Leaders, how well do you know your staff?

This is not a rhetorical question. Apart from knowing their names, the department/class they’re in and how effective they are as a practitioner, as a leader what else do you know about the individual members of staff in your school?

For example, are they married? Do they have any children or pets? Have they been or are they going on holiday any time soon? Do they have any ailments that keep them awake at night or cause them to not feel as fast on their feet as they used to? What did they get up to over the weekend?

It may seem unnecessary to need to know this information, but it’s knowing things like this that can help you to develop better relationships with those you work with and ensure they get the support they need. In turn, this will enable them to feel valued, feel a sense of belonging and, more importantly feel like they are more than just a name on a classroom door.

School staff are complex beings and in a work environment they don’t just leave their lives at the sign in desk when they arrive at work in the morning. Quite often they repress their lives, which means the thoughts, feelings and emotions related to events taking place at home are still very much there, they’re just masked; hidden by the façade of how someone who works in a school should be: jovial, professional, focussed, playful, courteous and on the ball. I reckon those who work in schools deserve awards for being the best actor/actress, as most of us are adept at putting on a ‘brave face’ ensuring ‘the show must go on,’ despite how we may be feeling.

Just like the parents of our students, school staff – teaching and non-teaching – face a range of situations in their personal lives: mounting debt, stroppy teenagers, toddlers having tantrums, boilers breaking, unwell family members, medical issues, poor housing, relationship breakdowns, the list could go on. The only difference between the parents and staff is that when staff enter the school building, they have to do a better job of holding it together, because they’re meant to be ‘professional’ at all times.

But sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes those personal challenges become too overwhelming to repress, resulting in a negative emotional response which becomes too difficult to contain. Some staff members prefer to keep their work and private lives separate, and that’s ok. But there are times when what’s happening outside of school begins to have an impact on what happens in school and as leaders, we need to be aware of how to recognise and support staff where this is the case.

They may not tell you that they’ve had a blazing row with their teenager that morning and they’re worried their son or daughter may be skipping school, but the mere fact that they may be more distracted than usual, or they look more tired, should prompt you to ask the question, ‘Is everything ok, I notice you seem a bit distracted?’ Their response may be a cursory, “Yep, I’m good,” but your response should not be a dismissive, “Cool, see you later.”

Let them know that you’re there if they need to speak to you. That you’ll make time for them if they do want to share. Don’t ask them the question when they’re about to take Year 9, who are notoriously disruptive and have a knack at knowing which buttons to press. Ask them at a time when they will have time to share if they need to; when they know they will be listened to without distraction.

Some staff members feel guilty about sharing their issues with leaders as they feel they may be adding to the pressures already felt, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s what we as leaders are there for. We need to ensure we create a culture where staff know it’s ok to tell someone they’re having a bad day; that they’re finding things difficult to deal with or that they just feel like crap! They need to know that they won’t be considered any less professional if they come into your office and spend two minutes off-loading every expletive they know. It may make your ears bleed, but sometimes people just need to get things out of their system. Once it’s out, you can both deal with the matter in hand.

The school environment can become very triggering for some staff members, which adds to the emotional rollercoaster they ride every day. Staff that have to deal with parents who are going through relationship issues, or who have to deal with children who test every boundary there is to test, may be experiencing similar issues in their own lives. They may also have their own childhood trauma to deal with, which may surface when incidents at school occur.

The only way leaders can have an inclining as to what a member of staff is going through, is to get to know them on a personal level.  Take time out to stop and ‘talk’ to your staff members. Not a lip-service type ‘talk,’ a proper, cotch on a desk and be genuinely interested, type talk. One where you lose track of time, but you come away feeling like it’s been time well spent. A talk where you’ve been able to listen to understand and not to reply. A talk where the member of staff knows you think they’re important and they trust you to know what’s right for them.

Getting to know your staff members on a personal level makes it easier when you do have to address more challenging issues, because you have a better understanding of what might be contributing to some of the behaviours they’re displaying. However, this knowledge is not meant to be used as a stick with which to beat the staff member but as an avenue for what could be a more open and honest conversation and those open and honest conversations are what helps to create a more open culture within schools. Something we should all be striving for.

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