Stress. How much is too much?

Like most teachers, I’ll be back at school on Monday and already I’ve got the heeby jeebies. Apart from all the usual planning and preparation, controlled assessment folders for the new GCSE specification need final moderation. Every English department is in the same position; this is our first run through with new marking criteria and so much is riding on us getting these marks right. There can be no mistakes.

I know I’m not the only one to be feeling the pressure at the moment. The new watchword in education is ‘accountability’. If students don’t make ‘expected progress’ then I’m at fault and liable to be sacked. Obviously if my results were poor this would seem a reasonable pressure to be under, but they’re not; they’re excellent. So why am I feeling under so much pressure?

There seems to be a belief that effective leadership is about being uncompromising and brutal. Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw has said this explicitly.

Take that scene in Pale Rider when the baddies are shooting up the town, the mists dissipate and Clint is there. Being a headteacher is all about being the lone warrior, fighting for righteousness, fighting the good fight, as powerful as any chief executive. I’m not that bothered about distributed leadership; I would never use it; I don’t think Clint would either. We need headteachers with ego. You see heads who don’t use ‘I’ and use ‘we’ instead, but they should. We need heads who enjoy power and enjoy exercising that power.

Well, it’s a point of view. He’s also said

A good head would never be loved by his or her staff, If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.

The problem with Sir Mike uttering these pithy pearls of wisdom is that they lead to situations like this: What keeps me awake at night – A tale of two head teachers. The head in this article is described thus:

He rarely praises staff, but passes criticisms down through senior management. He has regular pupil attainment meetings with teachers, telling us that problems at home cannot be taken into consideration when getting levels up. Head Number 2’s staff feel unappreciated, demoralised and permanently on edge.

Is this really what we want staff in schools to feel? Can this really be the best way to lead effectively? Does SMW really think this is a successful model of headship? Maybe he’s been misrepresented by a cruel education press?

If this really is what he believes then it might pay him to consider the following question. What happens if you put something, or someone, under too much stress for too long? In the case of a steel bar, it breaks. In the case of a human being, they break down. Stress is caused by threat or challenge and we need to feel some of that if we’re going to perform at our peak, but there comes a point at which the pressure applied becomes too great and performance drops off. Yesterday, I came across The inverted U hypothesis which suggests that if too much pressure is applied to athletes then their performance is reduced. Now, I understand that this is sports psychology and only a hypothesis but it seems like common sense.

I haven’t been able to find any evidence for Wilshaw’s views, but maybe there is some. If so, I’d really like to see it.

It’s also worth reading Alistair Smith’s High Performers for an antidote to SMW. My favourite quote from this is still the advice to leaders to “Strip out every demand on teachers except that they prepare for and teach to the best of their ability.” Yeehaw!

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High Performers  
Who inspects Ofsted?



High Performers

The postman delivered High Performers – The Secrets of Successful Schools by Alistair Smith this week. For anyone who’s not read it, the book contains bucket loads of wisdom and tons of practical advice on every single page. To tell the truth, I feel a little breathless about all the good stuff contained therein. Alistair took it upon himself to visit 20 high performing schools up and down the land and try to distill what it is that makes them successful. Predictably, he found that there is no ‘one size fits all’ silver bullet which can make schools outstanding but he has gleaned all sorts of juicy tidbits which are certainly worth digesting.

Rather than debating the worth of the book as a whole, I’m just going to spread out some of my favourite snippets for you to chew over and mull at your leisure.

Good leaders will:

  • stop the school and staff doing good things to make time for them to do even better things
  • kick out something old to make way for new initiatives
  • say no to new initiatives which don’t further the school’s core purpose
  • ask for feedback from staff – three things they do well and three things they could improve
  • don’t try to change human behaviours when people are tired and at their most vulnerable
  • look in lessons every period, every day
  • give authority to teachers at the point of need
  • give teachers the freedom to fly
  • support staff rather than try to catch them out
  • find ways to involve the staff in the future direction of the school without creating any extra work for them
  • make the point that the school is and always will be a safe haven for learning
  • do whatever they can to attract talent and retain it
  • keep what’s already good and works well
  • put people before policies
  • speak positively to each and every member of staff at least once every week
  • Strip out every demand on teachers except that they prepare for and teach to the best of their ability
Good teachers will:
  • go the extra mile
  • ask good questions and listen to the answers
  • make it safe for students to take risks and fail
  • ban pointless classroom activities
  • know the names of all the students they teach
  • teach the skills of peer and self assessment
  • avoid unhelpful comparisons between students
  • catch children being good and being successful
  • tell every class they are the best you’ve ever taught and that they will beat all previous records
  • use an agreed checklist of what constitutes great learning to help plan lessons
  • become a scientist and investigate their teaching
  • orient classes to learning rather than performing
  • consider the social, emotional, physiological and cognitive dimension to preparing students for exams
  • use technology in service to learning, not for its own sake
  • think beyond inspection criteria
Good middle leaders will:
  • support but also challenge
  • encourage staff to take risks
  • talk up and take pride in their team
  • keep themselves physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually attuned to the rigours of their role
  • take a responsible and realistic attitude to financial spending
  • put effort into planning for the short, medium and long term
  • be resolute when necessary
  • stay up to date and professionally informed about new approaches to and understanding of learning
  • encourage colleagues to do the same
  • model high standards in their own teaching
  • be strategic in how talent is deployed
  • know the students
  • shift the culture on observing lessons and giving feedback
  • make it easier for others to do their job
  • be supportive of the leadership team as far as possible
  • be positive and have consistent values
  • communicate regularly and clearly
  • be on top of performance data
  • involve others in the decision making
  • contribute to the life of the school
  • never ignore a misdemeanour
  • challenge mediocrity
This is just a taste. The book is packed with lots more sound advice and these, and many other ideas, are explored in detail. I didn’t agree with everything but it was all worth reading, if only to test whether my alternatives are robust enough. If you work in a school, whatever your role, this book is worth buying.

For other recommended reads, look here