'Telling teachers what not to do can have a positive impact'

Education leaders are wary about laying down the law on undesirable teacher behaviour, but this approach gives workers a clearer vision of what is expected

Don Ledingham

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One of the unspoken, and perhaps unrecognised, features of school leadership is the tendency to avoid any behaviour that might lead to accusations that they are treating teachers and other staff like children.

By way of example, think about how schools tend to establish expectations for student behaviour in the form of school rules. Beyond the standard exhortations and lists of values, schools will set out a number of unambiguous statements about the kinds of behaviour that are deemed unacceptable.

If a headteacher came up with a similar set of “rules” for staff it would immediately be deemed patronising and demeaning – and it would most likely generate an extremely powerful response from union representatives. At the core of this anxiety would be the notion of teacher autonomy.

When I reflect back upon my previous careers as a headteacher and director of education, I think I avoided explicitly telling people what I didn’t want them to do for the very reason that I felt it impinged upon their professional autonomy.

I recall being appalled when, as a newly appointed headteacher, I saw teachers remaining sitting at their desk as pupils’ mothers and fathers approached them at a parents’ information evening – it had always been my practice to stand up and shake parents’ hands in welcome. On reflection, I didn’t have the resolve to say, “Don’t remain seated when a parent enters your room.” My alternative? To believe that, by role-modelling this behaviour, people would eventually catch on and change their own – of course, they never did.

Setting boundaries

I think I can trace my reticence towards giving explicit instructions back to my training as a teacher, when I was taught that you should always frame things in the positive – in other words, show people what to do, rather than what not to do. I believe that such orthodoxy still persists in many educational circles, with everything being couched in positive and affirmative language.

All this came back to me last year when I visited an exceptional organisation (not involved in education) that must have some of the highest standards of service that can be experienced anywhere in the UK.

The chief executive (I’ll call her Jill) had given me permission to speak with a large number of her staff, to try to work out how she had delivered such a seemingly positive impact, one that permeated the entire working environment. Over the course of a day, I met employee after employee who took the time to describe a certain phenomenon that collectively drove the organisation to higher and higher standards.

At the core of that achievement was a leadership behaviour that they each described in their own different terms, but which, on analysis, amounted to the same thing. At the most basic level, they all said that if they behaved in a particular manner that didn’t put the customer first, “Jill wouldn’t like that.”

What they meant was that they all understood Jill’s abhorrence of poor service – and, given that they did, they felt able to strive for something way beyond that level.

What fascinated me was that her “hatred” of poor service was more influential than her “loving” of great customer service. After speaking with Jill, it occurred to me that her explicit descriptions of what constituted poor service were much less ambiguous than the pronouncements of the typical educational leader who simply says, “We want to move from good to great.”

In her own way, Jill established parameters and boundaries that people could understand and use to shape their own behaviour – even when she wasn’t present. And before you begin to think that Jill’s leadership style sounds overbearing and dictatorial, I should say that rarely have I come across a group of people who held their leader in greater respect and affection.

For Jill showed that it is possible for a leader – just as it is for great teachers – to separate the person from their behaviour. Jill hates “poor behaviour in terms of service”, but she likes people and gives them incredible space and autonomy. However, rather than being the leader who says to employees, “I want to give you autonomy,” before watching them all go off and do their own thing, Jill has ensured that everyone in her organisation is united in a common appreciation of what they are trying to achieve.

As I work with more and more businesses, I think I’m seeing this leadership approach as a differentiator. In some public service organisations, in particular, leaders are much more reticent about describing what they don’t like and won’t accept. They tend to fall into high rhetoric that often reaches for a vague notion of “aspiring to excellence” (whatever that might mean).

So, if you’re a leader, ask yourself: do people in your organisation know the behaviours that you won’t tolerate? Do they have an equivalent appreciation of “Jill wouldn’t like that” that shapes and informs their behaviour?

If the answer is “No”, then perhaps it’s time you flipped around some of your aspirations from “We will” to “We won’t”.

This is an article from the 13 May edition of TESS. This week's TESS magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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