What if we started trusting teachers?

Who would not rather trust and be deceived? – Eliza Cook

The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. – Henry Lewis Stimson

I’ve been out of the classroom for just under a year now. In that time I’ve had the privilege of visiting many more schools than I ever visited during the 15 years or so I taught. And in that time I’ve had the chance to see the sublime, the ridiculous and almost everything imaginable in between.

The other luxury I’ve had is time. Time to think in a way that was never really possible when bogged down by the stresses and pressures of school life. Things which I’d always taken for granted as necessary evils now seem, with a bit of distance, bizarre compromises that blight the lives of teachers and, I suspect, have little in the way positive impact of students.

There can be little doubt of the toxic and pernicious effects of teachers’ workload (this post from 2012 on why teachers leave teaching is far and away still my post popular post and the some of the comments left make me despair.) In a sane and rational universe, something would be done about the dreadful toll this takes. Never mind the appalling waste of talent, the money we needlessly fritter away should be argument enough. I’ve written before about the deficit and surplus models of school leadership, and it seems clear trust is the cornerstone of which great schools are built. But it’s in such desperately short supply.

Last year, I took part in a cost/benefit analysis in a primary school. I first discussed with senior leaders what they thought teachers spent their time doing, and then spent some time in classrooms and talking to teachers and pupils about what really happened. Practices varied from teacher to teacher, but one observation jumped out at me: older, more experienced staff know how to play the game, younger, less experienced teachers tend to follow the rules. Older, cannier teachers do what they need to do survive and when the classroom door’s closed, get on with the business of teaching children as they’ve always done, sensibly, compassionately and effectively. Younger teachers struggle valiantly to be the teachers they want and need to be but are often adrift in a sea of accountability processes and compliance measures which mean they’re too busy filling in pointless paperwork to teach effectively. In one teacher’s class I estimated that she spent about 70% of her day on activities designed to prove to senior leaders that she was doing her job. In order to keep her head above water she then took vast piles of work home night after night. I predicted that without help she would self destruct within the year. In the end she took matters into her own hands and quit.

What can we learn from this? Maybe she wasn’t up to the job. Maybe it’s right and proper that she recognised her unfitness to handle the responsibility of educating the next generation. Maybe this cull is simply the survival of the fittest. Or maybe it’s an unpardonable and brutalising lack of regard for the basic right of teachers to both do a job and have a life outside that job. Ultimately, I think the message is, you need a certain amount of cynicism to survive the first five years.

I’m often asked whether I miss teaching. Honestly? Of course I miss aspects of the classroom; I miss the joy of watching recalcitrant youngsters grasp difficult concepts; I miss the beautiful daftness of children. But I don’t miss the day-to-day reality of being a teacher. I don’t miss the piles of marking and reports; I don’t miss the expectation that I sacrifice my evenings and weekends on the altar of education, and I most certainly do not miss the lack of trust.

It seems to have become an unquestioned assumption that teachers are feckless layabouts who, left to their own devices, would slop cheap coffee over the students’ books and do the barest minimum in lessons. Certainly when I was a student in the 80s there were some teachers like that. My history teacher ‘taught’ the wrong GCSE syllabus and the entire class failed. He shrugged his shoulders and nothing happened. I had an English whose classroom was next door to the staffroom. After he’d set some work he’d slop off to smoke his pipe. If we got too rowdy, he’d pound on the wall for us to shut up. There were some incredible excesses back in the ‘bad old days’ before Ofsted was a gleam in Chris Woodhead’s eye. But there were also some wonderful eccentrics and many, perhaps most, of them are long gone. I worked with a fabulous old boy who’d taught at the school for over thirty years. He could recite vast tracts of Shakespeare, Keats and Donne, and a quotation for every occasion. He’d taught the students’ parents, sometimes grandparents and was a much-loved member of the community. When the school went into Special Measures he was under intolerable pressure to change the way he taught despite his excellent results. He went from confident pomp to incompetence in less than a year and gratefully accepted the offer of early retirement.

