Diary of a Headteacher: Having difficult conversations

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Having difficult conversations is a challenge for every senior leader. Our headteacher diarist prioritises being open and transparent over creating a culture of fear.

The honeymoon period is most definitely over! 

I am four weeks into my first headship and so far it has been reasonably plain sailing.

Good results in the summer created a real vibe of positivity around the school, and with the arrival of a new headteacher, most have been keen to impress – to show what they have got to offer and not come across as “one of the moaners”.

However, I have noticed a distinct shift as the new academic year has fully kicked in and the usual school issues begin to crop up. You get to see who are the “can-do” people, the ones who are solution-focused, and of course the ones who just see the problems and “don’t want to come across as negative, but...”

I am also beginning to pick up some of the problems that commonly arise at this time of year. Students on the wrong courses in the 6th form, parental complaints, and conflicts within departments are some of the issues I have dealt with in the last couple of days.

I have also had to conduct what I would call a couple of “difficult conversations” with staff. 

I have never ducked addressing an issue with a member of staff head-on, as I firmly believe that being open and honest with people is the most effective way of leading with clarity and transparency. 

If my expectations and the expectations of the school as an organisation are not clear, then how can we establish consistent standards? 

As a deputy I have had my fair share of difficult conversations with teaching staff, middle leaders and even senior leadership team colleagues when there has been something that needs addressing. I have always thought to myself, if my children were being taught in this class, then would I be happy with the provision? If the answer is no, then I need to do something about it.

My philosophy on education has shifted significantly since I started teaching – if I am honest, I doubt I even thought about whether I had a philosophy on education when I was at the start of my career. 

Like many, I was wedded to my subject, loved teaching young people, and my job gave me enormous satisfaction. However, since becoming a senior leader I have become a lot more reflective, and what I would call my “moral educational code” has evolved.

Consequently, I feel a fundamental obligation to ensure that the educational provision at my school is as good as it possibly can be, and if I need to address any issues relating to the conduct or professionalism of staff then I need to do this swiftly and fairly.

As a new headteacher, so far this has been quite straightforward. As the new guy I am able to look at situations with complete objectivity and conduct these difficult conversations in such a way that makes my expectations crystal clear but simultaneously gives the member of staff in question the opportunity to rectify the situation and do something positive about it.

It has been an important balance to strike as I have previously experienced new headteachers coming in and taking a very hard line with the teaching staff. This certainly ensures they all know who is in charge, but it can result in negative consequences.

I have no desire to lead through creating a culture of fear and if I am to be successful as a leader, I have to be true to myself, work within my moral educational code, and – most importantly – I need to take people with me.

  • SecEd’s new headteacher diarist is embarking on his first headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.

 


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