It’s my way or the highway: It’s time to ditch ‘non-negotiables’

We all know about business terms being dragged into other contexts, expecially schools. Blue sky thinking, buy-in, stakeholders, these are all well established ‘business speak’ terms that are regrettably ubiquitous in schools and while they aren’t too bad, they clearly have their origin in a competitive, corporate area. Other ideas have come into schools from the area of generic ‘leadership’. The absolute need for a vision and a values statement and to have everything inscribed first on pyramids, then on circles, now on segmented wheels within wheels. Devising a strategy and how to implement it is good. Wasting hours making, printing and laminating colourful wheels is, in my admittedly limited opinion, a waste of time. If you are a teacher or leader in a school and you consistently refer to your wheel throughout the year, and I mean here on a daily basis using the inevitable laminated A3 copy you were given at the start of the year, please get in touch!

The latest bit of management speak to appear in schools and spread like wildfire is the term non-negotiable, used not as an adjective, but as a noun. I may not be SLT but I do have strong opinions on how certain things should be done in a classroom. I would always encourage fellow professionals that there is a set of principles and techniques that work for the majority of students and they are the most firm foundations to build your practice on. At the same time, I think there would never come a point where, if I were in charge, I would need to tell my colleagues that I was so adamant that I was right that they can’t even try to come and speak to me and that my new policy is a ‘non-negotiable’. In some schools you could draw up a list of their ‘non-negotiables’. Every time I see the phrase I get angry.

Not every school leader seems to understand what the term means. They use it to mean ‘I think this is very important and I expect to see it in every single lesson’. That’s bad enough, but you can usually talk to the people involved in that decision and understand their reasoning and have a conversation about how it works and reach a compromise about how the policy or practice looks in your subject or classroom. In other words it is negotiable after all.

Sadly, I have also heard of schools where leaders who say ‘this is non-negotiable’ actually mean it. They have determined a policy and have no interest in how it’s going to look for individual staff members. They want it done their way. I think this comes from a particular understanding of ‘Strong Leadership’. This type of strong leader is a visionary who is clear about setting the direction of travel for an organisation. They build a team of like minded individuals and they ‘make it happen’. This model of leadership is quick to respond to any challenges to their orthodoxy by branding it ‘negativity’ and there are subtle, unpleasant consequences for negative people. These leaders seek to position themself as the ultimate source of knowledge and authority within the school and that they are the only one who can lead in a positive direction. Any detractors to the vision are causing problems. It leads to relationships being soured and stress on all sides.

Obviously that’s a caricature – I’m exaggerating a bit. I do think it’s important that staff in a school have a shared set of values. I know it’s very difficult to work in a school when you fundamentally disagree with the culture so there is something to be said for building a like minded team. I’m not trying to argue that teams should have divergent core values because that would stop any progress being made as everyone tries to pull in a different direction. Clarity of purpose is really important. So if everyone agrees on what they are trying to do, how come I have such a problem with ‘non-negotiable’ as a term? It’s because the term is almost never given to beliefs or values but to aspects of everyday classroom practice. Worse, it’s usually invoked to protect a top down, leadership driven policy from scrutiny. I’ve heard of teachers receiving glowing feedback from a lesson but at the same time being judged harshly for not following a single point of policy in that specific lesson. When asked why they should interrupt or change their great lesson they get a shrug and the reply ‘It’s non-negotiable’.

I believe there is a stronger leadership. I believe there is a braver way to do things. It isn’t always as fast to make changes, and it rarely means that any single person is able to take credit for an action or policy, but it does provide a more effective change and I know it’s more rewarding. I believe the best leaders consult and discuss before making decisions that affect teaching. No single idea is ever made and set in stone forever. Everything needs refining and improving over time. Each decision gets revisited in order of what’s not working and changes made in consultation with fellow professionals. It’s a brave leadership style because you could be responsible for a policy that you didn’t choose or that looks significantly different from what you wanted. If it fails then you are open to feelings of failure yourself. That’s a difficult path to tread, but I passionately believe that it not only makes staff feel more involved, but challenges them to improve their practice. It relies on trust. You are relying on the professionalism of teachers to do what they said they would do. If you end up with a different looking policy for marking in each faculty or department- but it’s one that everyone is happy to follow because they helped write it, surely that’s better than a one size fits all ‘non-negotiable’ dictat from on high. Obviously not everything needs hours of contemplation, and head teachers need to be free to make certain decisions quickly and off their own back but for decisions that involve the tasks taken on by teachers and support staff I believe that everyone should have a fair opportunity for input.

When I see great leaders at work, they highlight what needs to change, propose a solution and invite staff to comment, the policy is revised and then reissued. Very few whole school policies should be written down to the super fine detail, but should leave space for departments to work out how they are going to implement the decision in their own lessons, usually in a department meeting. It sounds slow, but as stated earlier, I think it means that staff feel more involved and more able to effect policy change. Empowerment makes staff feel more confident and more like they are working with school leaders than working for them.

Published by mrgreenw00d

Lead Practitioner in Science, chemistry specialist and Metacognition/Cog Sci nerd.

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