Meeting matters: 3 reasons why leaders should talk less in meetings

I came across an article by Brendan Reid in which he discusses why leaders should talk less during meetings. This is something people chairing governing body meetings should think about too. The article is reproduced below with Brendan’s kind permission.

 

I’ve stopped talking so much in meetings. More precisely, I’ve stopped talking first in meetings.

A while back, I was in a meeting led by another manager and I noticed something that has stuck with me ever since. This manager had a very strong presence and personality, and he was very quick to inject his opinions into a multi-person conversation. So much so, the entire dynamic of the meeting was altered by his presence. Other meeting participants seemed reluctant to contribute. Any subsequent ideas shared seemed to be based on his initial concept. It all seemed very constrained.

On the surface, a strong, vocal manager appears to demonstrate classic (stereotypical?) leadership qualities. Clear, direct, confident, intelligent. But what I observed in this meeting indicated the exact opposite to me.

Since this meeting, I’ve been extremely aware of leadership behaviors in meetings. I watch other managers. I watch myself. I observe the behaviors and reactions of meeting participants and contributors. And, I’ve ultimately concluded that most managers (myself included) are talking way too much and way too early in meetings.

In this week’s blog, we’re going to look at 3 specific leadership advantages to speaking less and waiting longer before talking in meetings.

Some of the qualities that make for good leaders – confidence, decisiveness, passion, intelligence – can have undesired consequences if you’re not careful. The very attributes responsible for the leadership opportunities you’ve been awarded can backfire if left unchecked. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?

You’re in a 6-person meeting with several different personality types represented. The type “A” leader dominates the conversation and leaves the meeting feeling it went well. Everyone else leaves quiet and confused.

You’re a meeting participant and a senior executive expresses a very strong opinion early in the conversation. Others either sit quietly or jump on board with her idea trying to seem agreeable and avoid embarrassment or conflict.

You’re a leader in a meeting and you kick it off by sharing your perspective on the issue and then ask for other ideas. You ask people to challenge you. Nobody does. The team ends up aligning to your original idea with very little debate or discussion.

Two dominant personalities are in a 6-person meeting. After some initial dialogue, the entire discussion gravitates to their ideas only. In the end, the group only compares those two loudly voiced ideas and any others are forgotten about or never heard in the first place.

We’ve all been in meetings like this. I would argue they are the norm. As leaders, we want to offer direction and clarity. As contributors, we want to have our ideas heard and be viewed as strong and assertive. But what impact is that having? Are we actually leading or are we just acting like we think a leader should?

Here are 3 reasons I think leaders should speak less and wait longer to speak in meetings:

1. Inspire Creativity

When a leader speaks early and decisively in a meeting, he or she artificially constrains creativity. Put yourself in the shoes of the other meeting participants for a moment. A strong leader or manager makes a decisive argument at the beginning of the meeting and then asks for other ideas. This sets artificial constraints for everyone else. Whether you realize it or not you’ve set mental boundaries for the types of ideas now likely to be brought forward.

For example, the problem set out for a meeting is to close a gap in sales. The leader starts off with a strong idea about a new type of marketing campaign. Then he asks for other ideas from the group. The tendency now will be to build on the first idea or to suggest other ideas for marketing campaigns. Without knowing it, the leader has artificially constrained all the thinking and dialogue. What if a marketing campaign wasn’t the only way to close the sales gap? What if there are entire other lines of thinking? You’ve lost those now.

When a leader speaks assertively and early in a conversation, the other participants are more likely to align to that idea or build upon that idea. To insert a fundamentally different idea feels combative. It feels risky. You’ve inadvertently created a situation where only the strongest participants will have the courage to counter your thinking. You’ve limited creativity.

My advice to managers is to start meetings by setting the most basic context e.g. here is the problem we’re trying to solve. Then, whether you have a great idea or not, start by soliciting ideas from the group before giving an opinion. You’ll free the team up to be creative and you’ll probably end up discovering your ideas weren’t as good as you thought they were.

