Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Dear SLT (on workload)

This is the third time I've started this post totally afresh. As I've written each one, my thoughts have changed so that the audience and purpose of the piece have also had to change. In previous posts I have covered my thoughts on how a positive attitude coupled with a few strategies can help with the en vogue issue of workload and I stand by what I wrote then, but there are further issues to be addressed.

I was well on my way to finishing a piece (complete with surfing analogy) about how essentially teachers just need to chill out a bit more and stop worrying so much about getting everything done. But as I've thought about, and talked to, teachers I know who are in situations where trying to take such trite advice just would not help, I've realised the focus had to change.

I feel very privileged to be a fully-functioning teacher who is also a member of the senior leadership team. I am timetabled to teach 60% of the school day, focusing on maths and English; our main areas for school improvement. As well as having the opportunity to teach the children, the privilege is in the form of the respect I get as someone who fights on the frontline at the same time as making orders from HQ. It also gives me the responsibility to speak to the rest of SLT on behalf of the teaching staff. It means I really have to practise what I preach. As a result, our SLT is in touch with how our decisions work out in practise, meaning we can adjust accordingly.

So my advice today is for SLTs. It seems silly having to say these things but, from what I can gather, many SLTs are getting it wrong.

Your members of staff are your most expensive and most valuable asset. You need to look after them. The success of your school depends on their health. Think PSHCE, but for the teachers. One of your primary aims is to reduce stress - if you don't, you won't have an effective team. In order to do this every new initiative needs to be fed through the 'reduce workload' filter. The old initiatives will need to go through it too. It is possible for all the latest demands to be met in a way that doesn't leave teachers pulling their hair out - I've seen it done. But there is no hard and fast rule for how to do this - you must evaluate everything in the context of your school and ask the question: 'How can we make this easier for our teachers?' Not easy, mind you, but easier. Teaching is not easy. Where a teacher needs to improve, you need to give them bespoke provision (intervention - like we'd want them to do for the kids!) - this is the investment they deserve and it will profit you in the long run.

You need some sort of 'open door policy'. The SLT needs to be approachable. Teachers need to feel that you have their best interests at heart and that you care for them. I'm not advocating touchy-feely leadership but an environment where views are spoken open and honestly, in both directions, but with some tact. You want your frontline soldiers to be able to report back - this way you will hear the positives along with the criticism and suggestions for change. They are the ones who know what it's like to work every day trying to carry out everything you're expecting them to do - if they feel they can bring their concerns about work/life balance to you then you are better placed to address those issues. You need to know how they are feeling and how things are really going when they're not being observed (the 'open door policy' can work two ways; I'd advocate drop-ins and not organised observations). The people I know who struggle with workload work in schools where the SLT are virtually absent.

Following on from the previous two points it is so useful to have an SLT who are all engaged in the action. Sitting high in ivory towers does not give an impression of leadership, rather of tyranny; dictatorship at best. SLT members need to roll their sleeves up, take up their weapons and lead by example. Julius Caesar saw this as such a necessity that he would fight in the ranks - many other great military leaders are said to have done the same. No doubt troop morale was high in these cases. This strategy will probably open more doors than an 'open door policy' would, making relationships far more natural and parallel. I always used to wonder if my swimming coach could swim as he never got in the pool (we found out he could, even fully clothed, when I pushed him in). Put your money where your mouth is and dive on in, the water's pretty hot right now and you need to feel it for yourself. If you experience a week in the life of a classroom teacher in the current climate then you'll be better informed when it comes to planning to make teachers' workload lighter.

A quick glance at the 2015 Ofsted guidance for effective leadership and management shows that the three approaches outlined above, done right and consistently, can be the basis for covering most of their descriptors for 'Outstanding'.

Why aren't all SLTs doing these things already? There are probably a cocktail of reasons but one major culprit at the moment seems to be panic. Leaders are overwhelmed by the pressure on them and are passing on their stress rather than doing the strategic thinking that they are in the job to do. As leaders it is our role to stem the tide of anxiety (we're paid more because it's a more difficult and stressful role) by implementing time-saving strategies. This is our duty. 

Expecting teachers to do their job properly without your investment, interaction and involvement will hinder their output with disastrous outcomes for the school you're trying to lead and manage.

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