Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Keep Your Cool during Difficult Conversations

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Keep Your Cool during Difficult Conversations

Article excerpt

Talking to staff about complaints or poor performance may seem daunting, but follow these guidelines and you won't go far wrong

As soon as you are promoted in education, your responsibility shifts sideways. Whether you step up to become a subject leader, course organiser, deputy head of year or headteacher, the successes and failings of other teachers are now your patch. Their performance is your performance.

From parental complaints about unmarked homework to wider concerns about performance, these are now your problems as a school leader. So you have to find the best possible solution in the best possible way - and that will often entail a difficult conversation.

Many books and courses will tell you that leadership is all about having a vision and knowing your values. But in reality, few of us lose sleep over a lack of vision or a confused set of values. It's the prospect of these awkward exchanges that gnaw away at us in the hours of darkness.

Although I still find these conversations tough, more than 25 years in leadership have taught me not to view them with the same dread I once did. They are rarely as bad as you expect, but there is a wrong way of dealing with them and a right way. The right way looks like this:

Have the right attitude

In the troughs of the school year - when the pressure is relentless, when the sunny optimism of September's fresh start has long gone and when it feels as if all you do is scrape up messes made by other people - having to deal with complaints about teachers can be demoralising. It can seem as if no one is doing a decent job.

But this attitude is neither productive nor conducive to a positive outcome. No teacher wants to be a bad teacher; no one wants to be perceived as hapless or hopeless. Many staff would be mortified if they thought that people in the middle or senior leadership teams perceived them as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Ask yourself: is it me?

If a teacher is doing a mediocre job or getting lots of things wrong, it is unlikely that it is all down to them. Indeed, it may be down to you. It was Canadian researcher Professor Michael Fullan who pointed out that 20 years of experience may simply be one year repeated 20 times. In other words, without support, coaching, feedback, intervention, praise and some uncomfortable conversations, any problems will fester and bad habits may set in. So look at your own practice alongside the teacher's.

Get the time and tone right

It is better to hold these conversations early in the day using a tone that is calm, professional and supportive. …

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