2.  Activate the Introverts

Most meetings are dominated by extroverts. This is not optimal because they don’t hold a monopoly on good ideas. When you start too strong in meetings, by inserting your opinions and taking strong positions on issues, you make it harder for anyone other than type “A” personalities to participate. This is a flawed strategy that reduces the number of potential ideas in any meeting you’re in.

The best managers actively solicit ideas. They pull them out of the more introverted among us. They are committed to creating an environment that feels comfortable to share ideas and opinions. Too many managers allow the loudest voices to dominate meetings which leads to suboptimal results and engagement.

My advice to managers is to start by soliciting ideas from the quieter members of your team. As an introvert, I can say I’m much more comfortable answering questions or responding to a request to share my idea than interjecting it spontaneously into a heated debate. The truth is, the extroverts will get their ideas heard one way or the other. You don’t have to worry about them. Start by proactively engaging the less vocal members of the team first and then let the others participate.

3. Reap the Benefits of Information

In a poker game, there is a huge advantage to playing your hand last. It’s called positional advantage. You have the benefit of seeing what everyone else does before you have to do anything. That information gives you a better chance to win. The exactly same principle holds true in meetings and in negotiations. There is a major advantage to waiting before acting.

When I’m in an important meeting, I’ll often ask for opinions of the group before sharing anything. That way I can learn about their perspectives and positions and tailor my points based on what I’ve heard. I have time to refine my argument, build counter arguments or decide to support one of the ideas that has already been presented.

Some managers feel like they need to speak early and loud so nobody beats them to the punch. They can’t stand the thought of another person stealing their idea. The meeting degrades into a bunch of loud voices all competing for time. I think this strategy is flawed. I’d much rather listen and then share my thoughts after I’ve benefitted from everyone else’s perspective. I can show leadership by combining pieces of other ideas. I can show judgement by identifying gaps in early ideas. I can hit a homerun by learning from the reactions to early ideas and then offering my own optimized idea.

My advice to managers is to wait a little longer before injecting your opinions into meetings. Not just to inspire creativity and activate less vocal participants, but also to benefit from the informational advantage that comes from acting later.

Many leaders operate with only one gear. They’re aggressive. They’re vocal. For years, I’ve observed this type “A” tendency in myself and other managers around me. I think it’s a strategic flaw and I’ve made a point of controlling it. There are times when acting aggressively is warranted but I see many advantages to speaking less and speaking later.

 

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Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 3

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the first blog of the series. To read the original please click here.

MATs – could do better on school improvement

The ability of MATs to raise pupil performance is ‘limited and varied’. That was the blunt conclusion of a report in February 2017 by the Education Committee of The House of Commons.

There are MATs that have a strong track record on improving schools and raising attainment – even in areas where failure had become entrenched. But taken as a whole the picture is not so rosy. The 2016 exam results showed that two thirds of MATs had Progress 8 scores that were below average across the secondary schools in their trust. MATs did better at Key Stage 2 with over half achieving above average progress in writing and maths. They were, though, below average on reading. MAT performance for disadvantaged pupils has also been limited as annual reports from the Sutton Trust have highlighted.

Variation is an issue because progress within MATs and between MATs serving similar types of pupils differs quite markedly. There is also variation over time – it is not yet consistently the case, for example, that the longer a school is part of a MAT the more certain it is to improve.

Several factors have contributed to this situation. Some MATs have been overambitious about the number of academies they could improve at any one time. Quite often MATs have assumed responsibility for schools that are amongst the hardest to improve and, they might argue, they have not had long enough to make their full impact. But the fact remains that the MAT system still has to prove itself and a lack of focus on how to undertake school improvement at scale across a group of schools hasn’t helped.

However, things are changing rapidly. A number of programmes have bubbled up that are supporting MATs to be better school improvers. The government is also in the process of commissioning research on effective practice, but here are my five top tips on what all MATs should be doing.

