Headteacher insight: How to protect your staff from everyday pressures

Posted by Liam Collins - Last updated on August 30, 2021

Guest blog from Headteacher at Uplands Community College, Liam Collins. Find him at @LiamHCollins

As this is my 6th year as a headteacher, it feels like the time to reflect on the journey so far and the next stage of my school’s development.  The last five years have been tough because of the tsunami of change that has washed over us. As the majority of OFSTED accountability moved onto SLTs’ shoulders, it became easy to let the wave of DfE change crash onto the staff, because, as schools, we have just not had the time to reflect on what has happened since 2010.

Young businessman in suit carrying big stack of carton boxes

All of that would have been challenging enough, but finances have meant that we have had to reduce teaching and support staff and have less money to update CPD, resources and equipment for all the new examinations. Extremely high expectations for teachers have remained, but with less staff, money and resources to undertake them.  Ultimately something had to give, and we have seen staff leave the profession in increasing numbers while targets to replace them have not been met for the last five years.


Find balance

Staff must feel that they are stakeholders in the school: a group of professionals who are respected and enable students to make great progress.  At my school, we have not graded lessons since 2012; we have no formal lesson plan format; we have no ‘expected structure’ to lessons; we have good behaviour management systems which sort the sanctions centrally; we have a T&L and an assessment policy written by the staff. I brought in all of this to allow teachers to undertake their roles well and maintain a balance in their lives. It struck me that we still hadn’t been successful on workload when a young member of staff came to see me to change to 0.8 because she felt that she could no longer cope full time.  It was a moment to stop and think.

Central to that process, has been a strategic aim to simplify everything.  Everything we expect of ourselves is agreed by us all. This must fit into one side of A4.  Beyond the expectations, we now need to look at embedded practice that means that staff feel they cannot cope.  We need to look at reducing how much time they are spending planning lessons and creating resources, by ensuring that we collectively work on our schemes of learning together during the summer term.  That cold dark Sunday in January should be easier if we can rely on the work that we completed each summer.


Praise and reward staff

There is lots we can do (even with vastly reduced budget) to retain our staff, but nothing works as well as the feeling of being important and respected.   Simple thank you's and praise go a long way, to show each other that we have recognised a great piece of work. When we gave out Easter Eggs to the students with 100% attendance last term, we also did the same for staff.

We need to look at efficiencies in meeting times.  Topics should be calendared throughout the year so that everyone knows what the next meeting is going to focus on.  Misconceptions of a topic; boys progress; assessments moderated and reflected on to make sure they tested the right things; homework looked at in terms of the workload for staff etc.  Meetings should be delivered with pace with clear outcomes. Every meeting should be making us all slightly better teachers and one outcome of every meeting should be looking at staff development.

The rest of the philosophy comes from showing that you clearly care about your staff and that you know how hard they work.  For example, when the pressure is on for marking (especially controlled assessments), I am always in agreement to give staff time.  If we can cover it internally, normally through utilising SLT, we also encourage people to take a bit of time to complete a project.  We are still grounded by what a five-period day feels like. We also make sure that all parents can take time off for assemblies, plays and sports days.  We are generous with our dependant care days. There is no question if someone needs to take a day off for a funeral. We are even happy to allow staff to leave early to catch a train to London for a concert or for a day to attend a wedding.  All of this is paid where we can because I know it helps develop good working relationships and people will be more willing to volunteer when needed.

Invest time and effort in staff development

Staff development should focus on looking at ways of observing as many teachers as possible at absolutely key areas of great teaching.  We need resources of teachers showing great explanation of a tricky topic and staff whose modelling enables light bulbs to go off around the classroom. We need to share the best practice of those staff with successful outcomes and a successful work life balance.  We need to look closely at those who may be getting great outcomes but are burning themselves out by pairing staff to look at short-cuts to their workload.

It is up to school leaders to protect our staff from the constant change in the weather that is generated from Westminster and Holborn.  If you want to have a philosophy to hang on to you can’t do much better than Roland S Barth’s suggestion:

“I would welcome the chance to work in a school characterised by a high level of collegiality, a place teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions. I would become excited about life in a school where a climate of risk taking is deliberately fostered and where a safety net protects those who may risk and stumble. I would like to go each day to a school to be with other adults who genuinely wanted to be there, who really chose to be there because of the importance of their work to others and to themselves. I would not want to leave a school characterised by a profound respect for, and encouragement of, diversity, where important differences among children and adults were celebrated rather than seen as problems to remedy. For 190 days each year, I would like to attend an institution that accorded a special place to philosophers who constantly examine and question and frequently replace embedded practices by asking ‘why’ questions. And I could even reside for a while in a laundry dryer if accompanied by a great deal of humour that helps bond the community by assisting everyone through tough moments. I’d like to work in a school that constantly takes note of the stress and anxiety level on the one hand and standards on the other, all the while searching for the optimal relationship of low anxiety and high standards.”

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