, she adds, it is the responsibility of leaders to provide opportunities for everyone to shine and to feel appreciated, such as encouraging different members of staff to deliver CPD sessions.
Creating these opportunities is important, Campbell agrees, but she stresses that leaders must be sensitive to the unique contributions of individuals and take the time to celebrate a variety of different achievements.
“For example, saying, ‘Mr A, Miss B might be better than you on this metric, but here is something unique you bring to the group.’
“Headteachers need to stop rewarding the same person all the time. It needs to be much more specific. It needs to be, ‘Mr A did this unique thing, he was facing this specific challenge and we want to recognise this. With Miss B, it was about helping her students improve this much because she had this challenging aspect in her classroom.’”
Ultimately, then, it all comes down to school leaders encouraging a culture of collaboration and making it clear that every teacher is a star performer in their own way.
In every environment, be it the classroom or the staffroom, there will always be someone who is better than you at something. But, if managed correctly, there is no reason why the challenging dynamics this creates should drive any performer, of any level, away.
Kate Parker is social media assistant and a writer for Tes