  1. Know your schools well. Ofsted’s annual report for 2016/17 contained the disappointing conclusion that in the MATs where it carried out focused inspections leaders did not know their schools well enough: they were not ‘challenging or monitoring their schools rigorously enough’. As a result they were slow to pick up on issues and provide support. MATs should understand the needs and challenges facing each of their schools, the performance and progress of different groups of pupils, the appropriateness of the curriculum, the quality of the teaching, the standards of behaviour, the rigour of the assessment process and the effectiveness of the leadership. Peer review, learning walks, book reviews and feedback from pupils and parents can supplement the information that should come from being able to interrogate smart and timely data systems.
  2. Know how to support your schools. Schools need different forms of support at different stages in their improvement journey. Does a MAT, for example, know how to do school turn-around? Just because a MAT is built around the performance of a high-performing school does not mean that it will necessarily have the understanding or skills to support schools in very different contexts with different problems. Conversely some MATs are very good at doing the basics and moving schools from ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’ to ‘good’ but struggle with how to step up a gear and embed excellence across the MAT. Or they find themselves stuck in making progress with certain subjects or groups of pupils. Another challenge lies in getting the right balance between maximising internal expertise, and knowing when to draw on external help and challenge both from individual and schools outside the MAT.
  3. Develop and deploy leaders and expertise. The quality of school leaders is essential in driving school improvement. So it makes sense for MATs to be strategic about identifying their best leaders and practitioners and deploying that expertise across the trust. Of course, MATs should ensure that schools ‘losing’ a leader or specialist teacher for part or all of the week have proper arrangements in place to backfill the role. But by linking strategic deployments within and across schools to development programmes for emerging, middle and senior leaders MATs can achieve a win-win. Their best leaders can help accelerate improvement across the trust and they build up a strong pool of talent for the future.
  4. Invest in joint staff development. Support for teachers to improve their practice is a key factor in improving teaching and learning and pupil progress. At the very least MATs should be organising joint inset and twilight sessions to address gaps or weaknesses in subject knowledge or pedagogical practice. They should be empowering subject and faculty leaders to jointly plan and swap schemes of work and share effective practice. However, the big gain from being part of a MAT will come the more trusts enable classroom staff to work together in their clusters through joint lesson planning, modelling expert practice, observing each other, sharing and moderating approaches to assessment, using common models to coach improved practice and undertaking inquiry-led learning.
  5. Monitor progress and track impact.  Too many school partnerships – and MATs are not exempt from this – don’t know the value they are adding. They initiate well-intentioned programmes but are not rigorous enough in terms of looking at their impact. Adopting common assessment and data collection systems, working to a standard assessment calendar across all schools in a trust and having dashboards that enable senior and boards to easily spot outliers in performance, are the basic tools for monitoring progress. But the impact of MAT-initiated improvement services, support and interventions can also be assessed in other ways. MATs can be specific about success measures, use Hattie-style methods and feedback loops to track progress in real time, commission external reviews, build in review points and share findings across openly across the trust. Learning from what does not work – or only works on a limited basis -can be as useful as knowing what works well.

MATs have tremendous potential as agents of school improvement. They could be the means of fully realising the power and effectiveness of school-to-school collaboration. But for this to happen MATs will need to be disciplined and diligent in their approach and review and refine their improvement model as they find out what works.

Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 2

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the second blog of the series. To read the original please click here. 

Making the sums add up: financial challenges facing academy trusts

The financial outlook for many schools is tough. In July 2017 the Department for Education re-allocated part of its budget and increased school funding by £1.3 billion for two years starting in April 2018. The additional money will help ease the introduction of the national funding formula (NFF) – though some schools will still lose out as the NFF kicks in. Overall, however, while spending per pupil is now being maintained in real terms between 2017 and 2019, if you take the whole of the spending review period from 2015 to 2019 then, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, the impact of inflation and increasing pupil numbers, means that there will have been a real-terms cut of nearly five per cent.

Schools and academies also face the issue of how they are going to fund a pay increase for staff if there is a settlement of more than one per cent – the level assumed when the funding settlement was fixed. Single academy trusts will find it hard to navigate these financial pressures on their own, but multi-academy trusts (MATs) also have some big challenges to confront.

