Leading from the Middle

The TES this week referenced a study conducted by the NAHT Headteachers’ union in which it was found that in 2014, just 15 per cent of school leaders said the rate at which teachers were quitting the job was making it harder to recruit but that the figure has now jumped to 42 per cent.

The study showed that almost four in five schools had struggled or failed to fill vacancies this year and it backed up the TES’s evidence that Headteachers were ‘having to resort to offering “golden handshakes and other financial incentives to recruit and retain teachers.’

I’ve spent the last two and a half years setting up a school from scratch. Alongside managing the, sometimes fragile, dynamics of a new student body, overseeing a building project and forging the new wider school community, has been the central task of motivating and retaining the staff body.

With a small school population, this task has been made ever more tricky because of our inability to offer candidates plum positions. More often than not, we have been recruiting to fractional roles and hoping that the staff that come our way will stay long enough to grow into the middle leaders and full time members of staff that will one day populate the staff structure.

The consequences of the teacher shortage as well as the impact of losing staff each year have rocked our small school and I have had to position myself squarely next to the issues. I have had to cosy up with the problem and really get to the heart of how to retain staff.

I now think I may have encountered every variant of the urgent ’I need to meet with you’ conversation and had every response to losing staff that is possible. I have indeed wept (not in front staff but I don’t rule it out), I have been sad, I have been angry, I have been secretly pleased and I am sorry to say, I have even been indifferent.

What I have learned from these conversations with staff is that every year, for them, the job has gotten harder, and that without a sense of moral purpose and the conviction that your purpose will be met with change, the job loses its appeal for many.

I have learned that trying to hold on to people is futile and that the only way to encourage people that staying will be fine is to gently let them go. Let them come to your office and stamp and fury about what doesn’t work, let them into a space in which it is ok to envisage an entirely different future, let them go deep into that space in which they imagine leaving the school.

I have learned that to sit side by side with colleagues in this space, to lead from the middle of the crisis rather than to try and get ahead if it, somehow let’s a bit of light in, lets space in. And when folk feel that anything is possible, that if they stay its fine and if they go its fine, that they are wanted but that when they leave, someone else who is needed in that moment, at that time will fill the void, that typically they decide to stay.

When once I would fear the urgent ’I need to meet with you’ conversation (for how on earth can we afford to fill yet another post in the school?), now I look forward to circling back, joining them back there on the walk, sitting for a moment and looking back over the terrain we have walked together. I enjoy sitting alongside them and looking out onto the various horizons they have ahead of them. I enjoy seeing the view through their eyes and hope, at least, to give them the sustenance they need if they are to set foot out there in a different direction to the rest of the travellers and I.

Leading from this perspective is so empowering, so joyful, as it reminds you that you are a leader of people, not just a school and that your leadership, your openness, has the opportunity to touch many different horizons, not just the one you are heading for.