Solving the recruitment crisis with love, honesty and humanity.
During my pool-side reflection time over the summer, I found my thoughts floating towards staff I have had the privilege of working with, both past and present, within the trust and beyond, and all that they have taught me about myself professionally and personally – there was lots of reflecting! My thoughts then began drifting onto new staff joining our trust, those who have left and the ones who have chosen to stay. The question I kept coming back to was ‘why’. Why did some individuals seek us out to work with? Why did the ones who left for reasons other than promotion or distance move on? Why have some staff only ever worked with us? Although I had some ideas and thoughts about this, I will be focusing my energies on being able to know the answers in more depth and then also using this knowledge to further improve our retention figures this year.
The publication of the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy in January this year confirmed what all of us in the sector have known for some time – there are more teachers leaving the profession than joining and for those who do join, the retention rates of early career teachers are lower than ever before.
This strategy was encouraging as it recognised the need to ensure that teaching is an attractive profession which allows those who choose to pursue it to thrive. Several key priorities emerged from the publication: creating more supportive school cultures, transforming support for early career teachers, ensuring teaching remains attractive and making it easier for great people to become teachers.
Across the Inspire Partnership MAT, we have worked hard to reflect on our collective responsibility to shape, influence and create the kind of schools that teachers want to join and, more importantly, continue to work in. Retaining teachers is just as important as recruiting them; every teacher successfully retained is one less for the recruitment targets. Retention also builds the education system’s capacity for high-quality teaching, as inexperience is one of the few factors we know is related to teaching quality.
Of all the priorities to come out of the strategy, the one that I believe trumps the others is the school culture. If we can shape an organisational culture where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, then we will have a greater chance of recruiting the right people, and retaining them in the profession too.
Across our leadership teams we have been engaging with professional reading that focuses on relational leadership. In The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni cites four disciplines critical to ensuring strong organisational health:
· Build a cohesive leadership team
· Create clarity
· Overcommunicate clarity
· Reinforce clarity
He outlines the importance of these disciplines throughout all aspects of the organisation: the vision and values, recruitment and retention of staff, leadership of meetings, and every single piece of communication.
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Culture Code, shares his secrets to high performing teams:
Building psychological safety and symbols of connection ultimately forms bonds of belonging and identity amongst staff. This could take the form of close physical proximity, lots of eye connect, or high energy talk where everyone talks to everyone.
Sharing vulnerabilities as individuals, teams and organisations develops shared habits of mutual risk-taking and fosters cooperation. In an organisation this might manifest itself by asking questions more than telling, making it safe to fail, and building a common language for seeking help.
Establishing a common purpose through a narrative includes using storytelling to communicate shared goals, sweating the hard stuff so you don’t delegate something you aren’t prepared to do, and celebrating team and individual success publicly.
We have been continuously working on these three key aspects of the ‘culture code’, particularly emphasising the power of storytelling and empowering our schools to become storytellers through the experiences and successes of children and staff. In fact, when we have met teachers who want to join our trust, it is often because their interaction with a story has underpinned their desire to connect and work with us.
Humans First, Professionals Second
Mary Myatt’s must-read book, High Challenge, Low Threat, makes a compelling argument that leaders who create environments where staff feel safe and able to take risks – the low threat of the title – will contribute to a culture of intrinsic motivation and ultimately get great returns from employees. A key theme is the importance of building relationships and seeing staff as real people before their job titles.
She also argues that holding staff to account can be achieved in a humane way that, ultimately, staff will welcome if leaders make the conditions right. The following encapsulates Myatt’s style and approach: ‘If we lead our schools valuing these relationships and keeping them at the heart of conversations and dialogue then we are contributing to a positive school culture.’
Across our partnership we aspire to live by this philosophy, valuing interaction over action, taking an active interest in others, making a deliberate effort to forge relationships with children and staff and modelling love of the team. Through our commitment to relational leadership we have successfully built a model where honest conversations can and will take place.
‘We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.’ Edgar H. Schein
Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling
If we are aiming to create a culture which fosters connection with the organisational vision, then valuing and nurturing relationships takes time,
effort and energy. We have used several coaching models across our trust to enable staff to reflect on their leadership, to challenge themselves, and to grow as a person and a leader.
Leaders from the trust have benefitted from Challenge Partners’ Getting Ahead London Programme, which involved being coached by an experienced and skilled headteacher as part of a trio with other aspirant headteachers from across London.
The impact a coaching model has on the growth of an individual and their connection with the organisation can’t be underestimated – the knowledge that leaders value their growth and role in the organisation, and will make the time on a regular basis to invest in you, is very powerful.
Working with all staff to outline a clear pathway of continued professional development has been an ongoing priority. Ensuring staff feel they have autonomy and ownership over their career is an effective way to maintain high staff retention rates. Giving staff opportunities across our trust to take on different aspects of school improvement, to lead on areas of practice they are passionate about, to move between schools and gain experience in different settings, or to implement research, have all been as important as the development programmes we have designed for teaching assistants, NQTs, early career teachers, middle and senior leaders, and headteachers.
In addition to this, there are many working parties and hubs across the partnership that have been constructed by the interests and priorities of teachers and leaders in school. Last academic year we undertook a workload survey and as a result teacher established a feedback working party as they felt the way we provided children with feedback needed revising. The teachers interested in this very much drove this change and as a result across the partnership we have revised our thoughts about feedback.
Across the partnership, we recognised that schools with the most reflective, relational leaders led to a safe, positive and thriving culture and in turn higher retention rates. All the leaders from the trust shared the competencies and associated behaviours they found themselves having to work on personally, but also with their staff through coaching dialogues. Following this we collated the competencies we believed to be instrumental in creating a relationship-focused and positive organisational culture.
We use this as a framework in many scenarios to articulate, make transparent and promote the strongest of leadership behaviours. To begin with these were used in coaching conversations and through senior leadership meetings and over time this has led to leaders at all levels owning their this and using it for self-reflection and for reflections with others.
As a trust it is really important to us that we model all that we value; asking staff for their feedback is an integral part of this. This academic year, we have been working with Relational Schools to capture analysis about our collective relational health across the whole organisation.
Relational Schools were established in 2014 and are a charitable think tank who aim for ‘a better-connected society’, and to improve how schools and the people who spend their daily lives studying and working in them understand, value and enact their relationships with one another.
They have undertaken a relational staff survey across the partnership, with all members of the organisation given the opportunity to contribute. They will measure the quality of relationships with a robust, tried and tested empirical tool.
Once we receive this valuable feedback and analysis, we will take an honest look at ourselves and what staff are reporting, we will then share this across the schools and create a working party to strengthen our relational capital. The work following this will focus on the way our schools are organised, as well as the way our schools conduct their practice with respect to teaching, learning, leadership and management.
Solving the recruitment crisis is no easy task, however, if as a profession we focus our energies on leading from the heart, building cohesive teams and listening to what our organisation is telling us then we can be optimistic about the future. There are many factors beyond our control, but as school leaders we must focus on what is within our reach and work with determination to retain and develop our staff, ultimately making teaching a profession of choice.
Nav Sanghara is Executive Headteacher with Inspire Partnership in London and Medway. Nav is a member of Heads’ Roundtable.