What’s your problem?

Sometimes a conversation is difficult because the other person doesn’t understand there is a problem – you might have told them several times but feel that they don’t appreciate how serious this is or that they don’t acknowledge that there is a problem.

One of the school leadership team’s I support had exactly this issue; they had a teacher, Del, who they believed required improvement in the quality of his teaching and learning, however, he thought he was good or better. Various members of the SLT had given Del feedback about his teaching and they had tried everything you could think of! Even in a feedback meeting when, again, one of them was trying to get him to understand his marking required improvement and Del wasn’t getting it, insisting it was good, even when went to his books and looked at the marking so they were dealing with really concrete evidence.

The problem with this is that not only is it frustrating for both sides, but the first step to solving any issue really is acknowledging its existence; until Del did, he wasn’t going to take the actions he needed to improve and, worst case scenario, he could end up in capability without understanding how.

In many ways it sounds crazy, but it’s easy enough for someone to be in this position for several reasons:

  • it can be a defence mechanism
  • it can be as simple as they really don’t see the problem

However I often find that’s it us who is the problem: we think we’ve said the issue clearly, but so many times we haven’t and if we’re not communicating clearly how can the other person understand a message that they more than likely don’t want to hear?

And, for every time I’ve seen this happen I’ve also had the person tell me they have told the other person, very clearly – trust me, they think they have but their words have unintentionally let them down. Not through lack of care or intelligence, it’s just a tough problem to crack (it’s actually the biggest problem I see when having one of these difficult conversations).

So what did we do about Del? I helped the team prepare for the meeting, admittedly only a few people would be present, but it was useful development for them all and they had all tried to get the message across so their experience was useful.

I advocate having one opening sentence prepared for difficult conversations, but in this instance it was about 6! This is not ideal, however we had to get the message across and it needed more than just one.

We used a technique called ‘Get a yes’, to establish common ground early on.  It works like this:
You:  Del, we’ve been talking about your performance since Sept.  Would you agree?
Del:  Yes (or something similar will do, even a nod).
You:  And there seems to be a discrepancy between how you and the SLT perceive your performance:  you think your teaching is good and the SLT think your teaching is inadequate.  Would you agree?
Del:  Yes.
You:  And we have put in place action plans and support to improve your teaching to the SLT’s expectations of good. Would you agree?
Del:  Yes.

There’s no guarantee that Del will say ‘yes’ or similar every time but there is a good chance which means we start in a place of agreement, instead of a place of disagreement.

However they got there, be it our communication, their defence mechanism or otherwise, with a conversation like this really you’re taking someone from an almost ‘ignorance is bliss’ state to a realisation, and this is never nice. However, it’s so important because it would be far worse for them to find themselves in capability or losing their job and to feel like they didn’t know this was coming.

And how did it go? Well, it worked. Del took the message on board this time; he was down, worried and scared. Of course, I don’t want anyone to have these emotions and neither did the SLT, but the fact he realised how serious this was meant they had a better chance of working with him to improve to good and be secure in his teaching practise and job. If didn’t take the message on board, as difficult as that was for everyone involved, he would have most likely have found himself in capability, or worse, out of a job. And that’s far worse than the difficult conversation.

About the Author

Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, specialising in supporting Head Teachers and School Leaders create an outstanding school culture. To receive helpful tips and videos visit www.ukheadsup.com.

Published in Teach Primary Oct 2016

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