Diary of a headteacher: Learning how not to say thank you


Our headteacher diarist’s secret rewards system is seemingly paying dividends – but it all starts with learning not to say ‘thank you’...

Someone once said to me that many of the principles and approaches we use with students can be just as effective with teachers. Being consistent, firm but fair, honest, approachable and empathetic are characteristics that I would expect to see in great teachers and I would also expect to see great school leaders demonstrating these in how they work with staff too.

Using praise and rewards effectively with students is one of the staple aspects of teaching that most people master quite early on in their teacher training. It is undoubtedly one of the enduring components of a teacher’s armoury and as classroom practitioners we will invariably use praise and rewards with students of all ages to encourage, motivate, inspire and reinforce expectations. This got me thinking about how we use praise and rewards with teachers.

This year I have been using an invisible rewards system with my staff and the impact has been significant. The invisible rewards system is based on a tariff that I have designed myself and is used exclusively with the teaching and support staff across the school. 

Initially, I used it with those I directly line-manage and more recently I have started to plan how I will expand its use to encompass the entire staffing model.

No-one knows about the rewards system I am using – it is owned entirely by me and the reasons behind using it are as follows.

Primarily it is part of the distributed leadership approach I am establishing across the school, which is based on staff in leadership positions having the authority and autonomy to make key decisions relating to their areas of responsibility, while understanding that they are accountable for the outcomes of their work. My vision is to be able to develop leaders across the school who are empowered and inspired to achieve great things for our students and to achieve this they must genuinely own their leadership roles. Therefore my rewards system, which has three layers, reinforces these principles. 

The first layer involves not saying “thank you” to staff when they complete a task relating to their job description. This was initially hard for me, because I like saying “thank you”, but I made myself do this to make staff subconsciously aware that this type of success is fully expected. Instead of saying “thank you”, I will say “well done” or “this was good work”. I am consciously holding the “thank you” back to increase the impact when I do use it.

The second layer is used when an individual achieves something that is more impressive and goes above and beyond what I might expect from them. Following this I will praise them in front of colleagues, still holding back the “thank you”, but ensuring I am very enthusiastic and explicit about the quality of their work.

The third and final layer is for an exceptional achievement by an individual. If a member of my team achieves something significant, where they have excelled at a high level, I will have a one-to-one meeting with them and tell them how impressed I am with their work and thank them for what they have achieved. I will also thank them publicly in front of the entire staff and raise the profile of their achievement.

I have found that by employing this rewards system with my staff I have noticed my leadership team becoming more autonomous, more motivated and increasingly keen to achieve the public praise and thanks. It has taken some time to perfect but has made me become more purposeful and specific in how I use praise with staff. The next steps will be focused on coaching my leadership team to use this with the individuals they line-manage so that we can embed it across the school.

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


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