The argument usually goes that although the accountability measures we take for granted in schools take their toll, they’re necessary. Without the lists of non-negotiables it would be a free for all. But I just don’t think that’s true. Few teachers are in it for the money or the social standing. Almost all decide to teach because they want to make a difference. They’re passionate. They care. There may be some bad apples but why should we allow them to spoil the whole barrel? I remember after a book trawl a few years ago in which ‘ordinary’ teachers were invited to participate, one angry member of staff saying to another, “You’re the reason SLT don’t trust us!”

Of course it’s unfair to blame school leaders entirely. They in turn are held in contempt by those who hold them to account and treated with the same disregard and lack of trust. As Geoff Barton reveals they’re rightly afraid of losing their jobs, and who can really blame them? And of course there are many schools where teachers are trusted. When I read about the culture in schools run by headteachers like John Tomsett, Tom Sherrington, Liam CollinsKevan Bartle (and many others I’ve not yet heard about,) I have hope. It’s not naive to believe that there might be a better way; there’s a model of school leadership out there that proves this can be done. You see, while it may be true that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers,” it’s almost impossible for the quality of teaching to exceed the quality of school leadership. It’s ludicrously easy for bad leaders to destroy good teachers.

An insidious culture of fear and suspicion has become endemic, and it’s doing much more harm than good. Why should teachers be expected to give up so much of their home and family lives to fulfil the requirements of their job? We work ever longer hours but is this really desirable or even necessary? It doesn’t seem that teachers in other European countries have the same weight of workload expectations. Are their students suffering?

The solution? Trust that teachers will, when happy and supported, do the right thing. If teachers are struggling to mark their books, consider what could be done to help them. The unspoken expectation that they take ever more work home is untenable. Be clear: if they have too much marking to cope with then this is in part the school’s fault and responsibility. If teachers are struggling to maintain acceptable standards of behaviour, make sure proper systems are in place and don’t make them feel guilty for using them. You know, without having to check up on everyone who’s not doing the right thing, don’t make everyone else suffer; deal with the problem at its source. Collective punishment, for that’s what a lot of accountability measure effectively are, contravene the Geneva convention.

And if someone somewhere does the wrong thing occasionally? So what. Barring grosser excesses that endanger pupils health and well-being, why not forgive and forget? Flogging teachers might  improve outcomes over the short term, but this cannot be a sustainable or efficient way to run a school over the longer term. If it’s true that improving teaching is the best route to long term success, trusting teachers might be the best way to get there. Accountability processes will not improve teaching and learning. They just won’t.

Take a risk. Trust your staff. As rear-admiral Grace Murray Hopper said, “Go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize after something’s been done than to get permission ahead of time.”

29 Responses to What if we started trusting teachers?

  1. Trust and time, and systems that encourage growth and reflection, open classrooms, collaboration, talking about teaching and not interminable meetings about administration… I could go on 😉

  2. A typical teacher? says:

    Spot on, and totally summarises how I currently feel about teaching. I seem to spend more time and energy on proving that I’m doing my job than actually getting on with teaching and making a difference. It’s depressing.

    “Accountability” is the current favourite buzzword of SLT. I’m an experienced and successful teacher, and I’m happy to be held accountable. However, the latest Appraisal system in our school is about more than just accountability; it’s about the total control and monitoring of everything a teacher does. I’m sure it might be effective at improving the performance of the handful of teachers who do not meet expectation, but the added pressure that it’s adding the the majority of staff is unnecessary and unpleasant. Staff are no longer doing all the extra things that they did off their own back (because they love the job and want to make a difference) and are now concentrating their limited time and resources on meeting appraisal targets (and, more importantly providing EVIDENCE). Staff are less willing to take risks. It’s a very different atmosphere to even a few years ago.

    I guess it’s the old “s*** rolls downhill” syndrome; school leaders aren’t trusted by those in power, so it moves on down the ladder…

  3. Steve says:

    I’m a member of SLT and my viewpoints certainly seem to sit at the same end of the spectrum as those you articulate so well here.

    There is, however, the issue about how we move from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

    For example we’ve invested time into open classrooms to allow staff to observe colleagues elsewhere in school – yet a minority of staff complain about the intrusion into their classrooms (even though we allow staff to opt out of opening their door).

