I was once in a governors meeting when I was a deputy head in Tower Hamlets. It was heated. The chair and the head teacher had fallen out over something ridiculous. The head interrupted the chair and he suddenly shot out of his seat and shouted across the table, finger pointing like a loaded gun, “You! You shut your mouth woman!” It was a horrible moment. What should have been the subtle practice of the gentile art of educational debate became a rough, cider swigging, back-alley bar brawl. I think it is why I have spent my last 11 years as a head trying to never let my emotions cloud my words. I have not always been successful. I have found that you cannot hide how you feel… but you can choose the words you use. Even in the heat of the moment.
I usually say what I really think where I know it will be given safe passage. @theoldprimaryhead1 and @theprimaryhead have the ‘odd’ ranting session. It’s rather cathartic. We call them our ‘Derek and Clive’ sessions – we once even blogged one (Which we quickly took down). I rant at him. He rants at me… we laugh and then both agree there is little we can do about it. No matter how much we feel aggrieved, outraged or even hurt we both know that as a head we have no public comeback because of our so-called status. It is frustrating.
I remember the first ever grievance taken out on me (I don’t have loads! Honest!) and the utter pain it caused me and my family. It felt like I was guilty and had no comeback. I was defending even when I was unfairly attacked. At what point, I remember asking, is this a personal, vicious, attack on me? I am finding Twitter debate interesting of late. There is, of course, the recent @HeyMissSmith and @LearningSpy book review episode to highlight this. Enough has been said on that one. Though I really hope they sort it out because they are both important voices to hear… maybe they are better when utterly at odds? There is always an undercurrent of issues floating around and strong and clever personalities on the ends of them. They have their camps and they have their shtick. I am pretty envious because I am never that controversial. I am a little too conservative in my approach (Hence my rubbish blog hits in comparison). I want to say what I feel, like they do. Oh, how I want to just off load! Tell everyone what I really think. As a head I just wish I could. But I cannot. I have to play the diplomatic strategic long game. Staff who just take the mick, parents who bully and governors who play out their personal agendas? I would love to say it as I see it. But no, I play the long game. I play the, ‘better for all’ game. I cannot say what I really think. I have to play out the game calmly. Carefully navigate the dialogue. Sidestep the issues and pretend we all want the same thing. Smile. Avoid eye contact. Stroke the egos and move on. Nothing to see here…
Why can I not just say it as I see it? Why do I play this game? Is it because I am a weak leader? Why can I not address the issues? Tell staff, governors and parents (note how I don’t say children… I can tell them and they get it) what I really think? The answer is simple. It is because words stick and words are powerful. If I lose myself to my emotions I will not be speaking carefully. That is why I find it easy to talk to children. I have learnt to speak to them without my emotions clouding my words. It is so much more complex with adults. Adults bring too much baggage to the table. The game is far too much about cut and thrust, attack and defence… Someone is always looking to win. Therefore, if I played it this way as a head teacher I would have to be brutal… This is not a good look on a school leader. I have to address the issue but with my emotions controlled, otherwise I will be lost to my emotions and that is when I am at my most vulnerable. As a head teacher this is a lesson well learnt. Never lose yourself (and this is hard in practice) to your emotions when responding to anything – angry rants, letters, Facebook postings or throw away comments… Rise above them, step back, review and rethink.
July 12, 2015 at 8:30 am
I agree with you that to be diplomatic and rise above it is the best practice but it can feel so unfair. I was & still am never controversial and practice what I’m going to say in tricky situations (like governors meetings) mainly because I don’t like being shouted at & used to wipe the floor. That takes far longer to get over than not saying what I think. I can usually be true to myself further down the line when the emotion has been removed and I can bring in the logic of the situation and ‘get my way’!
July 12, 2015 at 8:49 am
Absolutely. But in practice this is so hard. The unfair element can burn for a long long time…
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July 12, 2015 at 8:53 am
Give me a sense of injustice and I can mither for days!
July 12, 2015 at 9:00 pm
I think this post demonstrates in a nutshell (a very scary one too) why so many of us get ill. The ‘you can say anything to me but I have no right to reply’ thing is painful, and especially when the grievance fairy comes to town.
These days I have a way of reinterpreting it in my head. I score points for keeping cool and drawing out long pauses while the ranter starts to feel they may have been a bit of an arse. Saying nothing is sometimes a powerful tool. Listening on buses etc it always seems to me that the person saying the least is winning. But then often the whole thing goes SATs up and I still end up feeling I’ve been done over.
Good advice then, I’ll take it and keep my cool while others around are losing theirs. Thanks!
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July 18, 2015 at 8:04 pm
Enjoyed this post – thanks for sharing. It made me thoughtful. I know that as a head you CAN’T always say what you think, but it’s important not to say things you DON’T believe. I certainly rose above a lot as a head, and it seemed to me that part of the art of good leadership was deciding what you rose above and what you tackled.
Good to meet you, finally, in Birmingham! Have a great summer.
July 18, 2015 at 8:24 pm
Same to you Jill. Be great to catch up again in the future – with more time.