When you’ve been a teacher for a long time, there are two paths you can follow. You can remain in the classroom and be responsible for the classes you teach. There are pluses and minuses to this path. The pluses are that you are fairly autonomous . Yes, you’re often working with a team of teachers, but when all is said and done, you control the environment you teach in, and if you’ve established a climate conducive to learning in your classrooms, this can be a very positive experience. The minuses are that you carry a heavy teaching load, and you have to deal with the correction load that follows suit.
The other path is to take on managerial responsibilities, be it as a Head of Faculty, Head of Year, or other roles that remove you even further from the classroom such as Deputy Principal. With these roles come the responsibility to manage people. Quite early in my career, I took on the role of Head of Year and did this for three years or so. For the most part, I managed the pastoral care of students, and spent my days working with kids and parents. Of course, I worked with teachers too, and sometimes I was pulled in different directions as I felt the need to support staff, but could see occasions when it was their actions that were contributing to the issues they were having with the children they taught. In more recent years, I changed tack and became a Head of Faculty, and am now Director of ICT and eLearning - roles that have required me to directly manage staff who report to me. It’s these managerial roles in schools that often present us with the dicey subject of the difficult conversation.
No one enjoys the difficult conversation. You’re often agonising over it in the days preceding, going over what you’ll say again and again, rehearsing it until you’re wrung out like an overused dish rag. The nervous energy saps your mental acuity for anything else as you anticipate every possible outcome. You prime yourself and spend time doing what my mother used to say, “worrying about something that will probably never happen”. Over the years, I think my managerial skills have sharpened, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still find the difficult conversations just that – difficult.
Last year, at the Creative Innovation 2012 conference (click on that link to see the YouTube channel hosting 21 of the keynotes from the two days) in Melbourne, I was lucky enough to hear Steve Vamos speak on just this topic. His no nonsense, grounded in common sense ideas really resonated with me. I especially love his recount of his experience as a 19 yr old working at Liquorland – the lesson he learnt from someone who knew how to hand out advice while maintaining a person’s dignity has guided his interactions with people ever since. My suggestion is you listen to the seventeen minutes and take in the message. If you are managing staff, in schools or any profession, Steve’s ideas about feedback and respect will ring true.