Watering the Plants

I have been fortunate to hear Sir John Dunford talk on more than one occasion and each time he has emphasised that one of the jobs of a school leader is to ‘water the plants’; to invest in nurturing and developing the people that you work with, and for, so that both they and the school achieves more together.

The busier we get, sometimes the less we find ourselves doing what really matters. We slip back into Operator/ Manager role (Steve Radcliffe) neglecting the importance of nurturing relationships and developing others. As a consequence, we stop thinking about how we shape the culture and climate in the school(s) that we lead. Creating the culture and climate in any organisation is never a neutral act. We either improve them through our leadership actions or diminish them; there is no in-between. I have always liked Andy Buck’s definition of the difference between the two.

Culture – this is what we do round here

Climate – this is what it feels like to be here

In a time of significant pressures on our schools in terms of budget and recruitment how do we, as school leaders, create a climate where staff feel challenged, supported and nurtured in equal measure? How do we create the climate that entices potential candidates to want to work at our school and ensures existing staff want to stay? What strategies can we put in place to ‘water the plants’?

Create a climate of high support

The primary job of senior leaders is to serve the staff. This was taught to me by Ani Magill, then headteacher of St John the Baptist School, Woking. Having visited her school and seen the impact of this philosophy on the climate of the school, when I became a Headteacher I ensured that the first priority on all senior leaders’ job descriptions at my school was ‘Presence’. Be visible, be available and support the staff before anything else. We ‘borrowed’ the concept of ‘Every Lesson, Every Day’ from Ani’s school and implemented it at Vyners. Every lesson of the day, a member of SLT visited every classroom / learning space in the school in order to maintain our high presence and support the staff. This wasn’t ‘on call’ and it certainly had nothing to do with measuring teacher effectiveness; it was there to serve the staff, celebrate students who were demonstrating fantastic learning behaviours and occasionally work alongside staff with students who were having a negative impact on the learning of others. It was one of the best things we ever introduced in my time at Vyners and despite the logistical challenges and workload spikes, it was always a priority.

Toyota have a philosophy of Gemba, roughly translated as ‘The Real Place’.  It states that “Toyota Managers must be sufficiently engaged on the factory floor that they have to wash their hands at least three times a day.” In schools, how often do peak workload times result in SLT spending a disproportionate amount of time in their offices, using e-mail as the primary communication tool? In the very best schools, SLT ensure that they remain ‘sufficiently engaged’ with staff and the school, regardless of these work pressures. They use this time to increase their understanding of the climate of the school, build relationships with staff and ask questions to help deepen their understanding of what can be done better/ differently.

Create a climate of high challenge

High performing organisations are not supposed to be comfortable places to work. They are supposed to be challenging, vibrant environments where staff believe that they are striving towards a shared compelling vision; where they believe that they can and are making a difference to the lives of young people. A school with a culture of high challenge, as long as it is coupled with high support, is an exciting place to work. All staff understand the difference between personal and professional relationships and are comfortable to ‘check and challenge’ each other in a safe, high-trust environment. A good idea is a good idea, whether you’ve been working at the school for two weeks or twenty years. All staff are invested in the future of the school and know that this means that expectations are consistently high but not at all costs.

Create a climate of fun

Working in a school can feel a bit like being a submariner. At the start of every term, you bid farewell to family, friends and a social life as you submerge beneath the surface of school life only to emerge again 6-8 weeks later into the dazzling daylight of a school holiday. It needn’t be this way and this is probably a theme of a future post, however, it is the reality for many colleagues. When we spend that much of our time and invest that much of our emotional energy in our place of work, it is important that we give ourselves permission to have fun whilst we are there. In my time as Headteacher at Vyners we probably wore fancy dress more times than might be considered normal; engaged in Flash Mobs in the school playground; embarked on competitive bake-off challenges; transformed the school hall into a Star Wars set; put on staff pantomimes; musical videos; lip sync challenges; murder-mystery nights; Secret Santa; the list goes on. These events and many more like them helped to create a climate of fun and community spirit that enabled us to get through the more challenging times. Did it help us to deliver an extra 0.02 on our P8? Who knows and frankly who cares but it did help to make it a better place to spend many hours of our collective professional lives and that seems a good enough reason for me!

Create a climate of celebration and recognition

We never say thank you as often as we should and the busier we get, the less often we take the time to do it well. I won’t begin to suggest that I got this right as a school leader but there were things that we did that helped to nurture this climate. I always had a box of postcards on my desk to remind me to write personal thank you notes to staff whenever I could. We would have a thank you raffle at the end of every term with staff nominating their peers with short, written citations. Every Christmas I would write a card to every member of staff with a personalised note inside each one. It would take me hours but enough people appreciated it for me to know that it is was an important use of my time. At least once a month we would start our morning SLT meetings with the question ‘Who should we be thanking?’. Announcements in morning briefings serve a purpose but nothing beats the unexpected, corridor conversation which focuses on unconditional praise.

Create a climate of kindness and understanding

One of the elements of headship that I wasn’t prepared for was that you will be someone’s boss during some of the best times in their life but also the worst possible times. It is was a privilege and a humbling experience to share people’s joy as they announced their engagement, the birth of their first child or were awarded their doctorate. However, you are also there when people suffered a bereavement of a close relative, sometimes receiving the news whilst they were at work or those staff that are caring for a loved one who is terminally ill. In the words of Maya Angelou ‘People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ Wrap the arms of the school community around people at these difficult times and they will never forget the kindness you showed them. As teachers we often sacrifice the needs of our own children and families so that we can look after those who we teach. I, along with many colleagues, have missed key family or friend events due to work commitments and, frankly, it feels rubbish. As far as is reasonably possible, give people the time they need to watch a nativity play, attend a sports day or graduation and try to do it without reference to a ten-page policy or what they must do in return to ‘make up for it’. Just support them because it’s the right thing to do.

Create a climate of personal growth

The very best schools create a climate where staff know that the school is truly invested in their personal and professional growth.

“The companies I admire primarily use the word ‘growth’ as it relates to their people. When leaders put their people first, their people take care of the numbers.” – Simon Sinek

Professional development that is meaningful, has a lasting impact and is bespoke to each member of staff is rewarded with significant, discretionary effort. We know that appraisal done badly is no more than a paper exercise that creeps to the bottom of everyone’s to-do list until approximately 48hrs before the deadline. Done well, it is an opportunity to explore career aspirations and align the needs of the individual to those of the wider organisation. It is an opportunity to ask questions, listen and support personal growth. At Vyners, we always ensured that every member of staff had a professional development and a well-being target as part of their appraisal. It is fair to say that this worked better for some than others but the statement of intent was ‘this is important and we should spend time exploring it to see how the school can support you’. My philosophy around developing staff has always been summed up by the exchange below:

CFO – ‘What happens if we invest in all our staff and they leave?’

CEO – ‘What happens if we don’t and they stay?’

My experience has always taught me that when you take an active interest in someone’s growth and help them to achieve their goals, the individual feels more invested in the organisation and the organisation benefits as a result.

Martin Underwood; Graham Cracknell; Alan Gray; Jeremy Turner; Margaret Hutchinson; Will Smith; Sir John Rowling; Tracy Smith and many others – I have never forgotten the bosses, mentors and line managers who invested in me, showed me kindness and helped shaped my career. They took the time to ‘water the plant(s)’ and I’ve done my best to pay it forward to those that I have had the privilege to call colleagues ever since.