We use the phrase ‘open door policy’ fairly glibly these days. Many leaders want to be visible, approachable, accessible, and certainly not remote. This is all good, and I was certainly determined to be this kind of leader when I was a head. It can be easy to become trapped in the office, though, and you need strategies to ensure you get out and about. And when you’re in your office, there are times when the door needs to be closed.
I was a head for ten years and I did try hard not to get stuck in my office. I taught every year which got me into the classrooms. I had lunch each day in the school dining hall, where I tried to sit with different groups of staff. I put myself on the duty rota and made sure I did a duty which involved my walking round the school and chatting to pupils and staff en route. I called in to as many extra-curricular activities as I could, to show support, and I sat in a fair number of lessons.
But there were times when I was in my office with the door closed and, thinking about it now, there were perhaps four main reasons:
1. Someone was distressed and needed privacy. It could be a pupil, a member of staff, a parent. Once it was a governor. Very occasionally it was me.
2. Someone needed time – it could have been a meeting, an appraisal, a thorny issue they needed to talk through, but something which needed not to be interrupted because whoever was in there had to know that they, and their issues, were important enough to merit my undivided attention. The phone was turned off, too.
3. I was having a difficult phone conversation – on a sensitive subject, or with someone who was experiencing extreme emotions, and I needed to listen, really listen, and give an appropriate response. Sometimes it was just a question of letting whoever it was let off steam and then suggesting that they came in so that we could talk face to face.
4. I needed thinking time – something difficult had happened and I really needed to give a measured, carefully considered response, and I required calm and quiet to formulate that.
What I didn’t do was close the door during the school day to plough through my emails, to get on with paperwork, or to put my feet up! A head I knew and respected earlier in my career once said ‘day-time is for people, evenings and weekends are for paper’ and that’s how it was for me too.
I loved being a head – it is the BEST job in the school and a real privilege, despite the responsibility and the pressure. You do have to think about your principles and priorities as a leader, and, interestingly, reflecting on when, and why, your door is open, and when, and why, it’s closed, may help you to do that.
A version of this post was originally written for @TeacherToolkit’s blog and posted in 2014
Photo credit: John Berry