Teachers aren’t that special

We’re a funny lot, teachers.

It’s different to most jobs I guess. For a start, we get 13 weeks holiday a year. We also work in strange circumstances that are simultaneously both very public and quite private.

We also seem to have an on-going struggle with what it means to a profession, that doesn’t seem to affect other roles. Or rather, an on-going clamour to be considered a profession, without being clear about what that means.

The College of Teaching has served to highlight some of those troubles, but also one other: we seem to have reached a point in the profession where “leaders” can be lumped together as a “them” who are not in any way connected to “us” at the chalkface. (Disclaimer: I don’t know which group I end up in according to those determined to divide in this way)

I suspect that this is based, in part, on a truth: some school leaders are awful. Some who reach the position of headteacher (or Executive Head for that matter, I suspect), probably weren’t very good classroom teachers, and aren’t very good leaders. They can damage schools, teachers and pupils in the process. But to presume that such negative experiences mean that all those who have a leadership responsibility are in opposition to those who teach in classrooms is childish. Not least because it fails to account for the huge number of people – particularly in primary schools – who manage both leadership roles and considerable classroom teaching commitments.

This has come to a head from the small group of vocal opponents to the College of Teaching, particularly since the appointment of a very experienced headteacher to the role of Chief Executive. For some, led by Andrew Smith (@oldandrewuk), only a practising classroom teacher would have been acceptable to lead an organisation that they don’t even think should exist.

The problem with that argument is clear: what experience does the average classroom teacher have that would equip them to lead a significant organisation? There will, of course, be a handful of classroom teachers who have prior experience in other roles that might match the job description, but they are rare. And often such people would quickly take on leadership roles within schools, hence disqualifying them from this very narrow field.

What’s more, I’d argue that being the CEO of a large organisation doesn’t require the skills of a classroom teacher, any more than running British Airways would require you to be trained pilot. Running large organisations requires  a specific skill-set, and if the College is to be a success, then it needs the right people with those skills at its head. The fact that within teaching we have excellent school leaders who have the appropriate skills means we are able to appoint the combination of leadership and teaching experience.

Looking at other professional organisations, there is a mix  when it comes to the CEO role: the CEO of the Law Society is a trained solicitor with considerable leadership experience; the CEO of the Royal College of GPs has a background in social work and charities and isn’t medically trained at all; the CEO of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has a background in marketing. I haven’t yet found a single professional body that has an entry-level professional at its head.

The reality is, teachers aren’t some superhuman species imbued with some professional brilliance that makes them better than GPs or Chartered Surveyors. We are trained for a job. And all the while that some of those teachers also acquire the skills to lead large organisations, it is great that we can have a qualified and experienced teacher at the head of a professional body; but let’s be serious: it’s not the talent for imparting phonics knowledge that is required to manage a large charity.

Of course, the real issue here is not the appointment of  the CEO. Those who are wholeheartedly opposed to the College – or who object to the way it has been developed – would likely have opposed any appointment, just as those who object to the existence of the BBC would never welcome a new Director General.

For those of us who would like to see if this thing can work, it strikes me that you would struggle to find a better starting point as CEO than Dame Alison Peacock – an experienced teacher and headteacher, a strong figurehead who is widely supported by the profession, and someone who has publicly spoken in the past against proposals from government.

Some will always be happy to throw stones, just as there are those who continue to criticise the BBC. Personally I hope that both groups are proven to be in a minority.

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7 thoughts on “Teachers aren’t that special

  1. Tom Burkard 26 August 2016 at 3:30 pm Reply

    I’m afraid I’m with Old Andrew on this one. The bane of the modern world is the professional manager, and I’m afraid that a teacher with more postgraduate degrees in education than years of actual experience in the classroom is one of them. The only organisation which has ever commanded my entire loyalty is the Army; as a corporal, I was given far more freedom than any teacher in England now enjoys. On two-week training camps, I designed and delivered all instruction in map-reading without the slightest interference from either senior NCOs or Officers. This was possible because all soldiers, including officers, undergo the same basic training and everyone understands what it’s like to be a private soldier.

    Much of what you say is true. Many SLT are excellent teachers who’ve served their time in the trenches. Heavens knows where our schools would be without them. Yet at the same time, Durham’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring have come to the sobering conclusion that our schools have not improved in the last 30 years, despite a doubling of expenditure in real terms. And I think there is little doubt but that a very significant percentage of that increase has gone to swell the ranks of managers. I haven’t taught since 1999, and I am staggered by the extent to which teachers’ lives are dogged by managerial madness.

    • Anonymous 26 August 2016 at 3:46 pm Reply

      “I haven’t taught since 1999”

      Thus discounting the validity of your opinion by your own measures.

      • Tom Burkard 26 August 2016 at 7:43 pm Reply

        Rather a presumptuous comment. Between 2003 and 2006 I developed a Wave 3 literacy intervention which proved very successful in independent trials conducted by LA advisers in Glos and Soton, and it is now used in over 1,000 UK schools. I still deliver Inset modules for teaching basic skills, and have published extensively on this and more general educational topics.

        Most significantly, I work with teachers all the time. The point of my comment was that teachers’ freedom has declined drastically since I last taught in a maintained school, and that despite higher education spending outcomes have not improved.

  2. Linda Brook 26 August 2016 at 4:34 pm Reply

    Two comments really, it is always useful to hear another’s point of view otherwise the discussion would be a tedious agreement. My skill set is around the school business function where there has been significant increases in management roles. This, and other expansion of management roles, isn’t misplaced expenditure but a response to further delegation to schools. It is not how much you spend but the quality of the decisions about what to spend on that make a difference for improving outcomes for children.

    I don’t know Dame Alison Peacock but from what I’ve heard, she seems likely to have the high level strategic skills required to do the job. I will watch with interest.

  3. Jo O'Raw 26 August 2016 at 5:41 pm Reply

    Thanks Michael for your thought provoking post. I am very encouraged by the appointment. I think as a profession we need to be confident to articulate what we believe in for our schools and find ways to say no as well. I have no idea what the college will do (or entirely understand why it exists) but am hopeful it will help teachers not just have policies inflicted upon them. We have allowed some grim things to happen as a profession without resisting them effectively.

    I can’t imagine a better advocate for a respected profession than Alison. I have always admired her work and love her latest book. I think she has always considered the needs of children and staff in anything she has done which is surely what any teacher or leader should do.

    Not all leaders are bad !

  4. Michael Tidd 26 August 2016 at 11:43 pm Reply

    “teachers’ from has declined drastically”
    Funnily enough, as a classroom teacher over that period, that’s not my impression.

  5. teachwell 27 August 2016 at 4:27 pm Reply

    I think your points are fair but there is simply one issue I would take – Andrew is not the minority he is in the majority. The fact is that CoT tried to raise the funds, when that didn’t work they went for number of those supporting. They did not meet either target. This is a minority within teaching and they have chosen someone with a firm interest in a particular way of teaching. If the CoT is hell bent on controlling teacher standards then how are we going to escape the current problems? This is an organisation by progressives for progressives and choosing Dame Alison Peacock to head a team of trustees who are progressive to the core, just solidifies this in my opinion. On top of that there is already moves to propose teacher standards similar to the Australian ones which again are progressive. If the CoT really wanted to be an organisation for all teachers instead of GTC + old Ofsted combined mark 2 then it could do a heck of a lot more. It isn’t even trying.

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