From bad to much better

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Complaints against staff are stressful for all parties but a school ethos of respect and support will make situations easier, writes Sean McPartlin

Political parties frequently promise to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. In fact, those teachers whose "badness" constitutes serious professional misconduct can already be dealt with through well established systems involving local authority personnel departments, agreed disciplinary systems, the General Teaching Council, the unions and, from time to time, the employment courts.

Far more frequently relevant to school managers are the procedures for dealing with complaints of a less serious nature against staff. The concerns may relate to classroom practices, school policies and expectations or individual personality clashes within the school community and may have surfaced through the school's quality assurance programme or been raised by pupils, parents, departmental heads or colleagues.

Typically, they are dealt with initially by the management team member with responsibility for a particular subject department and, depending on the situation, by the headteacher. For teacher and manager, these situations are among the most stressful and difficult.

In an ideal world, the rights and wrongs of the matter would be quickly established, with acceptance of the legitimacy of the complaint or a gracious withdrawal of the allegation, and all concerned would feel they had learned something in the process.

However, in reality these scenarios are acted out against a background of pressure and, frequently, self-doubt. Although the autonomy of teachers is far less than at one time, teaching is still a lonely profession. Opportunities for school staff to shadow and be shadowed are severely limited. This can lead to teachers fantasising about how things are done in other classrooms, assuming a colleague's practice to be either immeasurably better or hideously worse than their own. The time when staff occasionally were able to spend a period in the staffroom together in an informal exchange of ideas has long vanished, and this increases the isolation felt by some teachers, many of whom would flourish given the right level of support.

When it gets to the stage of a manager asking a teacher to meet him or her to discuss a concern, the defensive reaction may be out of proportion. This is of no help to anyone and can have dire effects on the teacher involved and colleagues. So, it is best to prepare for such a situation long before it reaches the stage of a face-to-face meeting.

Senior managers are appointed for a raft of reasons. Hopefully, interpersonal skills are among them, but this is not always the case. Anyway, no matter how skilled the manager, dealing with a highly defensive member of staff who is feeling under pressure is a difficult task.

The school's policies and systems should ensure that staff know they have the support and respect of their management team. No opportunity to emphasise this should be missed, so that, should there be a complaint, the situation can be handled in an atmosphere where the teacher feels supported and the manager is able to ascertain the best way forward.

At the heart of this lie effective and user-friendly quality assurance techniques. A headteacher praising his staff must base that praise on accurate knowledge of how they go about their business: any other basis is merely patronising. Equally, staff have a right to know that high standards are expected and that if they are not adhered to, the manager's ing duty is to find out why and set up measures to ensure improvement is made.

Where there is openness about the way a school is run, there can be a non-threatening ambience. Staff should know that honest mistakes will be countenanced and support given where needed. Managers, on the other hand, have a right to expect that staff accept legitimate concerns and address them.

What is certain is that where there is confrontation on either side of the desk, progress cannot be made, stress levels rise and, ultimately, the pupils suffer.

Teachers have a right to be treated as professionals, with courtesy and a normal expectation that they are giving the job their best shot. Managers too have a right to be able to carry out their supervisory tasks without facing ill-founded suspicion or belligerent reactions. Both sides have a responsibility to the families and communities they serve.

As St Francis of Assisi might have written, had he been in human resources:

"Where there is confrontation, let there be a shared vision and mutual support; where there is fear, let there be a relaxed approach to self-assessment; where there is hubris, let there be a permanent reminder that we do the job for the sake of our pupils."

Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher at St Margaret's Academy, West Lothian

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