The Art of Leading a Department: Challenging Staff, Part 1

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”


If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

The word challenge is one of those with many semantic interpretations. For me, challenging staff is two fold:

  • Asserting your expectations when staff don’t meet basic standards
  • Giving staff opportunity to test their abilities to make a difference

In this post, we’ll look at the first one.

To begin with, let’s start by asking a question – what is the point of our job, as teachers? Well, that’s easy, surely. It’s to educate the students in our care. So let me ask a more searching question, how do we know we’re doing our job properly?

In my opinion, a teacher has to do a few basic things (amongst others – this is not meant to be a comprehensive list):

  • Plan lessons
  • Get to know their students, developing positive relationships
  • Instruct their students in what they need to know
  • Assess that students have understood the instruction
  • Offer opportunity for students to develop knowledge, skills and understanding
  • Reflect on the progress of these tasks and the achievement of their students

If these elements are done well, then chances are the students in their care will perform well. They’re interdependent; the strength of each element reinforces others. Forgive me for the obviousness of those points but I feel that occasionally it’s important that one cuts through all the ‘fog of war’ and remember what we’re really here to do.

So, let’s go back to the question posed earlier. How does one know if you’re doing your job properly? Well, it’s doing all of the above, and no matter where you are in the teaching hierarchy, failure to do those things means you’re not doing your role effectively. As I’ve said in the previous part of this series on leading by example – if you don’t do it, how can you expect your staff to?

Either way, as a leader you’ve got a responsibility to ensure your staff are doing those things listed above. There are two ways of going about intervening when things aren’t going as you want them to.

The first way is judgementally. That’s lesson monitoring, data analysis, student voice and review meetings. We know how they work and we know that unless treated with caution they can have a negative impact on the persons involved.

The second way is a coaching model.

Many moons ago I trained to become a junior football coach. It was hard work, because you had to do all of the exercises yourself before you coached the youngsters (and my word did our tutor work us hard). All of us on the coaching programme were teachers, and we were used to a very didactic method of instruction. Unfortunately on the football pitch that does very little to develop and improve skills, so we had to think differently. So this is what we did.


1. Observed the players practicing skills.
2. Identified two or three areas for development.
3. With the player observing, modelled the skill, focusing on the area to develop.
4. Gave the player chance to practice this development.
5. Observed the player practicing again, looking to see if the development was embedded.
6. Repeated the cycle if necessary.

Sound familiar?

Let’s put this in a teaching context.

1. Observe the teacher leading a lesson.
2. Identify two or three areas for development.
3. With the teacher observing, model these skills in your own classroom.
4. Give the teacher chance to practice themselves.
5. Observe the teacher again, looking to see if the development has been embedded.
6. Repeat if necessary.

Sounds remarkably easy, but it’s incredibly difficult to implement. Why? Well, a lot of teachers quite simply do not like being observed, and that’s fair enough if you think about it, not many people like an audience of peers. Add the fact that quite often such observations are used to rate teachers and you can see why there’s such agitation. But unfortunately if we’re to get past the judgemental cycle of challenging teachers when they’re not matching their potential then as leaders we have to address those barriers.

First of all, go back to the principle of leading by example. Get your team to watch you. It’s surprising how many barriers are broken down by this simple action. Get them to identify strengths and areas for development in your lessons – and don’t take it personally if you don’t like what they’re saying, especially if it’s the “it’s all very well for you, you’ve only got … lessons to teach”. Some teachers don’t see the amount of sh…, sorry bureaucracy that leaders have to (ahem) shovel every day, and it’s important that you consider that.

Secondly, get your staff watching each other, and get them to be brutally honest. What did they like? What didn’t they? What minor tweaks would make the big difference? Put it together in a department action plan and share it with everyone. Open, honest, collective action makes so much more difference than trying to drag the horse to water, etc. Most importantly, don’t give any lesson judgements. As Dylan William, et al tell us in  Inside The Black Box: once you’ve given someone a grade on their work you actually negate the impact that any formative development points will have.

Thirdly – give it time to happen. A coaching plan isn’t going to make a difference overnight and you’ll need to keep tabs on things. Regular update meetings – they don’t have to be long – with staff will give you an eye on what’s really going on.

Finally, and this is the hardest and most controversial bit. There are going to have to be times where the hard line is played. Dave Brailsford calls this ‘compassionate ruthlessness’. Give your staff every chance to learn and develop themselves. Provide your own time and support where it’s possible and persevere. But there are times where if you can see a teacher is letting students down (and therefore the team and themselves down), you will need to start going down the judgemental route. It isn’t pleasant, and for some teachers as soon as they start down this route they struggle to see the good in what they do, but ultimately being a champion for your staff is sometimes about harsh realities, and supporting them in whatever they need to do.

One thing I haven’t talked about is marking. Generally teachers struggle to get into a habit with marking. I’m one of them. It’s actually not that difficult to do; it just takes aaaaaaaaaaages to do properly. You can still, however, follow the coaching model, and get staff to share the load in this respect – especially if a marking policy (ugh) isn’t being met.

Lastly on marking, remember this. Dan Ariely, the behavioural economist, in this TED talk, discusses what makes people feel good about the work they do. Surprisingly, it isn’t lots of money. In fact after a point as the amount of money increases the smaller the incremental impact becomes on motivation. It’s simple acknowledgement of their efforts by their superiors, in many cases. In other words, marking, for all that it feels like a Herculean labour, is a very effective way of getting students to be confident in what they’re studying. Through simple acknowledgement of the work they’ve done (I don’t mean a tick, or writing ‘good’ on a piece of paper, by the way) then you can make a real difference to their progress.

In other words, mark your books well, get staff to look at your books, and then get them to do the same. It all takes time, and how you do it and how frequently is up to you and your school, but ultimately it’s worth it for the students.

And, as always, that’s all that matters.


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
This entry was posted in The Art of Leading a Department. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Art of Leading a Department: Challenging Staff, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Art of Leading a Department: Challenging Staff, Part 2 | Teaching at the edge of chaos

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