“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” sings Elton John – but in some schools and particularly within some senior leadership teams, you’d think the hardest words to utter were “thank you”.
Perhaps it is totally understandable. Perhaps one of the reasons why some leaders avoid the “T word” is the fear of missing people out – just watch the faces of the PE department when the English faculty are thanked for taking 14 students out on their one theatre trip a year.
Perhaps members of the senior leadership team think a thank you is a given – of course, they are thankful, they don’t need to spell it out all the time, right?
But I’d argue that knowing whom to thank and when to thank them is a good test of two vital, intrinsic aspects of school leadership: communication in your school and whether you get out of your office enough.
When you’re working at full capacity, it’s easy to assume that others know you’re thankful for what they do. But as the writer G B Stern said: “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”
Even those of us who consider teaching to be our vocation like to see our hard work acknowledged. On the dark days of the autumn term, it motivates us to carry on, to work harder and do better.
Nothing has the power to more quickly distance a staff body from a senior leadership team than a lack of “thank yous” and, with retention and recruitment reaching crisis point, few school leaders can afford to be alienating their workforce.
With the recent publication of the workload reports throwing light on the working hours many teachers undertake beyond the realms of the reasonable, now would seem to be a good time for school leaders to take a critical look at the ways they thank school staff.
Time it right
Thank yous are time-sensitive. It’s no good whacking a “thank you” notice on the bulletin a fortnight after the event. Such tardiness clearly communicates that the thanks are being offered through a sense of duty, rather than through a belief in the importance of the teacher’s work. If, on the morning after, all that time allows is a quick visit to the staff member’s classroom, or a verbal nod in morning briefing, this at least counteracts the weariness we all experience after exerting additional effort while continuing to manage the daily grind of a full teaching load.
Be wary of saving thanks up for the big meeting
A “thank you” in a whole-school meeting – despite it offering the benefit of public acknowledgement for the member of staff – isn’t always going to be timely or even appropriate. Saving up all your thanks for a roll-call of appreciation can appear gimmicky and procedural rather than genuine. Added to which, with 100-200 members of staff in a typical secondary school, it may not be practical. Therefore, particularly in the pressured environment of school, it’s often easiest to plump for the convenience of an email. But…
Make the thank you personal
While it is a wondrous invention in so many ways, email is downright inappropriate for any more than the most cursory of pats on the back. “Thanks” has become a sign-off rather than a missive with any meaning.
To have weight, email thank yous need to be personalised. This might mean showing particular understanding of the personal cost at which the act was undertaken or giving a nod to personal ambitions for which the person is accruing skills and experience.
Make it ‘official’
One way the email thank you can be given weight is by attaching a formal letter of thanks, written on a headed document. The fact that this can be stored “on file” will be particularly appreciated by newly qualified teachers or those ambitious to “climb the ladder”.
Avoid trivialising it
Never, ever, resort to formulaic, off-the-shelf thank yous of the like you can buy or even get for free on the internet. An animated e-card, for example, may seem like a flashy way of saying thanks, but in reality it is always worth making your email a little more unique and personalised.
The little things count
Senior leaders would do well to remember that the surprise doughnut that appears on a desk with a scribbled Post-it note will have far greater impact than the luxurious tray of pastries that appear at every meeting.
Caroline Spalding is director of English at Tupton Hall School in Chesterfield