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Schools, despite being the most wonderful places to work,  can also be frustrating and painful places to be at times.

School leaders are charged with the responsibility of instilling the highest level of professionalism in their colleagues. Unfortunately, it is a undeniable fact that some teachers do a better job than others. The differences that one can see between teachers is wide-ranging. Some teachers are great at collaborating whilst others are reluctant to share and engage with others. Many teachers are great at giving students valuable feedback for learning while others are far less effective. A good number of teachers ensure that they act in the highest professional manner, however, we would be naive not to think that some teachers cut corners falling well short of their professional obligations.

Whether or not school leaders address the professionalism of their teachers can be a cause of significant tension in schools. When school leaders choose to discuss matters of professional conduct and / or performance with a teacher this can be confronting for both parties and a high level of emotional energy is spent, not always making matters better.

That said, leaders in schools are there for a reason, which is to get the best out of teachers, with least detriment in providing the best possible education for students. If leaders decide not to address teacher concerns that they or others may have, then frustrations may linger culminating in cynicism that ‘the school’ and / or its ‘administration’ do not hold everyone to the same high professional standard.

Here are 7 pieces of advice that I believe can help school leaders in having difficult conversations with teachers:

  1. Model the way – It is vital that we are role models for teacher behaviour in our schools. It means that teachers cannot be critical of your behaviour to deflect the concern that you raise of them.
  2. Do not put off the conversation – Timing is vital. You may wish to take time to consider that action that you will take but wait too long and the moment will pass, leading to a “why did you not tell me earlier” reply.
  3. Have evidence, if you can – If you can point to the evidence in the conversation, then it can make it easier for both the teacher and you to discuss.
  4. Raise the concern and then listen – allow the teacher to respond and give ‘wait time’, in that sometimes when we think someone has stopped talking, they have not quite finished; allow the pause and do not interrupt. It is important that the teacher has a voice. The conversation will involve emotion, so the opportunity for it to come out must be provided.
  5. Avoid comparison with other teachers – Set a benchmark for teacher professional expectation but do not compare poorly performing teachers against others – we would not want that for ourselves or our students.
  6. Take your cues from the given situation – make sure that you are able to clearly identify the problem that you are going to address together and why it is important e.g. for the students, for colleagues, for the school.
  7. Allow teacher ownership of the concern, document and follow-up – It is vital that teachers are given a say in how they are going to address the concern but you must hold them accountable to the actions that they are going to take to address the concern.

It is important that, for the sake of our students, our colleagues and our schools, we hold ourselves to high professional standards, expect it of others and address matters of concern. Action changes things.

Published by Richard Bruford

Richard is currently Secondary School Principal of Suzhou Singapore International School, one of China's leading international schools. He leads workshops across the Asia-Pacific region for the International Baccalaureate in the areas of pedagogical leadership and approaches to teaching and learning. Richard consults with schools on the topics of school improvement and effective implementation and use of technology. With a background in public and independent school education in the UK and Australia, Richard is enjoying his international school adventure in China. He is passionate about developing and supporting educational leaders, as it is essential to improving all schools. Richard is a proud family man and feels lucky to be married to Kim and father of their son Austin. In his spare time Richard enjoys to swim, bike and run and is a now retired football player and coach (with occasional guest appearances)

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