    Another, we have made a commitment to be ‘out and about’ during lessons when we are not teaching – getting into classrooms to ensure students are doing as they are told. Yet some staff insist that any visits count against their 3 hours of obs per year.

    It’s almost as if the default is to assume ‘they’ (SLT around the country) are out to get us. Only time and actions within each individual school will break this down – but if given trust now it would be so much quicker to the benefit of all.

    • Hi Steve,

      It would appear that you are well on your way to establishing a culture of trust at your school if only a minority of teachers view the open classroom approach as an intrusion and a minority of teachers are concerned about their observation hours. Based on your comments, the default in your school seems much closer to a culture of respect than mistrust.

      Having said that, I do think that you raise a valid point regarding the importance of trust flowing in both directions. The issue – and I’m just thinking out loud here – is that if you (as a leader) trust me (as a teacher) and something goes awry, you have much greater power than I do if I trust you and something goes awry. Because that situation could still go badly for me.

      I imagine there are all sorts of other factors, but this is the one that stands out to me. I’m a fairly trusting person, but the power imbalance (real or perceived) is too much of a leap for some people.

    • David Didau says:

      Moving from here to there is difficult because of the norms established. If staff don’t want others in their rooms, then they’re clearly worried about consequences; they don’t feel trusted. Ask yourself why they feel SLT are out to get them – it probably has something to with past experiences. They won’t start to trust you until you prove your good intentions. Someone has to blink first…

  4. “If teachers are struggling to maintain acceptable standards of behaviour, make sure proper systems are in place and don’t make them feel guilty for using them.”

    I’ve read this a couple of times now and this just keeps jumping out at me. The guilt associated with asking for help or being identified as someone in need of assistance isn’t just a teacher thing. Some students experience the same feeling of guilt or shame when the systems in place to assist them academically or personally are suggested or provided.

    Please tell me if I’m out of line, but I also happened to notice the following:
    “Are they’re students suffering?”
    “…loosing their jobs…”

    It could just be that I’m in the middle of writing reports. I’m not sure of the protocol, but I know if it was me, I’d want to know, so that is what I’m going with.

  5. cherrylkd says:

    Hi David. This blog is perfect in my eyes. If all SLT assumed some trust in teachers and responsibility for their well being schools would be much happier places. I firmly believe it’s the threat of Ofsted breathing down our necks that is causing all the excesses in SLT demands. Once Ofsted is reformed (ever the optimist) and the process is supportive rather than punitive the problem will lessen.
    I hope this is your most read blog and SLT are your main readers.
    Cherryl.

  6. whatonomy says:

    So much, if not all human(e) interaction is built on trust. Without it, we slide into surveillance, time-and-motion monitoring, scrutiny – all practices which change the landscape of that which we observe. As you say, more experienced teachers have acquired coping strategies to shield themselves and their students from the harsh light of scrutiny, and NQTs sink under the pressure of practices which are designed only to satisfy the Watchmen. OFSTED and SLTs would do well to school themselves in management and motivation theory.

    OFSTED, despite recent protestations, is implicitly theory X (“management assumes employees are inherently lazy and dislike work. As a result of this, management believes that workers need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of control developed.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_X_and_Theory_Y).

    It does not take a rocket scientist to look at successful organisations, who retain staff, who do not rely on high staff turnover and look to create this atmosphere in our schools and our Department for Education.

    Teachers blogging and sharing their practice on social networks is, I hope, helping to change OFSTED’s perception of us as professionals. We need to demonstrate that we can be trusted and bring on the minority of colleagues that let the profession down.

  7. suecowley says:

    Great blog, very well said. Trust has been eroded by years of ‘accountability’ and teachers are paying the price.

  8. Nikki says:

    I have recently watched one of our most talented and hard working new teachers burn out and quit teaching because of workload pressure. The first thing I find upsetting is that a great teacher, someone who would have made a terrific impact on young people, was forced out of the profession. The second thing I find upsetting is the attitude of some staff towards their decision. There is not enough trust and not enough compassion in teaching at the moment. Makes me feel really sad.

  9. Great post, David, but I think the education scene is about far more than ‘trust’.

    I have been saying for years and years – and trying to point out – that we do not have an ‘upwards evaluation’ system.

