A ‘professional’ oxymoron.
If you are brave enough to say goodbye life will reward you with a new hello. Paulo Coelho
A year ago, I was driving home after being denied an exit interview and not allowed being allowed to say a goodbye to staff. ‘Is this it?’ ‘Where is my closure?’ and ‘Did that just happen?’ were the questioned that played in my head. For escapism, I switched on the radio and Will Young’s – Leave Right Now was playing. This was symbolic as it truly was my time to leave and with the former Pop Idol winners lyrics belting out, I am still reflecting. In fact, that song was on my mind during the leavers speeches. Symbolic, hey?
Leave Right Now is a classic. The lyrics are symbolic of situations that cause us distress as our departure often says more about our experience than our arrival. Image: SteveyBmusic
Firstly, my deepest apologies for going ghost on educational issues. I have been focusing on my book as well as wider social issues, but I now feel the time is right to delve back into the classroom. Teachers up and down the country are either leaving their schools, have new jobs, beginning career breaks, starting maternity leave, retiring or leaving the profession. The wave of social media posts are both inspiring but also heart-breaking. Many have left schools after several decades of incredible service, others pursuing new roles post-NQT but whatever your story, everyone deserves respect. This article aims to provide practical support for teachers and school leaders with their departing colleagues. Again, this is not ‘SLT-bashing’ as there is a fine line between calling our poor professional practice and scapegoating our school leaders. This is a line I believe most educational writers tow very carefully but one that must be contextually considered. ‘Professional conduct, ‘integrity’ and ‘responsibility’. Three phrases that are the backbone to the DofE Teaching Standards for England. Three buzzwords, three components that are often paid lip-service to and three concepts that have wrongly become obscure in our great profession.
Yesterday on Twitter I posted the following message:
‘It’s a monumental day when we leave a school and a real sense of closure but when I read:
Staff deliberately left off leavers lists,
SLT unwilling to conduct leavers interviews,
Fellow teachers refusing to sign thank you cards.
It’s symbolic violence. It’s poor professionalism.’
This was posted following a set of conversations with teachers who had left their schools in appalling circumstances, all of which were not of their making. All three of the, well, frankly, unkind behaviours I have encountered personally. One leavers day, I was actually excluded from sitting with staff, my name was not announced and the suspicion around my departure was so vast. I have always believed we learn more about others when they realise we are leaving. This is also the case with schools. It really is not even the case of upholding professional values, why is being kind, courteous and civil such a difficult ask from our fellow professionals? Often it is not even teachers or school leads, it is HR and admin staff. Why must we make this divorce, and I will call it a divorce, from your employer more challenging?
What is symbolic violence?
In our analysis of such behaviours, I want to assess famous French Sociologists notion of ‘symbolic violence’. Symbolic violence according to Oxford Reference is, the imposition on subordinated groups by the dominant class of an ideology which legitimates and naturalizes the status quo.
Bourdieu who many of us know from his work on cultural capital, he believed that symbolic violence was a non-physical way to perpetuate and manifest power. Subordinate groups through norms, values and customs were forced to acquiesce to the differential power between them and superior groups. Although for Bourdieu this symbolic violence was imparted through the power dynamics of class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality, I believe we can incorporate social standing through occupational positions.
Within the context of education, teachers who leave schools become the subordinate group as they are relinquishing their position in employment in their own respected ways. Symbolic violence can be manifested through microaggressions, the use and tone of language and even the day to day nuanced interactions. I truly believe that schools are not immune from this symbolic violence, with my book on toxic schools being a key example. However, leaving staff are the most susceptible to this form of violence. Many are seen as ‘lacking resilience’, even considered as ‘traitors’ or ‘letting the school down’ for seeking new career pathways. This behaviour is not universal, but I do believe it is common and more widespread than we are led to believe.
How schools can support leaving staff?
