A simple leadership lesson: treat staff with respect

Value and respect your staff, and they will work hard for you. It's that simple, says Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

College leadership: don't underestimate the value of respecting your staff

Just when I thought I couldn’t love Dame Judi Dench any more, in an interview in this month’s Vogue, she said this: “I can be very difficult, if somebody takes me for granted.”

“Go on, girl!” I thought. I’m exactly the same. I’ll pull out all the stops if I feel valued, but as soon as I feel disrespected, exploited, taken for granted…Well, that’s it, I’m not interested anymore. You can naff off.

I don’t know if recognising your own worth and not settling for less than you’re due is something that comes with age, or finding confidence, or feeling sure about what you bring to the table. I’m not necessarily talking about worth in levels of pay either, though being paid appropriately always helps. I’ve accepted crap wages for some jobs because there are other things that attract me and make me feel valued – the supportive environment, the staff morale, the students, the opportunities to learn. Maybe the key to self-worth might be knowing what you won’t accept, what crosses the line.


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A lot of the work that educators do above and beyond their contractual obligation is because they feel (among other things) valued. Not always valued as a profession, though it’s been a mixed bag of late – yes, there’s been teacher bashing by misinformed twerps who assume we’ve all been sat in the back garden with a piña colada, but there’s also been positive recognition from parents at their wits' end with homeschooling.

The amount of appreciation from the organisations where we work is also a mixed bag. Some are lovely places, nurturing staff and providing extensive support. Some organisations are simply pisstake merchants, who make a concerted effort to get away with doing the least they possibly can. That strategy is not only disappointing but it doesn’t make good business sense. 

And let’s remember when we talk about places of work, schools, colleges, community learning provisions – these organisations themselves do not make the decisions; the people near the top of the pay scale do. People make these organisations a beacon or a nightmare place to work.   

I work as a freelancer across all my jobs – it’s precarious but it gives me freedom. If I’m not happy somewhere I can leave. Across my patchwork career, I work from the bottom to the top of the hierarchical framework – as a zero-hours contract sessional lecturer for several organisations (I need to keep teaching or I feel a bit lost) and on various sector-wide national projects. My experience at the bottom rung of the ladder informs a lot of what I do in more senior roles.

Leadership during lockdown

It seems to me that the recent crisis has made some organisations an amplified version of what they were pre-Covid-19. The good ones are brilliant and the dodgy ones even worse.

Take this as an example: the leader of one place I’m familiar with emailed everyone as soon as the coronavirus situation became precarious, stating that they were closing straightaway, systems were there to support staff to stay in contact with learners and everyone would be paid as normal. They understood that it was all highly disruptive and they trusted that their staff were doing their best in whatever circumstances they were experiencing personally. For zero-hours contract workers, such decisive, supportive action from an organisation that knows the value of its staff was welcomed with open arms. A great weight off in what were very difficult times.

In contrast, another organisation I’m familiar with did not contact their workers at all, but placed a slew of conflicting messages on their staff website and argued the toss as to whether some of their staff would be paid at all for the time in government-mandated self-isolation.

Another example: the first organisation, one with lots of sessional staff, knowing that these are precarious financial times for many folk, created a whole library of CPD for staff to work through at their own pace, and at a decent hourly rate of pay.

The second one stated that if zero-hours contract teachers did not complete unpaid CPD immediately then they would have their contracts cut short. Talk about being taken for granted. Dame Judi wouldn’t have that – and neither would I.

For those of you on the senior management team who have found yourself in a place where the organisational culture is shaky, and you want to do something about it: first of all, congratulations – having a desire to sort it out is a marker of potential success. Now, brace yourselves, as I’m about to save you a fortune in consultancy fees with this next bit…Are you ready? Here it is: if you treat staff with respect and appreciation they will work harder, their pride in the organisation will result in goodwill towards it and they’ll go the extra mile because they have a personal stake in its success.

People respond to feeling valued.

That’s it. You’re welcome.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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