How leaders deal with problems determines . . . well, everything.
It’s an awkward truth that some leaders feel safest in a state of crisis. In a crisis, everyone is too preoccupied with how to cope to raise awkward questions about strategy, goals and long-term decisions; and because survival is the name of the game, everything is short term. Weathering crisis after crisis also fits the narrative of being selfless and burdened by others’ stress, which makes for a certain kind of reputation. Unfortunately, such a reputation is undeserved when the very same leader is largely responsible for the stress of colleagues, because they maintain the organisation in a state of perpetual crisis. I once worked in a school where teachers were exhausted by constantly dealing with disruptive behaviour from students. The school leaders were more comfortable with this situation than sorting out the behaviour. They argued that teachers would be under threat from angry parents if we tightened up the standards and systems. It took a year of lobbying to get the changes in place. When we did, behaviour referrals out of class dropped by 70% in one term – and only three parents complained, in a school of over 700 students.
Even without ongoing crises, leaders are never short of problems. There are staff and industrial problems, financial problems, discipline problems, teaching performance problems, problems between staff, and of course friction with external bodies like Ofsted, the DfE, academy sponsors and local authorities. There are child protection issues, parental involvement problems, and community relationships (or the lack of them). Those are just a few examples of the problems school leaders have to deal with, often on a day-to-day basis.
It is how we choose to deal with these problems that largely defines us as leaders. Broadly speaking, there are three main approaches.
The first is the ‘Do Nothing’ approach. There are various motivations we might have for doing nothing, or doing nothing much: we might want to wait and see what happens; we might feel that there are other, more urgent priorities; or perhaps we hope that someone, somewhere, will take responsibility. We might lack the confidence to make a decision, or believe that we don’t have enough information. Ultimately, all of these are ways of saying that a problem is either too hard to solve, or is not worth trying to solve.
Let’s take the example of poor behaviour, bearing in mind that what people mean by poor behaviour varies from school to school. (I remember one head who had taken over a school where staff came to complain to him about the drop in behaviour standards, citing as an example the existence of three pieces of litter in the playground.) But I am sure that we can all agree that behaviour that disrupts learning, or makes others feel unsafe, is not acceptable. My first UK school had such a problem. If a behaviour incident was reported, the teacher was grilled with a series of questions. Nothing ever happened to the students. When two boys emerged from the toilets smoking cigarettes during a lesson one day, a passing senior leader told them to ‘make sure they used a condom’. Because leaders did not accept the problems in front of their eyes, teachers retreated to their rooms and coped (or not) individually.
We can see the same issues when it comes to dealing with literacy problems. Teachers and heads of department tell management that they have students who aren’t reading well enough to access the curriculum. The students are disengaged, bored, and disruptive. Senior management acknowledges there is a problem, sympathises at the tragic waste – then continues as before. A sad shake of the head – “The SEN department should be dealing with them.” – and then it is back to ‘normal’.
The problem with the ‘Do Nothing’ approach is that if you know there’s a problem, then you know it needs to be fixed. The only question is whether it needs to be fixed before or after other problems. There is no avoiding responsibility. To simply not respond to a problem is to signal to the staff and the students that this particular condition is acceptable. ‘Do Nothing’ is the standard response in schools where the leadership feels besieged. Problems ‘out there’ are ignored, while the problems that we feel more confident about dealing with are brought into the ‘action’ zone. Unfortunately, in such cases, it is the very people we lead – teachers and students – who are being asked to live with a problem that it is our responsibility to resolve.
The second type of response to a problem is the ‘Do Anything’ approach. In this scenario, the leader wants to be seen to be ‘Doing Something’, especially if the responsibility can then be devolved to someone else. The aim here is not to solve the problem, but to react to the problem, and more specifically, to be seen to react to the problem. This need to be seen to be taking action, however ineffectively, is rife in our schools. At line management meetings, managers ask managees which action items from the last line management meeting they have actioned. Managees list their actions. An action form is completed and filed. The managee and the manager can both take solace in knowing that they have protected themselves until the next meeting; after all, no one can say that they didn’t ‘Take Action’.
