Putting Staff First, by John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley

Why I read it…  Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of school staff succumb to the seemingly inevitable notion that workload is high and many tasks are arbitrary, but you just keep chipping away and hobble along. You get the holidays, and teaching is fun; so you’ll tolerate the other crap. But the tide has turned – professional development has never been so high-quality, easy-to-access and purposeful. Leaders are now looking for ways to help staff thrive, and not merely survive. I’ve been on this journey as a leader, trying to cut through what works best for staff while maintaining high standards of education for the children. During last year’s staff wellbeing project I read Putting Staff First, and knew we were in good hands.

In summary:

Tomsett and Uttley combine their experience and wisdom to present the case for how we can recruit, train, and retain happy, expert, thriving teachers. The clue is in the title: every idea, angle, proposition in this book is about putting staff first. It’s not about Ofsted, attainment scores, or finances; the authors focus solely on how we can invest in our education workforce.

On reflection, whilst this book is clearly authored by two leaders in education, with the premise of ‘revitalising our schools’, the principles reach far beyond, to other industries.

Key takeaways:

  1. Put development at the heart of school culture – Tomsett pens the chapter on ‘teacher learning’, recalling an example of launching a CPD initiative for staff by giving them a book in an afterschool session, and then never following up – we’ve all been part of similar initiatives! But he then leads an exploration of long-term, purposeful CPD. Learning that is wide-ranging, given dedicated and plentiful time, that is evidence based, and tailored to subject, pedagogical and pastoral needs. I can think of no better way to improve student learning, staff expertise, motivation, and love of vocation more than thinking about this as a top priority, every day.  
  2. Workload – this is an essential chapter. The trick is to eliminate excessive tasks, and tasks that do not add value; in other words ‘do fewer things but do them better’. I particularly liked the way Uttley discusses how they invited staff and unions to bring issues along when they were developing their wellbeing charter, which he then provides for us with its key principles. Marking, meetings, emails, accountability culture, admin – everything we do should be scrutinised as we consider if it needlessly adds to workload.
  3. Recruitment and ‘cultural fit’ –  despite recruitment proving difficult in recent years, especially in some subjects, it’s vital that prospective staff members’ values align with the school. The school will be investing huge amounts in them over the years, and vice versa. Tomsett shows his ‘cultural fit’ page (added to the job ad) where he outlines the values of the school and its expectations of students and staff. This idea links to one of my takeaways in The Human Workplace, where Andy Swann argues that values should exceed ‘experience’ in recruitment. In a school’s case, Tomsett rightly points out that subject knowledge is key, too.

Favourite quote:

‘‘Students first’ is a misplaced sentiment. By putting staff first, you are on the way to providing for students the one thing that will help them make good progress in their learning: truly great teaching.’

Favourite moment:

Rather than singling out a specific moment in the book, as I usually would in these posts, what I love about Putting Staff First is the open, collaborative nature that the writers adopt. Yes, they dedicate pages to their own experiences and views. But they cite hundreds of other leaders, books, examples from beyond their own schools or roles. Uttley even writes a chapter about schools being at the heart of system-wide change, and it’s clear that the authors are dedicated to encouraging a ‘staff first blueprint’ across the country.

Question and reflect

  • Do we put everything on the table when we are thinking about staff wellbeing? Everything we ask teachers to do should be evaluated – does it help them to thrive and be better teachers?
  • Rather than have a vague ethos around looking after staff, should we create a tangible wellbeing charter? Staff can be part of the process of putting it together, which should ensure good buy in when it launches.
  • As leaders, have we moved beyond the ‘weekly CPD’ notion, to more firmly embed staff development at the heart of our day-to-day culture?

Read this if…

You want ideas about how to help teachers thrive

You want insights into the work of two principled, thoughtful leaders

Support bookshops and buy it here

3 thoughts on “Putting Staff First, by John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley

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