As soon as John* became a deputy head it was clear that he did not have the skills to deal with his team. He was an outstanding teacher, but couldn’t handle his new role and became autocratic. He now dictates how his staff should work, stands over them, checks every little thing they do and undermines them at every opportunity.
As with many excellent teachers, he is a terrible manager. Once he complained about a display outside a classroom. I thought it was a good example of quality work, but John disagreed, criticising the teacher in front of her teaching assistants (TAs) – and me – for not double mounting and allowing the “messy” work of a child with special educational needs to be displayed. He demanded that it be taken down and put up properly, leaving the teacher visibly shaken. I helped her re-do the work; it didn’t look better, but it was done to his specifications, and so was deemed acceptable.
Even if it was a shoddy effort – which it wasn’t – speaking to a colleague in such a derogatory manner was unprofessional. A quiet word, or suggesting that a TA who was particularly good at displays might be able to give some pointers would have been a better course of action. John is now a headteacher.
This is not an isolated case. Often teachers who are outstanding practitioners, producing amazing lessons and getting great results, can be completely out of their depth when promoted to management.
I’ve been a key stage leader and a primary practitioner for years, but before that I managed a team of 200 in a large organisation. I had a lot of training in personnel and management issues, whiling away many hours investigating theories of team building and leadership, which stood me in good stead for leading a team of teachers.
But most managers in teaching haven’t had training in how to give positive feedback, they don’t know how to build a team or how to get the best out of people. They do not realise that there is more to leading a team than making sureOfsted is happy and results are good. This permeates up into the senior leadership team, who do nothing about outstanding teachers who bully their staff and adopt an unprofessional approach because they are getting the results the school needs and ensuring their students’ progress. If the school data dashboard looks great, the fact that some of the less well-paid staff are not happy is not a priority.
My friend Lucy* is a TA. Her boss is an outstanding teacher, but she couldn’t manage her way out of a paper bag. She expects the TAs to stay late to complete tasks over and above the hours for which they are paid and makes pointed comments if they don’t. She has never said anything positive about Lucy’s work, only criticised her time management and lack of commitment to the job because she goes home at 4pm, which is when she is paid until.
Her behaviour has taken its toll on her team: she goes through TAs like there is no tomorrow. Lucy has gone from being a confident young TA to dreading encounters with her manager, and there are frequently tears among the staff in her key stage. Alarm bells should be ringing among the senior leaders of this school – and yet, because of her excellent results with the children, the school has never questioned her on it.
If, as a manager in the private sector, I had had such a rapid turnover of staff there would have been serious questions asked at my annual performance management review (which incidentally, was always pay-related) and I may well have found myself not only failing to receive a bonus or pay rise, but worse still, being taken down the competency route, however good I was at the rest of my job.
Part of the problem lies with the structure of the teaching profession. The only way to progress is to go into management. You can become a specialist leader in education (SLE) for the kudos, but that’s actually about developing leadership skills not – as the old advanced skills teachers were – about developing outstanding classroom teaching. There are some outstanding teachers who know their skills lie in the classroom and choose to remain there without taking on the extra responsibilities (and pay) of managing staff. But there are others, who come across brilliantly at interview and, of course, in the classroom, where they demonstrate their obvious teaching ability, and who get catapulted into positions they can’t handle.
When I worked in the private sector, promotion to managerial positions was a robust and difficult process. We weren’t just interviewed or observed doing our job, we had role-play activities and different scenarios to handle. The interviewing process for the final job I did involved conducting a performance management review with an employee who was failing in their person management. Even when I took the job, I was drilled within an inch of my life on Belbin and Myers-Briggs. John Adair’s action-centred leadership model became my bible. But most of all, I had training in how to deal with people, how to build teams – not flatten them.
We need to make sure great teachers have the right management training. After all, surely promoting happiness among colleagues is a crucial part of being a truly outstanding teacher.
*Names have been changed in this article.