David Rushby, Co-creator, Nautilus Education

David is the co-creator of Nautilus, an online school leadership platform that enables schools to accurately self-evaluate their provision using an iPad or tablet. He’s proud to have a career that began as a special educational teaching assistant, before teaching in a large inner-city school in Hackney, east London. David then went on to become a long-serving headteacher, with a proven record of successfully leading large schools in challenging circumstances. David now works with over 450 schools globally, as well as being an associate school improvement advisor for the local education authority.

‘It is nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.’

Let’s assume that you’re a really nice person, which I’m sure that you are. How does this affect what you do in your school setting and how much influence does this have? In fact, are you aware that this could be the single most significant attribute when it comes to creating a positive, successful, and sustainable school culture?

It’s important that this begins in the classroom, which is initially where we hone our skills, develop awareness and maximise impact. If you happen to be a nice person, this is where you may have noticed certain dividends naturally occurring. But let’s dig deeper. Let’s go beyond ‘nice’ and think more strategically. Let’s fine-tune ‘nice’ and supercharge the impact of our actions.

Being liked by the children that you serve is the key starting point. If we can be liked, then we can influence how much they attend, how well they behave, and how successfully they can learn. If we can apply certain behaviors effectively in this way from the beginning, this can then provide a natural pathway to effective school leadership.

Let’s consider five exemplary habits that can enable your audience to like you, from class teacher to school leader.

  1. Take the time to use names. I once read that hearing someone else use your name is the ‘sweetest sound’. I like this. If I address a pupil from the first meeting using their name, we can create an early connection. This is particularly important with unfamiliar names, where we must ask exactly how we pronounce, rather than avoiding, mispronouncing, or shortening with nicknames. I was eventually able to walk around school years later as a headteacher and know the names of every pupil. We talked as a team about the importance of not just knowing the names of the children in your class, but learning the names of more children across the school. We engineered ways to do this so that all children could connect with all staff. Names are personal, important, unique, and in many cultures meaningful. Parents notice this, staff see this and children feel this.
  2. Ask questions. In my classroom, I did this every day and I worked at it, starting with ‘How are you?’. I set up clubs and football teams just to do this. I planned lessons that allowed me to sit with the children chatting as we drew, sewed, or sculpted. If you’ve ever used the ‘circle of influence’ model, this can be useful. Take a look at your class and consider how you bring every child into the center of your circle, where what you say has the most influence. Target the quiet and reluctant ones on the periphery by finding the right question at the right time. Work with the hard-to-reach ones, who may not know yet how much they need you. As you move into leadership, use this approach with your team. I did, every morning before the doors opened. As a result of this, attendance was excellent and retention was impressive. Indicators that people liked working with me.
  3. Give yourself away. Let those around you into your world. Impress them, inspire them, and open doors. When you speak, share your story. Let others relate and be intrigued. This can be heartfelt and genuine. It can happen as you teach maths, address everyone in an assembly, or speak to a community at a church service. I don’t have a problem with privacy, but I do feel that this limits things. It’s very hard to find something in common with someone if they don’t want to share who they are. Be careful not to impose your views, appear egocentric, or mistake this for popularity.
  4. Build bridges. Get to know families quickly. The biggest source of school news for a parent is their children. If Mum and Dad already know, trust, and like you, then we should be seeing some positive synchronisation. This reduces tension and secures trust and even gratitude. It’s also enough to see you through any ups and downs over time. As a teacher and a headteacher, I greeted the children and developed relationships quickly with families, craning my neck with the ones who may not be so inclined to engage. Connecting home and school is quite possibly the most important action that you can do to successfully lead a school.
  5. Be consistent. The idea that habits can be formed in 30 days is a useful starting point. As is the theory that we only really ever do anything to gain some kind of personal benefit. There’s nothing wrong with this if we want the reward of being a good teacher or leader. I found that over time, this became who I was. I went from being a nice person that children liked to be around, to a teacher and leader who placed these attributes at the forefront of everything else. Being consistently nice came with increasing awareness, as I upheld and demonstrated the behaviors that we’d rooted in our policy and mission statements. It even made me a better person and a better Dad.

I once met a colleague who told me that she never went shopping in town because she didn’t want to bump into any of the children. I found this a strange thing to say. In contrast, I went to a big, local hardware store the other week. As I approached the checkout, I got the ‘have you recognised me yet’ look, from a young twenty-something. We had a chat and then he introduced Lewis who was standing to his right, smiling at me. I shook hands with Lewis and he began telling me about his job. He then pointed and asked me if I remembered another girl, who was waving at me as she served her customers. I told them all to just give me a moment. That they’d all changed quite a bit since they were eleven years old. And as I drove home, they all came straight back to me. This is joyous, it reflects the time you’ve invested in them and it’s the real test of what you do.

I was asked recently about how to describe a school’s ‘culture’ and defined it as ‘small and positive behaviors, done consistently’. Your culture can then inspire your team, underpin your interactions, and drive your big priorities. Your children will attend well because they want to be with you and are more likely to behave well. I know the importance of policy and rules, but it really does depend on who creates and delivers them. Ultimately, your pupils will learn better, because you have placed weight and credibility on the importance of what you say to each and every one of them.

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles