Low expectations: Staff weakness or management challenge?
The level of attainment that staff expect from their pupils – staff expectations – has been shown to have a powerful effect on the performance of those pupils. This makes it a very interesting and valuable avenue to school improvement; higher attainment can be achieved without adding to teachers’ skills or resources, by simply changing their frames of mind.
An observation I've frequently heard from school leaders is “our staff expectations are too low” said as one might say “our staff are too short” or “our classrooms are too small”. I think it's helpful to look at the issue another way. Teachers, like all people, base their expectations on what has come before, therefore their expectations are for the school to maintain its current level of performance. For a school leader these expectations are too low, but it is impossible that they should be otherwise. For staff to believe that this year’s students will make more progress than last year’s they must be given a reason. So rather than looking at “low expectations” as an attribute of staff, it's better to see raising expectations as a challenge for management.
Dumbo’s Feather: How to change people’s minds
If you say to your staff “I’m going to raise your expectations” it is very unlikely you will be successful. People are naturally resistant to direct assertions of authority, particularly when it comes to their beliefs. You need offer them something tangible, that will have the effect of convincing them student attainment will rise, just as Dumbo needed a feather to believe he could fly. Bear in mind, though, that your staff are more intelligent than Dumbo s their “feather” must be a credible improvement if it is to change their beliefs.
There's almost certainly lots of changes in motion aimed at making school better. Often I find the key question is 'are these changes being communicated to staff, pupils and parents as a coherent package? A good way to test this is to give a friend who does not work at the school the 'elevator pitch' by explaining in under a minute what your leadership team is doing to improve school. Have an open discussion about this pitch, is it convincing? Are their specifics to back up its generalities? If the answer to these questions is yes then it's time to consider how it is being communicated to staff.
Policy documents/SIPs/Staff bulletins are like corpses. They don't talk and if people look at them it's to give a brief nod before moving on. If your communication with staff mostly happens in writing it's probably failing. Effective communication is always live.
There are two arenas for live communication, big set pieces and one-on-ones. Big set pieces, like whole staff meetings and assemblies, have a tendency to be abstract so personalise them by connecting the big ideas you're presenting to specific people and events. One-on-one communication is naturally personal so do the opposite, relate the experiences you talk about with colleagues to the wider themes of your improvement. By mastering the channels of communication you can build, brick by brick, a belief that the school improvement plan (simple enough to be explained in under a minute) is working because a, b, c...have happened.
Passion’s Slave: Why logic alone is not enough
Hume’s observation that “reason is the slave of passion” is of vital importance when changing people’s beliefs. It means that if your staff feel negatively towards school or your management of it, they will look for facts to justify and cement those negative attitudes. This is common problem because the pressure on schools for continual improvement naturally leads to a focus on areas of weakness and underperformance. If teachers feel they are being judged to be substandard they will feel hurt and resentful towards its source and no amount of reasoned argument about how that source (the school) is improving will sway them.
There are two very simple things school leaders can do to improve the way their staff feel towards their place of work and so open them to persuasion that it is improving. The first is praise. Look and listen out for good practice and congratulate it. Finding out about and praising progress made is the fastest way to generate more. The second is acknowledging that the management team must improve as well as the staff. Publicly stating that you yourself must improve removes the stigma when you say it to others.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that the demands of your complex, data-driven, intricately set out plans for school improvement do not leave you time to deal with something as vague and ephemeral as your staff’s feelings. No school improvement plan can be successful without the cooperation of staff, and that cooperation will only spring from positive emotions.