Stepping into a new leadership position can be daunting, especially in a school that operates an "on-call" system, in which members of the leadership team are on duty to intervene when another member of staff is struggling to manage behaviour.
Often, all the on-call training you’ll get will be a quick guide to turning on your new radio before you’re sent out into the wilderness of the school corridors. There may well be visions in your head of bursting into a classroom as the hero who comes to save the day. But the reality of soothing the fractious situation you arrive at can be a world away from capes and masks.
We’re all accustomed to the "fake it until you make it" approach to confidence, but here are some tips that I hope can help make it a bit easier to muster the mindset needed to be successful while on-call.
On-call but not off work
From the outset, it’s important to be clear that on-call does not mean downtime or a cheeky cup of coffee in your office. By being visible in key areas, you’ll be doing yourself a favour by nipping poor behaviour in the bud before it burgeons into a bigger issue. You’ll quickly get to know the hotspots where there might be a struggling NQT or a particularly difficult class. Consciously head to the places students go to bunk off or smoke and get a list of the classes being covered that period if one isn’t provided for you.
Being on-call means walking
After your first hour, you’ll realise that a comfy pair of shoes is a must. Buy a pedometer and you’ll feel less guilty about skipping that gym session. Recognise that the walk to the classroom is, in fact, a positive: the luxury of time and space allows you to consider your approach to the situation you’re about to enter and to get your game face on. Make sure you’re told the teacher, student and the nature of the issue when alerted. This’ll help you prepare your opening line and more quickly identify the next steps that may be required.
Catch your breath
When on-call is requested, it’s often at the point when tempers have reached boiling point. Therefore, allowing the teacher to remove themselves from the situation to get their breath back is essential. It also helps to keep the focus on what is most important: the learning that should be taking place in the classroom.
Turn down the heat with the student by starting the conversation positively; when a child has lost it, a positive comment can distract them from the fight or flight chemicals taking over. As a female leader with a penchant for snazzy nails, I’ve discovered that praising a pair of groomed talons can take the steam out of a teenage girl’s ranting quicker than any other approach. If you are new to the school, you can also try starting by introducing yourself and your role to the student. If you are an established school figure and know the child, then using their name is powerful, too – even better if you can add a reference to something positive you know about them.
They're still children
Whatever the behaviour you’re faced with, remember you’re still dealing with a child. Showing empathy and care can be challenging when faced with behaviours that are unreasonable, but it is essential. In my experience, starting with “I’m sorry you’re upset/angry” goes a long way, whereas shouting and screaming does little but further disrupt the learning of the other students still in the classroom.
Remember your behaviour policy
Before you go out on-call, ensure you have your school behaviour policy to the letter. If the school policy says that swearing leads to isolation, don’t be tempted to ask the teacher to give the student another chance – even if the student says they stubbed their toe. Many schools have adopted the system of three warnings before removal. No matter your personal feelings about how a class teacher has administered those warnings, if they’re there, then the student must be removed.
Be confident in leadership
Some of the hardest situations I’ve faced are when I’ve felt in my gut that the teacher themselves was at fault. I strongly believe that leaders should never undermine their colleagues in front of students. The time and place to reflect is rarely in the moment that you arrive on-call. Difficult conversations must happen, but not then, not there, and potentially not with you. Share your concerns with the teacher’s line manager and allow them to monitor patterns of behaviour and raise the issue.
No time to rest
As is so often the case, even when you’re no longer on-call, the work has not ended. Always feed back to the teacher any actions taken in regards to the student who has been removed – preferably in person and by the end of the day. Keeping a post-it note and pen in your pocket can be a vital aide-memoire at hectic times. Failing that, ask the members of staff at the end of your radio to log a name for you and then go and retrieve them when you’re done.
You may not be the caped crusader, but get it right and you can feel like a kind of superhero.
The writer is a senior leader in an all-through school.