Why isn’t following in fashion?

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Carl Hendrick’s musings are rare, their messages significant. What makes his thoughts even more resounding is the surgical precision with which they are executed, he always gives readers much to consider. His latest post is no exception to this. Carl’s observation of our obsession with leadership has finally given me the motivation needed to write this piece that has been kicking around in my thoughts for quite some time now. If everyone were to become leaders then what would happen to the followers? In being so obsessed with becoming great leaders are we failing in our contribution to the team? What is wrong with the desire to stay in the classroom and what factors influence an individual’s drive to join the ranks of school leadership?

I began to think about the leadership epidemic whilst listening to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in autumn last year (podcast available here) which coincided with a debate on Twitter about women in educational leadership, in particular the growth of the WomenEd movement. The argument that was given on the programme was that we should concentrate less on being leaders and more about being effective followers. This made me consider my own career progression thus far.

I went into teaching a year after completing my degree through a PGCE route. I’d spent the twelve months previous gaining “life experience” working as a project manager in the NHS. This had been invaluable for my personal growth while equipping me (although I did not realise it at the time) with the strategic skills I would need further down the line. Fortune smiled and I was employed at the school I had attended as a teen. I was incredibly lucky to be led by two excellent heads of department who had nurtured me as a student and who happily contributed again to my development once again, this time honing my skills in front of the class. My desire to be a great teacher was my overarching motivation, I was loyal, perhaps a little opinionated but always worked for the good of the team. I was sadly altruistic then, a trait which I still hold now. I never wanted to be any more than a classroom teacher. As the years went by, my HOD gave me more and more responsibility within the team; which I accepted, sometimes willingly, sometimes begrudgingly but always with complete commitment. His enthusiasm to distribute responsibility frustrated me at times but he always made sure I worked under his watchful gaze. Early into the summer term in my fourth year of teaching, he announced that he was stepping down and that he wanted me to apply. He told me that it was time to take the stabilisers off and step up to the plate. It was no secret that I was not flavour of the month with the headteacher at the time, we respected one another but I would have never been first choice to lead the department (which she told me when she offered me the role). What Jim had done in the couple of years prior was to develop my leadership skills unconsciously. I had the opportunity to shadow a head of department without knowing it. He taught me the grammar of good leadership and so, when the opportunity arose, I was ready.

Bees are fascinating creatures. They develop their own society in which everyone knows their role. They work harmoniously to achieve a shared goal and generally do this successfully. If the hierarchy becomes unstable, they collectively work together to address it.

We can learn a lot from bees.

I never aspired to be a Head of Department, nor an Assistant Headteacher. I just wanted to do my job well. The promotions kind of just happened, serendipity you might say. I find it odd when I interview trainees or teachers applying for classroom posts who tell you they want to be a headteacher. I’m in complete agreement with Carl here, the most rewarding and prestigious part of my day is being in a classroom with young people so to hear people plotting their route out before they’ve set foot in the door is beyond me! Equally though, the argument that length of service is not a measure of expertise nor a prerequisite to being competent in a leadership role is a founded one. Gone are the days where a deputy headship was given after 15 years of service. Martin Robinson asked his Twitter audience not-so-long-ago at what age was acceptable to take up a leadership position in a school? The responses were incredibly interesting, with the majority agreeing that age was not a measure of capability but leaders do require a certain amount of classroom experience to develop empathy, credibility and followership among their team. I’m sure there’s a normal distribution curve in there somewhere!

Carl’s blog highlights at length the characteristics that great leaders share. Furthermore, my experience of good and bad leadership supports his anecdotal evidence. Great leaders are different. Woman’s Hour highlighted the characteristics of great followership which perhaps we all could aspire to. Most notably it highlighted loyalty, flexibility, ability to challenge the leader respectfully to avoid group think, to be proactive in role, to accept your part within the team and to work cohesively towards a collective goal being the key attributes of a good follower. Maybe it’s time to address the culture of accelerated leadership within education, this unspoken rule that if you’re any good you move up and there’s something wrong if you want to stay in the classroom. There was a minor furore over the TeachFirst advertisement offering £65, 000 to teach which is understandable. Money shouldn’t be an overwhelming factor influencing a person’s decision to pursue a career in teaching but it would be naive to believe that it didn’t play a part in the desire to join the ranks. If an emphasis was placed on classroom practice rather than ladder-climbing then some teachers may be more interested in perfecting their craft rather than moving on up? If financial incentives keep the best practitioners in the classroom then schools should be given the opportunity to exercise them. Surely this is a much better option than promoting some great classroom teachers beyond their competence in order to keep them? Not everyone is suited to a leadership role so perhaps it’s time to encourage a culture where the classroom is king and together everyone achieves more? The world needs more worker bees than it does Queens.

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CPD: thinking hard or passivity – a teacher’s choice

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As a teacher in the early stages of my career, I used to have a love-hate relationship with INSET and CPD. I used to actively complain about having hours of my time taken up for the latest fad when I could be planning and marking, you know, doing the stuff I’d always done, the important stuff. The stuff that had an impact in the classroom. The stuff that might make my life a little less stressful. The stuff that would make sure the kids were getting their regular diet of maths lessons. Then the day or evening itself would come around and I would sit there half paying attention, making comedy comments to my colleagues around me and try to mark my books without getting caught.

