teachers-at-screen-circleDuring my 16 years working in schools, Trusts or for the Inspectorate in England, I have sat through or delivered countless in-service training (INSET) sessions. I’ve launched new initiatives that had significant training demands and had many one-to-one coaching discussions resulting in a post-discussion demand. Regardless of the size of the initiative or merit of the intended outcome, each and every time I have received or given training input, someone in that room has faced the realisation that they were walking away with an additional thing to think about – including some extra pressure. That thing would hopefully be clearly linked to the change that has driven the need for it. A change based on something new, reflecting a strategic shift, or a change to encourage greater achievement of a long-term goal. But the pressure would have built regardless of the virtue.  

People get into teaching (I believe) because they want to make a difference to children’s lives and boost their life chances. They choose to achieve that ambition on a stage that is simultaneously familiar (as we’ve all been to school) and changing (because of a local, regional or national decision). Navigating the various expected demands is challenging; a challenge that varies depending on local contexts, legacy decisions and one’s own intentions. Within education we have, like most sectors, a difficulty in helping people through change. Setting a vision, plotting a course and delivering the tactics to get there, all  while building consensus and engaging pro-active support from those you depend on to make it happen is hard. Even harder when those on which you depend are already stretched because of changes imposed on them by factors outside of their “normal”, their comfort zone. 

I have tried to approach change management in the same way I learned early in my school leadership career. I have often drawn on an approach that I learned ahead of a training session in January 2010. I was working with a school governor who had broad experience in senior commercial and government roles. He’s advice boiled down to: 1) match your desired message to the communication method; 2) inspire people with your vision and then reinforce it using number 1; 3) deliver on what you promise through collaboration and leadership.  

A challenge for leaders today is that teaching staff, when receiving training aimed at spurring change, may not feel as if they are part of the thinking behind the change that has demanded that training. When sat there, hearing the rationale for the first time, they may not recognise the need for the change or see how they can be a part of making it happen. They may think you’ve missed the most pressing priority. They may be worried about whether they can meet the standard now being required. They may be skeptical, believing that changes in education are as common as tides and sometimes just as transient – so why is this the one, for which they’ll change their tried and tested approaches, be any different? All of this risks creating stress even before the change has really begun. 

Given the level of training required to become a teacher in the first place, it is reasonable for leaders to be expected to plan ahead to help those professionals get on board. Even then and after the couple of years that we’ve experienced, a further challenge is how to now rebalance teaching staff’s focus with contemporary demands. As we emerge from the pandemic, leaders are working out what worked well and  those attributes will be retained. Other new approaches will be stopped. Those decisions’ rationales may not be clear to the people who have been at the chalk face throughout. A natural imbalance risks being created where the inevitable strains on staff’s mental health (that are largely a consequence of the pandemic) appear at odds with school leaders’ renewed focus on the strategic goals that may have been slowed or paused during the pandemic, or have recently emerged. 

double-circle-child-2After the January 2010 training session that we delivered, I became quickly aware that the positive responses on the day did not translate into completely smooth sailing during implementation. Making the time to do the extra work required to change how we conducted  assessments and planned our curriculum was hard while delivering the day-to-day. During the following years of school and Trust leadership, I committed to learning the lessons from 2010 by talking and listening to those impacted by a change well in advance of declaring it more broadly; gaining support from the implementors so that we could understand the foreseeable negative impacts and try to mitigate them. For example, we made time to rollout a quality of life framework for children’s holistic development by drawing up a plan, consulting, making changes and then implementing the structural changes required over a year or more. We were able to draw from experienced staff who were familiar with similar approaches to help other staff through their changes. I haven’t always gotten it right. I can think of a few examples of implementation that I wish I could do over again. For example, expecting to be able to rollout a new information management system across a group of schools by relying largely on local self-training was ambitious and required extra support in the end. But in principle I have felt confident that the approaches I’ve taken stand the best chance of bringing people with me for the right reasons. 

Today, as I write this, the landscape is changing again. In previous blogs, I have thought about the challenges associated with the sector’s governance model mix amongst other things, challenges that have been recognised in the Government’s March 28th White Paper. While some of the White Paper’s headline grabbing statements don’t represent significant policy shifts, there are real catalysts for change that will demand specific actions. Leora Cruddas, CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) is quoted as reminding us of the importance of teachers above almost everything else when it comes to improving pupils’ schooling. This is a sentiment I and we at ONVU Learning wholly support. 

We all remember our favourite teachers. They are our favourites because of specific awe inspiring moments or consistently supportive approaches they took. But also because the memory of their impact on you is positive, underpinning a belief that tomorrow will be better than today and so the challenge of change now is worthwhile. I guess that the great teachers that I fondly remember knew how to manage their day-to-day so that whatever additionally came down the line could be taken in their stride (most of the time). They very rarely ever let additional stress show and always put us (the pupils) first. Policy and change makers in the education sector need to find a way to more consistently empower today’s teachers to do the same, giving control of the teaching and their development to the teachers and removing as many obstacles as possible to their success.

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