Laminate your notices; pick up in the snow; say yes; and stick up for the kids!


I was asked last week what my advice would be for a head teacher taking up their first headship

Obscurely my advice was that they should laminate their notices, pick up in the snow; say yes; and stick up for the kids.

So here are four true stories which underpin this advice:

A  new secondary head teacher reached the end of their first year and was flattered to be asked to speak at a national event for prospective school leaders. The title of her talk was to be “Experiences of being a new head teacher”

As part of her presentation she thought it might be an idea to speak to colleagues in the school and ask them what they remembered most about her first year.

Being a modest and self-effacing sort of person she expected them to mention something about her energy, enthusiasm, imagination or commitment. So you can imagine her surprise when he said – without – pausing “That’s easy, you got all the notices on the notice boards laminated”. Well, she thought, the person was a relatively junior member of staff and perhaps didn’t see the range of strategic initiatives she’d put into place in the last twelve months. Her next colleague was a principal teacher – surely they would have a broader perspective – but no back came the answer “Laminated the notice boards” Oh come on – what about her presence around the school, the new discipline policy, the new assembly system? Where had he been?

But as she made her way round colleague after colleague it came back to the notice boards and one other thing, which was similarly unexpected.

Apparently a simple act of kindness – had caused a quite unexpected and significant impact upon her colleagues throughout the school.

It happened one morning when a light covering covered the ground. The new head had made her way to school from a good distance away without any difficulty and so had every other pupil and member of staff. So you can imagine her surprise when she was informed that one of her new colleagues had phoned to say they wouldn’t be coming in that day due to the snow. The office staff informed the head that this had been the case for many years – and was a source of great frustration amongst the teacher’s colleagues.

Without thinking too much about it she jumped into her car and drove to the teacher’s home. She knocked and waited for a reply. Eventually she was greeted by her colleague, who, somewhat surprised, invited her in where she had a cup of coffee as he got himself ready for work. They made idle chat as they made their way back to school. She thought no more about this issue – pleased with her good deed for the day. But the effect upon the staffroom had apparently been electric. Suffice to say the teacher in question never missed another day at school due to bad weather!

The third example is drawn from another colleague’s experience as a new head teacher.  He had walked into a school where there was great mistrust between the management team and the staff.  So much so that at the first staff meeting it was proposed that the staff should be allowed to have a meeting without the senior management team being present – so that they could discuss issues of concern.  The new head was faced with this incredible dilemma – which had never feature in any leadership programme he’d had taken part in.  If he supported the staff he risked alienating the senior management team, if he refused the staff request he risked being aligned with the previous management culture.  His solution was to say yes – in the belief that he could change the culture in the school to the extent where the need for a senior management team free meeting would not be required.  And so it proved – with such meetings being abandoned within six months as the staff saw that he lived up to his principles.

My last example is drawn from my own experience as a senior manageer – and it relates to a failure on my own part – for which I will always regret.  It relates to a teacher who was known for creating circumstances where children would inevitably respond by swearing or blowing up in class.  Children who were vulnerable – but who managed quite well in most classes – would go into this teacher’s classroom and within a matter of lessons were having to be removed for their own protection.  Very subtly – and even explicitly – the teacher made it clear that certain children were persona non grata. They were picked on, treated with disdain, and boxed into corners where their only recourse was to “blow up” in class. Of course a member of the senior management team was called who removed the child – leading on occasions to exclusion, detention, or a punishment of some kind.  This had also gone on for years and the teacher had learned that their behaviour did not need to change. My lifelong regret is that I never challenged that teacher’s behaviour – although when I moved to new school I vowed that I would never again allow such behaviour to go unchallenged.  Whether or not I was successful in changing subsequent teachers’ behaviour is open to question but at least I know that I never walked away from such circumstances ever again in my career.

So my advice to my colleague was as follows:

Allow people to see concrete things happen -regardless of how small that change might appear, i.e.  have an eye for detail. Rhetoric, policy, personal behaviours and values are important but above all else leadership requires those things to be translated into a commitment to action – and action that can be observed -e.g. find the equivalent of laminating the notices.

Secondly colleagues like to see that the leader has the courage to confront inequality  of expectation for all staff- in a manner, which addresses long-standing wrongs.

Thirdly, believe that people can change and provide them with space to be professionals.

Lastly, never turn your back on circumstances where children are getting a raw deal – you have to advocate for all children.

For what it’s worth I reckon any headteacher who heeds this advice is well placed to create a very special place for children to learn and colleagues to work – especially as we seek to implement a Curriculum for Excellence.





1 thought on “Laminate your notices; pick up in the snow; say yes; and stick up for the kids!

  1. Hi Don – I wholeheartedly agree with your point about never turning your back on circumstances where children are getting a raw deal. The question I often ask myself is if I would be happy for my child being in that particular class. If the answer is not an emphatic yes then I will seek to change things.

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