What is it like to be a teacher “in capability”?

Posted on 2nd October 2016 by Chester
A teacher in capability

This guest blog post is written by Chester, a lay officer for a major teaching union.  This means he is a classroom teacher who has been elected to serve as a representative for the area covered by his Local Authority.  To fulfil this role he put classroom teaching on pause in September 2015.

I often meet Teachers who are far from Happy. The majority of my cases involve teachers who are “in capability”, often where the member has gone off sick with work related stress. This includes teachers who are put on a support plan by the leadership, usually as a result of lesson observations.

What does “in capability” mean?

This is actually quite complicated. It means that a teacher’s employer has concerns about how well they are able to do their job. How this is dealt with depends on the school’s capability policy, which teachers should have access to. A policy should have an informal stage and a formal stage. The informal stage is there so that issues can be resolved without any impact on references if people resign. It should be a last resort, as these issues should be raised during the appraisal (performance management) process. It is not as ‘informal’ as you might think – typically the first meeting involves a senior leader, an HR adviser who takes minutes, and a union rep.

Why are there so many capability cases?

In these cases, there are certain common phrases I hear a lot:

What these all say to me is that the school leadership aren’t supporting people in the right way. Now, this isn’t usually because they’re bullies, although this is often the impression the member has received. It’s often because the leaders themselves are under pressure to “do something about it” from:

Unfortunately, passing the pressure downward onto teachers doesn’t help.

If someone has had a bad observation, a 4 week support plan that contains loads more observations and a veiled threat about job security isn’t the way to make them feel supported. Should we tell a student who has performed poorly on a test, “You will have four weeks of tests now, just make sure you pass them all or we’ll start the process of expelling you”?

What’s it like for a classroom teacher facing capability?

I have to always take the side of the member, even though they are sometimes at fault. Trying to be objective, however, in almost all of these cases, I’m dealing with earnest, hard working teachers who feel they cannot cope. They then go off sick with work related stress.

Some people still scoff at stress absences, but having met the teachers involved, I can tell that they are nowhere near well enough to teach children. The first thing I learned as an NQT was that you can’t control behaviour effectively if you are in an emotional state, and it applies to these people.

For the first 100 working days of absence, due to sick pay entitlements they aren’t losing money but they do feel isolated and strange being away from the job they (used to) love. It usually develops into a fear of entering the school building, leading to absence management meetings being held somewhere neutral, often a bland, unpleasant room in a local authority building.

The school will often refer the teacher to Occupational Health. These are outside agencies (either private or local authority) that the school pay to assess the teacher, and make recommendations for the school to follow to enable them to return to work. This works great when someone has injured their back, or has a condition that makes them tired, but how can Occupational Health possibly be expected to make a recommendation when someone is so upset that the thought of going to a building to hand a sick note in gives them a panic attack?

What they tend to say is: “X is not fit for work and is unlikely to return in the near future”. This prophecy is fulfilled. At some point, the teacher decides they’ve had enough and the union will try to negotiate a managed exit with mutually agreeable terms. They then have to try and find another job, possibly as supply teacher.

Perversely, there is plenty of supply work available, due to the frequency with which this situation occurs!

What should be happening?

We need, as a profession, to stop these issues progressing to the point where people are off sick. As I used to say to the members of my Year 7 form (whom I’ve deeply missed since leaving the classroom) when bullying arose:

“Just because you aren’t actively trying to upset someone, doesn’t mean they aren’t being upset. We have to think about how they feel and make sure we don’t do anything that makes people feel upset.”

Like the 11-year-old stealing pencil cases on the bus, the school leader needs to change their behaviour to make sure that their staff feel happy and safe coming to school. There are a number of reasons why both child and leader are behaving as they are, but both of them need to be strong enough to overcome them and do the right thing.

In my next guest blog post on Happy Teacher I’ll offer advice for school leaders on how you can best support struggling teachers at your school.

Chester is a pseudonym.  The views in this post are not necessarily shared by Happy Teacher.

Photo credits: Tim Gouw on Pexels