In any workplace one person can set the tone of an entire environment.
They don’t have to be the most senior person, but their presence dictates a positive or negative atmosphere. Regardless of the vision and values of that workplace, that person can have an overarching impact. Schools are no different.
When I took up my new role school, I experienced this first hand and decided it was time to make some changes. Unfortunately, many staff were not upholding the school’s core values of humanity and integrity, especially when working with each other or holding each other to account.
The first thing I did was collect feedback from staff. There was a feeling of lack of support from the middle and senior leadership team and a lack of opportunity to work across phases. This left teachers feeling isolated in their classrooms. Many staff felt that they were overly criticised by others and that the kindness we said we wanted to treat each other with was missing.
As I was appointed before the end of the academic year, I was able to reflect on what had led to this situation and how it could be changed. It reminded me of my reading of Carl Rogers and his idea of unconditional positive regard.
Unconditional positive regard refers to accepting and supporting each other without evaluating or judging. We needed to foster this in the leadership teams and the wider staff across the school to be able to rebuild the culture and to reconnect the staff with each other.
Focusing on kindness
We decided that this was going to be our year of kindness.
To make this happen, we implemented a kindness protocol. One person was assigned the responsibility of ‘kindness’ (big or small) at the end of each meeting and would come prepared with a protocol for the next meeting.
These started off small and very simple, from going around saying 'thank you' to someone in the meeting for an act of kindness to writing thank you notes. As the year went on, these protocols became more inventive and elaborate (such as making your own Christmas crackers with relaxing tasks to do over the break inside instead of jokes) and became the talk of the staffroom.
Every morning before school started, I visited every classroom to check-in and ask if anyone needed anything - coffee, photocopying or just a chat. I found that this wasn’t sustainable throughout the year due to time pressures, but during that first term it was integral to building relationships with staff.
Throughout the year this ritual morphed into making sure that I, or a member of the senior leadership team, visited every classroom at least once throughout the day. We made it clear that we are there to support, not monitor.
The senior leadership team took class-based staff off timetable to work collaboratively with others who were within their year group and across the entire school. This included team teaching, co-planning and observing each other.
These techniques helped to build relationships across the year groups and share the expertise of staff. It also helped to empower our very talented middle leaders, who took this opportunity to build champions for their subject areas as well as becoming mentors to other staff.
Part of the process included our middle leaders organising drop-in sessions for staff to show pedagogy in practice, troubleshoot or to plan and coordinate events for the students. Giving our middle leaders this platform was integral to ensuring they were seen as leaders.
During observations, staff were given the choice of who they wanted to observe them and in which lesson, handing the control back to the staff to decide where they felt they needed support and from who.
The impact of kindness
Changing the culture of a school is possible, regardless of the mammoth size of the task making it feel impossible. But by taking it one step at a time, allowing our core values to drive every decision and putting in a little extra effort every day, we started to see changes quickly.
We were even surprised that some of the small and seemingly insignificant changes had a huge impact. One example is how we encouraged staff to build on their personal as well as professional relationships with each other: we introduced a cake club, where those who wanted to participate selected a name and baked them a cake on their birthday. This was so successful because everyone joined in, including office and premises staff.
We have by no means finished our journey, but I’m pleased to say the change in the atmosphere of the school has been noticed: results from our end of year staff survey showed that they felt the primary school was a kind and supportive place to work - which is a great way to end my first year here!