To follow our examples from above, when it comes to behaviour, the ‘Do Anything’ approach will require the managee to provide the manager with a series of actions. Parents are called in; detentions are issued; the student is put on report; the student moves from an orange report to a red report; inquiries are made at a local PRU; and so on. Likewise, in literacy, the manager explains that they have withdrawn the students of concern for some phonics lessons; they have arranged for extra TA time to be provided in classes where the ‘problem students’ are being most disruptive or disengaged; a target of improving reading ages by two years before the end of the year has been set for the new assistant SENDCO; and the Literacy Co-ordinator has agreed to set up a book box for each form group.
None of these actions are inherently wrong; the problem is that the focus is on action being seen to be taken. The focus is on the action, not the result. No consequences follow if behaviour does not improve, or if reading does not improve. The line management cycle simply starts again. Those in workplaces with this culture will recognise the patterns.
The problem with the ‘Do Anything’ approach is that it is short-term. It appears to take the pressure off, but actually squanders resources; we end up doing far too many things, including many that we know are unlikely to solve the problem. It may also arise because we don’t actually know what will solve the problem, and we don’t want to admit it. A variation is for leaders to assume that their gut reaction is the right one, and expect everyone else to live with the judgements we make. After all, we’re the managers, right? But gut reactions – often dressed up as ‘professional judgements’ – are at least as likely to do harm as they are to do good.
The third response to a problem is ‘Investment’ – with an emphasis on particular process, under the name of a closely related verb – investigate. The principle of investment is that if we commit our resources (time, money, skills) wisely, we will reap rewards over the longer term. Instead of the net deficits of the first two responses, the ‘Investment’ approach produces long-term surpluses – it yields more than we put in. Sound investment begins with due diligence. Due diligence in business is about finding out what shape an organisation is really in. It is about getting to the heart of what is working and what is not, getting past the slogans and intentions to the nitty-gritty. This is the very opposite of the first two approaches, which either try to ignore the problem, or react with a set of superficial actions.
In a behaviour context, ‘Investment’ begins with investigating the specifics of behaviour problems. Not ‘Mr Jones is finding it hard to handle 8M’, but, ‘What does Mr Jones find difficult about 8M?’ What specific behaviour patterns are the concern? What happens to prompt or occasion this behaviour? What consequences appear to sustain it? How are different members of the class – including, but not limited to, the teacher – affected? Once we have this level of information, we can begin to plan solutions based on useful information.
The same principle applies to literacy. Instead of worrying that “There are so many students with poor literacy in Year 8”, we can investigate: “On a standardised measure, how many of our students are reading well behind their chronological age? Are their problems related to decoding, comprehension, or motivation? Which students are accurate readers but not fluent? Do we have students with speech, language and communication difficulties? Who? What provisions do we have in place? How effective are these provisions?” Once we start answering objective questions that enable us to define the extent and depth of the problem, we can then think about how to deploy our resources to address the needs we have found. Such an approach also quickly tells us how much we don’t know – crucial information if we are to be good at problem-solving.
Once we have completed some thorough investigations, we may begin to see links between problems. We may find, for example, that there is a strong link between poor behaviour and poor reading. How many of our poorest readers also have the worst behaviour points? Could some of the behaviour we are seeing arise from the frustration and desire to escape that is engendered by poor reading? Could poor reading be a cause as well as a result of disengagement? How aware of poor readers are the teaching staff, and how well are they equipped to respond? How effective are the interventions in place for these students? Are the right students receiving additional support?
Once we can answer questions like these, we are in a position to decide on a course of action. Not only that, but we often find that solving one problem will impact on others that we did not expect. Reading is a good example. I have lost count of the number of times teachers express their amazement at the positive change in behaviour that occurs when a teenager finally learns to read.
The ‘Investment’ approach may sound idealistic. After all, there are many difficulties to such an approach. It never assumes a ‘quick win’. The results may take some time to show. The processes of investigation, planning a solution and implementing it all require an investment of time – time that can only be found by doing less of something else. It also takes some backbone, to hold one’s ground and do the right thing when the next line management meeting is looming and there is an Action List waiting.
All of this, of course, comes back to priorities. Schools face many different competing priorities, but some are clearly out in front. The first is safety; the second is behaviour; and third is student learning, with reading as fundamental to the kind of learning that students do in school. Schools that do not prioritise investment in these three areas are highly likely to be in crisis, with managers who are either denying the problems, or focused on protecting themselves through being seen to be busy. Schools who invest in thorough investigation, hard prioritisation and disciplined follow-up are more likely to reap rewards – though perhaps not straight away.
It is a harder choice than we might like, but the right choice still has to be made.
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