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"Talking shop"

Former headteacher Gerald Haigh gets to the heart of the issues that concern you

Q We've got a new deputy head who's not been teaching as long as some of us and doesn't have as much experience. When the rest of us come into the staffroom for a coffee and a natter, we're frank about our failures with individual children, or about lessons that go wrong. Our deputy, however, always goes on about how she's just taught the perfect lesson, as if she wants us to know she's a brilliant teacher.

Some of us have observed her teach, however, and found her class to be ill-disciplined and her lessons not as good as those of other colleagues. Her behaviour is demoralising the rest of us. Should we talk to the head or are we better to confront the deputy ourselves and tell her what we think?

A It's quite common for someone to come into a senior position and find their magic touch has deserted them. I've talked to high-flying secondary heads who have moved on to other schools, volunteered to take lessons and been mortified by experiencing the kind of disciplinary trouble they thought they'd left behind long ago. Children, after all, aren't impressed by labels. Their respect has to be won. I suspect your new deputy is concerned she may not be able to live up to your expectations and her enhanced salary. She may even be conscious of her relative lack of experience. As a result, she's compensating by talking herself up when she should be seeking support. So don't take against her, and don't be confrontational. Any one of you might be in the same position at some time.

Instead, give support in whatever diplomatic ways you can. Try to help her develop her role. If she's sensitive she'll realise what's going on and start to be more open about her problems. Then, as time goes on, she'll show the abilities that won her promotion in the first place.

Q My colleagues, who know that I'm happily married, are openly curious about whether or when we are going to start a family, and constantly either drop hints or question me about it. But I want to keep private the fact that we're not able to have children. It's bad enough having to hear them talk about their own families constantly without being interrogated in a way that's actually hurtful. How can I put a stop to it?

AYou could just come clean about the reality of your problem: "We can't have children. It's sad, but that's it. So I'd be glad if you'd not go on about it." The problem here is that you could be opening up other well-meaning approaches: "Will you adopt? What about fertility treatment?"

And so on. This too can be hard to deal with, especially if you've tried alternative avenues or decided they're not for you.

Your other option is to say, in a friendly but firm voice: "Look, we've no plans for a family just now, so I wish you'd stop going on about it."

Most of us have some area of our lives we'd rather not talk about. Your best hope is that, if you've told colleagues you either don't want or can't have children, they'll be a little more careful in their choice of conversation. But don't bank on it.

Q Our last head used to take assembly with just one other teacher in the hall to keep an eye open for misbehaviour. Our new head, who's determined to improve the school's performance, insists that we all attend assembly - we call it the Three Line Whip. We've effectively lost 20 minutes of valuable planning time just so we can sit like lemons round the edge of the hall, and this will presumably be reflected in the quality of our work. Can we argue that she's unfairly changed our customary working practice?

A No. Assembly is a community occasion, to be shared by staff and pupils. Your head isn't just telling stories to the children, she's setting out her vision and values. She's also, implicitly, giving you messages about how she wants children to be spoken to and dealt with. All of this is important for any head, even more so when a head is new and working to put her mark on the school. In many schools the head will allow some - or even most - of the staff to stay out of assembly occasionally for specific reasons, but it seems increasingly rare for this to be a regular occurrence.

Your head has right on her side, and you'll undoubtedly come to see this as time goes on.

Send your problems to Gerald Haigh

Write to him at TES Primary, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, or e-mail You can also leave hints about this month's problems at The TES discussion forum by visiting our website at

Gerald regrets that he is unable to reply personally to your letters.

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