The challenge for MATs

The first is whether to allow each academy in a MAT to receive its total General Annual Grant (GAG) or whether to pool GAG funding between schools and for the trust board to allocate it according to the needs of particular academies. At the moment only a small minority of MATs are using the provisions for pooling set out in the academies financial handbook. But the DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017 reports that over half of MATs are planning to do this. However, the advent of the NFF may well push policy on pooling in the other direction. Academy leaders and local governing bodies are likely to argue that the NFF means they are entitled to the formula allocation for their school – if a MAT starts to reallocate funding between schools then it could be argued they are acting like a local authority under the funding system that is being replaced and that this undermines the whole point of the NFF.

The second big strategic issue for MATs to wrestle with is how to manage reserves. There is a strong case for saying that as a MAT board legally holds the risk for all schools in the trust, it should set the rate and pool and manage reserves centrally. The fact that capital and condition improvement funding is allocated to a MAT, rather than an individual academy, reinforces this approach. However, when schools join a MAT they are either in deficit or have reserves. If it is the latter they might well argue that they have been putting money aside for a particular project and would want a guarantee that they could access ‘their’ balance when they were ready to spend it. These are tricky waters to navigate but some MATs have worked through the issues and come up with a comprehensive reserves policy.

Efficient management of academies and MATs finances

More generally my five top tips for developing sound financial management of both standalone academies and MATs would be:

  1. Plan your budget over a three-year time horizon – the advent of the NFF should help to do this and trusts can also project forward pupil numbers for each school to provide an estimate or potential scenarios of their likely income. Boards are under an obligation to set a balanced budget for their trust. They should avoid approving a deficit budget for any particular academy unless there are exceptional one-off costs, there is a clear and swift path to balancing the budget and reserves and cash-flow are sufficient to cover the shortfall and sustain smooth and timely financial transactions across the trust.
  2. Authorise your director of finance (trusts are required to appoint an appropriately qualified chief financial officer) to integrate financial management systems, reporting and personnel as early as possible in the life of the trust. This will support better internal assurance and understanding of each academy’s finances. Also ensure that the scheme of delegation and, if the trust has one, governance handbook make crystal clear the respective responsibilities of the trust board, finance committee and local governing bodies for drawing up, approving and monitoring budgets.
  3. Optimise the use of procurement frameworks. The DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017 revealed that only 55 per cent of trusts were using a procurement framework. Both standalone academies and small MATs that do not have purchasing muscle in their own right, can draw on established procurement frameworks to start benefiting from economies of scale.
  4. Benchmark your costs and use this information to highlight areas where there could be the greatest scope for efficiencies. The Education and Skill Funding Agency’s benchmarking tool provides a starting point for doing this. The chart below shows where academy trusts say they are currently making savings. Some trusts are using activity cost budgeting (ACB) to take a more fundamental look at the finances of individual schools. ACB involves analysing and comparting how much it costs to teach a course, subject or group, for a given number of pupils, and then analysing how and why some schools are able to achieve comparable or better outcomes for less cost than others.
  5. Use clusters to help realise economies of scale. A report by the Education Policy Institute has found that MATs that are more geographically dispersed tend to spend more per pupil on back office costs. Clusters also provide the basis for sharing leadership posts and specialist teaching roles. Obviously this point applies primarily to MATs, but standalone academies should increasingly be thinking about sharing functions or using local consortia for their back-office and support functions.
Where Academy Trusts are making savings

Pictured above: where academy trusts are making savings.

Source: DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017; Base: 159 MATs with two or academies and 257 standalone academy

Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 1

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the first blog of the series. To read the original please click here.

As a MAT leader, how can you support successful growth?

The number of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is continuing to grow, and along with this many MATs are expanding too in order to reap the benefits associated with size. It’s clear that in order to be viable, as both economic units AND as agents of school improvement, small MATs need to grow.

