Lessons from Hairdressing….

A while ago I happened to mention to someone that I was involved in recruitment and retention work in schools.

“Ah yes,” he said, “you’re the Educate Norfolk guy.” I settled back smugly in my seat to enjoy the warm glow of being recognised as a minor local celebrity, while he continued: “Lesson’s from hairdressing, that’s what you need.”

What? Lessons from hairdressing?

“Yes,” he said, and went on to explain that hairdressing was the profession with the highest job satisfaction and lowest turnover. Hairdressers are all happy and no-one ever leaves. It is the model we should all aspire to, and, my friend believes, the one that holds the key for all the rest of us who head home every night to a glass of medicinal compound and a good old moan.

Why is it number one in the well-being league table? The answer is fourfold:

  1.  Control. People tend to sit still while you’re cutting their hair. Nobody complains about putting the big cape on, and when you ask them to tilt their head to one side they generally do. And if you need to pop to the bank or go to see your little one in their school play, you can simply leave an hour blank in the appointments diary.
  2. Completion. Unlike many jobs where you never quite feel like you’ve got to the end or there was always something more you could have done, when you cut someone’s hair you start, you cut it, and then you finish. 100% of the time. No loose ends or nagging sense of what could have been with a little more time – it’s job done.
  3. Socialising. You can have a nice chat while you are doing it. About holidays.
  4. Positive Feedback. The last thing you hear from the customer as they walk out of the salon is thank you and the last thing you see is a smile. And if they don’t like their haircut, they don’t complain, they simply never come back. So you never get any negative feedback.

It sounds simple. All we have to do is replicate the conditions of hairdressing and we can solve the chronic recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, And chronic it certainly is. Whilst newly qualified teachers are scarce to the point of invisibility, serving teachers are leaving the profession in increasing numbers. Only this week a former NQT of mine got in touch to ask for a reference. She has had enough – she’s leaving teaching. When I asked her why, her reasons were simple; she wanted her life back, particularly the part of her life which happens on Sunday afternoons.

So let’s see if we can transpose life in the salon on to life in the classroom. School leaders are all searching for answers to the conundrum of why teacher retention is so bad and looking for ways to make life more bearable for their staff. The DfE and Ofsted are interested too. (I’ll let the irony of that sink in with you for a moment…..OK let’s move on.) Let’s see if we can establish how much of the current drive is hitting the mark and whether we really can learn any lessons from hairdressing.

1. Control

For most teachers this is a vocation. This is the job many of them have wanted to do since they were children themselves. They have boundless passion for it, they are full of creativity and imagination which will make learning exciting for their children and their classrooms a place where magic happens. As long as we let them get on with it. As soon as we turn that vocation into a job by trying to control the way they teach, the systems they use and the “non-negotiables” on their classroom walls, then the magic dies. Worse still, we demand lesson plans and data drops and deep marking in three coloured pens and their passion dies too. I’m not saying there are no poor teachers, but we won’t improve them by trying to get them to do all of this. So, for the sake of reigning in the tiny percentage of teachers who are not very good (or can’t quite be bothered and need a bit of a kick up the proverbial), we take away the very thing that makes the overwhelming majority of teachers great.

2. Completion

One of the great frustrations of teaching is that you always feel you could have done more. You could have made more resources, foreseen a misunderstanding or addressed something earlier. And when the lesson is over, if we just mark in a bit more depth or plan for longer it will all be so much better tomorrow. It takes some stamina to stay on this particular hamster wheel. So let’s not add to the workload still further. The ludicrous accountability regime that we live under has driven an audit culture which has the self-defeating effect of exhausting our teachers and further postponing the satisfaction of completion. As headteachers we have the power to resist this.

3. Socialising

At last something we have in common with hairdressers. The relationships we build with children in our schools are the greatest joy and privilege of being a teacher. And the friendships we forge in our staffrooms and our wider networks of schools endure and sustain us for years.

4. No Negative Feedback

We are finally seeing the end of the culture of jobsworth headteachers with clipboards grading teachers in three-times-a-year-but-no-more lesson observations. This dismal attempt to mimic one of the worst aspects of Ofsted undoubtedly pushed a significant number of those lost teachers over the edge. However did we allow such a judgemental, adversarial practice to overwhelm what should be a joyful, collaborative art form? Do all of you non-teachers out there have a similar culture in your workplaces? I hope not.

Note that none of this is about money. I don’t know, but I’m guessing hairdressers don’t all earn big wages, so let’s not fool ourselves that raising teacher’ salaries by 1½%, rather than 1% will solve the problem. Nor is it about workload alone. Teachers don’t mind working hard, as long as what they are doing directly benefits the children, rather than soothing the anxiety of their bosses.

Now, those of you who know me might wish to point out the irony of a bald man invoking the spirit of hairdressers. Yes it is several years since I met one. However, I am going to try to channel my inner barber at school from now on. I know how brilliant our teachers are and I’m telling them as often as I can. And letting them get on with it. Which should free me up to sit here reading this copy of Ideal Homes and Gardens. Or shall I try that edition of Cosmo. Hang on, there’s a Classic Car Monthly over there…