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A difficult conversation case study

I trained a school leadership team of 7 on how to have more successful difficult conversations. When I do this, I teach them the skills in the morning and, in the afternoon, I support them approaching a difficult conversation they have ahead of them. In this school, there was a teacher, let’s call her Fiona, a subject leader with UPS 1 pay, who was not delivering good lessons as teacher and not driving her subject forward. The deputy had been having difficult conversations for months with this head, but nothing seemed to be improving. Both the deputy and the head knew they needed to move this situation forward: the ideal outcome was that Fiona started delivering good lessons and to lead her subject, to do this they needed their difficult conversations to be more successful.

We worked on techniques to help the conversation be more successful, in particular, how to be really clear about the issues and how to manage their own feelings in the situation, which had understandably become frustrating.  Here is what did:

1) Gathered good examples 
We made sure there were good examples of where performance was suffering but also that this conversation had been going on for months without any sustained improvement.

2) We spoke about the elephant in the room
They’d been talking for months.  She hadn’t improved.  They offered support.  She hadn’t improved.  We needed to raise the fact that it looked like she didn’t want or couldn’t improve.   This would let her know what impression was being made and let her be a more informed part of the conversation about what needs to happen next.

3) We planned the opening sentence
I bang on about this all the time but it’s both the biggest mistake I see people make in not having their opening sentence planned and a big predictor of success.

The deputy had a meeting booked with Fiona and, whilst it did get emotional, she was clearer with Fiona about what the issues were. As it happens, the meeting was on a Friday, something I would usually say is better avoided, but in this instance I think it actually helped because Fiona came back to work on Monday to a meeting with the head, who was following up on the meeting with the deputy. Fiona, having had time to think, told the head she had decided to leave the school.

Now my preference is always for a teacher to stay; I don’t train people how to have successful difficult conversations so that people leave, I train it so that they stay and have enjoyable careers where they add value to their school. However, this time Fiona leaving was a win/win: she told the head how she felt a weight lifted off her shoulders, how she was happier and how she was going to find a role in another school which she would enjoy and be good at. Staff even noticed, in the weeks after the meeting, how much happier Fiona looked.

In a situation like this, Fiona wasn’t happy and this is horribly stressful; the school had been trying to help her improve but this wasn’t going well. Fiona leaving by her own choice and with dignity was clearly better for her and meant the school could now find someone who could fulfil their needs.

As I said, the ideal from my point of view is that the teacher or member of staff stays, however, when it’s best for them to leave for the right reasons then that is the best solution.

About the Author

Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, specialising in supporting Head Teachers and School Leaders create an outstanding school culture. https://ukheadsup.com

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