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The Difficult Conversation and 1000 Missed Opportunities

Courses or parts of courses for leaders abound with sessions about having the difficult conversation.  It’s part of a look tough, act tough mentality that is rooted in a view of teachers or leaders as lazy idle wasters who need a kick up the proverbial if they are ever to get their act together.

When I was interviewed for the headship at St. Mary’s in the far off distant days of 2000 the first day involved three candidates.  I was invited back on the second day, on my own, for the final full Governing Body interview.  Having neatly responded to the final question about being very young – my pre-interview scripted response was that I hoped they would make the decision on whether I was capable enough to do the job or not rather than my age followed by a quick quip about having an easy life – the governors felt they should bring the hour long interview to an end.  With the arrogance of youth and sense that things were going well I said that I was willing to answer any other questions they had.  In fairness I realised even then that the appointment of a head teacher was one of the most challenging and demanding jobs a governing body is required to do.

The One About Capability

Their next question about capability was framed from the perspective of what I would do if I had a member of staff who had been underperforming for many years.  Many people who have been through leadership interviews recently may find it strange that the question hadn’t been asked in the first hour but things were different in those days.  Cliff edged accountability hadn’t yet taken hold; few people had access to the internet to find out performance data or inspection reports on schools and so a more relaxed Nelson like approach was taken to underperformance.  My answer was fumbling and lacked the fluency of current leaders’ knowledge of the capability process.  I remember part of the answer being that if I member of staff had been underperforming for many years that maybe it was my resignation that should be sought.  I wished I had stopped at the previous question but was relieved to be offered the post, happily accepted and the rest as they say is history.

Integrity and Trust

Integrity, they say, is doing the right things even when no-one is looking.  It’s about acting consistently in congruence with your value system.  If you say that high quality teaching, leading to great outcomes, is important in the school as it gives young people life chances then how you respond to poor consistently quality teaching or unacceptably low outcomes matters.  If it isn’t challenged then people won’t trust you or your words and with crumbling integrity comes a lack of trust from pupils, parents and staff.

My fumbling interview answer can be view differently from a perspective of fifteen years leading a school.  It suggests I had an understanding, though early in its formation, that I had a responsibility for other people’s performance.  My influence on what happens in the class room is increasingly indirect but my touchstone of being “good enough for my children” has unfailingly guided me through difficult decisions, times and conversations.  The narrative within Catholic schools is, or should be, to treat others as you would want to be treated.  If I wasn’t doing a good job I would want someone to sit down and tell me, the earlier the better.  I would be angry and upset because I work hard and might not initially agree; be patient with my emotions and clear with your evidence but catch the problem early.  One of my most difficult hours as a head teacher was when a group of staff ask could they talk to me and expressed concerns about behaviour at the school; they did it out of love, were well prepared, gave me their total commitment to resolving it and they told me early.  That was more than a decade ago and I can still remember the hurt and the effort it took to sit and listen without giving my side of the story.  It’s not fair screamed inside but they were right.  The solution was relatively simple; be clear about the systems and processes for dealing with behaviour, insist on consistency with all staff pulling together and batten down the hatches for a bit.

Have the Conversation with Yourself

Photo Credit: Corrie Ten Boom via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Corrie Ten Boom via Flickr cc

The responsibility for high performance doesn’t just sit with leaders to ensure staff are competent and capable.  We all need to take responsibility for our own performance.  Excuses are the companion of underperformance.  It is one of those, if I could have a pound for every time I’ve been told “if you take out all the pupils who have poor results then the class’ results aren’t that bad” I’d be rich.  As Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan would say, “Accountability starts where responsibility stops.”  When I think about the best people I have ever worked with they were harder and more demanding of themselves, when it came to standards of performance, than I could ever reasonably be as leader.  The quality came from the inside and set them apart.

Put simply be responsible or be held accountable.  My advice, given to myself and others, is be honest with yourself, listen to feedback and get your professional development right.  These are the thousand small conversations that go on which if you miss or don’t listen to lead to the difficult conversation.  It’s not pleasant on either side of the conversation but has far greater consequences for one person.  Remember, someone who is struggling to lead well or teach well in one particular context may flourish in another.  Do not condemn the person and be utterly clear about your evidence base.  If this evidence base stretches back over time and you have done nothing then understand your culpability and complicity in arriving at this point as you work to resolve it.  Give people support and time to improve; you would want this for yourself.  S/he may not be the best of leaders or teachers but this doesn’t make them a bad person, see the person as you sort the situation.

John Tomsett

Please Click on Me to Buy the Book

Leadership in education these days is not for the faint hearted but needs the good hearted.  Too many schools have become aggressive, following the cultural orthodoxy of our time, rather than assertive in their pursuit of high standards for their pupils.  In stark contrast John Tomsett espouses a World view that is rooted in a belief about all that is good in humanity; This Much I Know About Love Over Fear … Creating a Culture for Truly Great Teaching is our leadership teams reader for the half term ahead.  It is about setting our aspirations to be the best we can be in a culture which will enable others to do the same.  These final words are taken from John’s book:

Accountability and development can go hand in hand if you create a values-driven school.

Love the one you’re with – if your professional development processes are effective they’ll morph into the one you love.

If you ever have to move to capability procedures, do it with the utmost humanity.



4 thoughts on “The Difficult Conversation and 1000 Missed Opportunities

  1. In the late eighties I had spent over 15 years studying various people being appointed to Head, Deputy and senior teacher posts, I was bemused as to why they had been appointed-so many seemed weak at best, many were just useless! Therefore it is so good to see this post alongside John Tomsett and Tom Sherrington as to how they became Head teachers. In 1990 I decided to do a part-time post graduate M. Ed. study into Staff Development and Appraisal to research this concern (and why so many staff struggled with mental health issues) one of the key conclusions was that our profession was very poor at developing its staff despite supposedly being focused upon developing learners. I have been retired for several years and I find it so sad that staff development is still so poor, and few teachers are familiar with the extensive international research and books of W, Edwards Deming, Peter Senge, Anders Ericsson, Michael Rutter, Stephen Covey, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Jim Collins, Clare W Graves and Carol Dweck. Furthermore despite the evidence the skills needed to be an effective leader are unknown by most people (especially governors) and the measurement of them completely foreign to education.

    Posted by keef feeley | October 28, 2015, 6:20 pm


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