Our key word is ‘support’. Leaving staff need supporting before they make an often life-changing transition to change school or careers. The three elements I have chosen are by no means exhaustive and despite being somewhat banal, I hope they realign the lost souls and their values with the principles of kindness and courtesy. Please pardon my naivety, I am trying to retain some element of holistic practice in relation to some perverse behaviours.
Professional standards – If you are a school leader or seeing staff leave, when did you separate from your professional standards? Amidst even the biggest fall outs and disagreements, our role to educate children is of paramount importance. The battles are in the classroom and not with one another. Our Teaching Standards ooze with buzzwords which can only take rhetoric into action if we impart these principles into our professional life. When I hear that teachers are being hauled into meetings, warned for applying at certain schools, excluded from leavers notes and barred from leaving meetings, you really do wonder how detached some schools are from not only teaching standards but standards of humanity. Leaving staff want to depart on good terms, with a real sense of achievement and even with the potential for a return to remain the cards. Disingenuous, impolite, unkind and discourteous behaviours amongst staff and leaders slam this door shut. As we are amidst a teacher recruitment and retention crisis and therefore schools should be looking to keep every door open.
Exit interviews – I actually discuss this in my book also. Exit interviews, in theory, should be an off-the-cuff opportunity to relay concerns to school leaders, explain the real reasons for your departure and help the school mobilise steps of reflection. I am astounded with the number of teachers who have told me their exit interviews were either blocked, cancelled or a mere tick-box activity. Exit interviews are moments of reflection and closure and when teachers leave, their previous employers should have no qualms if they speak uncourteously about them if they left in disarray. Denying an exit interview represents such perverse and insidious level of arrogance, dismay and unwillingness to for the employer to uphold their statutory to uphold the wellbeing of their employees. Personally, I have never sat a
Realign yourself with courtesy and civility – This should never even be a point of consideration. It is sad and just general knobbishness (yes, I have coined that phrase) to show complete disregard towards others. You may never see, let alone share the same organisational settings as a departing teacher, so why not make your last interactions meaningful? I believe we all have the capacity to be kind, courteous and civil but many lose sight of these principles as they fight for arbitrary battles with one another and the colour of pens used for marking. Many leaving staff are done, they are emotionally at ease with their decision and literally just want to leave in the most graceful way possible. The symbolic violence, which I have eye-witnessed, including, unwillingness to sign leavers cards or not clapping at leavers meetings. This is puerile, it is playground manners, it lacks class and being honest, it creates a skid mark on your own personal and professional reputation. Being civil could be greeting someone or asking how they day went. The fact that many teachers are having to learn the ‘social side’ of teaching leaves me shaking with dread. Swallow your pride and sign that card! You will be a memory for the departing member of staff, at least allow that last memory to paint you as some sort of ‘professional’. Showing courtesy will gain you more respect than any ‘status’ ever will. As a good friend of mine always says, ‘keep it kind’.
Courtesy should be at the very heart of our profession and not a peripheral unprecedented feature. With all the beautiful cards, flowers, balloons and stationery being presented to teachers, many have not had the perfect goodbye. Many have been left silenced, unable to say goodbye to their students and colleagues, denied an exit interview, escorted off site and not given an acknowledgement or leavers speech. It is those teacher we need to comfort and reassure. We need to inspire these teachers, help them leave with a sense of closure and through our interactions help remove the grey crowds around our great profession. I truly hope we can realign our principles with kindness and civility, follow the Teaching Standards or Nolan’s Principles for public life and yes, cut support our leaving colleagues. Courtesy should be universally applied; professional standards are for everyone and exit interviews are more necessary now more than ever.
Leaving a school is similar to leaving a relationship but we should be allowed to celebrate our achievements. Tis’ the season for difficult conversations and thus we need to change how we treat one another. The entire notion of unprecedented courtesy is a complete oxymoron, one that should be reserved for the morons and not part of the professional practice of exceptional educators.
Finally, a quick update. The book is almost there. We have a title ‘Toxic Schools: Our Antidote’ and I promise you, this will be a real collaborative journey of growth, hope and reflection. Please watch this space.
Thank you for reading,