The Difficult Conversation by @TeacherToolkit

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Michael Gove


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

This is a blog about leadership-appraisal (and coaching and mentoring). How would you conduct a difficult conversation?

Picture the scene when @TeacherToolkit pulls Michael Gove into his office …


@TeacherToolkit: “Hi Michael, thanks for agreeing to meet with me today. Can I just state before we start, that this meeting will be very brief. I aim to share some information with you and give you the opportunity to respond, or to leave and then return reflective, should you wish to do so.”

Gove: “That’s not a problem. How can I help?”

(@TeacherToolkit adopts a deliberate and non-threatening body posture)

@TeacherToolkit: “I have decided to let you know sooner rather than later, the even if the Conservatives win the next General Election, you will not be reinstated as ‘Secretary of State for Education’.”

Gove: “Oh … How can you be sure? I’m very surprised and saddened to hear this. Can I ask why?”

(There is a pause and a ruffling of papers)

@TeacherToolkit: “Of course. I have all the facts here for you to see for yourself … Were you aware, that your behaviour as former Secretary of State has led me to speak to you personally about the impact of your decisions on others. For example, cutting the previous government’s school-building programme. The job of every leader, is to ensure that we all understand the implications of our decisions.”

Gove: “But, I’ve already apologised for that … (and continues to explain the context)”

(Pause, bordering on a moment of awkward silence)

@TeacherToolkit: “Yes. I know. But the fact of the matter is, is that cutting the BSF projects in six local authority areas was unlawful, as you had failed to consult before imposing the cuts. (Pause) Shall I go on?

Gove: “No. There is no need.”

(Gove bows his head)

@TeacherToolkit: “Okay. So, what I’d like to suggest so that we are clear about the purpose of this meeting, is what will be different in the future. I will repeat what I have already said so that there is no question about the message. If the Conservatives win the next General Election, you will not be reinstated as ‘Secretary of State for Education’. All I need from you, is a simple verbal commitment to reject whatever is on the table in May 2015; that you will not agree to any positions offered by David Cameron in the field of education.

Is what I’ve said to you, clear Michael?”

Gove: “The message is clear. I am a little shocked, but I totally understand why this decision has been made … and will do all that I can to remedy the situation.”

(Long pause)

@TeacherToolkit: “Well, that’s very good to hear Michael. Is there anything else you would like me to explain? Do you need any time to go away and reflect, and perhaps meet again tomorrow?”

Gove: “No. That’s fine. I’ll go away and have a good think about what you’ve said. I’ll also have a chat with David later and let you know … “

(@TeacherToolkit stands up and opens the door … and then posts this tweet.)

@TeacherToolkit Michael Gove Cartoon @SDuppTweet the above conversation?

I’ve been there. You probably have too.

We have all heard something we do not want to hear. On occasions, we may also hear something that was a total surprise to us too!


It is part and parcel of a school leader’s job, that he or she will at some point face a difficult conversation where they must take action with ‘a behaviour that is clearly unacceptable’. The best advice I recently received, was a former headteacher: There are two matters when it comes to tricky staffing issues: they either can’t do it, or they won’t do it. If it’s the former, then its a matter of capability; perhaps a need for training (or an improved appraisal process on the part of the leader). If it’s the latter, then it may be a disciplinary issue.

Whatever the case, these conversations never stop being difficult, but leaders should always work hard on making them easier. Before a colleague steps up into middle or senior leadership, no-one really ever has any formal training for managing difficult conversations, so the process is incredibly important to get right.


We are now past the middle-point of the academic year and for most, like it or not, we will have or are have about to complete mid-year performance management reviews. For me, this has never really been more than just a quick conversation throughout my entire career, with some paperwork required by a couple of schools and others, none at all!

“I am clear that these changes will give schools greater freedom to develop pay policies that are tailored to their school’s needs and circumstances and to reward their teachers in line with their performance.” (Michael Gove)

Since Michael Gove’s announcement in January 2013, and with the introduction of (PRP) Performance Related Pay from September 2014, whether you like it or not and whether your school is adopting a new Pay Policy to suit, this blog is to help generate some thought and potential dialogue for school appraisers, regardless of your school’s or your personal opinion about PRP. I want this blog to be read as a aide-mémoire to myself, and for those who may need to hold a ‘difficult conversation,’ beyond ‘just the pay discussion’. For example, general misconduct. I hope this blog will be useful to the reader in all sorts of difficult contexts.