Of the 2,723 academy trusts, over 1,700 comprise just one academy (either a free-standing converter or a MAT with just one school waiting, or trying, to acquire more). Over 700 MATs have five or fewer academies and just 350 are responsible for six or more schools. However, the number of academies in a MAT doesn’t tell you everything – the number of pupils is also relevant. Modelling undertaken by the National Schools Commissioner suggests that:

  • when MATs have around 1,250 pupils (or three middle-sized primary schools) a topslice of five per cent will typically enable them to fund an executive head, finance director and HR manager. Beyond these posts, schools will still need to buy-in or employ other expertise they need – including for school improvement.
  • as MATs grow towards having between 2,500 to 3,000 pupils (or one secondary school and four primaries) they can additionally pay for extra functions to be provided centrally such as ICT strategy, management and procurement, school improvement support and estates and maintenance.
  • when MATs double in size again and have 5,000+ pupils (or two secondaries and eight primary schools) their topslice could also buy executive heads for their clusters, estates, finance and HR teams, ICT network support, a range of school improvement support, marketing and PR.

However, MATs face three big challenges in trying to grow to a viable size. First it is often hard to find the right schools that fit with their vision and expertise. There is no easy answer to this, though the more MATs establish a clear strategic view of the sort of trust they want to develop and the geography they want to serve, the more this will provide the basis for a focused conversation with local authorities and the Regional School Commissioner’s office about suitable opportunities for growth.

Second, MATs are now aware that there is a risk of biting off more than they can chew in terms of making commitments to bring about school improvement. A later blog in this series will discuss this.

Third, how do MATs build the infrastructure they need to support a larger number of schools in advance of additional schools joining the trust – and having the extra income they will bring? Again there is no off-the-shelf answer but here are my five top tips.

Five top tips for building the infrastructure needed to support growth

1. Develop a plan for managing the increased scale of the MAT. An executive head or a CEO can oversee three – or if they are geographically concentrated and not too big – four or even five schools. But at some point the MAT will become too large and unwieldy to sustain this model. Learnings from both the corporate sector and existing larger MATs suggest that geographical clusters provide the appropriate scale to share resources, leaders and learning – and to exercise oversight. So MATs need to work out which functions might best be carried out at school, cluster and MAT level and how they can complement each other.

2. Set a realistic level of topslice to fund the development of the MAT’s infrastructure. Resist the temptation to reduce the amount charged to schools in order to try and make it more attractive to join your MAT. The average topslice among MATs with two or more academies is 4.6 per cent.

3. Sort out your approach on autonomy and standardisation. Some MATs aim to cede as much autonomy to their schools as possible – it’s seen as a ‘reward’ for a school making improvement. Other MATs operate fairly tight centralised models. But autonomy and standardisation should not be seen as polar opposites. It may well be right for some systems and procedures to apply to all schools – whether because of legal necessity (in areas such as HR and safeguarding); financial or operational efficiency (ICT, procurement, performance and financial management) or because it aids the development of a common language about learning and school improvement. In these cases MATs will either immediately or over time be wise to adopt systems that automatically collect and enable data to be analysed in multiple ways – i.e. at pupil group, subject, school or MAT level.

But if everything is standardised then the opportunity to learn from difference or for a school to express its identity is limited. Deciding what goes in which column is, therefore, important. And so is the process for agreeing this. MATs should be aiming to align their practice by co-constructing with their school leaders and local governing bodies the answers to these issues.

4. Review arrangements for leadership and governance. Arrangements for MATs to involve and consult with school leaders and local governing bodies in a small trust may be relatively informal. CEOs and boards should think ahead to how they will operate when their MAT is double its existing size. MATs might need to consider restructuring their board, reviewing the local governance model, establishing a forum for liaising with chairs of governors, holding more structured executive team meetings with school principals, formalising how middle leaders across the trust work with each other, and using intranets, websites and apps to communicate with pupils, parents and staff.

5. Appoint a chief operating officer (COO), or director of finance with a broad remit, as early as possible in the life of the MAT to lead the work on developing the MAT’s infrastructure. Funding may be an issue but the expectation should be that a COO will rapidly earn back their salary from the savings they make in rationalising the operations of the trust. The next blog in this series will look at financial management across academies and MATs.

 

 

Finding or advertising a teaching job on Twitter with #teachingvacancyuk

Governors, have a look at this and give it a go when advertising for headteacher (& other) posts.

