As I approach the end of my job,I want to reflect on 10 years in a relationship and my feelings as I move on to pastures New.
What an odd sensation. But then the whole adventure has been a little strange in some ways. Anyone who read my “who I am, what I do” blog knows the back story: opera singer becomes English teacher to have a job which both utilises my brain ( the multiplier effect) and which does not mean 8 months a year away from my wife and children.
Thus it was that in 2004 I arrived at the front door of a well known Grammar School in Slough.
Below you will find my top moments and thoughts-a quick a single pedagogical Desert Island Disks.
Teachers are incredibly thin skinned.
There was little rhyme and reason to the recruitment process.
I will never forget.
Changes. ( with apologies to Mr Bowie for the plagiarism).
Just leave me alone.
I can do this.
We teachers are a funny bunch. Every day we spend hours facing groups of potentially critics and revolutionaries. We show evidence of calm and serenity in this arena all day long. However, stand up to talk at a staff inset and all changes. We are nervous in a way that does not usually show and find perceived criticism very hard to bear. Thus when I arrived with a mindset honed in the opera house that said “make a mistake? Make it a big and confident one and then laugh about it”, it took a while to realise that this approach did not work in schools. A passing comment about a dire colour scheme in a PowerPoint or a suggestion that a certain resource might not be quite as effective as was believed, was greeted with a remarkable amount of hostility. Clearly things were going to be a bit different in my new world. Ten years on, I know one reason- Ofsted and the associated assessment regime in school. No wonder there are few smiles in some schools. In my old job, performance was transitory (unless recorded) and although reviews appeared in national and international press, our careers depended on our ability to perform and win over an audience. We knew that such opinion is subjective and understood that a single poor review is no reason to end a career. How different the pressure on a teacher. Despite lip service, Ofsted still seem to favour certain teaching styles and many lethargic managements still require adherence to this idea. Teachers know that poor performances when observed are career threatening and in many schools are still insignificant pressure to respond to the ill informed or dogmatic demands of their management.
My first head teacher was quite a case. She ruled in the manner of Elizabeth 1st and gathered a coterie of close confidants around her. As a trainee I appealed to her because of my background- Classics and opera- and so it was that one morning about three weeks into my teaching life, she glided past me in the staffroom and muttered something about a job. Too surprised to respond, I grunted and moved on. A few days later I passed her in a corridor and raised the subject: “I do not joke” was the response. Later as a close friend struggled under quite appalling pressures and a grievance procedure I saw that this was certainly true. She was in control: interviews by phone were common as were bizarre questions -“are you an alcoholic?” Is one example. I do wonder though whether the recent fetishistic in-box tasks, role plays and student panels really do produce better results.
Without children there would be no teachers. We all have our favourites but also recall those who have impacted our lives and made us better people. Looking back there is a girl who.I helped through GCSE resits in yr 12. She seemed committed but had a dreadful attendance record. She had energy, but no stability. She cared for a baby sibling almost full-time and received irate phone calls during afternoon lessons from an irate mother demanding to know where she was and why she wasn’t at home to help out. She passed and was in touch recently- a lovely and successful young lady. Most of all though was the boy who lived. When I first met him in yr8 I was told he would not live beyond 16. He was wheelchair bound and suffering from a degenerative condition which would inexorably take over his body. But never his mind. I never saw him downcast and loved the way that his peers engaged with him and encouraged him. He was not left out in any way and staff were often asked to spend lunch in the gym overseeing the most spectacular games of basketball ever conceived. I was his form tutor in year 12 and helped him with the UCAS process. I am thrilled that he is about to begin his Masters degree. We bump into each other on social.media and I think he is the single most impressive human being I have encountered since I began this life, if not ever. Aren’t teachers lucky?
Leadership has been something that I have given much thought. I am about to take on my first HOD role and am obviously concerned to get it right. However I know that I will make mistakes and hope that my honesty and integrity still lead my response. Leadership seems to need to balance what has to be done with what should be done. For me, the latter seems the more important. A moral compass and a sense of integrity should not be sacrificed for political expediency. Too often it is. I know one wonderful SLT member who has gone out on a limb rather than flinch from what is right- it has not won her the same friends as those who nod meekly and accept each element of policy as though their lives depended on it. At what point did we abdicate our responsibility for creating an excellent education system? The system is currently damaged. Ofsted seem to be vanishing up their own fundament in the search for a method of stigmatising the poor, based on dogma and entrenched philosophies whilst leaders seem to be lagging behind the staff when trying to drive change and embrace the potential freedoms of a world without levels and in which the changes at KS5 could be embraced as a challenge. There are exceptions, naturally, and I follow many staggeringly impressive figures on Twitter, but being realistic, these voices which drive open and exciting discussion in the Twitter-verse are a tiny minority of school leaders in the country, many of whom are still cowed by the league table culture and a fear of what Ofsted might say. Based on my limited 10 year experience, I urge leaders to remember:
1 You were a classroom teacher once- rediscover that excitement
2 Don’t build walls between yourself and the other staff
3 Share your vision and enthuse
4 Credit what is happening, don’t just criticise what is not
5 Be a Multiplier and empower your staff to use their intellect to benefit the school
6 Look for evidence before accepting the latest pseudo-scientific breakthrough
7 Remember to be human both for staff and students alike
8 Think of yourself as the stem of the glass supporting the bowl. The support is the fragile bit – be careful and gentle and honest.
5. Embrace change! With no change life is deadly. I try to find new books to use in class and always look for pedagogical developments: some works, some does not, but even with the latter, I find that the seeds sown often develop into something interesting at a later stage. My change of job is exciting. I know that I don’t really want to have to go back to stage one of the “getting to know you” game, but it will be worth it and the change excites me greatly. Look forward, not backwards.
6. This one comes back to assessment. Many are the cries to be left alone to teach and, to a degree I support this. Confrontational observation with a checklist of required behaviours has been systematically rubbished this year in a series of writings by bloggers such as David Didau and Tom Bennett, often collated by another figure “Old Andrew” ( who blogged anonymously for years to avoid hostility stemming from his trenchant views). Only today the Civitas report by Robert Peal has surely sounded the death knell. No. In September there will be hundreds of us required to jump through hoops to achieve a weird sort of acceptance of our competence. Leave me alone, and give me the power and space to develop my own pedagogy. Institute triads to support and develop colleagues and ensure that all access the incredible wealth of real CPD opportunities found in the cloud and regularly given publicity on Twitter. At the same time, telling companies purporting to sell courses guaranteed to show the “outstanding” lesson to crawl back under their stones. Use the money saved to send 10 Staff members to #TLAB15, one of the best days money can buy.
7. I can and I bloody well will!