The INSETs themselves would range from good, to bad, to instantly forgettable. They were generally wholesale and bland but they were a chance for us to stop, to switch off and to catch up with our colleagues.

There was once a great twilight on plenaries. We were awash with EXIT tickets and quiz/quiz/swap activities. I was inspired and my teaching was infused with renewed vigor. The next day I set about putting the ideas into my practice. The last ten minutes of period 5 arrived and I whipped out the gleaming EXIT tickets for the fifth time that day only to be greeted by groans from my teenage audience.
“Miss, have you lot had some training or something?” One brave student asked.
“Why?” I replied.
“Because we’re sick of seeing these bloody EXIT tickets! EVERY teacher has used them today.” I quickly filed them away and gave the students a question related to the lesson itself and we discussed the learning that I hoped had taken place.

I remember a “behaviour specialist” recommending assertive discipline and phone calls home to sort out our behaviour issues. The result? Already overtly assertive colleagues went into overdrive resulting in an increased number of escalated issues. The colleagues who found this “assertive” behaviour unnatural quickly found themselves out of their depth and reaching for SLT support. The rest of us who endeavoured to make positive phone calls home were greeted by unimpressed parents and guardians who were having a similar experience to the students and their EXIT tickets. The SLT very quickly put in place a How to make calls to parents INSET and reminded us to be aware of the school budget when making phone calls home!

The truth is, a lot of the ideas shared at INSET were good tools for teachers to have in their armoury but, if they are applied blindly, en masse and without thought they cause more problems than they may solve. I do still use a number of ideas that I have received through INSETs as a main pay scale teacher but did they really influence who I am as a teacher, my practice in a classroom? I’m not so sure.

I mentioned before that the thought of INSET filled me with dread as I wanted to continue with my day to day routines that would ensure my students continued to receive their regular diet of maths. What if my their diet was lacking as a result of my teaching? Perhaps a regular diet without any reflection of impact or challenge of the status quo wasn’t what was best for the children in my care? I mean, I love fillet steak me but I couldn’t eat it every day!

At my current school INSET is different. In fact the whole approach to appraisal and CPD is not what you would see in many other places. It’s very much the responsibility of the individual teacher to reflect on their practice together with their colleagues and decide what training and development they need. There are wholesale sessions but they are minimal, the emphasis being on the philosophy and teachers asking challenging questions of the themselves regularly is at its forefront. We are committed to always improving in a way and at a pace which works for the individual. Teachers are asked to consider what impact they are having on a day to day basis, not just to the children who will be counted in the school league tables but their contribution to the education of every child. Optional sessions are available if teachers want to brush up on their questioning, AfL or learning styles (I joke! I joke!) etc. but trust is placed on staff to be professionals rather than enforcing yet another differentiation session on those who have already been to six of the same (and who have led three of them!).

This approach is by no means perfect but its strengths far outweigh it’s weaknesses. The result is that students get a much more varied diet which is filled with individual personalities. Teachers are reflecting on how best to improve their own teaching rather than trying to replicate something completely unnatural to them.

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Asking challenging questions of staff forces them to think hard. Alex Quigley has begun to write a series of excellent blogs on students’ motivation and getting them to think hard (the first of which can be found here). However, I think we need to be equally committed to getting staff to think hard about what really matters and what is going to make a difference. Including them in the discussions by by listening to and challenging their perceptions is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned for strengthening collegiality and increasing motivation. I’m sure there are still teachers who disengage, who’d rather be marking, who complain that it’s a waste of their time but I would like to think that the numbers of these are less than in other schools. Triad based approaches across specialisms encourage greater sharing, an empathy for colleagues and a continual commitment to looking for the best of what’s out there. The message of balance between both looking internally and externally together with continual self-reflection is given regularly and support is offered to those who need guidance. Colleagues are encouraged to use social media but it is never enforced as we want teachers to look for the solutions themselves (there is a much better buy in that way).

Obviously, the messages given in our CPD are echoed in our approach to appraisal with an emphasis on the everyone can improve ethos and it’s our responsibility to make that happen.

In many schools, appraisal follows this pattern:

September:
Panic about exam results and appraisal targets that you can’t remember
Mid September:
Scramble around to find evidence that you’ve met your targets (or at least tried your best to) in relation to the Teacher Standards.
September/October:
Write off old targets with evidence together with your appraiser – pass or fail.
Set new targets with your appraiser that are generally top down and focussed on exam classes or key groups.
February/March:
Revisit your targets with your appraiser (if you’re lucky) to check on your progress.
Rest of the year: forget about your targets and get on with doing the important stuff!
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Is this not just a waste of time?

Wouldn’t it be more useful to get teachers to work together to identify areas for development in their own teaching, their departments and the school as a whole whilst sharing any ideas that SLT have? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have CPD which interleaves with appraisal so staff are continually asking the question of what impact is this having on my practice and my students? Wouldn’t it be better to build a culture where everyone wants to get better and feels that they can?

There are no answers with the majority of our INSETs or appraisal meetings, only questions for teachers to consider. I’m sure this causes criticism from some but I’d much rather staff complain about having to think hard than wasting their time because time is very precious to a teacher and it’s only through thinking hard that we grow as people.