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‘For too long, schools have neglected their role as good employers'

Yvonne Williams


3rd April, 2018

Seven qualities in a leadership team that would make this teacher stay at a school

In his latest column for TES, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, Geoff Barton, celebrates the introduction of a new qualification for headteachers, the National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership.

The nuance of “professional” is, of course, a celebration of the values and high performance underpinning the taking on of a highly influential role and the execution of duties at the top of the schools’ hierarchy. That highly visible people should be devoting valuable time to personal development to make themselves better leaders is laudable.

The Ethical Framework for Educational Leadership proposed by the Ethical Leadership Commission, presented at the ASCL's annual conference, is full of all the right qualities directed towards the future wellbeing of young people. So much moral rhetoric and good intention is contained within these initiatives. Rightly so – we still operate in a system that is not fully coherent, and in which there are not enough winners in terms of the quality of young people’s qualifications and employment prospects.

No one would argue that any of the above are wrong. But how well are they directed in the current climate of teacher shortages caused by a double squeeze on recruitment and retention?

What seems to be missing are the very things that would make schools and colleges good places to work in. The qualities listed – “trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage, optimism” – are admirable. But even the definition of “kindness” lacks engagement. Kindness in this context is seen as “where unavoidable conflict occurs, difficult messages should be given humanely”.

Teachers seem to be a significant absence in the vision set out above. They share, often to a painful extent, the qualities expected at the very top, and enact them daily in the classrooms. But these are not enough if there is a vacuum where engagement should be.

Making teachers feel engaged and appreciated

The intention of this article is not to criticise the leading public figures in education. Rather it is to suggest a model that would turn schools into environments in which teachers feel appreciated, engaged and excited by the role they play in education. No doubt it will be imperfect and much in need of refinement. But a discussion of the ways in which schools and trusts can make a difference by being excellent employers, and discharge their responsibilities to their staff most effectively, is long overdue. Perhaps such a sea change could improve retention and recruitment, if we want to think in purely cold, practical terms.

So, in addition to the qualities listed for the ASCL, here are my top seven which would make an employer worth staying with:


1. Kindness

I would redefine this as acts of generosity to colleagues at all levels. The head of the staff committee is the heart of the organisation, a much appreciated colleague who is there in times of crisis and celebration, worth their weight in gold. But it is also the colleagues whose small actions mean so much. The head of year who covered for me when my baby refused to feed has my undying gratitude. Such people accommodate us in our weakest moments without condescension or blame, because we all need to dip into that reservoir of goodwill at some point in our working lives.


2. Collegiate

Rigid top-down hierarchies often oblige those at the top to have all the ideas and can deprive those lower down of the chance to develop initiative and initiatives. The best ideas are those derived from discussion. The pleasure of innovation comes from the collaborative element, and this makes it more likely that good ideas can be implemented and evaluated. Most teachers are very sociable, so feel much more connected through involvement in joint ventures.


3. Engaging

Colleagues who seek out rather than simply expect engagement are the ones who can make ideas work. They look for ways in which to motivate without being over-directing. The pull factor is always more engaging than the push factor.


4. Supportive

Part of being human and a teacher is the recognition of our own fallibility. At such times we need support. I have no doubt that I would have left teaching within my first year had it not been for colleagues who in a very unofficial capacity supported my professional development by observing lessons and offering advice, and by reading the texts I was struggling with because of their unfamiliarity. These days many teachers derive support from online communities as well as subject associations, especially in the early stages of their careers; but I would argue that it is the help, sympathy, empathy and advice of colleagues in school that can rescue a teacher struggling with the day-to-day reality.


5. Trusting

Not much needs to be said about this – the cost of mistrust is the accountability system draining our teachers of time and confidence in their own abilities. A head who can restore a climate of trust is gold dust.


6. Respectful

Respect is a much used but little understood term, it seems. The ways in which teachers and examiners are portrayed, by regulators and ministers, have a strong impact on the self-esteem and the perceived worth of educators in their communities. Rhetoric about lazy or incompetent teachers devalues the profession. And it doesn't smooth relations between teachers and their various “masters”. Sadly, the financial part of respect is too constrained by government fiscal policy.


7. Promoting

Heads can publicly appreciate the work of all their staff. Trusts can understand their debt to the intelligence, skills and goodwill of the professionals in their organisations. The synergy of teachers’ skills and the wise application of these aptitudes make schools and colleges the best places they can be to nurture young people and develop their talents to the good of the individual and the community.


Much has been written about structures in which to work and the qualities of leaders at the top. The best discussion has been well-considered and highly ethical. After all, it is the job of leaders to engage with the communities outside to promote the interests of their organisations and students within, to establish a narrative that is optimistic and far-reaching.


However, issues of workload and growing problems with teachers’ mental health can only be cured by cultivating qualities to promote cohesion between teachers and between teachers and leaders. If schools and colleges are to be places where teachers want to work and stay, then humanity needs to be restored.


Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England

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