How can we ensure the teachers in our school are engaged, motivated and committed to remaining in the profession? Peter Radford offers 36 actions school leaders can take

Workload we are told is the culprit for the current and impending exodus of teachers from the profession. Of course this is a factor, but the much bigger problem is the toxic work culture of our school communities, which is a product of poor leadership and a basic lack of understanding of what makes human beings tick.

We need to transform the culture of our schools if we are to stem the tide of great teachers who are leaving the profession. As a society we are slowly becoming more literate about mental health, but in teaching, while we try to address adolescent mental health, there is precious little attention being paid to the mental health of staff.

If we are serious about student wellbeing we must get serious about staff wellbeing. But what does that mean?
There are five basic psychological needs that as human beings we all share: love, being understood, belonging, achievement and purpose.

Now while love arguably lies beyond the remit of our schools, the other four are directly affected by the work we do on a day-to-day basis and the workplace in which we do it. When these needs are being met we flourish, when they are not we are liable to struggle.

Gallup has established 12 questions which, based on their studies of millions of companies, it has concluded are the 12 best questions to ascertain the degree of staff engagement in any organisation. When you cross-reference the Gallup 12 with the four psychological needs just mentioned they fit perfectly. The 12 questions are:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?
  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
  9. Are your fellow employees committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do you have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
  12. In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

Add to this the other widely publicised statistic from Gallup: that 75 per cent of employees leave their job because of their direct line manager. Why? Because it is your direct line manager who will be the most significant factor in whether or not those psychological needs are being met. The culture of the team either creates an environment in which people flourish and thrive or one that debilitates and diminishes.

It is not simply about workload either – it is about the culture we create and the leaders who create it. Think about it – who was your favourite teacher, who was your favourite boss? Probably a name or face comes quickly to mind.

Now think for a moment about why that was. What was it about that person that made you like them and remember them, that made you work harder for them and enjoy doing so?

I have asked this question many, many times. The answer always comes back with a variation of the same: “They made me feel valued, like I mattered; they believed in me.”

Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The most significant people for changing the culture of our schools are the middle leaders. They are the ones day after day who make the difference to the morale of our staff. And yet in my experience they receive little or no training or development in managing and leading people effectively.

We promote people because they are good maths or geography teachers – not because they are good people-managers. To change the cultures of our schools we must:

  • Model a positive work/life balance and emotional literacy at the very top level.
  • Invest properly in our middle leaders as the catalysts for change (every middle leader should be Mental Health First Aid trained and be receiving on-going CPD in their leadership and management).

The reason this is so acutely necessary is the dehumanisation of teaching in recent years. As the drive for data-evidenced progress has led to the reification of the data itself, the children we teach and the staff who teach them have been reduced to numbers. Data is just information about people. It is a tool, a vehicle, not an end.

Whenever we reduce people to pieces of data we not only do a disservice to those we work with, we also kill the very incentive that drove us to teach in the first place. It was the smiles and the imagination and the eureka-moments on the faces of those we can influence and develop, not progress data that first excited us.

The irony is that repersonalising teaching again will undoubtedly lead to better progress data. People want to do well. Whether students or teachers. Nobody wants to “underperform”. Those psychological needs are universal.

So what are we proactively doing to ensure that every human in our school has a sense of purpose, is achieving, feels like they belong and feels understood? Put these things in your School Improvement Plan and watch what happens.

Valuing every single person

Here are 36 suggestions of my own for challenging the way we do things to create a more sustainable profession based on valuing every single person:

