When I started this piece I thought it would be about how to ensure the quality of what takes place in your team or faculty; indeed, I’d written a decent 600 words on it. But then I deleted all that because it struck me that there is a human element that must come first and foremost in any Quality Assurance (QA). For people who know me, that last sentence might be met with, “bloody hell, James – that’s a bit woolly for you”. But so what? I’ve begun to like ‘woolly’. I’ve begun to appreciate that work scrutinies might seem like life or death at the time you put them in your QA calendar, but they really aren’t. Life is life, so let’s focus on that instead.
OK, do you have a QA calendar? Get it out now if you do. What’s on it? Work scrutiny, obviously. What else? Learning walks, moderation and standardisation, student voice, monitoring behaviour (this is my own list from pages 149-150 of The New Middle Leader’s Handbook, by the way)? This calendar tells you when and where you will be checking on the quality of the work being undertaken by your team, but the process in itself isn’t actually ensuring the quality of that work. When you carry out a work scrutiny, for example, you will be looking at the implementation of your marking and feedback policy among other things. How happy are people with that policy? When you came up with it, who helped formulate it? Hopefully this wasn’t the product of your mind alone – you consulted, researched, collaborated, that sort of thing. You probably have a whole-school marking policy you needed to stick to. Fine. But did you ask yourself, for a teacher, even for me, is this physically possible? Can they physically mark to the standard we are all sat here merrily agreeing to in the time we are giving them? Am I, by implication, suggesting that in order to be up to scratch, the team will definitely need to take marking home in the evening and at the weekend?
Because no one I have ever met in schools is made to feel happy by the prospect of an evening of marking.
If someone is unhappy in their work, maybe because they find working in your school or team difficult or a challenge, put yourself in their shoes for a bit and consider what you could do about it. Why are they unhappy? Is their unhappiness an isolated case or are you hearing more and more similar expressions of dissatisfaction from other quarters? Have they admitted they are unhappy, and is this unhappiness just that or is it something more serious – stress, depression, is it making them unwell? How have they displayed this unhappiness – are they angry and snappy, quiet and withdrawn, tearful and emotional? What has been your approach to this? Are you sensitive to their concerns or have you taken them with a pinch of salt?
And I am not making a judgement here about either path, sensitive or dismissive – both could be perfectly acceptable approaches, depending on the context. A colleague that simply isn’t coping, who perhaps has issues and difficulties beyond the school gates, needs you to be their friend here, because their work will be a big part of their life, possibly even a respite from the rubbish they’re going through elsewhere. Whatever is within your power to alleviate their unhappiness, do it. On the other hand, someone who persistently moans about the behaviour of their classes, but will not follow advice, accept support or adjust their practice, who overreacts to misbehaviour or will not follow the school’s discipline strategy…put yourself in their shoes, like I said. They don’t need you to be a sensitive listener for their own good since they will just keep coming back with more woeful tales, sucking your time and theirs. They need coaching, certainly, and a mirror holding up their unhappiness. Hmm, I seem to have slipped away from my new found love for wooliness there at the end.
As a middle leader, what else could you do to raise your team’s happiness quotient? Here’s a bit of a list from the top of my head:
- Involve them fully in the improvement process and ensure they feel invested in improving practice without piling on the work. Can a work scrutiny be a peer work scrutiny done together with post it notes on work, collaboratively and supportively.
- Let each of your team choose a lesson for you to come and teach while they spend the period doing something else – planning and marking if you like, but could be just doing the crossword.
- Ask everyone to nominate a class that makes them really happy – that one, dream class – so that the rest of the team can drop in to their lessons to soak up the atmosphere.
- Celebrate team birthdays and mark other occasions that you know are of significance to your team (if you don’t know, find out).
- Give the gift of books.
- Change things that aren’t working and change them quickly. If you’ve added an extra layer of work that isn’t adding any value, dump it. Don’t just funnel down SLT diktats, filter out anything from the top that you think your team could do without knowing – for the sake of their happiness.
- As far as possible, avoid things being a surprise.
- Have a Friday team quiz at lunchtime or one lunchtime a week where you all sit together and eat, maybe fish and chips.
- Open all the doors. Make popping in and out the new normal.
- Follow through on your promises and commitments.
- Smile and laugh and finish meetings smiling and laughing. Make sure meetings are not boring. Make sure any training you deliver is not boring. Make sure any training you send your team on is not boring.
- Be emotionally intelligent. If this doesn’t come naturally, find someone to be your interpreter. For example, if an 8 month pregnant teacher comes to you asking if it’s ok to sit in lessons with her feet up, don’t just say, “yes, sure” – this isn’t what she was asking (apparently – good job my wife was able to point me in the right direction!).
- Look after supply teachers.
- Support flexible working and support any of your teams’ attempts to change the terms of their employment – a move from full to part-time after maternity leave, a change of role to avoid losing them to another school. Try and make these things work. If they can’t be done, then they can’t be done, but you will have at least tried, will have at least considered their happiness.
- Talk to everybody in your team everyday and encourage everyone else to do the same.
- Don’t send late night emails you expect people to read that night or weekend emails for staff to act on first thing Monday morning. Don’t let anyone have their work emails on their personal devices (a contentious one, but I really don’t like it).
- Don’t start any conversation with, “have you seen my email?” or “Ofsted will expect us to…” Both have been proven to reduce a good mood by a factor of at least 10.
- Indulge all teachers’ love for stationery.
- Be a boss and get things fixed – sluggish laptops, back-breaking chairs, squeaking doors, blinking fluorescent lights, ice-block radiators… These are small things, but they are collectively irritating. Feel the love that comes from getting them fixed for someone.
- Say thank you and mean it.
Finally, resolve to be part of changing the destructive narrative on teaching. Counter the negative, not through blind optimism or blinkered ignorance, but through your constant reiteration that the job is a good job, done by good people for good reasons, and that you are one of the good guys.
About James Ashmore
James Ashmore is the co-author of the book, ‘The New Middle Leader’s Handbook’. He has spent 11 of the last 14 years teaching Secondary English and has held a number of middle leadership roles, including leading two successful English departments. In 2012, he became a Specialist Leader of Education and has supported schools in developing English leadership, curriculum, teaching and assessment. He has also delivered professional development courses for ASCL. At the end of 2014, he left full-time teaching to become a full-time dad, and now works as an educational consultant. He lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Louise, and their three beautiful children.