Before Jill left the profession, did anyone make her a cup of tea?

Reading time: 3 minutes. SSAT member insights: celebrate unsung heroes at your school by tweeting #whomakesyourschool

Gary Hickey, headmaster, Adams’ Grammar School, Shropshire asks: with teachers facing burnout due in part to unsupportive leadership systems, what does it take to remind the profession that they are valued?

I have read a lot on social media recently about ‘Jill’ – a generic name for the teacher who worked all the hours she could, went above and beyond for the children in her care, but still was demanded more of by an unscrupulous and uncaring SLT. She became depressed, demoralised, and unmotivated. Eventually she left the profession.

No-one wants a colleague to end up in this state. But, crucially, if you believe a lot of the posts currently doing the rounds, it would be easy to think that every SLT and head in the land is solely responsible for this scenario. It has become far too easy (and indeed almost the default) to simply say these situations are the fault of SLT or management – which allegedly has a ‘grind them into the dust’ culture of accountability that takes no account of the human being.

Few of such critics may actually consider though that maybe we heads and SLTs feel this too. There are very many of us that do care, and care deeply. We too frequently don’t sleep well and have the 2am periods of worry and despair that ‘Jill’ did. We also do not see our families as much as we should. We too have forgotten what work/life balance means in reality.

I am not whinging here. This is not a battle cry for the beleaguered SLTs of the world. I am not naïve to the expectations and role of a head, but surely the profession needs to stop this SLT-bashing as the instant response to the woes of the profession as a whole. There are a significant number of SLTs, ours among them, who do support the colleagues in our schools, both teachers and support staff, and take real steps to do so.

In her recent blog for SSAT Katrina Morley said ‘We are paid to serve the children, but we can only do that if I serve the staff too.’ At our school SLT are committed to looking after staff. We don’t have an endless pot of money (who does?) and certainly not unlimited resources. But what we do have is the recognition that staff are human, have feelings and need to be looked after.

So how do we do it? To begin with there is a commitment from the business manager and me that we will put our money where our mouth is and put some funds towards this. Our priorities are our people. As a state school that receives no extra funding at all, money is always tight, but it is where the priorities lie that we took as our starting point.

Our priorities are our people

First, the simple things. We have free tea, coffee and biscuits every breaktime for the staff room. The school dinners are not free but heavily subsidised (for all staff, not just those doing duties). There is now a very popular free Christmas party with a three-course meal for all staff, teaching and support (they have to bring their own alcohol though. I may be generous but I’m not daft, these are teachers after all!).

I repeatedly insist to all staff that I want them to leave the site at least once a week to go out with colleagues for lunch or a coffee.

If staff are on non-contact time at the end of a day and not used for cover, they can go home.

I send handwritten notes to staff who run trips or shows, or go above and beyond in other ways.
Free swimming pool sessions are open to all, and for the future we are looking at introducing after-school yoga or healthy lifestyle classes.

I make a point of meeting personally with all new staff after a few weeks with us, to see how they are getting on.

Every now and then we get cakes for the staff room as a thankyou for a tough term. Never underestimate the power of a free cream cake!

Let them get on with it unsupervised

All of those are nice and friendly, and I think show a commitment to trying to create a happy place to work. But there are other, sharper, things I feel are hugely important and far more pertinent for long-term staff wellbeing.

I do not ask for or insist on detailed lesson plans. In fact, I do not ask for lesson plans at all. I trust the staff to be professional and use their judgement. There are no policies on written feedback or marking.

I do not ask for lesson plans…. There are no policies on written feedback or marking

I deliberately do not attend the termly heads of department meetings (these are run by the deputy head). This allows staff to talk more freely without the head overseeing proceedings, but also I think it shows a professional respect and trust in their collective abilities.

We have formed a teaching and learning group that staff volunteer for, which meets once a half-term to research and discuss current pedagogy and how their findings can directly help and affect our school.

Unsung heroes

Finally, I have started, as part of my own personal Twitter baptism, a weekly ‘unsung heroes’ post focusing on the staff who actually make the school work (as well as the teachers). So far in the #whomakesyourschool thread I have recognised caretakers, librarians, catering staff and cleaners, with many more to come. All of these are colleagues who tirelessly and quietly go about their business of making the school work as a happy and a cooperative place to be.

Do we have it completely right? I very much doubt it. Can things be better still? Undoubtedly. But as a reassurance to Jill and the many classroom teachers like her up and down the land there are heads, SLTs and managers that do care and do want to make all our schools work.

This is also a rallying cry to all heads and leaders: we have to recognise the human beings behind the numbers if we want to have the schools that we all believe in.

But all this is only going to work if we lose the ‘them and us’ siege mentality. Perhaps we all need to discuss it over a coffee (free of course, with biscuits also available every breaktime in the staff room).

Join Gary to celebrate the unsung heroes at your school on Twitter using the hashtag #whomakesyourschool. Please include @ssat so we can retweet to the SSAT network.

Read more about staff wellbeing on the SSAT blog: A low cost, high impact strategy to maintain morale and high performance

Follow Gary Hickey on Twitter

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