I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season. Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me. My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’. I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations. We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.
We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men. Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates. I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do. We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach. To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue. As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.
When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place. What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions. And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.
Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.
Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.
What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?
In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women. The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:
Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975
Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms. They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation. Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions. It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order. The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth. And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.
How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are? I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today. Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here. If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it? It is exhausting and demoralising. And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.
Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions. The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor. It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi). Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.
If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress. I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night. I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea. Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.
The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser. I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted. And I stalled. This wasn’t a result of male oppression. This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.
If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.
Is it ever a good idea to write an article about your first year of teaching, especially if you have chosen to quit? Last week saw the online publication of ‘Why I quit Teach First’ in Management Today, written by an anonymous graduate who has chosen to leave the programme for a cavalcade of reasons, but mostly as a result of what she deems to be poor training and preparation.
I started my journey with Teach First in 2003 as part of the first cohort. Prior to application, I had imagined I would work in publishing, or in journalism – my childish desires to be a teacher (influenced, I am reluctant to admit, by an unhealthy obsession with Anne of Green Gables) had been summarily nixed by my own teachers who told me to be better than that. I attended the six weeks training, provided solely then by Canterbury Christchurch University – and it was made up of visits to local schools, lectures, seminars on professional standards and subject studies. We had to read, research and become familiar with the key educational theories. We had what has been termed ‘inspiring talks’ but at no point did I feel that wasn’t necessary. I liked the fact that I was doing something that might make a difference. I liked the esprit de corps instilled in the group – and recognised years later that it was entirely fundamental to the Teach First movement. To build confidence, to create a lasting sense of collegiality, to encourage debate and discussion, to instil a lifelong desire to give something back as well as to learn to teach – those were the enduring impressions of the training I received.
Of course I didn’t feel prepared, but that wasn’t because I hadn’t been given essential training. Who does feel prepared to stand in front of children and teach on the first day? My first year is a hazy memory now, but yes, the children misbehaved, they didn’t always follow instructions. But I knew that wasn’t because I hadn’t had enough training. I knew it was because I hadn’t found the right strategies yet. Teaching is a constant battle to refine strategies. No one can tell you the theory and expect you go and do just those things; the best teachers I know (PGCE or Teach First) are the ones who stand in front of a difficult class and know that when they go home, they will need to examine the dozens of reasons why the lesson didn’t go as planned. I am reminded of my favourite quotation, one that I stuck to my classroom wall next to my desk in that first year.
“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.” Dr Haim Ginott.
A criticism that is often levelled at the Teach First training route is the one that starts with: “yes, but what about the children?” The implication is that having a Teach First teacher, learning on the job is somehow detrimental to the children’s learning. It is a criticism that could be levelled at a PGCE student on their school placements, or someone on the old GTP route. It is naive to declare that PGCE students aren’t left alone with classes during their placements. It does happen – scratch the surface and all sorts of odd things happen. My experience of having my own classes as a Teach First participant was not unusual. I felt that I needed to get better at teaching and fortunately, I had support from my in-school mentors and from the university that provided my training. I was subject to observations just like anyone else and the feedback was useful. I adapted, I learned and by the end of the year, even though I still didn’t feel like I was a proper teacher, I knew that I hadn’t let the students down. I had GCSE classes that performed well. I was ready for the new year, armed with professional experience that was invaluable to me.
I didn’t contemplate leaving. Drop out rates in the first year are minimal. My own experience as a Professional Mentor for Teach First over the past ten years has taught me that. Where people have chosen to leave, they have done so for personal reasons – something they may have done if they had completed a PGCE. My concern about articles such the one that I mentioned earlier, along with other critics of Teach First is that it s very rare to see a measured opinion, complete with comparative statistics for retention. This may be because those statistics are quite hard to find, simply because there are so many variables. Do we compare drop out rates between the initial PGCE year and the first Teach First year? Or the NQT year for PGCE students and the first year Teach Firsters? How do we know how many PGCE students are still teaching at the end of the second year? If not, what is their destination?
The fundamental fact is that teachers are being deployed in challenging schools – in 2003 who could have predicted that ten years from now a charity placing teachers in challenging schools would be the number one graduate employer? It says something about Teach First and the inspiring talks and the expansion currently taking place. Expansion is necessary and I welcome it. London is a city with an excellent track record of school improvement and this is sorely needed in other regions. Teach First have identified regions where socio-economic factors impede attainment – places that teachers do not see as desirable locations to work. Expansion will always be problematic at the start, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.