    In other words, there is no proper mechanism to hold anyone in authority to account – in education – and in the wider domain.

    I have so many examples and experiences of not being able to hold those in authority to account.

    Everything in education is about downwards pressure and holding those in lowlier positions to account – and not the other way around.

    Until such time as someone with some clout grasps this nettle, we shall never have an improved education system and well-treated teachers.

    Regards the current ‘time’ issue, I have also been saying for years and years that if every time a new initiative or expectation was placed on teachers, the teachers had asked for the ‘time management studies’ then we would not be in this pickle because I’m not aware of ever being supplied with a ‘time management study’ to justify the extra expectations.

    Teachers have been badly treated for many years by a system where middle tiers of authority have applied additional pressure and expectations on those applied from the DfES or DfE or Ofsted – and so on.

    So – all you amazing bloggers who are having an impact on Ofsted and the DfE thanks to the internet, put your heads together and come up with a doable system where those in authority (including senior managers, governing bodies, advisors, inspectors, politicians etc) can be held to account.

    This would include sort-of ‘performance management’ systems but ‘up the way’ not just ‘down the way’.

    What do you think?

    Debbie
    X

    • Mary Lloyd says:

      As a teacher of Secondary English for 25 years, I agree strongly with your point that those in authority must be held to account.

      My first post was to an excellent English department at a girls’ school on one of Bristol’s most deprived edge-of-city estates. We had a marvellous head who had come from Glasgow: she was totally supportive of staff who worked hard and were committed to the job.

      Although I started teaching when my sons were 3 & 4 years old, I knew I had to divide my evening time: 4 – 7pm with them, and 7.30 – 11 (usually) on the marking. We achieved great results with our students, which enabled them to progress to 6th & beyond. I decided that Friday evenings were ‘me’ time (often with a babysitter i/c) and we spent Saturday & Sundays as family time – until Sunday 7.30pm when I opened the marking and went on till I’d done what was necessary for the start of the working week.

      My second post was as 2-i-C English (I didn’t want HoD job) in a boys’ school in Southampton, where the demographic was identical to my previous post. I was 5th woman in a staff of 45 when appointed. It was a tough challenge but some of my male colleagues were so supportive that I felt easy sharing problems with them. We also benefited from the wisdom of a longstanding Head who had taken the post after his war-service as a Wing-Commander. As in my previous school the English GCSE results were better than any other subject throughout my 15 years there.

      Things changed completely when, on the Head’s retirement, a careerist opportunist was appointed. He spent 8 months of his first year visiting schools & colleges in USA under some fancy scheme for new Heads. On his return the kids rapidly learned they could twist him round the proverbial ‘little finger’.

      Over the next few years the Head failed to make any attempt to comply with the LEA’s demand for a whole-school Structure and Action Plan. The Chair of Governors did not see this as a serious problem.

      Concerned staff – HoDs & 2-i-Cs – knew that the school faced possible closure if a Plan was not produced. My HoD’s wife had recently had their first child so he asked me to represent him on a panel of senior staff to devise the required Plan. I made significant contributions to the discussions and was asked to work with another 2-i-C to write the Plan. I was then delegated to present our Plan to the Head.

      This got the Head out of trouble for a few months because, of course, he sent it in as his own.

      Probably correctly, he was constructively dismissed within 18 months and went to work in a private prep school.

      But the school where I taught is now a not-very-successful academy – part of a chain which has been forbidden to open any more schools.

      To my mind this is the legacy of the failure to hold Heads accountable.

    • David Didau says:

      That sounds a little like 360 degree evaluations, no?

  10. @htphil says:

    When are you available?
    Philip Mooney
    head@cardinalallen.co.uk

  11. @lucy_crehan says:

    This post is spot on David. I do think we should still have a culture where observations are the norm, but they should be based around support and professional development rather than judgement and compliance as they sometimes are now.

    You might be interested in a post I wrote related to this issue, explaining how this trust works within the education system in Finland (to be clear, they don’t have routine obs in Finland) –

    http://www.insideclassrooms.com/blog/trust-in-the-system-why-id-rather-be-a-teacher-in-finland1

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