- Leadership error 1: Ignore gaps
Gaps between the written policy of a school and the lived reality can open up easily and cause terrible damage. If leaders ignore these gaps we allow our system to fail.
When I started at my old school, the policy looked pretty good on paper. But as I worked there for a few weeks, I began to notice that while some things that were written in the policy were followed by all or nearly all staff in the school, there were other things that were written in the policy but were tacitly allowed by everyone. For example, the policy stated that truanting a lesson was a C5 – and this was consistently adhered to. But the policy also stated that explicitly refusing an instruction from a member of staff was also a C5, and this was literally never used by anyone, including SLT. In fact when I started at the school and followed the written policy, I issued C5s for explicit refusal, and had the children brought back to my room, with me being told it should be a C4 not a C5. It took me a while to realise that this wasn’t an isolated misunderstanding but an enactment of custom and practice to which I, as a newcomer with only the written policy to guide me, was a stranger.
Let’s think about the damage this causes. If that happens to every new member of staff, what message do they receive? Until they work out, for themselves, that the policy does not mean what the policy says, but only in certain places, and that there is another set of rules, unwritten, for these other areas, what is their experience? They are devastatingly undermined in front of their students. Their students, who do not read the written policy but who see the enacted policy every day, think the teacher is either ill-informed, stupid or malicious, and they lose respect for the teacher, imagine that the teacher is out to get them, etc. This teacher will struggle unnecessarily because of the problems caused by this gap. There are other effects. You need your teachers to row together. You need your staff to believe in the school and in you as a leader. Do I really need to go into detail about how you will never, ever achieve this if your system causes staff to be undermined in this way?
These gaps affect everyone in the school, not just your new staff. As a new member of SLT, I asked a number of people about the consequences for various behaviours. I asked students, teachers, TAs, admin and supervisory staff. There was no agreement even between a single group. To the question “What is the consequence for being out of bounds?” I received the following answers: “C4” , “Ask them to move and if they refuse it’s a C4”, “Just move them along”, “I’m not sure”, “What do you mean by out of bounds?”. The consequence, according to the behaviour policy, was a C4 and move them on. This was appalling to me, since apart from anything else it was a significant safeguarding concern. But the effect is wider than this. If students experience different sanctions for the same behaviour, trust in the system, and in staff is eroded. Children pass this on to their parents and the wider community. You are setting yourself up for more conflicts, more refusals to comply with sanctions, more resistance from parents. Everyone knows that consistency is everything when it comes to behaviour but how many schools allow this variation to flourish? If staff are giving different answers, then none of them is really sure what they should be doing.
The other consequence of gaps between paper and reality is a wholesale lowering of staff responsiveness. Every time you see a behaviour, you go through a little flowchart in your head: “What is the behaviour? What is the consequence? What should I do?” If you’re even a little bit unsure of the consequence, you are more likely to ignore the behaviour. “I think that’s a C4 but maybe I should just ask them not to do it? What if I ask them not to and they refuse or are rude? Will I have escalated instead of deescalated? Will I have an uncomforatable investigation where the students says one thing and I say another? What if I’m wrong that I even saw that behaviour? I mean I know I saw it but how can I even trust my own eyes if it was my eyes that read the behaviour policy and I dont know what I should be doing?” Now I’m not saying all of this thinking is logical, but it is real. This happens in the moment – if the teacher had time to sit down and think slowly then it wouldnt be like this – but of course we all know that with behaviour we have to act in the moment and so Kahnemann’s fast thinking kicks in.
In fact even if you think you are sure, but you know that there are other things that you are not sure about, you doubt yourself: “I think I know what to do but what if I’m wrong? I don’t want to look like I dont know what I’m doing. I’m not sure what to do about X – maybe I’m just not sure about the whole policy! Maybe there’s something wrong with me that means I get things about the policy wrong all the time!” Gaps between the policy and lived reality means that inconsistency breeds like bunny rabbits. If you want to stop these gaps, you need to sit down as a team and go through your written policy line by line. Every time you find something that doesn’t match custom and practice, you need to either a) re-write the policy point so it matches what people do, or b) highlight it as needing a change in practice. Then for all A’s and all B’s, you need to tell staff, model their application, and support staff in applying them too. Your system will be strong when paper and actions match, and all staff are confident they know the right thing to do- but this won’t happen by itself- you have to make it happen.
2. Leadership error 2: Walk on by
Everyone knows that leaders should model the use of the behaviour system and yet time and again I’ve seen SLT walk past some behaviour that should have been addressed. Chewing, out of bounds, horseplay at break, students not complying with instructions from other staff, if it’s not supposed to happen then you have to notice it and sanction. If you don’t, staff will see, and of course they will not apply that rule themselves, but the effect will be much further reaching. Staff will question their application of every single thing in the behaviour policy, especially when out of lessons and they don’t stand to benefit immediately/individually (i.e. it’s not causing an issue to their lesson). Walking on by is a great way to create gaps between the policy and the lived reality, and also just to shift everyone’s tolerance for all behaviour down and lowers expectations. If you want to stop walking on by, you need to sit down as a team and make sure everyone is crystal clear on every part of the policy, and what this means they should do. I would suggest using an SLT meeting to considering a range of scenarios and asking members to discuss their responses in pairs before sharing as a group, and being clear in this discussion what should happen, what the reasons for any disagreements are, and making notes to improve the clarity of the policy if needed. Once all SLT know what they should be doing, they are much more likely to do it. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But it’s not the case in many schools.
3. Leadership error 3: Treat it as finished
So you’re clear as a team on what should happen according to the policy, you’ve gone through the updates with staff and you’re all committed to not walking on by. So now the policy will be enacted as you intend, right? WRONG. Being clear is not enough. Telling people is not enough. Not walking on by is not enough. Staff need to believe in the policy as a part of their own professional identity in order to use it to the high standard that you want them to. Belief cannot be picked up from a single meeting. It needs to be built and maintained. People’s natural state is to do nothing, or to do their own thing. We need people to do the policy thing- but they won’t do that unless constantly reinforced. Think about the psychology. Nobody wants to look like an idiot. If you’re working with a staff who previously had an inadequate policy, or gaps between the policy and the lived reality, or leaders who walked on by, they will have been made to feel like an idiot at some point because of these shortcomings. Even if none of these things have never applied, every time a child breaks a rule, there’s a part of everyone’s internal dialogue that says “maybe this is allowed now and I just didn’t realise?” The safe thing to do for a teacher is to do nothing – they are unlikely to be spoken to and told they have not used the system correctly. We have to fight this tendency every day as leaders! Here’s how you do it. You walk down the corridor every changeover and you thank staff for being on their doors. You pick up litter every time you walk past it. You intervene when you see a student being rude and you issue the consequence. Don’t worry about undermining your staff with this. This is the opposite of undermining. If you’re worried about undermining then explain this in staff briefing: “you can expect to see me and other members of SLT out and around the school, we’ll be issuing consequences where we see issues, it’s really important that you all know that this is a supportive thing, we appreciate how hard it can be to really believe that a policy means what it says, and we are going to be out modelling what this policy means, to help staff feel backed up in using it all the time.” You need to be warm and open to staff questions, you need to be happy to respond to questions by email since face-to-face conversations are harder to arrange, and you need to stand up, in briefing, every week, and tell staff about how you or other members of staff have applied the policy that week and why it’s the right thing to do. And you need to keep on doing this, because if you don’t, people will think it means they should stop. Great behaviour isn’t a destination, it’s a way of being and as such it is never finished.