How can I win back staff?

13th October 2006 at 01:00
I am starting my second headship after a successful seven-year stint as head of a primary school. I started with a two-day induction session in which I shared my vision of what learning should be about, and distributed to staff a comprehensive schedule of monitoring (checking of planning, observations and pupils' work audits). Everyone seemed very co-operative and positive. Since then, there has been an atmosphere of silent resistance and hostility.

I tried to discuss this with the deputy but she was initially unforthcoming. When I pressed her and explained that I was used to an open and transparent style, she became very angry and abusive, accusing me of being over-bearing and "smug". She has since apologised for this outburst but remains distant.

I suspect that she is turning the staff against me. How can I get her to realise that she is creating an unviable situation which must be addressed?

A: If only you could press rewind and re-play this disastrous scenario. Of course, you can't. What you can do, though, is mentally run through the action again through the filter of self-culpability. Take responsibility for this state of affairs, and consider some options for salvaging something positive.

Let's return to the two-day "induction". Who was being inducted, and into what? Was it your intention that the staff of this school should be left in no doubt as to your own attitudes, beliefs, opinions and judgments which you felt so justified in imparting? Can you begin to imagine what it must have been like for experienced professionals to have been shown your notion of "excellent practice"? I wonder whether what you saw as co-operation and positiveness was not in fact mute compliance, but dumb disbelief that their new head could be quite as crass. Your deputy has reacted explosively. But reacted she has, and you must make a serious attempt to listen.

You will need to work very hard indeed to start to create some sort of pathway to repairing the damage you have caused. Your first step is to understand clearly and accept the premise that this problem has been brought about by your own actions. This is not about the unreasonable volatility of your deputy. Nor is it about the mutinous nature of the staff. You have got off on the wrong foot - it's as simple and as complex as that. You cannot begin to sort this out if you cling on to the notion that others are to blame and that the problem is about them.

Your next step is to convince the deputy that you realise this and that you want to save the day. You must hope that if the deputy is convinced of your sincerity and new-found humility she may get behind you.

You could make a decision to apologise to all staff. This carries a high risk and may not generate understanding but embarrassment and further disquiet. You will need to use acute judgment.

Alternatively, you could hope that, over time, changes in your behaviour will convince staff that you are determined to value their work, recognise their achievements and listen attentively to their opinions. Your interactions with each of them and the children, your effect and tone and your repertoire of non-verbal signals may help to convince people that your earlier behaviour was not typical.

Re-think your reductive idea of monitoring, which is about seeing and understanding, not about checking and supervising. You are the lead learner in the school, not its foreman. Start trusting, listening and affirming.

Believe in the expertise of your staff and make it clear that you notice small things. Give it time, and use your deputy to let you know how you're doing.

This is a new headship. You must disabuse yourself of the supposition that tried and tested practice will guarantee the same outcomes. This is about gaining deep understanding of a different context and responding to the infinite variability of people within it. Be led, of course, by the same moral purpose, but be prepared to shape a range of strategies and actions which fit this particular bill. Hope that by Christmas you'll be able to look back with wisdom (and relief), and forward with a new mindfulness of the impact of your own behaviour.

Patricia Denison took early retirement in July after 25 years in education, 14 as a headteacher. She is now working as a consultant. Do you have a leadership question? Email:

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today