What I have learned about improving teaching

Teaching and teachers have never been better.

I started teaching in 1984.  I wasn’t given targets, there was no focus on learning, no-one was interested in the students’ results and I was judged to be excellent because difficult teenagers behaved in my classes!  I see young entrants to the profession now engaged in discussions about pedagogy, understanding data and using it, interested in academic study about leadership of teaching and learning and with no expectation of 13 weeks holiday a year completely free from all schoolwork.  I think it is sad that the public perception of the modern teacher is so rooted in the past.

Some people will never be able to teach.

This is something that people don’t admit.  Too often the fact you have a degree and want to be a teacher is seen as enough.  Err, no.  Some people, no matter how much guidance and training they are given, would lose control of a dead rabbit!  Some people are not natural communicators and teachers need to be communicators.  One of the most infuriating things about our profession is the way that everyone from journalists to taxi drivers, from politicians to refuse collectors, from parents to shop assistants know about teaching because they went to school!  The constant call for teachers to behave professionally is sadly not reflected with the same level of respect for their professional opinion and ability enjoyed by accountants, lawyers and doctors.

Teachers are essentially sociable creatures.

They like people and they like a job with human contact, particularly with the young of the species.  There are very few who don’t like children.  I have met the odd one or two over the years who don’t like children, but it is rare and I’d bet they didn’t start out like that.  By the time they get to that stage we have to have to get them out the profession, but it’s equally important to make sure that the factors which caused them to reach that stage are removed.

Teachers working together are far more effective than those working in isolation.

Ideas which are bounced around amongst enthusiastic professionals become great.  Confident enthusiasts build on each other’s work, learning is accelerated, evaluations are more effective and camaraderie raises morale, which raises enthusiasm and we have a virtuous circle.  Teachers’ needs for affiliation, recognition and all that “self-actualisation” stuff is met.  The system gets better, the teachers get better and the kids get a good deal.

 Far too many teachers work in isolation.

There are many reasons for this.  Historically there was a view in the profession that a teacher could close their classroom door and be a king in their own classroom, free from “interference” of others.  Just plain daft.  There can also be a view that if a teacher admits they could do with ideas or support this means that they are “failing”, when of course the opposite is true: it is the confident who understand the importance of seeking help.  This nonsense is, however, still prevalent in lots of schools.  Thirdly, and in my view this is the most serious cause of teachers working in isolation, is the school that is in a downward spiral of isolation from governance, through to the head, through to the staff and ultimately the kids.

The downward spiral of isolation.

It works like this: a weakness in governance allows a “bunker mentality” to be adopted by the head.  The head knows that other schools have “a better intake”, that they are “favourites with the LA/diocese or both”, that “competitor” schools were “very lucky in their last OFSTED” etc etc.  this head doesn’t network much because s/he has little real confidence (although this can be heavily disguised).  Decisions are often not made or made by default and student behaviour plummets.  The culture of excuses and isolation emanates throughout the building.  Teachers who have ideas find it’s best to keep them to themselves because “raising your head above the parapet means you’ll be shot down”.  What happens in schools doing this is that those who have a sense of what is happening, and who can, leave;  some teachers stay and maintain a good level of performance, but are far from fulfilling their potential and, for the majority their performance is way below what it needs to be.

Heads are the people responsible for monitoring teacher performance and this is a core skill of headship.

I’m not deliberately setting out to be controversial here, but these following points seem to me to be self-evident truths, and ones I want politicians to take note of:

1.     It is perfectly possible for heads to “sack” / “get rid of” failing teachers in a timely fashion.  The processes are there and are used effectively by good heads.

2.     If there are heads unwilling or incapable of using existing procedures, that is a capability issue about headship.

3.     Teachers who are “failing” can have their performance transformed through excellent leadership and this, together with that downward spiral described in the above paragraph, means that we cannot make judgements about teachers in isolation from leadership.

4.     Diluting the responsibility for heads to ensure good teaching will do nothing to improve the quality of leadership.

5.     The people who appoint heads and manage the performance of heads are governing bodies.  The link from weak governance to weak headship to weak teaching to failing schools is indisputable.

This is Ros banging on again about leadership!

Well, yes I am!  If anyone is responsible for licensing or re-licensing my teachers, it is me.  And if I am incapable of ensuring quality teaching, then I am incapable of headship and someone should do something about that.

Please can we have our National College back ……

as an independent organisation intellectually, ideologically and professionally committed to raising the quality of teaching and leadership, with a leader who is recognised across all sectors as outstanding and who has the confidence of the NLEs?  Give NLEs “teeth” in supporting schools and licensing other heads.  Allow the profession to control the CPD, through the college and led by the system.

I promise all the politicians that if you follow this formula teaching will look after itself.


About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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6 Responses to What I have learned about improving teaching

  1. Nathaniel Higgins says:

    So well said! Couldn’t agree more. The same ideas can be transferred to other industries too. Failing staff usually equates to failing leadership, just like bad children usually equates to bad parenting.

  2. Nathaniel Higgins says:

    So well said! Couldn’t agree more! The same ideas can usually be transferred to other industries too. Bad staff usually equates to bad leadership, just like bad children usually equates to bad parenting.

    • rosmcm1962 says:

      We ought to come clean and admit you and I know each other as you were a student! Nat – you are an exceptionally gifted businessman in many ways. When I did an MBA I became convinced that actually education was ahead of business in understanding of leadership. I am sure that your generation will put this right. Good luck and thank you so much for continuing to inspire me.

  3. Pingback: On being a governor and cogitating on teacher licencing | On being a governor

  4. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts from the week that was! Week 2 | high heels and high notes

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