Heads Up

I was working with a leadership team on how to have successful difficult conversations. Whenever possible, we work on real situations they have because my aim is to improve the difficult situation for the teacher, the leader and the children, and once we’ve worked on a real situation and they use it, they have a successful conversation. This was a great example of when the difficult conversation is a conversation about the conversation. Ok, now I sound like I’m talking gibberish so let me tell you the story of ‘Ann’. 

Ann is a class teacher who delivers ‘ok’ lessons, but doesn’t seem to have her heart in it; she lacks warmth with the children and seems to put minimal effort into her lessons. She was previously outstanding but sadly not anymore. She also hadn’t made much progress on her performance objectives even though she is clearly capable of being a great teacher. 

Ann had responsibility for a subject – science – and all subject leads had been asked to drive their subject forward after being given guidance on the schools expectations of what this looked like. Whilst the other subject leaders had all stepped up to this level, Ann seemed to be doing the absolute minimum she could. 

The head, Pete, knew he needed to speak to Ann and, whilst there were several areas that needed to improve, he had an overarching feeling: that Ann didn’t want to be at this school. This was a conversation about the conversation, the real conversation that needed to happen, because the issues around subject leadership, quality of teaching and lack of progress on their annual objectives had all come together to paint a picture, perhaps an inaccurate picture, but one which the head and senior leaders felt to be true. It would have been easier to talk about any one of the individual issues and that might have been the right thing to do in previous months, but for where they were now, the conversation needed to be about the whole picture. 

The best thing Pete could do now was to share his perception with Ann in the hope they could have an honest conversation about what might help her be the amazing teacher they knew she could be – and my opinion is always that we want to support someone to do their job well. 

On meeting with Ann, the head shared his thoughts using the structure I recommend:

‘Ann, I’m concerned about the quality of your teaching, your work as a subject leader and the lack of progress in your development objectives which haven’t moved forward enough despite our conversations and support.  These things have come together to paint a picture that leads me to think you don’t want to be here.’

I know this is a pretty tough sentence – it is – however, the written word doesn’t do it justice because the delivery is what can, and did, keep the message clear and showed Pete cared. 

Ann’s head dropped; the message had got through, which meant that she and Pete could talk about the specific issues which led him to think this and he could offer several types of support to help Ann improve, of which she took some and not others.

It was a tough and brave conversation to have and hear, however one that worked, because Ann’s teaching improved: she was much warmer with the children, more involved with them during her lessons, and she really started to drive her subject forward by creating good quality resources, leading staff meetings and observing others teach science and supporting them to improve.

When I asked the head what specifically made the conversation a successful one, he said it was the clarity in what the issue was and being able to share that so clearly at the start; this meant Ann was, in as nice as way as possible, under no illusion as to what the issue was and they could build together from there.

(Well done Pete!)