I am hugging a very large plank of wood as I say this: my school does not have a recruitment and retention problem. That is not to say that attracting high-calibre candidates to shortage subjects is easy, but I’m simply not facing the horrendous situation many heads are currently experiencing.
When asked why, I’m often not sure what to say. My school is in Bristol, which is not a cheap place to live. The traffic is horrendous. The specific area the school serves suffers multiple indices of deprivation and has one of the lowest take-ups of higher education in Europe. If you check us out on the data dashboard, you can clearly see we’re coming through some difficult years. We’re not selling a utopian version of education or lifestyle.
Last year, I needed a maths teacher. Great maths teachers are like gold dust, yet I had several apply. Sitting across from one of the candidates, I asked her my usual opening interview question: can you explain why you’d like to work here? The candidate related a story of being at a party 100 miles away four years ago and speaking to one of the teachers here, who raved about working here, and said she’d wanted to move to Bristol to work here ever since.
Great maths teachers are like gold dust
The anecdote is not me showing off or designed to be a not-so-subtle promotion for anyone reading this to apply to work at our school (but, hey, please do apply). It’s to demonstrate that education can be a small world, that reputation is important and that if you do all you can to make sure your school is a great place to work, finding teachers becomes a hell of a lot easier.
There appears to be plenty of schools in which teachers don’t want to work. This can be for a variety of reasons, and have varying degrees of validity and fairness. Whatever the credibility of those views, as heads we must be aware that teachers talk; we need to be mindful of – and keen to address – the views of those who work for us.
We had a science teacher join us last year from a school she said had a “culture of fear” and an “exam-factory mentality”. That teacher is now a billboard for that school, one with a negative message that will put other teachers off applying there. How, as leaders, can we ensure this does not happen?
We all have accountability pressures but the trick is to try as hard as we can to not pass that stress on to our staff.
Simultaneously, we need to create an environment in which any stress they do feel has multiple outlets, and in which teachers have several options for support.
That means creating opportunities to socialise as a staff body – developing networks between departments and trusted friendships where, no matter how hard it gets, people are there to offer a shoulder or a large glass of wine. It means having a leadership structure that is easy to navigate and access with open doors from all leaders; it means behaviour policies that are transparent and consistent; and it means that, as the head, you have to tell people – and tell them often – what a great job they are doing and how you understand the pressure that they are under.
We're not selling a utopian version of education
A clear sense of purpose helps. My school is not right for every teacher, but I ensure that every teacher who thrives in schools like mine wants to work here. We are values-driven, keen to make a social, as much as academic, impact. We go the extra mile for students because they often have no one else to go that extra mile for them.
Yes, we deal with difficult situations that can affect us personally, as well as professionally, but everyone in our school knows that is the deal, accepts it, and handles those situations with humility and – where appropriate – humour. There are no teachers pulling in a different direction and the impact of that on morale is huge.
If you do all this and you still have a disgruntled staff member who is soon to be leaving, one with opinions you believe to be unfair and invalid, then do not just write that opinion off; engage with the teacher. That view of your school should not be left unchallenged.
I’ve worked at a number of schools in which I hated every minute because of the way I was treated, usually by leadership. Retention of teachers is pretty much solely down to school leaders – we have to look after all staff, all children, ensure that the whole community thrives and the drive for improvement should never dehumanise the organisation.
It really isn’t difficult to treat people decently and we have an extra duty to model it for the next generation of leaders.
Keziah Featherstone is head of Bridge Learning Campus, Bristol, co-founder of #WomenEd and a member of the Headteachers Roundtable