Changing the lens

Five ideas to lift the teaching profession

It's time to put the head, heart and hand back into teaching and give teachers the time to think, explore, question and collaborate.

Too many teachers reach that moment -probably some time between the second and fourth year of teaching - possibly after their 20th exam preparation lesson of the week, that you ask yourself that question : "Is this it?"

Is this the full extent of teaching? Is this what's in store for me for the next 40 years?

I thought, I believed, I was led to believe, I was convinced, there was more.

The latest statistics show that more than a third of teachers quit within five years of beginning to teach. Bad behaviour is often sited. Poor pay and conditions. For some this undoubtedly is true. But there is something far bigger going on - something that goes to the heart of what it is to be a teacher and what kind of profession we are creating. They have asked the question, is that it? And not liked their answer.

People become teachers for many reasons. Often because they have a yearning to help young people, to pass on knowledge, to nurture talent. High ideals. Big ambitions. Many are recruited today who might in the past have gone into law or medicine or the media. People join with the belief that teaching will be intellectually stimulating, varied, entrepreneurial, layered. They believe that their classroom will be a place to experiment, to try out new approaches, to become a multi-skilled professional. Yet in many, possibly most cases, particularly in secondary schools this could not be further from the truth. Teachers are having their autonomy stripped from them; expected to do as they're told, carry out the wishes of their superiors obediently; in many cases reduced to nothing more than cogs in the exam wheel.

Every year this is confirmed by the interview process at School 21. Candidate after candidate say the same thing: "I am sick of just cramming for exams." "The only thing my school seems to care about is Ofsted and GCSEs." "I know we are not doing the right thing for too many children." "I've stopped loving my subject because I'm not allowed to teach it properly." "I can't stand being micro-managed."

Daniel Pink's book Drive, which will be familiar to many people, is useful here. He has analysed what attributes are key to an individual's motivation and has boiled it down to three: mastery, autonomy and purpose.

In terms of mastery, the profession leaves teachers to sink or swim too early in their career.

So too many do not feel they have real mastery of the skills they need. Once the NQT year is out of the way teachers too often get little feedback and have few routes to really improve as professionals.

Autonomy is perhaps the greatest killer of motivation. Autonomy is in too many cases non existent. Teachers can sometimes feel like canon fodder in the drive for better results. Teachers can see the need for good exam results, but not at the expense of what they know to be a decent education. As for purpose, we have a duty to be more explicit about why we are doing things and constantly rethink and discuss openly the purpose so there is genuine buy in.

In short, there is more. There is more to teaching than the daily life of too many teachers. And many teachers are working hard to find it. They are seeking out research, sharing their passions, gathering on Saturdays in Teach meets, writing blogs. And yet this is too often a counter culture, going against the grain of the reality of their school life. There need to be more systemic changes if we are to create an environment in which teachers want to stay.

Here are five ideas that might help.

1. Change the staff conversation. The big question a teacher should ask before joining a school is what is the conversation that teachers are engaged in. Is it focused entirely on data, Ofsted, and exams? Or is there a genuinely expansive conversation about teaching and learning, curriculum design, student development and the purpose of education? Is the currency of the school student work or student test scores? Is there a climate of enquiry in the staffroom: books, articles, evidence being shared. Do staff meetings, briefings, training days have real content, pre-reading that is circulated and expectations that staff will be wrestling with big ideas as well as the practicalities of day to day teaching?

2. Rethink professional development so that it is expansive, personalised, and provides room for real exploration. Too many teachers plateau after a few years. They stop being excited by fresh learning. That is in part because professional development can be so pedestrian. Many schools, including School 21, have tried to move from one-off training to modules, delivered by other teachers and based around enquiries. That way teachers form professional learning communities can start to own and shape their professional development. At the end of the year we have 'craft presentations', which are often inspiring, when teachers present to other teachers their professional story from that year - what they have worked on, what they have overcome, how they have grown, what others can learn.

3. Provide variety for every teacher so they can extend their repertoire. In any job, to get better we need to be out of our comfort zone for a proportion of it - perhaps 20 or 30% - trying new experiences. We need to be careful not to give teachers the same repetitive diet. How do we give them opportunities to work across subjects and year groups, solve problems, build partnerships with other professionals, enrich the curriculum?

4. Give regular, specific feedback. Mastery comes from support, coaching, mentoring, and regular feedback. Too many teachers complain that they are not given enough proper feedback on their craft. and by that they don't meet monitoring from above or formal lesson observations, they mean having someone watch them try something new, or help them out with a section of their lesson they are working on.

5. Reduce top down monitoring. Most SLT monitoring is counter-productive. Too many teachers think they are being micro-managed, or dread the learning walk, the formal observation, the endless hoops set by the head of department to fulfil the wishes of senior leaders. The starting point needs to be one of trust. SLT monitoring needs to be a backstop. Quality assurance should be about development and be done as much as possible by the teacher reflecting on their work and working with peers. To take one example: book scrutinies are used to check up on marking and are almost always better done by a department or year group laying out the books from each class and comparing the standard. It is usually far more embarrassing to let down your peers than those more senior.

Some believe that the way to keep teachers in the profession, is to offer gym membership, cut out a few meetings or in the latest pronouncement from government offer cash incentives. All of these things might make a marginal difference but misses the fundamental point. Teachers want to be treated like serious professionals. If a system is based on low trust then you end up with professionals forced to go through the motions. Schools are communities. Teachers want to be part of a rich conversation and a community of adult learners. If every teacher in the country was able to answer the question what are you working on at the moment with a rich answer about their practice which acknowledged the freedom and support they had been given, then we would know that the teaching profession was in a far healthier state.

© Peter Hyman, 2019