The head on your shoulders

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Is bullying in the eye of the beholder? Nick Morrison looks at how to make sure performance management doesn't go too far
Is bullying in the eye of the beholder? Nick Morrison looks at how to make sure performance management doesn't go too far

The headteacher calls a young teacher into his office to discuss her performance. There have been complaints from parents, other members of her department think she's not pulling her weight, and pupil results are not as good as they should be.

Half an hour later, the teacher comes out of the office. She knows where she's going wrong and is determined to put it right, confident of her head's support. Or, she comes out distraught, her confidence shattered; she feels she is being bullied.

The balance between performance management and bullying can be a tricky one for heads. Do nothing and you risk alienating parents, creating resentment among staff who feel they are carrying a colleague, and damaging children's education. Take action and you could demoralise a teacher, spread ill-feeling and lay yourself open to a grievance procedure.

The danger areas for heads fall into two categories: formal performance management, and informal day-to-day contact.

In the first category, the new regime for schools, introduced last September, should reduce some of the risk, says Richard Haigh, head of Coombeshead College in Newton Abbot, Devon.

A key part of the framework gives the responsibility for monitoring and evaluating teachers to their line manager rather than leaving it with the head.

In Richard's school, with 100 teachers, this means no line manager has more than four people to monitor. "Immediately the danger of victimisation is reduced, because it is not all in the hands of one person," he says.

Setting out criteria clearly at the beginning of the process, with regular meetings and opportunities to appeal, reduces the likelihood of heads being accused of acting unfairly.

However, the new framework doesn't remove the risk altogether. Bullying is, in the end, a matter of perception. And there are some teachers who will use an accusation of bullying as a defence mechanism.

"Schools use performance management to be challenging, but some people don't want to be challenged," says Edward Gildea, a former secondary head and consultant who runs courses on managing challenging personnel for the Association of School and College Leaders. "The way they make themselves prickly is to go off with stress or claim they are being bullied."

Although there is no clear division between performance management and bullying, there are things heads can do to make themselves less likely to be accused of bullying. One is to use performance management as a developmental tool rather than a judgemental one. This means ensuring feedback has an element of coaching, and is constructive and positive. Simple techniques such as replacing "but" with "and" can make a surprising difference.

"People know a 'but' is coming and think everything before it is rubbish; whereas everything after it they take away and water it with their tears and nurse it until it becomes a grudge," says Edward.

Professor Michael Sheehan, of Glamorgan University's Centre for Research on Workplace Behaviours, agrees that there are ways of giving feedback without putting teachers on the defensive.

"You can do it in ways that don't demean or humiliate, or put the person down, particularly in front of other people. You should sit people down and have a rational discussion about setting goals, and give them feedback about their performance throughout the year," he says.

Perhaps a more problematic area for heads is over the informal day-to-day contact. This is where claims that a teacher is being ignored or excluded come in - claims that can be very hard to disprove.

"It is to do with perceptions of authority and the extent to which headteachers, without meaning to, get away with things," Richard says. "The job carries a certain power that is easy to abuse."

He says heads need to step back and look at their own practice, and to have people around them who are prepared to stand up to them. But school leaders themselves have to reconcile conflicting demands from their staff.

"You have to find the balance between having a certain aura, which people want, and being approachable, but without overreaching your mark."

In the end, he says, no head can guarantee they will not be accused of bullying, however open and positive they are.

"You have to allow for human nature. You have the right to manage, and you have to accept there will always be people who feel they are being treated badly."

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