What do I know about teacher training? I know that some of my most respected colleagues completed PGCEs and some of them came into teaching via Teach First. I don’t judge them on their training but on their ability to teach and to be consummate professionals in a job that requires strength and leadership.
Ten years ago, I understood that people may be sceptical at the commencement of a new training scheme and I experienced some intense negativity. No one likes change, no one likes the idea that the way they did something may have an alternative. But ten years on, with hard evidence that the programme works just as well as any other, with teaching now seen as a credible profession for the best graduates, maybe it is about time we gave Teach First a break.
Having just been at the national opening ceremony of the Teach First Summer Institute 2012, I have been considering the fate of all 997 of those smiling, fresh-faced new teachers. They are about to embark on one of the hardest journeys a young professional can experience; they are about to start teaching in tough, inner-city schools.
It is when I reflect on my own experience of starting to teach that I realise that I missed a fundamental aspect of my training as a teacher in my first year. In theory, I was supposed to have an in-department mentor and a professional mentor to ensure that was able to develop into a fully-fledged and functional member of the staff team. I had one mentor from my university provider, through Teach First, but the in school provision can only be summed up as a perfunctory attempt at ticking boxes on forms. It can’t even be described as half-hearted; it was more, for want of a better word, half-arsed.
When I looked at the new recruits at this opening ceremony, I knew that some of them would have excellent mentors and some would be stuck in schools where mentoring is a by-word for accountability and making sure someone does their job properly. Some would be in places that gave a peremptory nod towards the mentoring process by adding a timetabled hour to two individuals’ timetables and felt quite pleased with themselves. Anyone who has ever been passionate about the power of mentoring in fostering the latent talent in new teachers will know, as they read this, that mentoring is more than a timetabled hour. It is a commitment to the progress and welfare of another human being.
Firstly, the ambition of the mentor is vital. If you are a new teacher, there’s nothing more exciting than hearing someone tell you that the journey to being an outstanding teacher has begun. This mentor, the one that understands the need to motivate and enthuse, is responsible for that first moment of realisation: I can be excellent, with the right support. It is no different to being a teacher in a classroom – showing pupils that you care about their success. Our education system is fuelled by teachers who bring energy and ambition to their classrooms – can the same be said for the people who mentor beginner teachers? The perfunctory box-ticking mentor does not only destroy confidence and sap enthusiasm, they may inadvertently be setting or proliferating rot into a profession that has suffered more than a few blows recently. The future of education depends on talent in the classroom being nurtured – staff and students alike – but that can’t happen if those responsible for teacher development are totally unaware of the impact they may have on that future. One only has to look at retention rates for teachers in inner city schools to know that we have to be better at making sure they are able to stay in the profession for longer than five years – it is the only way to more stability and towards a new corps of experience in the profession.
Having been a mentor to new teachers in some way, shape or form for the past eight years, I am acutely aware now that meetings to manage the paperwork that comes with beginner teachers is the least productive way to use the time with them, and generates the least productive staff member. The true mentor is a combination, in varying parts, of ally, friend, crutch, critic, conscience and so much more more. The ability to move seamlessly between being partial and impartial, the ability to perceive the person beneath the role and experience – that’s what makes the mentor effective. Now that I train other mentors, I often ask them, three or four weeks in: have you asked your mentee whether they’re eating properly? Have you asked them what time they are going home and whether they have any evenings when they are just relaxing? The amount of times I have been met with blank faces and/or rolled eyes is baffling. The effective mentor nurtures, supports and challenges in equal measure.
Quite often, it is the responsibility of middle managers to conduct the mentoring process. In this, I can understand why mentoring is placed at the bottom of a list of a thousand other things to do – precisely because there are a thousand other things to do. If you run a department, chances are you are dealing with what the late Steven Covey, author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ calls ‘Quadrant 1’ thinking – the fire-fighting of every day in a busy school. This mentor may even be deceiving themselves into believing they do have time to support another teacher because they are engaged in ‘Quadrant 3’ activities – checking mail, dealing with interruptions and so on. The effective mentor is the one that sees their role as the embodiment of ‘Quadrant 2’ thinking – the time taken to invest in another member of staff will pay for itself in the long run. Time now, spent nurturing a relationship and the whole teacher, will mean a proliferation of time for more ‘Quadrant 2’ thinking in the future – and who doesn’t want that?
Mentoring is less of a social science than it is an art. Imagine your mentee as a block of clay – the absolute raw material you have to work with. They are very much a lump of clay at the start, with bumps and cracks you didn’t have anything to do with. A hands on, every day, working at details, making the time approach means that one day, your lump of clay will end up looking like Michaelangelo’s David.