A blog based on contributions to a session for Heads’ Roundtable at Wellington Festival 2018
No one can deny that currently, teaching is not the number one career of choice for many young people. We know this year a third of new teachers left the classroom within five years. Thousands left to work in international schools. Teacher training places lie empty for the sixth year in a row. Simply surviving the exam results in a remodelled system has been an achievement despite archaic approaches to accountability. Schools are chronically underfunded, yet just at the point when unity is paramount; the parsimonious pay rise secured has been thrown into the PRP pit created by previous governments allowing a feeding frenzy of division and discontent within the profession.
However, this is nothing new. 27 years ago, revisiting my secondary school at the start of teacher training, the striking advice I received from my old Science teacher embittered by the 80s, was to find a different career to pursue. I’m so very glad I didn’t. It’s been a fulfilling, rewarding career. I always knew my contemporaries going into medicine, law and consultancy would earn more from the start, but that didn’t matter.
The Pearson/LKMCo report “Why Teach?” reflected exactly the reasons I went into teaching and why I have stayed despite #flatcash settlements; gender bias and government approaches seemingly designed to make me feel incompetent despite a track record of raising standards and enhancing life chances for thousands of students across seven schools. Something btw none of my lawyer friends can say. It was all about making a difference. Feeling good at what I did, loving my subject and getting a real kick out of working with young people, making sure they had a better start in life than I felt I had.
Listening recently to Professor Becky Allen talk about related issues in The Teacher Gap brought this home again. Her explanation of Self-Determination theory, the notions of autonomy, competence and relatedness struck a chord with me personally and echoed what we have been trying to achieve in my school. Our turnover last year equated to 1.5%, people seem to enjoy their jobs and want to stay. I know am not unique; there are other Heads and other schools doing similar despite the popular HT bashing on social media. I cannot ignore the evidence however and if the reasons for the apparent exodus from teaching are linked to the absence of these factors then maybe there are helpful things to discuss.
Autonomy: We create, through meeting structures, allocations and additional opportunities, spaces where staff are authors of their own actions and part of wider collaborative efforts. CPL both whole school and department is staff-led, geared towards commonly agreed Improvement Plans but the ‘how’ is down to them. Very little is dictated expect the structural necessities of consistent behaviour systems and expectations for students. The end goals, pedagogical principles and overall culture are owned collaboratively; there is earned trust in how professionals achieve those ends.
Competence: A pervasive underlying belief exists that no one is the finished article and all have a great deal to learn. In that context timetabled collaborative planning and response to research develops teachers at all stages. This extends to working beyond the walls of the college, seeking out the expertise that will help us grow and improve. An excellence programme from NQT to Year 4 develops skills with support from experienced colleagues; similarly, a professional development plan for all staff takes note of intended aspirations and ensures support for that outcome either with us or elsewhere.
Relatedness: Our staff room is vibrant. The aim is that colleagues at all stages of their career are known, respected and valued. We may not always agree and necessary hard messages are always delivered but there is dignity, kindness and mutual respect in how we try to do things, a tangible sense of community and that we are ‘in it together’. We make sure those needing extra support have it available; i/c wellbeing is a deeply authentic and highly respected member of our team.
We work hard to maintain positivity and kindness within our College; aspirations are high as is achievement and therefore so is the pressure – this is no “cozy rural” existence but that does not mean we cannot model the kind of behaviours we wish for our students in their futures.
I’m not naïve. We operate in a climate of insufficient funding, ever-increasing expectations and an outside world that doesn’t always appear to share our values. Every year there are unpleasant messages to deliver and challenges to manage. The environment outside the College and across the profession does not always make it easy; fear, insecurity and frustration are never far away but they don’t have to be of our making. Every year, every term we remind ourselves about the need for our collective ‘force field of positivity’.
However, we all have to accept our responsibility, we cannot be dissatisfied passengers travelling towards an unpleasant destination, sniping on social media. If we want others to view teaching as a first choice profession we have to help make it so and say it is so. I do not wish for any of us to become the modern day Mr. Jones, persuading young people to look elsewhere. Where there are barriers we must name them and challenge them. It’s not easy, it’s sometimes scary but no one else is going to do it for us. We cannot hunker down and wait until “they come for us”. We have to be part of the “change we wish to see”.
Caroline Barlow is a member of the Heads’ Roundtable Core Group and is headteacher of Heathfield Community College in Heathfield, East Sussex.