Listening matters

I’m a huge believer of conversation over comms; of contextualising the issue through the interplay that can only be found in a conversation and muddling through the dynamics and debate that will present itself but is so necessary to a sense of evolution in professional relationships, as well as the work at hand.

However, does talking always trumps the dreaded email? I wrote about my thoughts on this a little ago here– and whilst the email loses all nuance and does nothing to drive relationships forward, discussion does come with its own sense of risk. There are several considerations to think on when we undertake work through conversations, to ensure that we are not only undertaking the work itself effectively, but that both the work and the conversations surrounding the work seek to act as vehicles to drive the professional relationship itself forwards in the process.

People and perception

When using conversation to look at an issue with school systems or processes, perception of the contributory factors will be typically different from one person to the next, but this is where it is incredibly important that all who contribute to the conversation have the opportunity to be heard, so that others can work to see as they see, as such. Take a discussion between a line manager and a teacher where the teacher has identified that the current marking policy doesn’t work. They’re swamped. However, the previous week, another teacher had praised the marking policy, sharing their delight at how the use of whole class feedback had shaved hours from their working week. Why this disparity? What can the first teacher see that the second cannot? How do they communicate this failure of the policy? What words do they use? Are we listening out for these? By asking the questions, listening to the responses and aligning the two discussions together and pinpointing the contrast of the language- we work harder to see what the teacher can see.

A plethora of priorities

There is also the consideration of priority and how we temper the ways in which prioritisation differs according to layers of the school systems. For the teacher, the priority will be managing a timetable, their role and priorities within a subject team, their own professional development of knowledge and expertise as well as balancing that with a life, of course. For the subject leader, these priorities will shift, as they stand back and take a strategic view, but still with a protective eye upon their subject and their team, without perhaps the same attention to other departmental needs outside their own- and no criticism to that at all. For the senior leader, they will have a larger risk to mitigate, as the priorities of the everyday will run parallel to the longer term, with the hope of continually looking to marry the two.

None of these are less important than the other: these are all imperative to the success of school progression. They do, however mean that as we work hard within our debate of the issues at hand, that we seek to agree a common language as we carry out this work. A history teacher seeking out a maths teacher to find out why maths intervention is taking place during history will inevitably have some pressing questions that look to safeguard their subject! The Head of History and the Head of Maths may have a deeper understanding of the balance and fluctuation points of need at different points of the year for that discussion. Seeking to view the shared priority of the student and going from there can be helpful. Why now? What informs our choices? What finite time do we have? How can we make the use of it? Is there anything that might serve to be mutually beneficial? By viewing the work as the obstacle, we have an agreed starting block for these meaningful conversations to take place.

The paradox of problems

If I learned anything from working with people in other sectors as well as teaching, it is that the problem is often not the problem: in that often, the words that we say do not convey the words that we mean. At times, we move through problems using our words with others, instead of the all-important percolation that will help us to arrive at conversations with the information that we need to realise what we would like to resolve.

Revisit the teacher who is swamped by poor marking policy, and they’re choice of the word swamped to depict it. It’s might be the policy- but it’s working elsewhere. It might be their interpretation of the policy, only this has been an established, integrated part of the whole-school approach for some five years, and they have not shared their dissatisfaction before. Is it that the assessment model at subject level jars with the policy? Is it that the teacher has not met with others to moderate due to reduced faculty time and is struggling to make judgements? Or is it that the teacher took marking home to work around their children and now faced with COVID restrictions, is having to stay in school to mark? Or is it that the teacher is covering classes for colleagues, entering data, attending CPD, coaching another member of staff, working as an SLE and actually, is just overstretched? Ergo, the problem is not the problem. It’s simply an indirect manifestation of such, and it is only through listening for the language that we are able to build up an understanding of this, to know what to say next.

COVID has presented teachers with a number of additional factors that contribute to a stressful workload, and whilst we may look to solve problems, often, some of the problems are unfixable. What we can do, is ensure that we continue to listen to what is said, and consider what our replies are. If they include non-negotiable, policy, never, must and should, we may be missing a trick. If they include how, support, help, we and thank you, we might be onto a better track.

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