“It takes two flints to make a fire.” –-Louisa May Alcott
You think you’re pretty good at your job, right? At Teach Meet London, I spoke about whether great teachers are born or made. I don’t have an answer; I want to ask the question to get people thinking about teaching and professional qualities that lead to outstanding outcomes for students. In my Teaching and Learning sessions, I want staff to consider how their professional qualities make them great – and I want them to be specific.
There are times when I will find myself seeing the qualities I have listed in people and I will be overwhelmed by how grateful I am to have them on my side. But, as with any job, I have been in situations where teams have become dysfunctional. One can use as many leadership models as one likes to analyse their staff – a team is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes individuals to step up and demonstrate professional qualities. If I was hiring a member of staff, I’d want to see the qualities I’ve listed because those are the qualities I want in myself. It’s no good as a leader writing a person specification that does not tie in with my own values.
Speaking of person specs – how many times have you seen the same qualities flagged up as essential? Organisations pilfer person and job specs, particularly in schools and end up being less than specific about the qualities they want in their teams. I’d like to actually see the list below on a person spec. At least it would be clear and precise. I want to poke out my own eyeballs when I see person specs that outline a requirement for a ‘good sense of humour’. The last thing I want on my team is someone who needs to be told how to do every part of their job, but does a stunning impression of Donald Trump in kindergarten.
The list below isn’t purely a wish list for the ideal team or team member, it’s a reminder to myself of all I want to be. I don’t think anyone can be all of the things below, all of the time – but it’s worth sharing with your teams to see whether they can remind themselves at intervals that the following qualities and professional skills make a team hum positively. And it’s worth having somewhere so you can remind yourself as a leader what you want to be as part of the team you are part of.
- Resilient – reflects on failure and self-motivates to move on
- Intuitive – senses when others are struggling and steps in
- Empathetic – is able to see the work environment from another’s perspective
- Pitches in – doesn’t need to be asked
- Optimistic – comes in with a smile and keeps shoulders up and head up
- Constructively critical – can spot where errors might be made and flags up
- Solutions focused – finds the problem and suggests the solution
- Determined – for students and the rest of the team
- Productive – often underrated – can get a lot done in the time given
- Anticipates problems – and finds ways around them before making mistakes
- Intellectual – you don’t have to be a genius, just someone who ponders, reads and knows their stuff
- Precise and careful – someone who proofreads, checks and double checks
- Independent – doesn’t need their hand holding beyond the start of a role
- Organised – plans, schedules, lists – throws them out – does it all again
When a team gets to the point where these qualities are not evident – or certainly not evident in the majority of team members, the only possible result is underperformance. And more pertinently, for education professionals, the result is good people leaving. Workload is intense, the external pressures on staff can make or break people – but in my experience as a school leader, what makes people leave is other people. That could be a member of Senior Leadership who forgets that they are part of the department team, whether they like it or not; it could be a staff member who doesn’t pull their weight, whose lack of enthusiasm for the job leads to tension and resentment; it could be that the middle leader isn’t precise and careful enough.
With a new half term about to swing into action – one that requires teams to be the best versions of themselves – I’m going to pin this up on my wall at work and give myself a daily reminder of the qualities I want to display. And then I think it is important to hold people to account – not in having these qualities instantly – but to hold people to account for working towards them. That’s professional development and quite often we forget as leaders that we have to develop the whole professional, not just their hard skills, knowledge and the mechanics of how they do their job. We owe it to the education sector, in any case. We need to develop good people. We want good people to stay.
The return of The Great British Bake Off is a welcome addition to my summer holiday. You can’t beat the unadulterated joy of watching complete strangers bake well. Or, indeed, bake badly. It’s safe to say I have missed the sight of grown men and women weeping disconsolately over a battenburg and I am relieved that there will now be something to tweet about other than English-related minutiae.
However, before GBBO takes over my Twitter feed entirely, I have had a thought. And of course, when I have a thought (it is occasional and should be marked by fireworks and bunting), inevitably there is a blog post of some sort. So, without further ado, it occurred to me, whilst watching the first show of the new season, that teaching is a lot like The Great British Bake Off.
In what way is this true, my dear? Well, teaching is as old as the hills – ask the teachers of Norman conquerors. They must have been in intervention for years, learning English grammar. Can you feel the Saxon frustration, folks? “I just cannot imagine how we are going to get a decent pass rate this year (1066). The influx of EAL students is of grave concern.” I tried to translate that into Old English, but it didn’t work, so you’ll just have to imagine. Well, baking is also as old as the hills: “How are we going to bake good old-fashioned British fare when all these French ingredients are being drafted in? Pah!”
