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 Collins, Kevan 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.”