How to empower and support your staff, and boost their development

An image showing a leader penciling in the way for three of the people he is managing

Source: © Gary Bates/Ikon Images

Often, when a teacher is promoted to the position of head of department, they have had very little formal leadership training. As a result, they support their staff (whether teachers, technicians or support staff) in the same way they teach, or were trained as teachers. They act as mentors (or, worse, parents): caring, giving advice and creating mini versions of themselves. This can cause staff to become reliant on the head of department, failing to tap into their own skills and resources.

By adopting an approach similar to that used in executive coaching, you are more likely to build the capacity of your staff. The fundamental difference here is that you encourage staff members to find their own solutions by asking questions, instead of just providing them with answers.

By regularly asking the following ten questions, you could transform your leadership style – your staff will be more empowered and resourceful. These questions will help you to support your staff with everything from behaviour management to lesson planning. Obviously, technical or safety-focused issues will require a more direct approach.

1 How are things?

As obvious as it seems, make sure you are aware of what’s going on in your department by catching up with your staff on a daily basis. This will help to build rapport and trust in the department, and alert you to any potential brewing issues.

2 What do you really want?

‘Please remove Billy from my class.’ Every head of department has heard multiple versions of this question. Asking what the staff member really wants will often lead to a repeat of the request. Pushing further means that you’ll get to the actual problem. The teacher may be struggling with classroom management and needs support. Perhaps Billy is bullying them for some personal trait. Or the pupil could be struggling with learning difficulties and the teacher needs help in differentiation.

A powerful trick is to flip a negative to become a positive: ‘If you don’t want disruption, what do you want?’ By asking questions like this, you’ll encourage the staff member to embrace a positive mindset so they can focus on solutions rather than problems.

3 Why do you want it?

The answers to this question will uncover what your staff member values. ‘I want a quiet life.’ (Possible values: peace and harmony.) ‘I want my class to be able to learn without disruption.’ (Learning? Discipline?) ‘I want to improve my results.’ (Success? Recognition?)

Once you identify the values, you can build on these in further discussions. If a teacher values peace, help them to see that sorting out their problems will help them achieve it. If they value success, link overcoming the challenge to being successful.

4 What ways could you get it?

There are two important messages in this question: there’s more than one way to get what you want and you have the power to make a change.

When you ask the staff member to consider multiple solutions, they become a creative problem-solver rather than a victim of their circumstances. Challenging them to own their solution will make them more likely to work at achieving it, believing that the answer is within their reach. In time, they will become less reliant on you.

5 What’s the best way of getting it?

The best solution for one person will not necessarily work for another, so leave the choice up to the staff member. If you impose a solution and it doesn’t work, you’ll probably be blamed.

Encourage resilience and innovation: congratulate staff for trying something new, even if it fails. When they try something new, don’t criticise failure.

6 What’s your plan?

Don’t leave the room until there’s a firm plan in place. Again, the staff member must own this. What will they do? When will they do it? There’s no point in agreeing to do something and then carrying on as normal. Make sure the plan is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) and within the staff member’s control.

7 What are your challenges?

It’s important to encourage the staff member to consider any potential challenges that may crop up and think through how to deal with them. This may require going back to question 4 to consider other potential ways of dealing with the issue.

8 Can I count on you to do this?

Stating a commitment to another person makes it much more likely that the plan will be carried out. But this question also gives you the power to hold your staff member accountable in the future. So when they come to ask for Johnny to be removed again, the first thing you can do is ask if they carried out their plan. You’re putting the onus on the staff member to drive the change they want. Send a follow-up email outlining these action points.

9 What will happen if you don’t do it?

Another way of cementing commitment is to make the member of staff consider what would happen if they don’t carry out their plan. Sometimes the answer will be ‘things will carry on as they already are’ so you need to remind them of why they want to make the change.

Pose different variants of this question. What won’t happen if you do it? What won’t happen if you don’t do it? What will happen if you do it? Each twist will bring a new insight on the issue and help empower your staff to find a solution. Your aim is to make them more determined to overcome.

10 What else?

I’ve left the most powerful question for last and it can be used after any answer. It’s an open-ended question, suggesting that there should be multiple answers – gently nudge your staff member to find them.

Try using these questions instead of immediately going into answer mode the next time someone asks for your help. At first, it will feel uncomfortable. Stick with it and you’ll find that your staff become stronger, more empowered, increasingly resilient and more able to develop their own solutions.

Matthew Bennett is a former science teacher, fully trained education professional and executive coach and founder of Can fish climb?