Scenes From The Battleground

I have got two of my last three positions by asking on Twitter if anyone wants a traditionalist maths teacher. This hasn’t always worked, but if you have enough followers it might. Generally, however, Twitter is not great for finding employment because while people do tweet adverts or tweet that they are available for work, the tweets are unlikely to be seen by those they want to see them.

What we need is a shared format that can be used by those advertising positions, that can then be easily searched by those looking for positions. I’ve been experimenting with this for a bit and I thought it was time to get this going properly. Some words of warning first.

  1. This idea will only work if a large number of people use it. This means that if it doesn’t work the first time people try it, then people give up, it…

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Staff wellbeing matters. Part 2

In my previous blog I reproduced a post by Kevin McLaughlin who wrote very movingly about his experience. The issue of staff wellbeing is one that we, as governors, should keep very high on our agendas. After reading Kevin’s post I started to think of some questions we should be asking ourselves/our heads. The questions which I came up with are as below. In this post when I refer to staff I mean anyone who is working in schools, be they teaching or non-teaching staff members.

Culture

  1. Does your board foster a culture where everyone feels they can seek support without feeling that their position may be threatened?
  2. What would you say if I asked you about the culture of mutual trust, respect, transparency, and recognition in your school? This all feeds into wellbeing.
  3. Have you thought about doing anonymous staff surveys with questions on wellbeing, work/life balance and workload with results reported to the board?
  4. Do you question if you notice a high staff turnover?
  5. Do you do exit interviews? These may give you valuable information about the culture in the school and how staff are feeling.
  6. Do you get data about staff sickness and days off? Can you identify any trends?
  7. Do you know what support is put into place once staff return to work after illness?
  8. Do you have a wellbeing policy/governor? Do they report back to the board? How are their reports used to change/modify your practice?
  9. Are you aware of your duty of care as employers?
  10. Do you regularly review what you are doing to look after the head’s wellbeing? This is important for two reasons. Firstly because as governors we would want to ensure that we are looking after and supporting our heads. Secondly, a stressed head may result in rest of the staff becoming stressed too.
  11. Are staff are happy to talk to you and do they believe you have their interests at heart?
  12. Are you sure that the initiatives you/the school have introduced to address wellbeing are more than just a gesture/tick in the box?
  13. How do you prioritise raising awareness of Mental Health issues?

Workload

  1. Have you thought about adding something in your SDP about teacher workload?
  2. Do you ask about the effect on teacher workload when new initiatives/policy amendments are brought to the board?
  3. Do you ask school leaders to justify new initiatives they bring to you for approval?
  4. Do you ask what is being dropped to accommodate new initiatives?
  5. Are members of SLT/teachers with additional responsibilities given sufficient non-contact time/working at home days to facilitate their leadership & management responsibilities?
  6. Do you make sure you ask for information well in advance of when it’s needed? It can help to draft agendas for the whole year, in consultation with the head, so that the head and school know in advance what information is required at what time of the year. This will help with managing staff workload.
  7. Is there a communication policy? This should deal with communication between staff, between governors and staff and between parents and staff.
  8. Do you set an example yourself as a governor by ensuring that everyone, including your clerk, knows that you may be emailing at a time when it’s convenient to you but you do not expect an immediate reply?
  9. Do you think about the reports/data you are asking the school to provide? Are they necessary? Are you duplicating? Can you get the same information but with less data/ fewer reports?
  10. What would your clerk say if I asked them how your practice affected their workload? Do you, for example, send out the papers you need to on time? Do you respond to the clerk’s requests on time?

Work/life balance

  1. What would your head/SLT say if you asked them if they can tell you how many extra hours are teachers putting in and why?
  2. Are your meetings held at mutually convenient times for governors and staff (including the caretakers who will be locking up the school if meetings are held in the evenings) who attend?
  3. Do your meetings run to time?
  4. Do you place items for which the responsible/presenting member of staff who doesn’t need to stay for the whole meeting, at the top of the agenda?
  5. How do you/your school leaders deal with requests to go part time?

Are there any other questions we should be asking or issues we should be thinking of? Please add these in the comments and I will incorporate them.

