As we start our well-deserved summer break, most of us are too delirious with excitement to reflect on the year that has just concluded let alone look ahead to the one that lies before us. However, if we don’t look at the past with a critical eye then how can we improve the provision for the future?
I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole, I’ve never been one of those teachers that can teach to a formulaic plan of starter, exploration, consolidation, plenary, check progress every 15 seconds, etc… I’ve just done what works for me, practised it and hopefully, improved my provision over time. Working in a school where the approach is very corporate (every child must experience the same diet in every classroom across every subject) can prove difficult and disheartening for teachers who like to approach their teaching as I do, who enjoy the challenge of taking a risk or two in their learning environment to give the students the most purposeful experience possible. I can understand why schools do it; teaching can be variable and how can we as senior leaders, ensure that the children in our care get the best chances in life through the education we provide for them? This is where leadership teams must be brave and apply the same logic to their staff as they do their students – personalised learning for everyone. Thankfully, for the last four years I’ve been at a school that has shared my vision for creativity and encouraged a unique approach to teaching and learning. It is a place that has also felt like the square peg; putting the well-being and character development of students and staff at the heart of its ethos when everyone around us seemed to putting league tables and performance before anything else. That’s not to say that results are not important, we all know the importance of a good education; GCSE grades and A levels can mean opportunity for some students. We owe this to the children in our care but not at the cost of their mental health or personal happiness.
Balance is imperative. At times, it can feel like a difficult and lonely journey, being a solitary voice in a sea of bureaucracy and hoop jumping but it is then when leaders must follow a moral compass in order to ride out the storm. Hopefully, teachers are beginning to realise that the tide is turning, ethos goes beyond any political agenda and more schools are working out that education has to be the constant in the various tumultuous seas in which it sits. A recent experience of Ofsted also reiterated this sentiment. The inspection itself felt more of a helpful process focused around dialogue than in previous visits.
It is heartening to work with like minds and realise that we are not alone. The internet makes this search for kindred spirits much easier, networking with schools and individuals from all over the globe who not just share but also challenge our beliefs can only prove to strengthen our provision for students in the long run. One of the individuals I have been lucky enough to work with is Martin Robinson, author of the fabulous Trivium: 21c. The work he has done with our staff has been invaluable in provoking discussion about the importance of a good education, which has turned into proactive approaches by staff to develop the ideas of the trivium. His visits have enabled us as to challenge staff attitudes and develop opportunities to keep the conversations, and in turn improvement going.
Where do we start?
With staff development, the premise that no teacher ever comes into school wanting to do a bad job must always be the starting point. Furthermore, it must be a continual source of reference when, at times, senior leaders become frustrated. It is important to remember that, leaders in schools are in these positions because they possess a certain amount of personal ambition and aptitude; have had a certain amount of good fortune (or not at times) and happenstance. Not all teachers share our drive, this too is ok. Too many headteachers become angry with staff who do not work in their way rather than encouraging those staff to achieve the best that they are capable of. When this frustration creeps in it’s important to keep sight of the Harper Lee quote:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
What might seem reasonable and achievable to an accomplished classroom practitioner and highly respected senior leader on £50000 a year, may be completely unreasonable or unachievable to classroom teacher paid half that amount with half as much free time.
I promised that as I moved up through the ranks I would never lose sight of what life was like at the chalk face teaching 22 periods out of 25 a week, doing countless duties, running numerous extra-curricular activities and still having the passion and desire to support the school trip in what should be your holidays. This is where we start, looking at those staff who go above and beyond every single day. They may not be the best classroom practitioners but their heart is in everything they do. It’s our duty as school leaders to support and develop these staff in a way that encourages them to take chances and learn from mistakes whilst continuing to nurture their enthusiasm and passion. No one would disagree that the character students build and lessons they learn from extra-curricular experience is equally if not more-so beneficial than any amazing lesson on Pythagoras’ Theorem. This is why CPD must be purposeful, thoughtful, useful and inspiring.