Maybe that’s why I know so many teachers who love GBBO; something in the process reminds them of what they face in the classroom and out.
We all start somewhere. Mixing the ingredients in GBBO reminds me of lesson planning. The recipe analogy is often used when lesson planning is discussed; ingredients, or parts of lessons, must be meticulously measured to ensure a perfect bake. After all, who wants to risk putting in too much flour (teacher talk) as it might dry out the sponge (engagement levels)? Of course, sometimes, you need more flour. It is (and I nod in deference to the traditionalists), a vital ingredient and far more important than all those frivolous cherries on top.
And we all have our Signature Bake, don’t we teachers? That lesson you roll out because you know it is spectacular and you’ve taught it before, so many times. The bake has been good, the students have made better than expected progress, there are no soggy bottoms (students coming in below a Level 4 have been more than catered for) and your sponge on this one is definitely not dry. You have engaged in whichever way is appropriate for your challenge. Here, I feel it is my duty to point out that it’s not a good idea to turn students over to tap their bottoms to check progress. That’s not okay.
Moving swiftly on, you’ve definitely cracked the behaviour of the cake. Obsessive oven-watching is reminiscent of behaviour management in classrooms. You’ve set the temperature, you’ve established a time for baking. And now, when all is done, you are waiting (the equivalent of sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of an oven door), waiting to that cake to rise – to expectations.
You’ve already dealt with ‘decoration’. You’ve definitely got a preference: Powerpoint, SmartBoard, Promethean, sturdy old chalk and slate, but your resources are prepared. Damn, that bake is going to look good after it has made progress. Like student books. Flawless icing on the cake.
Everyone hates the technical challenge. It’s the exam preparation of the Bake Off. It is the English Language controlled assessment of BBC One. No one knows what they are doing and they keep checking other tables to see if they’ve got it right. I despair.
The process needs Mel and Sue. Think of them as Bake Off Assistant Principals in charge of Teaching and Learning. They come round, on their ‘baking walks’, offering advice and support. You need them because they function as mocksted inspectors; it’s a formative evaluation of the bake/lesson, sampling your off-cuts, critiquing the decoration, asking about your soggy bottom. They are never needed more than when you experience The Great Cake Drop – when a lesson goes wrong and it’s almost unsalvageable. Mel, Bake Off SLT with experience of this kind of thing, can offer consolation. Sue, a joke and some whisky, probably.
The show has its own form of Ofsted inspection in the quite glorious shapes of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. If you like, they are the summative inspectors – coming in with a day’s warning to prod your cake and raise a brow. Brought round to each ‘table’ by a nervous looking Mel and Sue, they impart their own wisdom. They’ve been doing it for years, don’t you know. Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry: Cake Inspection Team. Never knowingly underbaked.
The question on everybody’s lips is whether we ought to grade that bake. Is it an outstanding bake? Does that word even work in teaching or baking? What does it mean? It is a good bake? Is it a bake that requires improvement? Will the baker go into special measures?
The show wouldn’t be complete as an analogy without its nod towards performance management. Star baker – give that person a TLR. Going home? Suggest that they find ‘employment’ elsewhere, out of sight of cake-trays and KitchenAids.
Ultimately, GBBO reminds me that I may have dropped my cake, made more than one dry sponge, had a few soggy bottoms and been harangued by the Paul Hollywood of Ofsted inspectors (actually not true – no one has those crinkly blue eyes on the Ofsted team), but sometimes – just sometimes – I make an amazing cake. And those students eat that cake right up. And I take my apron off, wipe my floury brow and know I am okay to bake another day.
Now where did I put my icing spatula?
This week, for the first time since school started three weeks ago, I left work for an appointment at 4pm. On my way past the school gym, I could see members of staff running the table tennis club. I said goodnight to members of staff on their way to epilepsy and anaphylaxis training. I had to send apologies to another training session that was entirely relevant to me as a Sixth Form tutor. The truth is, I felt ridiculously guilty – like I was doing something wrong by leaving so early.
Waking up to a Twitter storm this morning about this very issue – the hours teachers work and how that relates to how effective they are – was a remarkable coincidence. Sir Michael Wilshaw, in an interview with The Times, apparently stated that teachers who leave at 3pm should be paid less than those who work longer hours. According to the BBC report, “inspectors would mark down schools which increased the pay of teachers who were ‘out the gate at 3 o’clock’”. The reign of Sir Michael thus far has been peppered with controversy – this is a man who likes to make strong statements and to watch the reaction. He is, as a dear Twitter friend put it, “the man who kicked the hornet’s nest”. The hornets are agitated and yet again, despite perhaps noble intentions, Sir Michael has succeeded in further alienating the teaching workforce.
