Dear Ted

4th July 2003 at 01:00
I am a head of department and have an assistant who is confrontational. I am 30 and female and he is 55. It's like telling off your dad. What can I do?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

I am probably the wrong person to ask, as nobody told my dad off and lived to tell the tale, but I know what you mean. The assumption in professional life is that the person in charge is older than the troops, so it can be difficult to handle a hierarchical problem without the aid of grey hair.

It depends why these confrontations take place. Is it age, gender, personality, ideology or a combination? Your colleague's feeling uncomfortable at the idea of having a younger, or female "boss" is not the same as a clash of personality, or regular disagreement over policy and practice in the department. It is especially difficult when several elements combine.

Start with the ostensible source of conflict, even though this may be concealing the real one. Is there a pattern to the issues that provoke confrontation - perhaps you want to change things and he doesn't? Arrange an air-clearing conversation that is not about one particular issue: "We seem to be falling out about several things lately, so..." This is better than simply stating: "It's precisely because the 'good old days', as you call them, were not so good that we've got to change things round here, Smithers."

If the problem is hierarchical, your colleague may feel resentment that you appear not to value his long experience. You would need to talk frankly about the relationship between you, about the difficulties you both find as a malefemale and olderyounger pair. The secret is to do this without being patronising or offensive. Mutual respect should be the ultimate target.

If you can handle the issue well you will have fulfilled one of the great responsibilities of being a manager, at whatever level: getting the best out of your colleagues. However much you would like to knee him in the groin or slip something into his cocoa, you always need to remember that he is a fellow professional, and drastic action should be a last resort.

You say

Work it out together

If by confrontational you mean "taking issues head on", much will depend on what those issues are. Is he forcibly challenging issues that are obstructing progress in learning - so it is his style you resent? If so, collaboration seems logical, with you counselling the benefit of a subtler approach but acknowledging his intentions.

But if you mean he is being argumentative, fractious and at odds with the pupils or teachers, without any justification and presumably contrary to the ethos of your school, you need to sit down and tell him such behaviour is neither acceptable nor conducive to good teaching. Isn't that your duty anyway? And I thought ageism and sexism were dead and buried.

Brian Ferguson, email

Listen to his views

Show empathy. Do not feel threatened. Teaching assistants are angry (most of the time) because they feel unappreciated and ignored. They are as important a part of the team to help your children learn as you are. Treat them as professionals but remember they are paid a fraction of what you earn.

Anonymous, email

Age and sex must be ignored

You must take two things into account. First, that age bears no significance. Forget about your teaching assistant being your elder and try to think of him as being of the same generation as yourself. Second, gender does not matter either, as long as the job is done successfully. You have to work with this man every day so speak with him about his behaviour and explain that it is making it difficult for you to concentrate on your own work. If he is still confrontational, you must seek advice from your head, who may be able to make him see the error of his ways.

Liam Buckler, Warwickshire

Give him the star treatment

You must be in control. Be well organised - plans ready, tasks assigned, outcomes and his role clear. As problems have already begun, break the pattern. Avoid opportunities for him to contradict. Is he always with the teacher? If so, plan a week in which his literacy group will be taken to a different area. Does he always work with a particular group? Give him different children, who have already begun a task. They will also feel strongly about reaching your desired outcome. Recognise strengths such as self-confidence, and assign him responsibilities - for instance, monitoring reading journals, giving scope for organisation and viewpoint.

In short, treat him like an outstanding pupil: exceptional, but must be kept busy and organised to be on message.

Eileen Jones, email

Get to the bottom of his concerns

If your assistant has only recently become confrontational, it might be a good idea to find out why. Have there been changes in the classes, increasing behaviour problems among the students, or a change in tasks and responsibilities? Are other members of staff or senior management putting pressure on him to change his approach, which he is not handling well? Ask questions, listen to your assistant's concerns, and model the behaviour you would like to see.

Angela Pollard, Rugby

Coming up: Is it OK to cuddle the kids?

"On a school trip we had seven-year-olds crying because they were homesick.

My natural instinct was to comfort and cuddle them but I felt constrained by professional fears. Has caring for children gone out of teaching?"

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