Trusting staff to identify their own areas for development
I’m a messy cook, I know this. The end product of my cooking tastes great but the carnage left in my wake is heartbreaking for the clean up team afterwards. Over time I’ve tried to get more efficient at tidying as I go along to limit the aftermath (which I have done) but I know it’s something I continually need to work on. However, when my partner tells me how messy I am and what a bombsite the kitchen is, you can guarantee that the next time I do cook (which may be some time in the distant future) I use every pan I can, welding a variety of culinary delights onto the metalware as I do! Most people are naturally reflective and know their weaknesses without someone from above pointing this out so what about using this process of self-reflection to plan staff CPD which can be then linked into their appraisal targets thus setting something which is much more valuable to everyone than a coerced box ticking exercise that’s not looked at until the following year when either jubilation or disappointment ensues?
Another thing people don’t like is criticism. We have to accept it but we tend to be more willing if it comes from someone we respect, a friend or perhaps our equal. Hierarchical criticism can sometimes make staff feel like their card is marked. So would it not make sense to group staff with peers and respected colleagues getting one another to be critical friends thus taking the judgement out of the conversation and helping them all move forward together?
Balancing the differing needs of everyone with the needs of the whole school
Leadership teams should look at what everyone needs to know and this must be on the CPD calendar but they shouldn’t clog up teachers’ time with unnecessary INSET. The best gift you can give to a teacher is time and the promise of protecting that time for the purpose of whatever it is that colleague needs to work on. Leadership teams need to look at the talent that is in front of them and how precious their time is. What is the point in making the best teacher on your staff go to yet another INSET on questioning when they’ve already led the last two of them?! Being brave enough to make the right choices for their students and staff is another responsibility of a concientious leadership team. It is always worthwhile asking: Will this be something that will make a difference? Is this something that is purposeful and sustainable or is this jumping on the next government initiative?
Stay true to your core principles and beliefs. No one knows your school better than you and your staff do.
Education…is a painful, continual and difficult work to be done in kindness, by watching, by warning: by praise, but above all, by example.
The litmus test must always be Is this right for our students and staff? If it’s not then don’t do it. You can put money on the fact that just at the point when you’ve got everyone using and applying the latest buzz word so that it’ll be burgeoisie, the next initiative/acronym will be beating down the door ready to bemuse and demoralise staff and students alike. A term that literary editors use when casting a critical eye over a piece of writing is be sure to KISS it (keep it simple stupid – harsh but effective). If personal development is simple for the staff involved, they are much more likely to engage with the programme rather than avoid it!
Dialogue is important
Conversation (in person not electronically) is key in delivering purposeful and personalised CPD that will be useful for your school. Dialogue is at the heart of this. Listening to what staff are saying, hearing their criticism and responding to it is just as important as getting the SLT message across. A lot of the time, a global overview and experience means that senior leaders do know better but this is not always the case so it is vital that the conversations you have with staff are professional dialogues not monologues. This not only strengthens relationships with individuals but helps to build your credibility and trust among the entire staff body.
Another term that editors use is show don’t tell. Our role as leaders is to illuminate the way, it is not to enforce my way or the highway expectations that teachers couldn’t ever dream of meeting. Coaching is an excellent way to do this. Not all staff are coaches but spotting the naturals in your school and using them to work with colleagues is one of the most effective ways of implementing sustainable change. Be aware that this change takes time, it is not something that happens overnight so stick with it!
Positive communication is important. Think about how your interactions make staff feel, are you building them up or knocking them down? We’d never let the latter happen to a child in our care and yet sometimes some senior leaders are guilty of doing this to staff.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
Blanket CPD complemented by blanket monitoring the following week will ensure that everyone in the school is using Bloom’s or doing their DUMTUMs. However, teachers will be doing so without an understanding of why they are doing it and whether or not teachers mechanically going through the motions is actually having a positive impact on the students will be questionable. That is why the continual conversation is key. It is why personalised CPD, just like personalised learning, takes time, determination and lots of effort at a senior management level. Remember, the biggest mixed ability group you’ll ever come across is in your staffroom (if your school is lucky enough to still have one). True understanding for everyone will take place at different paces and to different depths but this can only happen through continual conversation and perseverance from everyone. Harnessing the intrinsic motivation of each and every one of the staff along the way is a great vehicle for embedding practice. The only way to do this is by enabling appraisal and CPD to be a journey taken together with every member of staff rather than a legislature that is enforced on them. Our business is the business of people, building character and developing future generations to come. You can’t place performance targets on something as unique and beautiful as the human soul so why do the government and, in turn school leaders even try?