School environments are incredibly stressful. The nature of our jobs, demand our full attention and commitment. With this, comes a never-ending workload, a raft of demands from the school, leadership, students and parents … If you work in a very large school, the chances are, that you will at some point have had an altercation with another colleague over a decision or an action. And indeed, often due to miscommunication, tiredness and stress, or merely lack of understanding.

Difficult Conversations:

To address any issues, you cannot rely on personal confidence and professional experience alone, or the relationship you have with your colleagues. So, in the nature of imperfection and lessons learned, allow me to offer the following suggestions to help this process:

1. Have the conversation sooner rather than later.

Too often we postpone the difficult conversation because we know that it will not be easy, potentially draining our own energies and emotions. While it is important not to rush into something, procrastination simply makes the situation worse. Keep matter private, professional and pertinent.

2. Stick to the facts.

Describe carefully the behaviour that has led you to speak to the individual. Describe the impact of the behaviours on others, for example, pupils, fellow colleagues or yourself. The job of the leader is to ensure that the person understands why there has to be a change in behaviour. By describing the impact the leader is giving the reasons why change is required. My number one piece of advice, is always have the Teaching Standards to hand. If necessary, refer to your own school policies and have these to hand. In many cases, the full-time classroom teacher will have not had the time to read any policy in full. Why would they? And if quoting from any policy in any informal setting, allow the individual to have the opportunity to read the details over a ‘recommended’ period of time before they respond.

Hopefully, this level of detail will not be needed, as sometimes an initial conversation is all that is required to rectify most situations.

3. Focus on the future.

This is about what is going to be different in the future. It could be about specific things that require to be in place or it might be as simple as a verbal commitment from the individual to take on board what has been said.

4. Show respect.

No matter how important the issue is, always ensure that you show respect to the individual as a person. You are taking issue only with the behaviours and not the individual. Give the member of staff time to digest, respond and reflect.

5. Allow time.

Even where the issue is patently clear and must be addressed. ensure the individual ‘s voice is heard. While you are dealing with a particular issue, you are also modelling a process that shows respect to all.

6. Keep a tight control of your emotions.

Do not allow your emotions to get the better of you. To raise justifiable concerns in an unjustifiable manner simply creates more problems. Always be professional and remember, they are equally not enjoying this as you are!

7. Reflect.

And finally, reflect after the event how you could have done better, and then move on. School leaders need to beware of the tendency to replay conversations again and again in their heads; what we should have said or not said. This can be exhausting. Accept what is done and move on. Sometimes a small follow-up conversation or a ‘nod-of-the-head’ is enough when next seeing or meeting with the same colleague. Move on as quickly as possible.

What would you do? Tweet it!


10 thoughts on “The Difficult Conversation by @TeacherToolkit

  1. Useful comments Ross and what you hope colleagues up and down the land do. The sad reality is that these conversations are often clumsily handled at best. Making sure that you have all the facts is essential and being clear about the reality and perceptions is also critical. In big, busy schools, often people confuse the two because there isn’t enough time to get to know people properly and to understand how they function. What about any sort of record of the conversation? That can add a tricky element into the conversation, but can be useful for both parties of the future. How do you handle that?

    1. Some useful comments. Of course, schools will have their own protocol. Informal = chat, possible follow up email to confirm what was said/agreed. Formal = as per school policy

  2. I hear you but this can only ever be a reasonable process if the policies are reasonable in the first place. The last few years I have seen behaviour policies which relate to the adult more than the children…. it seems that the blame for any poor behaviour is being placed on those individuals. I can’t say I agree with the ‘bend your personality and values’ so the child will behave school of thought having seen many an individual do so to no avail. In which case I would say are your policies and demands reasonable, can they actually be met, have staff been consulted so there is a joint understanding?

  3. Useful advice. Definitely should never be left on the long finger…often happens and tension builds. I also find it very important that the first initial meeting should be very supportive and try to figure out if there are an underlying issues for the underperformance , I always try and enter with the mind-set that we will be able to work together in a supportive environment and rectify the issue and move on. While useful to have the teaching standards…also very important each member of staff has a job description as this is a very useful document in these meetings…

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