Diary of a headteacher: Encouraging discretionary effort

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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I have been SecEd's NQT diarist this year and have thoroughly enjoyed reading your pieces each ...

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One of the trickiest challenges for a headteacher is how to create a school culture where staff are happy to go the extra mile for their colleagues and their students…

I personally define discretionary effort as the work that people in schools complete that falls outside of their substantive role. This is work that is done for free – no extra pay and no time in lieu accrued.

In many jobs outside of education the basic premise will be that there are a set number of hours per week, those hours are completed and at the end of each shift the employee goes home. However, the teaching profession relies heavily on teachers working hours way beyond those of the school day.

There are the obvious imperatives such as planning and marking. However, there are so many other activities that occur within the school environment that enrich the lives of students and create a positive atmosphere for learning. Such activities will only occur because of the goodwill of teachers; people going above and beyond what is detailed in their job descriptions because they know it will have a positive impact on their students. Schools can only thrive when their workforce collectively delivers a significant level of discretionary effort.

The question is, how do we create an environment where school staff freely contribute large amounts of discretionary effort? Creating a culture within a school where discretionary effort is high takes a long time, and it can be eroded very quickly with the wrong approach.

The headteacher has a crucial role to play here, the most important in the school. The head sets the tone for everyone in the school community and is responsible for establishing the conditions and culture where everyone can thrive. I have thought about this responsibility long and hard, particularly regarding the practical strategies I can implement that will create an environment where all the adults in the school are motivated to contribute a significant amount of discretionary effort.

The first thing a headteacher can do is ensure the staff feel valued. This can be achieved in a number of different ways but the most important aspect is to know the staff as individuals. Find out about their life outside of school by showing an interest in them as a person. Find out what makes them tick and by deliberately making time to talk to them about their family, their interests and what is going on in their life. Genuinely listen to them and when talking to them make them feel like that conversation is the most important one you will have that day. I started this process in my first term as a headteacher by having one-to-one meetings with all the staff and then making notes on each meeting which helped me remember the content of these conversations at a time when I was taking in a huge amount of information about my new school.

The second thing a headteacher can do to generate discretionary effort is to be reasonable. Reasonable in every sense of the word.
Have a reasonable approach to deadlines. Have reasonable policies in school that take into account teacher workload. Be reasonable with staff when they request time off to care for loved ones. When I am asked by a member of my staff for a morning or an afternoon off to watch their child’s school play or attend a sports day I always try and approve it. If the individual has a good attendance and I don’t have any concerns about their performance then I will always grant these requests; I think that if I show some flexibility and goodwill with people when they come forward with a genuine request, I know I will get it back in abundance in discretionary effort.

My final strategy for increasing discretionary effort is to ensure your staff understand how important it is and how highly it is valued. Dedicate time in your busy calendar as a headteacher to go and watch a production rehearsal; sit on the front row for the performance. Go out and watch the rugby team when it is raining, or volunteer to be a judge in the school bake off competition.

These might seem like insignificant acts, but these small touches pay dividends with the staff and students and they let everyone know how highly you value these activities within the school. Therefore the people who are giving up the time they could be using for marking, planning, for their own leisure time or for time with their families, know that you genuinely appreciate their dedication.

As a headteacher, if you can genuinely create a culture where the staff deliver high levels of discretionary effort then I think you have half of the battle won!

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his fourth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.

I have been SecEd's NQT diarist this year and have thoroughly enjoyed reading your pieces each week. This is a wonderful article to end on and I agree with every word.

Good luck for the future and thank you for the fascinating insight you have given into "being the boss." Hopefully one day I'll return as SecEd's head teacher diarist!

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Having a high level of discretionary effort from staff in running the school is the backbone of a successful team work that carries with them, on a daily basis, school ethos. You feel this as soon as you get through the door, as well as lack of it when passing staff gives out negative vibes of not wanting to be there but job has to be done.
Even when you achieve this high level of discretionary effort, there will always be a few who prioritise their own advancement, or look after themselves first of all. If they are in leadership capacity, then staff can become demoralised very quickly and the atmosphere and positive relationships destroyed.

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