An advanced driving instructor with whom I once worked used to say, as I approached a gap at the same time as another vehicle: "Come on then! Assertive or passive?" His point was that by positively moving to occupy the ground, early and safely, not only was I being decisive on my own account, but I was also relieving the other driver of the need to make a decision.
How often I wished that the same instructor had been around when I was learning how to handle children in the classroom, and later as I tried to run a primary school. If he had been, I'd have understood that "assertive" doesn't mean "aggressive", but implies the kind of personal confidence that removes conflict before it starts. Roger Smith, author of these two highly practical guides, is keen on assertiveness. In The Primary Headteacher's Handbook he writes approvingly of "assertive teaching", which he defines as "being self-confident and positive in the classroom and having the ability to influence classroom relationships".
In Creating the Effective Primary School he applies this to relationships between colleagues, setting out a six-level, step-by-step guide to assertion that starts with, "What you have asked about the meeting tomorrow has caused me considerable problems," and escalates to: "I am sorry that I cannot go but I have already made other arrangements."
Such advice is important because as teachers we are pre-programmed to be obliging and non-confrontational. How many infant teachers have heard themselves saying: "Four twos are nine, Jason? Well, that's quite a good answer."
Carried into headship, this strategy results in mixed messages to the staffroom - because each of the teachers has been told what the head thinks he or she wants to hear. Problems can fester for months because management doesn't want to make waves. This latter problem leads to what Smith calls "blocking". He writes: "Many colleagues who are nervous of change or who feel threatened create a kind of internal block and shut out their awareness of any problems." He goes on to make a long list of the things that these obstructive colleagues say to justify themselves. You'll recognise all of them, from, "We tried that before and it didn't work" to "We'd be a laughing stock if we did this."
This kind of opposition, Smith writes, "will take all the powers of assertion, leadership and team-building to neutralise".
On the leadership, team-building and decision-making fronts, both of these offer plenty of useful advice. The Handbook, as its title implies, is strong on the nuts and bolts of what headteachers have to do - aims statements, the development plan, recruiting staff, working with governors, handling the budget, preparing for inspection. There's so much that's helpful here that the book becomes almost a "What do I do now?" guide for new heads, as well as providing reassurance and support to everyone involved in school management. On inspection, even such a simple rubric as, "Don't fall for the 'they'll have to take us as they find us' syndrome," is timely, founded in experience, and directly aimed at one of the common weak spots of leadership.
Creating the Effective Primary School is also, inevitably, about headship. But it is more strategic, looking at organisation, relationships, raising achievement and improving teaching and learning. The practicality is always there, however, and I liked very much the chapter on stress - it is reassuring and realistic. When Smith writes, "Always assume that there are problems that are difficult to resolve," he states the simple truth. And if we really could learn to take that on board in a guilt-free way, we might all be a little less uptight.