Leadership - Sorry seems to be the hardest word

12th December 2014 at 00:00
.but knowing when and how to apologise is an essential skill for any headteacher

I read somewhere that officers training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst are told "Never explain and never say sorry". Whether or not this is true, I know of a few headteachers who have spent their whole careers abiding by such a rule.

In my view, this is the wrong strategy: being able to apologise in the appropriate way at the appropriate time is an essential part of school leadership. Two main categories of situation generate the need for an apology. In the first, the issue concerns the headteacher directly and in the second it concerns someone or something else for which they have responsibility.

Apologies for your own actions

Most apologies you make as a headteacher will come from doing your job and making decisions. Not everyone will be happy with your actions. Feedback on lesson observations can upset the recipient. Staffing issues, particularly disciplinary ones, often lead to upset. Apologies should therefore be made for the upset that is caused. Similarly, parents can be very "distressed" (read angry or aggressive) when their offspring need to be punished. A genuine apology for the distress can help.

There is a fine line to be drawn here, though: it is completely proper to apologise for the upset but not the actions that may have caused it. These are a necessary part of the job of securing improvement and a positive experience for all students.

Apologies for errors should be limited. Your experience and professionalism should ensure that you are rarely in a position where you need to say sorry for doing something wrong. But be cautious of situations where you are not aware that something requiring an apology has occurred. It could be an imagined slight or an oversight concerning a student, parent or staff member. Such apologies take on greater importance as they must often be made a little while after the incident.

Lastly, don't forget the small and the lighthearted apologies. My child once had a tantrum as we were leaving home so we were late to nursery and then the traffic was awful. When I finally arrived at work, I made sure to say that I was sorry for being late to a meeting. This kind of thoughtfulness can have a huge impact. I also apologised for making a Christmas joke in a November staff briefing as it was too early in the year!

Apologies for your school or others

Saying sorry for others is what most headteachers have to do most of the time. The cause might be the behaviour of a staff member, a parent or a student. It could be serious (for example, a breach of trust) or seemingly trivial (an uncleaned store cupboard). The most irritating situations are those that result from something that happened before you were appointed, let alone took up the post. Nevertheless, if your school is involved, however tenuously, as headteacher it is your responsibility to stand up and be counted.

This is true except in certain situations. There will be times when you are asked to apologise for something that is clearly nothing to do with the school or which is outside your influence. In this case, don't apologise but clearly state the facts and why you shouldn't say sorry. For example, I was once asked by the governors to apologise for something that the local paper had written about the school during the Easter holiday. Not a chance. Instead of an apology, what the governors got was a lesson in the limits of a headteacher's influence.

How to say you're sorry

If you are in a position where an apology needs to be made, make sure you do it well. A clear voice and good eye contact are necessary to ensure that the person receiving the apology understands that you mean it. Don't try to dress it up, or use words in a way that could be interpreted as an apology but may not be heard and understood as one - particularly to someone who is distressed.

Also, practise apologising without admitting liability for upset and distress. For example, "I am sorry that you are distressed about this, because upsetting you is not my intention" or "I am sorry that you are clearly very distressed about this exclusion" (which I can tell by the fact that you are swearing down the phone at me), "but Daphne knows she can't throw a chair at the teacher."

A skilled apology is an important tool for a headteacher. My advice is to avoid mistakes as far as possible, use apologies well and learn from the situation. Never place blame for your own mistake on someone else, and never ask someone else to apologise on your behalf. Acknowledging mistakes, doing it well and learning from them says a lot about the calibre of a leader and their leadership.

Dr Fiona Hammans is director of new projects and chief inspector for the Aspirations Academies Trust. She is also an experienced headteacher

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