Leadership - Give your staff a happy new year

19th December 2014 at 00:00
Now is the time for FE college principals to prepare for those dark days of January

It's not often that I find myself sympathising with college leaders. As a teacher and columnist, my default position is to rant about the million ways in which they are wrong.

But then I asked teacher colleagues from further education colleges across the country how leadership teams could ensure a better return to work for their staff in the long, dark days of January. I was taken aback by the decisive views about the first days of the spring term and found myself feeling unusually sympathetic towards principals. I had, it seems, stumbled across a controversial topic.

A welcome would be welcomed

"I like it when we all gather in the hall for a solid, rallying, team talk from the boss. It gives me a boost," said one lecturer.

"If I have to listen to the principal going on about Ofsted and funding one more time I might get violent," said another.

So principals, come January should you clamber up on that podium and rouse the masses or quietly crack on?

Brace yourselves: I'm going to tell you something that your head of communications won't. Most of you are not as charismatic as you have been led to believe. Yes, many of you silver-tongued devils can work a room with aplomb, but I've yet to see that presence fully translate to the main stage. The good news is that it isn't an essential part of your role. You are a local business leader, not Dean Martin at Caesars Palace.

Why not whip out your charm and use it when visiting every member of staff and every group of students? Wish them a happy new year and discuss priorities for the term in an informal and relentlessly positive manner. Ask students and staff the important questions, listen to them and follow up the ones that contribute to the college's mission, making sure that credit goes where it is due. Eat lunch in the student cafs, visit establishments off campus if students are using them - not in a threatening or policing way, but just to establish that you are more than a figurehead.

Delay student interaction

"Don't put us on ridiculous staff development sessions before students are back. Give us that day to do prep and admin instead," said one lecturer.

"Organise some meaningful CPD events during the development day in January. That really helps," said another.

So, training will either be welcomed with arms flung wide or incite a staff riot. What is clear is that teachers do not appreciate being bunged in front of learners on Day 1. No one, except perhaps those whose blood still runs thick with Baileys, is overburdened with energy. Not everyone will welcome training but some structured activity to review the autumn term and plan for the spring may prevent those who are flagging from spending the day dithering on eBay.

Just as staff need time to emerge from their Christmas cocoons, so do learners; January is an especially vulnerable time for student absences. Putting strategies in place for early intervention can prevent a one-week absence turning into a three-week disappearance and then a withdrawal. This might be as simple as offering additional administrative support to teachers during those first weeks back to track down students, discover why they haven't come back to college and help them return.

Not everyone has the Christmas of a John Lewis advertisement. Some students will have had holidays that we can't begin to imagine surviving and attending college will be low on their list of priorities. Support to ensure that no one gets lost in the data would be an investment in the longer term for the college's retention figures and the young person's future.

Make it a warm return

Although the views I was given on how to provide a better start to the new year at college were varied and led me to wonder why more principals aren't hunched over their desks head in hands, repeatedly muttering, "I don't know what you people want", one demand bellowed from the mouths of FE staff countrywide - turn the bloody heating on.

We know that resisting the urge to crank up the boilers the day before staff return can equate to a significant saving at larger college sites. But here's the important bit: we don't care. No one wants to start their year shivering at their desk and it sends a stark message from leadership: that they're not bothered. It's not often in FE that a universal problem can be solved with the flick of a switch. This is one. It is a gift. Merry Christmas.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. Find her on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons.


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