New and clueless!

When my stint as a substitute English teacher was coming to an end, I was asked to help in the Support for Learning Department even though I didn’t have much experience.  

From the start, Christine was encouraging and supportive. She often asked me to help her with vital behind-the-scenes information-gathering and reporting. A colleague was cynical about this, suggesting that Christine was trying to get me to do some of her job for her. I wondered if I was being naïve but soon decided that it didn’t matter what Christine’s motives were. I was learning a great deal, very quickly and I felt valued and appreciated.


I was included in meetings, some of which seemed irrelevant to me at the time. But I often picked up information which meant I could give the right support to kids even when I had no direct responsibility for them. I could also advise other staff who were working with those young people. This gave me a great deal of credibility with other teachers who saw me as engaged, interested and capable. It helped me to feel part of the wider team of the school.


Christine and I developed a strong working relationship and I felt confident and comfortable enough to make suggestions for different ways to do things. Christine always listened and gave my ideas due consideration. In some cases, she explained that my idea had been tried before or clarified why it wouldn’t work. Every time this happened, I learned a little more. I never felt dismissed or undermined. Other ideas she thought were valid enough to try out.

I genuinely felt that I was making a tangible difference and I developed such a passion for my role that I decided to focus on this area of education rather than going back to English teaching.

A Reversal

In contrast, much later in my career when I had developed considerable knowledge and experience, I successfully applied for a similar job at a different school.

When Karen appointed me, she seemed so keen to have me join her team. I truly felt that I would be a valuable and active addition to the department. A tiny fly in the ointment came when a colleague, Angie, told me that she thought that she had become deskilled during her time at the school. I was a bit taken aback but thought this was just her personal view.

Know Your Place

However, it quickly became clear that I would be expected to just do my job and stay out of anything else. I was given a timetable and a reasonable amount of autonomy within that, but no information about pupils who were not my direct responsibility.

I soon realized that this was not personal to me and that Angie’s comment had some validity. We were not included in any faculty meetings which meant that there was a lack of communication. We were ill-informed and unable to give information to colleagues. Karen was often not available, and the result was that some kids were ill-served by our lack of knowledge about them.

Eccentricity or weakness?

I don’t believe that this was a deliberate ploy to exclude us. Rather, I think that she took her role seriously and didn’t want to be the kind of boss who passed her work to her underlings. When we tried to discuss this with her, she would say that she was a control freak who had trouble delegating, as if this was an endearing quirk of personality. For me, this policy had considerable unintended consequences.


As she was nearing retirement Angie’s response was to shrug and just stay focused on the responsibilities she was given. But I began to feel that Karen didn’t trust me and didn’t value my opinions. She was always polite when I offered suggestions but rarely implemented any changes. Besides, she would be scornful of other people if she thought they were trying to tell her how to do her job.

Have you heard of Hypostress?

Another problem for me was that I was much less busy than I was used to. This led to me experiencing hypostress – a form of stress that happens when someone is bored and unchallenged. I felt guilty because I wasn’t doing enough, and this feeling was compounded by Karen constantly telling us how busy and stressed she was.

Long term exposure to hypostress can affect a person’s motivation and performance. This was certainly true for me. I loved the first job so much that I came in early and didn’t leave until I had completed unfinished tasks. In the second, there was no point in going in early or staying late – I could fulfil my duties within normal working hours. This sounds like the ideal job but, in truth, it was deeply unsatisfying. I applied for other jobs but, Angie had been right, I now felt deskilled and my confidence had evaporated. In the end, I gave up teaching altogether.

Whatever, the motives of these two managers for the way they ran their departments, the first had a very positive effect on me and the second was the opposite. It is part of a manager’s job to develop the skills of their staff and this includes delegating responsibility – if the job gets done, it doesn’t matter who does it. What does matter is that the right balance is struck between too much stress and too little.