As much as I am tempted to launch into a fully-fledged tirade against such tomfoolery, I understand the need for the issues to be unpicked. The “3pm” myth is a long-standing one; teachers apparently work from 9am to 3pm and have ridiculous amounts of holiday. If people want to believe this myth, they will and no amount of hand-wringing on my part is going to change that fact. I can only hope that if someone genuinely wants to know what the working life of a teacher is like, they will attempt to walk a mile in the shoes of a real teacher. Another facet of the 3pm myth that is often overlooked is the idea that people who leave early are somehow less effective than those who don’t. In the last ten years, I have been fortunate to work with highly-effective people. I did not measure their effectiveness on the hours they worked. I knew them as individuals, with children, or appointments, or outside interests and hobbies. I also knew they were reliable, regardless of the time they left the school building. I often admired those who could leave early – my own working habits meant that I was often inefficient and needed to learn to work smarter, not harder. I have started to understand that concept now, ten years on.
The advice I give now to trainee teachers is to find the work pattern that suits them – I have seen trainees work themselves into the ground because they have felt the pressure to stay late, instead of going home, having a hot bath and a good dinner – and spending time with loved ones. What is the point of me giving that advice when it seems that pay might be related to the presenteeism part of performance?
The article seems to suggest that Ofsted may punish schools that allow staff to maintain, in some way, shape or form, a work-life balance. This seems ludicrous on many levels. Not only does it counter the advice teachers are given to motivate children, it ignores the basics of human motivation. Simply telling people to work harder and for longer does not mean that they will want to. They won’t work longer hours, even if their pay is performance related because most teachers now recognise the adverse effects of long hours during the week and weekends truncated by marking and planning – most teachers know that there needs to be some respite somewhere. The assumption that if you leave early – perhaps because you have childcare commitments, perhaps because you are a carer, perhaps because you know you work better in the evenings at home – it means that somehow you are not committed to addressing educational disadvantage, is fundamentally flawed. The BBC article goes on to say that “Sir Michael also said any teacher who did not wish to act as a surrogate parent in poor areas to pupils who lacked support at home did not deserve a salary increase.” If you take the childcare argument, Sir Michael suddenly seems to be creating a strange contradictory situation in which parents who are teachers in inner-city schools should leave their own children with another so that a) they can afford to look after their own children and b) so that they can act as a “surrogate” to someone else’s child.
I work in an inner-city academy. The staff are more than aware of the need to act as “surrogate” parents – for the whole day, not just in those hours after school. What delights me about my colleagues is the recognition that acting as surrogate parents does not create a long-term solution to a problem – community education, parental involvement and facilitating parents’ taking of responsibility as just as important. Our staff room debates are illuminating and powerful.
To go back to the point, if, as some have suggested, the “3pm” comment is a ‘caricature’ and not to be taken literally, then I question the wisdom of the man who chooses to use it. A good leader can look out across his workforce and influence change without grossly offending individuals, because he recognises that they are individuals. A good leader recognises that working on intrinsic motivation is much more likely to lead to positive outcomes than dangling the carrot of extrinsic motivation. I’m pretty certain it is an established fact that whipping your workforce to make them work faster and harder may work in the moment, but that it breeds resentment and the possibility of mass exodus.
Others have argued that Wilshaw’s latest comments are merely a reiteration of changes to the appraisal system. Again, the foolishness of publicly associating performance with a ‘caricature’ of the early-leaving teacher means that the real point disappears. Schools have to reward those who work hard and not reward those who don’t. Unfortunately, generalising about whether this happens is entirely unhelpful to his case. By saying “In last year’s report, we said that 40% of lessons overall were not good enough. And yet everyone is getting a pay rise. Hey! Something is wrong with the system”, he accuses senior leadership teams of wilfully ignoring poor performance. Language is a powerful thing and one that every leader should use carefully. Is “everyone” getting a pay rise? As someone on the Upper Pay Scale, I know that I had to meet all of my performance management targets and then some, in order to get on to UPS1. I will have to do the same this year. I also know people who have been turned down for progression on to that pay scale, not because they left work too early, but because they didn’t meet their targets. The targets were reset and they had to try again.
I do wonder whether the general perception of teachers in this country is informed largely by three main sources: Grange Hill, Teachers and Waterloo Road. It would be a real shame, when the profession has moved on from elbow patches, donkeys in corridors and smoking behind the bikesheds whilst discussing a workplace romance, to see that undone by the constant barrage of generalisation about the way teachers perform. Today’s comments only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of teachers – and the media will report them as such – and this is something Sir Michael Wilshaw needs to be much more aware of. Or even care more about.