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

| April 6, 2011 | 0 Comments

Part Four – By Brendan Doolan

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.

There can be no doubt that there is huge reward for those of us who are in a responsible position as school leaders. There is the sense of ‘making a difference’, but there is also always some sort of residual guilt that comes with our personal history of having been teachers. We are called to understand and exercise power; no longer in the classroom, but in the so-called ‘adult world’.

Mix and match
Some call it ego, some call it self-confidence. Call it what you will, but there has to be a match between our own personal self-actualisation, our self-confidence and the roles in which we find ourselves. According to both Evans and Thompson, if you do not have the self-confidence (the will to make a difference), the ability to conquer challenges, and if it is not your intention to actualise yourself or realise your potential in this way, then possibly Headship is not for you.

If you accept the mission and vision of your school (and there would be very few schools which would not have a mission and a vision about the importance of the education of future citizens), and you do not believe you can make a difference as a ‘nation builder’, then perhaps the leader role is not your niche. As Heads, we are privileged to be able to expand our own personal skill sets in so vast an array of areas outside the comfort zone of the classroom: legal, accounting, marketing, construction, etc. It is indeed this flourish of discovery about the extent of our skills, and our ability to unlock them, that feeds our own personal stories or narratives that are, in turn, our very mainspring. It is this broadening of the horizons, if you like, that leads us to say “I do like what I do, and I am learning to get better at it, each and every day.”

Working with anxious parents
As teachers ourselves, who have spent the greater part of our working lives in classrooms with children, we are not, as a rule, drawn to working with adults. Indeed, we are not trained or even professionally qualified to deal with the difficult adults who come into our lives – both teachers and parents. And yet we will be appraised and evaluated on our ability to do so. Not fair, but the reality of the position. All parents who send their children to independent schools ‘want something more’. This is the unwritten, psychological contract that exists between the school and its anxious parents,and we don’t often even know that it exists until somehow we break it! No matter what the academic ability of the child, we soon realise that going to university is the eventual outcome that our parents have in mind, and they become demanding and often intimidate teachers with the urgency of their demands.

Not that we should not be in the business of turning academic sows’ ears into silk purses. Very often, given the quality of our teaching and the nature of our schools, we are able to help children who might not otherwise have achieved entrance to university. But the pressure of parental expectations is intense. Many teachers leave our profession not only because of poor earnings, or because of the children that they have to teach, but because of the relatively small minority of impossible parents with whom they must transact.

Stand up with – and for – your staff
However, it is dangerous to think of parents as a monolithic block. The fact is that 95% of parents are reasonable and open to discussion. But 5% are not, whatever the reason, and this is where the Head needs to step in. Our teachers need to be reassured that if ever they are in a meeting where they are feeling scared, anxious or abused, they must be able to withdraw and ‘kick the issue upstairs’ to their Department Head, the Deputy Head or the Head.

This 5% of parents should not be taking up our teachers’ time and using up the sacred space that exists between teacher and child. Teachers need training so that theydo not have to take on these ‘five per centers’, saying the following: “You know, Mr Smith, I have talked to and e-mailed you more than any other parent in our class, but I seem unable to reassure you that Susie is doing well, and doing her best. I have asked Mr Jones, our Deputy Head, to have a word with you about it.” Another tactic is to ensure that no teachers meet with ‘five per centers’ unless a member of the management team is present. At the end of the day, the abusive parent does need to be shown the door.

Picking and choosing
As Heads, we tend to believe that the more choice the children in our schools have, the better satisfied their parents are going to be. Not so. The more choice you have, according to researchers, the less satisfied you are with the choice you actually make. Continually adding choices and options at your school will not necessarily keep your parents happy. Indeed, we run into the danger of what is known as the ‘string of beads curriculum’. If we keep adding beads to the string, eventually the neck will bow, and the string will break. So many of our parents are also labouring under the ‘paradox of the great parent’. This deep psychological need for the mother or father to be great at their role ends up being a huge burden to the child.

Brendan Doolan is Headmaster at Chesterhouse School.

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Category: Autumn 2011

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