Blockers”, “mood-hoovers”, “mood-formers” and cynics – talk to any experienced headteacher about the early days of their headship and most will mention their efforts to engage with at least one of these staffroom “types”.
For many heads, the memories still hold strong because engaging with new colleagues occupied so much of their mental energy as they sought to establish themselves in their new schools, often in difficult circumstances.
Establishing the right impression right at the start of headship is vital if a new leader wants to instil a culture of change, explained Steve Taylor, executive principal at the Cabot Learning Federation, a federation of seven secondary academies and five primary academies in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath and Weston-super-Mare.
“What you are aware of when you join a school as a new headteacher is that every single interaction from that moment on has a role in forming staff opinion about the kind of leader you are. You are role modelling from the start,” he said.
“But very often people want to be led well. It’s often a relief for colleagues when there is clarity about the direction you want them to take. They want to be clear about what the expectations are and the parameters they have to operate in.
“The first meeting with staff is one where you can always assume that the majority of the room are going to be with you if you are talking about children and improving their life chances.
“If you make an assumption that staff in schools have moral purpose and you focus on that, then that is going to be shared by most people.
“However, it can be harrowing for some staff in schools that are in difficulty or have been placed in special measures.
“There are people who have been told that what they are doing is not good enough and they have not had the chance to unlock their potential. People carry on because of their commitment to the children. You need to tease out that potential.”
Building trust with all members of staff is a crucial part of this early stage of headship, said Zoe Carr, chief executive officer of WISE Academies, a trust made up of four schools in the Sunderland and Newcastle areas. “If you are working with a group of staff that don’t know you well they may not have trust in you as an individual. You are a leap of faith for them.”
For a new headteacher coming into a struggling school, understanding whether staff have a common understanding of the need for change is a good starting point, Ms Carr explained.
“It makes sense to have a certain openness and transparency about why change is necessary from the start. The best way for me is to get staff to identify what needs to be changed in the first place. The staff have to own that change.
“If you work through change with staff and try to see it from their point of view you can try to find a middle point. That shows that you’re considering their views while also staying focused on what needs to be done to improve teaching and learning. Once you’ve got agreement on why change is necessary and you deliver what has been agreed, then there is a basis for building trust.”
An example given by Ms Carr is changing the maths curriculum: “Be honest about the school data. Look at it together and get people in groups discussing it. Look for any strengths but more importantly the areas that are a cause for concern. When you have that critical mass of people who get why something needs to be done you can win any sceptics over with the more positive approach of the wider staff.”
For Brenda Davies, headteacher of Barwell Junior School in Leicestershire, creating a culture which accentuates the positive is another important approach.
“If you have a culture of upbeat praise where you celebrate everything it’s hard for those who are downbeat to get a foothold,” she said.
“We have done a lot of things at our school that are corporate. Special days in the school where people are brought together and do things together, such as our European days of language for example.”
As well as encouraging a positive culture it is important for heads to understand where negative or resistant people are coming from and to appreciate the experiences that may have influenced their position, Ms Davies added.
“If a colleague is struggling, they might not appear in the staffroom and instead take their breaks in the classroom. They might be having difficulty with a pupil and learning is not going the way they would like it to go.
“They don’t want to ask colleagues because they see everyone as being too busy. They beaver away themselves. They catch up by working harder but this can become a cycle that traps them and they can become cynical.”
Heads can help these colleagues in a variety of ways, Ms Davies continued: “With some colleagues it may be a question of professional development. We have an appraisal system in school where everybody is accountable for their practice to someone else.
“It’s then that critical friendships are established. But within that, any needs of individual staff are met through coaching and mentoring, observing best practice at another school, training courses – whatever is decided between members of staff which improves their practice and therefore their morale.”
It is important not to over-emphasise the negativity that new headteachers might encounter in the staffroom, Mr Taylor added.
“Some of the people in the school who appear to be most disenfranchised might actually turn out to be key allies in helping you create change,” he said.
“By making sure you talk with everyone soon after you start you can work out who on your staff will be honest with you but broadly be on your side. People who are not necessarily in a leadership role can be ‘mood-formers’ in the staffroom.
“These are the kind of people who speak up in staff meetings. Sometimes they are highly committed, long-serving middle leaders who have not moved on to senior leadership but they are fundamentally committed to the school.
“They will come to you and tell you something that may be happening that others may not have spotted.
“They can also give you credibility as a new head and help you to forge a relationship with the wider school community, which is really important as well.”
Staff members who are active blockers of change are rare, Mr Taylor added. “No-one wants to do a bad job. The vast majority of teachers are very motivated by doing their best for the children.
“As a head I want to see my school improve in its performance compared to the local and national picture. If people can secure some quick wins and they have someone to follow that they consider authentic and on their side, that has a great deal of impact.”
A head’s guide to building a positive school culture
Rob Carpenter, a headteacher from south east London, shares his advice...
1, Have a compelling vision
"Winning round school sceptics and nay-sayers requires leadership that delivers a compelling vision centred on children. Some schools are led in the interests of staff, some even in the interests of individual leaders, but the best schools are led with every decision being made with children’s interests in mind. We are careful to deliver messages which connect the vision to specific actions and it has to weave a connected thread that the children come first. This is difficult to challenge!"
2, Remember that behaviours change before beliefs
When introducing change we embrace challenge and differences of opinion. I tell staff that behaviours change before beliefs do and that we don’t expect all staff to agree with every leadership decision. We try to weave a story into the leadership discussions by connecting the past and present with the future. This helps create a powerful narrative to leadership decision-making and can be very compelling.
3, See change from different perspectives
We encourage staff to see change from different perspectives. This is a bit like Edward De Bono’s thinking hats. If there is a difficult discussion to make, we will ask different staff members to take an alternative stance so that we can view a decision from 360 degrees, rather than just one viewpoint.
4, Link school culture to performance management
This year, for the first time, we are linking “contribution to school culture” to our cycle of teacher appraisal and support. The idea is that to be an outstanding teacher, we also have to model other qualities such as managing relationships, supporting teams and leading change. The culture of a school defines the quality of leadership and we believe staff need to be as much aware of this as with teaching and learning practices.
5, Build an evidence-based approach to leadership
We are becoming much more skilled in basing decisions on research and evidence. The challenge is to decide which evidence to choose and how to synthesise evidence from the wealth of ‘stuff’ out there. We have a leadership library of core leadership and teaching and learning references and we’re encouraging staff to read and digest as much as possible. We’re involved in a “lesson study” project and provide weekly research updates as part of our weekly notices. We also get as many staff out of our school to see and evidence best practice as we possibly can.
Nick Bannister is a freelance education consultant and writer.