Further reading:

1. Workload and wellbeing by David Jones.

2. Leading on staff mental health by Patrick Ottley-O’Connor

3. The self-evident truths of staff wellbeing by Robin Macpherson

Staff wellbeing matters. Part 1. With thanks to @kvnmcl

Today I read a blog by Kevin McLaughlin titled The depressed teacher. This blog is about a topic I think governors need to think about. With Kevin’s kind permission I’ve copied the blog below in order to raise awareness of this issue amongst governors. I will follow this blog with another one where I will pose some questions we should be asking ourselves about staff wellbeing.

For many years I have been recognised, in the main, as an ‘outstanding teacher’ by my peers, the LA and Ofsted. I learned from my errors, I listened to advice from those more experienced and I strove to improve my pedagogy through CPD and reading literature. In September 2012 I was recognised as an ‘outstanding’ teacher, one of only two in the school, by Ofsted yet only one month later I was deemed ‘requires improvement’ by the newly appointed headteacher. Why? What happened to my teaching? Where did I go wrong? How could I have let this happen? I questioned it yet found the reply insane- I didn’t meet the new observation checklist. A descent into ill health and depression followed with two emergency visits to A&E with suspected heart attacks.

It’s been a long time coming but I feel ready to tell this side of my teaching career so that others may recognise the signs and do something about it. My first visit to A&E happened during 2014. The atmosphere at school had taken a nose dive and staff, including myself, were teaching in fear; fear that we were not teaching well, fear that we wouldn’t meet our PM targets, fear that we had missed out the non-negotiables, fear that our displays wouldn’t meet the new standards. The warning signs were there. I woke up one night with what felt like a huge weight on my chest. I slid off the bed and crawled out to the bathroom but ended up sliding down the stairs calling for help. My partner rang the emergency services as I lay there on the stairs worrying about everyone I loved. Thankfully, after the various tests it was found I hadn’t had a heart attack and it was more than likely my condition was brought about by acute stress. I returned to work a few days later and everyone said I had to take it easy. That was it. Nothing else. No gradual easing back into teaching, not much support from management. The warning signs were there. I never read them. One term later I had another observation (part of my performance management) which resulted in requires improvement. I contested the outcome and got it changed to good. I knew I had to leave so started looking for a new job.

Job hunting was proving fruitless as nothing interested me. Another warning sign, I should have left no matter what but financial security tied me to this unhealthy post. The year ahead was spent meeting targets, doing what management expected to see rather than what I knew my class required. I was told to ‘keep my head down and just play the game’. But I couldn’t. I would not accept this. I should have read the signs. It was 2015 when I had another suspected heart attack, this time at school. I experienced the same symptoms again, a very heavy chest, pains in my side, rapid breathing. The office rang the ambulance and I was taken to hospital from school. A multitude of tests later and I was given the all clear. The relief brought me and my partner to tears. She demanded I leave the school. Once again it was stress related. I never sought my doctor’s advice, I never signed off sick, I never took time off. I felt ‘obliged’ to my job. Management expressed their feelings yet a couple of weeks later it was as if nothing had happened to me. I had gotten over it. I was back at work. I was expected to be outstanding all the time, nothing less.

I resigned from the school in 2016.

My health has improved considerably since then. Apart from a blip during my disastrous venture into Deputy Headship where I was shouted at by the headteacher (another story) I have been on the road to complete recovery and mental stability.

Now I point the finger of blame at myself. I should have recognised the warning signs. I should have acted sooner and shouted more loudly. I didn’t. The education system in England has become poisoned with data, ill conceived marking policies, fixations on passing tests at the expense of a wider and richer curriculum. Thankfully Ofsted have recognised this and have published their myth busting documents, changes to school inspections and recent speeches. But more needs to be done as the message is not sinking in. Too many schools are ignoring the advice and are continuing with a rule of fear. Too many schools are putting too much pressure on their staff. Too many schools are ignoring common sense.

Recognise the signs and act upon them. Your good health is more important than turning up for work as a quivering wreck. Your school needs to understand this. If your school doesn’t, resign. No school is worth ill health.