Talking the Talk: How do your staff talk to each other? | Education Support
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Talking the Talk: How do your staff talk to each other?

22nd August 2019

How do your members of staff talk to each other? If this is something you may not have considered, let me convince you otherwise.

Within the broadest definition of the rather abstract term ‘wellbeing’ we need to consider more than workload, marking, timetabling and behaviour management. As a profession we are not recruiting sufficient teachers for the current time and more significantly we are not retaining them, as the Education Support Partnership's 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index clearly shows.

We need our teachers, teaching assistants and other staff to be physically well in order for them to fulfil their roles. There is little we can do about seasonal colds and flu but we do risk assess our colleagues for certain aspects of their physical health. A teacher returning from an operation on their back or from abdominal surgery would have some consideration to their PE lessons being covered for example.

Likewise we need to be as aware, if not more aware, of the mental health of our colleagues. We can’t disguise a broken arm or a cold, and while some people will be open about their emotional health, we will have colleagues who may hide their difficulties, or decide to keep their concerns private. Yet we have 31% of education professionals who have experienced a mental health problem in the last year. Some of this might be attributed to workload, with 67% of the profession, and 80% of school leaders, describing themselves as ‘stressed’ in the Education Support Partnership's 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index.

Workload is however only part of our wellbeing culture. There are other issues to consider, hence the focus of this piece on how we talk to each other.

Place a group of people in a room and ask them to get on with each other instantly and for the next few weeks and months. Your chances of this being a complete success are probably slim to marginal. Set tasks which add pressure, arbitrary deadlines, external judgements and the fear of failure and the chances of two people not exchanging some harsh words becomes more unlikely. This isn’t however ‘Love Island’ or some other contrived reality show. This reality is happening in many of our schools as many of our teachers, support staff and leaders forget how to address each other.

You may have witnessed colleagues who have to work together but have fallen out over an issue which may have been insignificant but in a pressure cooker environment magnifies to something catastrophic; like ‘Watching two people going through a divorce but still having to live in the same house.’ The resultant wave of pressure hits the staff who have fallen out but it is then for their colleagues to face the consequences of this. The wellbeing of several parties can be compromised, including those who have only been indirectly involved to this point. The positive culture of wellbeing is under threat here from workplace pressures but also the lack of interpersonal skills by one or more in this chain.

My research findings show that an aspect of school life that makes some teachers feel professionally uncomfortable is when they have been shouted at; not ‘talked to’ but ‘shouted at’, sometimes behind closed doors but also in public view, in the staffroom or along the corridor.

Sometimes it is headteachers and senior leaders who act in this manner, but as often, if not more so, it comes elsewhere from the staff. Please do not underestimate the impact upon wellbeing of the words of others, especially if this happens in public. Whilst this may be a gauge of the pressure that high stakes testing puts on all of us, what is clearly lacking here is empathy for the feelings of their colleagues. When this becomes a consistent habit, repeated on a regular basis then the person on the receiving end may consider this to be workplace bullying.

Another consideration, perhaps one to expand further in another piece, is the way that our colleagues talk about each other. In short, this is where cliques and gossip can undermine or even wreck mental wellbeing. This can be typified by the following:

  • Less experienced or more vulnerable staff hearing something said about a trusted colleague, often in a senior or leadership role, by somebody who tends to dominate discussion, and then feels pressured or bullied into ‘taking sides’ which is a divisive result.
  • Where rumour concerns someone job hunting, whether true or not, it can be unsettling for others to hear but is also an invasion of the private business of others.
  • Gossip about personal or private life. Again this is nobody’s concern. Divorce and relationship breakdown is enough of an emotional minefield, one made more treacherous with misplaced chatter. If anything is uttered which is untrue, this can cast a false image of a colleague and can also be deeply upsetting.
  • Taking of posts and pictures from social media out of context, but sharing them with others.

As school leaders, the impact of negative talk can challenge our own wellbeing and that of our teaching staff, but can also undermine positive school culture. Within an affirmative school culture, there are a number of strategies which could help:

  • Know your staff. Know who is emotionally vulnerable to the impact of sharp words or staffroom gossip. Find them a trusted mentor or buddy as a deflection from negativity.
  • You promote what you permit but permit what you promote. Challenge negative behaviour, but do so in private and do so professionally. If it needs a word about disciplinary procedures, do so. It won’t be considered to be ‘leadership bullying’ if it is what is needed to break the habit of unprofessional discourse.
  • Talk to your staff: not just ‘school talk’ but about what makes them tick; their families, weekends, holidays, cultural and sporting choices. Good emotional intelligence is demonstrated through having a broad concern for your colleagues.

Positive work environments thrive on relationships. Tight budgets mean that these relationships can be under pressure. Talking to each other however is free. Make it count.

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher at Orchard Primary School in Sidcup, co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit and the author of “The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff” published by Bloomsbury Education. Andrew tweets as @andrew_cowley23 and as @HealthyToolkit

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