The recipe for sustenance that we all need and so rarely enjoy

| November 9, 2010
Part Three – By Brendan Doolan

Part Two of this editorial is also available online here.

Thirty seasoned Heads gathered recently at a comfortable game lodge with two world experts on headship – Rob Evans and Michael Thompson. Brendan Doolan reflects on the shared thoughts and themes.

What do we really know of the paradox of power? There is a vast difference between the structural, potential or even theoretical power of the Head and actual or behavioural power – the reality. If we are to understand this, then we must understand teachers’ ambivalence about power. They may think or believe that they have no power but, in actual fact, they really do with regards to children.

However, they may well sometimes feel disempowered in the ‘adult’ world.

No to negative narratives

All too often we all allow ourselves – Heads and teachers alike – to become trapped in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. All too often, we forget about the majority of children who are learning (more or less successfully), and focus on the few who are not. Thus discussions with teachers are often framed by ‘negative’ narratives.

This can derail meetings or conversations about change or confronting problematic issues. There is much evidence that poor staff morale is directly correlated to pupil performance. If the collective narrative in the staff room is negative, then this will have a debilitating effect on morale and, by extension, a negative effect on the  performance on the children with whom teachers come into contact.

Negative narratives cannot simply be brushed aside or swept under the carpet. They have to be acknowledged and handled. This is not an easy task, yet it is one that we as Heads are called on to perform almost daily. Somehow, we have to put an end to the staffroom feeding frenzy.

Taking the notion of the ambivalence of power further, it is true that teachers are not generally motivated by money. They can however be demotivated by too little  money, and may well inherently loathe the concept of competing with their peers on a commercial basis. It is almost as if teachers join schools to be part of an institution and a tradition; an almost monastic yen. Motivation occurs via recognition, gratitude and kindness far more than the ‘non-monastic’ methods.

Working with Boards of Governors

We are all very familiar with the problems caused by Governors who wish to get ‘involved’, and who indeed add value with the broad spread of their professional abilities,  but then have to keep being ‘fed’. How difficult it is to manage the enthusiasm and the energy of people who do add value to our operation, while ensuring that there is a clear understanding of operational and Governors’ ‘turf ’!

This is particularly so where we have Governors who are also parents. Very rare, and indeed very fortunate, is the Board of Governors nowadays where the majority is not  made up of parents of children in the school. It seems impossible to attract Governors to our Boards who are not parents. We do need Governors who can provide the three Ws: work, wealth and wisdom. We need the hours of time and effort spent by Governors in the interests of our schools. We do need access to wealth that is beyond that which we create with our own fee income, and heaven knows we do need the wisdom of oversight where we are guided, advised and counselled by people who should really be able to see the wood for the trees.

Facing the frustrations and nurturing relationships

Most important of all is the relationship that exists between the Head and the chair of the Board of Governors. How many of us are able to spend about an hour a week with our Board Chairs in relationship-building conversations, with no notes taken and no action or follow-up needed? This is a very necessary part of relationship-building, and we are all guilty of neglecting this area.

We are all aware of the tension that exists between Governors and school management, where Governors find it very difficult to understand why quick and immediate  action cannot be taken, and why change is so slow and incremental in schools. Both Evans and Thompson recommend that we ask this question frequently of our Boards: “How would you like to try and make radical change at your place of worship?” Although of course the parallels are not exact, it is true that the similarities between schools and religious institutions are there. After all, the education of the young lay in the hands of religious institutions for many centuries before mass public education became a feature of the social landscape in the west only in the late 19th century.

Ambush at Board meetings!

There is nothing that the Head worries about more, and works so hard to avoid, than the prospect of being blindsided at a Board meeting. Really, the only protection against this lies in intensity of preparation. There should be no part of any Board meeting that is not carefully prepared for, and fully in the hands of both the Chair and the Head. Outside of this clearly strategised agenda there should be no issues allowed onto the table – and this requires strong chairing of the meeting as well as the clear understanding on the part of the Board Executive whose duty – along with the Head – it is to support the Chair very firmly on such occasions.

Evans and Thompson asked how often our Boards review themselves. It is critically important that the Board should complete regular self-evaluations in terms of its ability to execute its own strategy. We really do want to avoid the definition given by Richard Chait in his book The Effective Board of Trustees that “a Board of Trustees is a bunch of amateurs who never really get good at what they are doing”. Indeed, just as the Head and all staff are appraised, so too should the Board be appraised – and there are many instruments available just for this purpose.

It is also important to get Board members involved in seeing the day-to-day management of the school: visiting classes, sports practices, cultural rehearsals, etc. From time to time it is advisable to have Board members at executive planning meetings, so that they can get an intimate view of the difficult issues facing management. Finally, the importance of succession planning for the Chair is mission-critical. Clearly this applies to the Head as well and, while some attention is given to the latter, very little attention is given to the former.

Brendan Doolan is Principal of Chesterhouse School.

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Category: Summer 2010

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