Talking Shop

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Our guest 'agony uncle' Ted Wragg gets to the heart of issues that concern you


I am the language co-ordinator in my school. I have applied unsuccessfully for two deputy headships recently, though in each case I was shortlisted. During the first interview there was a question about personal relationships. I thought nothing of this until I was asked a similar question in the second interview. Later I phoned the head of the second school who told me that they were worried in case I was "abrasive". She advised me to "think carefully" about my choice of referee. My current head showed me his reference and it was fine, so I can only imagine that my second referee, the primary language adviser, is writing negatively. Should I just get a different referee?


Presumably you chose the adviser because you expected positive support. The simple way out is to find someone else, but this might leave a lingering doubt, or an uneasy relationship.

Data protection legislation is now changing to give people more rights to see information kept on their file, even if it is handwritten, not just on a computer, but there may be no copy kept and referees are still entitled to expect confidentiality, unless an open reference agreement has been made. The direct approach to your referee might not be the best way ahead (unless you really are abrasive, in which case you might love it!), so explain that you are getting messages about your personal style and would like honest feedback.

If you are seen as a "difficult" person, then reflect on this, as the ability to establish positive relationships is vital to being a good deputy head. If there is misunderstanding, then an honest conversation could clear the air.

Q I am seriously wondering if I have lost my touch since changing schools. I was very successful in my first teaching post, where I taught Years 5 and 6 for eight years. Recently I moved to another school and I have had discipline problems. I never had any bother in my previous school, which was in a rural area. But my present school is in a large city and I find the children much more difficult to control, as they do not hesitate to challenge my authority, which has never happened before. I am left feeling that I was spoiled in my first job and perhaps I am not cut out for more demanding schools. I feel like packing in, but I don't want to leave teaching. Should I try to find an "easier" school?

A What youdescribe is very common. Teachers who move schools often forget how hard they had to work to establish themselves in their previous job. Children soon get to know a teacher's reputation, from older brothers and sisters, friends, playground conversation. They know who is a soft touch and who will stand for no nonsense before they even walk through the door in September. Unfortunately reputations are not portable. You cannot simply pack one in a bag and re-open it in a new school. A good reputation has to be earned once more and you will have to work hard at it, just like eight years ago when you arrived in your first job.

In our research studies we found that city children were more likely to answer back and challenge teachers, but this is not an insuperable problem, it just needs a different approach. Give it some time, work hard at it, talk to individuals as often as you can, and things will look up.

"Challenging but rewarding" is the phrase you are looking for to describe life in a city school.

Q My question is simple. Is it inevitable that teachers run out of steam in their 50s? I am 54 now and I do not seem to have the patience I used to have. At the end of the day I feel absolutely whacked. I can see now why so many teachers pack in before retirement age, but my husband is unable to work, so I am the sole breadwinner.

A Stress comes out in different ways. Fatigue, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, alienation, and physical signs like tearfulness, palpitations, sweating, are just a few symptoms.

You are doing a stressful job and the strain of carrying your family adds to the pressures, so you would probably have felt the same if circumstances had been similar when you were in your 30s. Try to lighten the load on yourself and boost your self-confidence.

Share your concerns with a confidant, preferably someone in the school, who will no doubt be feeling similar.

Keep a sense of humour, stick pins in a doll labelled OFSTED inspector, and never lose sight of the fact that you are doing one of the most important jobs on the planet.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter. Sue Mulvany returns next month Ted Wragg

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