  1. Clarify your purpose/vision as a school and do this in consultation with the whole staff, reviewing it every year. It needs to be owned and reiterated regularly so that it permeates the culture of the whole school. Do not assume it is a given.
  2. Establish your core values as a whole school community and live them. Hold yourselves to account on these in every decision you take. These are the bedrock of your community.
  3. Nurture a culture of trust not distrust – distrust debilitates and generates performance anxiety. Trust people to do their best. Tell them that you trust them. No-one wants to do a bad job.
  4. Devote one INSET per year to innovation – when every department works developing a new way of doing something. Take this seriously.
  5. Absolutely no numeric targets – teaching a person cannot ever be reduced to a single measure of success.
  6. Abandon formal lesson observations – do not judge. Instead, teach, train and learn from each other.
  7. Make ties optional – end the symbolic noose and look proactively to move towards greater informality. The formality of our schools is out of step with the work culture in most job sectors.
  8. Whenever possible, encourage (do not just allow) remote working, late starts, early finishes etc. Flexible and part-time working has been established as a key to the recruitment and retention crisis (SecEd, 2019). The more autonomy the better.
  9. Look for ways to deliver lesson content more efficiently and play your staff to their strengths. Utilise your best communicators with live video lessons, for example. There is no need for everyone to be reinventing or regurgitating the same thing all the time.
  10. Additional to usual sickness absence policy, allow, say, up to five mental health days a year, which can be taken at any time, no questions asked.
  11. Work towards no teacher having more than
    80 per cent contact time – no teacher can sustain quality output for a full day of back-to-back lessons.
  12. All frees are free. Introduce voluntary cover which staff can “buy back” time from (autonomy).
  13. Challenge the “busyness badge-of-honour” culture at every level – it is not “admirable” to be working at midnight or emailing on the weekend. Judge by impact not time. And lead by example on this.
  14. Provide a subsidised lunch for all staff. This is more important than interactive whiteboards.
  15. Invest in your communal spaces – coffee machines, newspapers, comfy chairs. Your staffrooms are the hub of the whole school. They should be the nicest spaces in the school.
  16. Ensure that your school day timings allow adequate time for staff to use these areas.
  17. Appoint a staff social coordinator as a paid responsibility.
  18. Count extra-curricular involvement as contact time or offer other ways to acknowledge this time. This is not additional to the “real work of teaching”, this is the real work of teaching. Aim for every staff member and every student to be involved in extra-curricular activities.
  19. Timetable regular line management meetings, make them immovable and count them as contact time – these are the single most important meetings in the school day.
  20. Encourage individuality in the classroom. Limit one-size-fits-all policies. Do not micro-manage.
  21. Invest in a whole day’s staff wellbeing INSET at least annually and lay on staff motivational/wellbeing provision each term.
  22. Offer a counselling service for staff on request and signpost to other services such as the Education Support Partnership.
  23. Offer time in lieu or payment for evening school commitments.
  24. Adopt a flexible approach to staff who have children/special circumstances – we recognise the need to differentiate for students, in the same way there will be times when we all have “special needs”. Build a culture that says: “We’ll help you out when you are struggling.”
  25. Judge every request from staff on its individual merits and resist the fear of “setting a precedent”.
  26. Be absolutely transparent about policy decisions and reasons for decisions. Nothing kills morale quicker than the suspicion of unfair treatment or unscrupulous actions.
  27. Have a weekly senior leadership team drop-in slot at least every week for anyone to come and raise anything.
  28. Give time to devising new and innovative ways of measuring progress that acknowledges the complexity of child development and holistic education.
  29. Ask your middle leaders what they think at least once per fortnight.
  30. Carry out a whole staff engagement survey and ask for feedback on the leadership at least twice per year – and report back to them every single time.
  31. Sharing planning, sharing resources and sharing marking must become the norm. Collaboration is everything.
  32. Train your middle leaders in people skills, management skills and effective leadership. Nothing is more important than this.
  33. Provide team development training for leadership using a team development tool like the GC Index (see further information).
  34. Sick days are sick days. Sending in lesson plans when you are sick is ridiculous. If the department is well-run then this should not be necessary anyway.
  35. If someone phones in sick, believe them, do not question them or give them a questionnaire or an interview. If they are unhappy or struggling their line manager should be on it enough to know that anyway.
  36. Find out about and register for the Unicef Rights Respecting School Award. This is the single best vehicle for whole-school improvement I have come across.
  • Peter Radford is the founder of Beyond This and is an educational speaker and trainer with 20 years’ experience in both youth work and school leadership.

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