Can we have good conversation in schools?

(The short answer: yes. But it is tricky).

I had planned upon writing a short series of blogs around conversations within school in a multitude of contexts- the common conversations, possible pitfalls and how we might hope to navigate through them- as well as sharing my experiences and reading around difficult conversations both in and outside of the profession. However, it feels like such a large topic, full of various contentious issues that it felt wise to take a blog just to linger on the starting points of my thinking. You’ll notice this is a little light on references, and deliberately so- I want to start with lived experience and see where these blogs take me. I want to start with a pretty common scenario for any member of staff.

Emily runs through the door into work, not late but twenty minutes later than she would like, having missed breakfast because of an argument at home with her son, whom she has had concerns about for a while. One of her team is unexpectedly off sick that day, her line manager has asked to speak to her before registration (she has not been told why) and she is teaching all day. The NQT member of staff from her team follows her through the door and asks, ‘Can I speak to you for a moment please?’

Emily runs through the door into work, not late but twenty minutes later than she would like, having missed breakfast because of an argument at home with her son, whom she has had concerns about for a while. One of her team is unexpectedly off sick that day, her line manager has asked to speak to her before registration about a flexible working request she submitted, and she is teaching all day. the NQT member of staff from her team follows her through the door and asks, ‘Can I speak to you for a moment please?’

Emily runs through the door into work, not late but twenty minutes later than she would like, having missed breakfast because of an argument at home with her son, whom she has had concerns about for a while. One of her team is unexpectedly off sick that day, her line manager has asked to speak to her before registration (she has not been told why) and she is teaching all day. The NQT member of staff from her team follows her through the door and asks, ‘Can I speak to you for a moment about Robbie in Year 7 please?’

Now, what if Emily has been in her role for a week, a year, ten years? What if she has moved into leadership within the school? What if her line manager has always been her line manager? What if the NQT has just returned after a period away from work as a result of stress? What if it has been implied that the flexible working request will be denied? What if Emily’s line manager had a similar morning at home before coming to work?

Conversations within workplaces are problematic because we are working with a series of variables- human beings and their own lived experience of what conversations are, or resemble- and the ever-pressing demands placed upon time that might result in policies and processes that don’t work to cultivate good conversations- either because there simply aren’t the right people in the right rooms together at the right time to ensure that these conversations take place, or because the right people are in the right rooms at the right time, but having the wrong conversations.

I have a lot of half-written blogs, attempts to start to unpack my thinking around this over the last year. In fact, in Stop Talking About Wellbeing, I devoted an entire chapter to conversations in my attempt to articulate how deeply important the fundamental principles of conversations are within all workplaces, but particularly schools. I’ve read a great deal over the years, and even trained prior to teaching in the process and journey of what makes a good conversation. This does not make me an expert- in fact, I struggle to navigate the mechanisms of conversation over and over again, and this has actually helped me to understand where the difficulties may lie.

For me, there are almost too many contributory factors to harness a good conversation consistently, and everyone must do so for the conversations to be immediately purposeful, but also act as an investment to the professional relationship, and in turn, feed into the conversation culture within a school. Emails act as an immediate barrier to such transactions taking place, because they fail to consider the inner workings of human dynamics- in fact, I hate them so much, I wrote a bit about it here. They serve a purpose, of course, but they do not deal with the messy yet fruitful reward of a face to face exchange, so back to that.

There are a few key challenges that hinder good conversations taking place in schools. At a whole-school level, this could be down to but not solely influenced by: culture- both historic and current; curation and enactment of policy; trust of staff and how this is articulated or conveyed; time available for conversations to take place.

For a subject lead or member of staff leading a team, this could be down to: the culture of that time; how policy has been interpreted by that team and to what extent it is a policy that is sympathetic to the needs of the team or the subject itself; ownership of the staff within the team and to what extent agendas align between the subject lead and their team, or the subject lead and their line manager. It may be that the subject leader enacts policy or process that they do not entirely agree with, in a sense of compliance over alignment. Time is also an issue here, because whilst in schools, subject leads appear physically available- they teach in the same corridors, they use the same corners to eat their lunch- their schedule may make them less available to their team, and frustratingly so. The dynamics of schools where the subject lead used to be within the team and are now overseeing the team will also inevitably have an impact upon the way in which conversations progress, of course.

For the classroom teacher, conversations may be few and far between. With the highest contact time, which inevitably means their marking and feedback load will be higher to match, and usually with the added commitment of a tutor group, it might result that their conversations are with children far more than the adults in the building. This could also mean that the vast majority of their conversations are within a more formal setting such as briefings or meetings, as opposed to one to one chats. Furthermore, it might be that of the few conversations they encounter in schools, even the one-to-one conversations that they do have are more formalised in both content and dynamic- lesson feedback; performance management; mentoring discussions. The presence of accountablity impacts the loading of such conversations of course, but it may be that this is felt most by the classroom teacher.

Conversations are fundamentally one of our instrumental changemakers in schools. At a micro-level, they start thoughts in motion to move towards small changes, to larger initiative, to whole-school shifts in culture. An underestimation of their power, I would argue that the way in which a conversation takes place holds equal weight to the content of the conversation itself. So now we’ve safely established exactly how important conversations are, where does our focus need to be to ensure that they are utilised at every layer of school systems?

I’d like to consider key influencing factors of conversations, but also working scenarios of where these conversations can perhaps falter in schools, and how we can work to ensure they are essentially an enriching experience, not only to resolve the point of contention at that moment in time, but also to work towards building healthy professional relationships, and healthy schools as a result.

As a starting point, there seems to be a series of key questions that we can ask ourselves in schools:

  • How many opportunities do you have in school to take part in a range of conversations: formal, informal, group, individual, professional, trivial?
  • To what extent is time provided for such conversations to take place across the school?
  • How are conversations an integral part of your school life?
  • How fulfilling are the conversations you have? Why is this?
  • What would make these conversations work for you individually, and for the school culture longer term?

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