Monthly Archives: September 2013

Not one year’s experience twenty times

tree planting

I considered for quite some time before signing up for SLTcamp. Not from any dubious misgivings about the intitiative, but wondering whether I was taking up a place more suited to someone else – someone youger, with more years ahead of them as part of an SLT than I shall see. In the end the internal debate lasted no longer than two hours and I signed up with a sense that there is something I can contribute. Largely for three reasons.

The first is that I’m energised and ultimately hopeful of this groundroots surge of initiatives by teachers to discuss, share, mold and shape their professional experiences. It’s happening through twitter, teachmeets, practictioner-led conferences and initiatives such as this. Maybe it’s part of an evolution of democratic processes that we are less likely to recognise and defer to an ‘authority’, but increasingly generate organic movements of like-minded individuals. There’s always the risk that these can simply look inwards and confirm bias  if they are restrictive and focused on voicing rather than listening. But I don’t sense that to be the motive or rationale for this event. It is something I want to support and encourage and the most elemental way of doing that was putting my money where my optimism lies and swelling the ranks.

I hesitated at more length because I’ve spent 33 years in the classroom. I have undergone stints on SLTs and am doing so again this year. But the bedrock still underpins why I came into the job. The sense of being where I was meant to be is never more keenly felt than when in the midst of some solid engagement on a geography issue, with a group of youngsters in my classroom. So, knowing that many of the attendees will be fully-fledged SLT members – was I usurping a position? In the end, though, I think that it becomes an increasing challenge for SLT members to experience the immediacy of what it’s like at the chalk-face relentlessly day after day. That’s an inevitable part of the change for most – freeing up time for management responsibilities by reducing the teaching load. The issue that inevitably follows, though, is authenticity of experience and credibility. Managing teachers with full teaching commitments calls for, say, an understanding of what new marking and lesson-planning initiatives imply after 5, 9 and 26 weeks into an academic year. It’s difficult to inhabit that experience if your management role has lifted you beyond it for more than three years. So, I’m going on the basis of reminding and challenging what is realistic, and what isn’t when we attempt to introduce initiatives that will make a substantial and sustained difference.

Thirdly, I considered what opportunity is left to me to take away some inspirational ideas or just good, exemplified tips from others to our own SLT. This was probably the easiest to accommodate as we have an open-minded leader who is encouraging of taking from the best and implementing what works. I look forward to seeing how others tackle the common issues, what is being implemented, and taking the best (and adaptable to context) back to our place.

In terms of what we address over the weekend, I suspect that we shall have an agenda but that the discussions and arguments will take off into unexpected and unplanned directions. That’s often the real value of professional meetings – the sparks that fly and the ones that ignite. But I hope it will be a chance to look at the profession over the longer term than we often manage. We have become used to a to-ing and fro-ing of education policy with each new Secretary of State – they all, in recent years, seems to have had a thirst for stamping a legacy. As we do, too. Only our legacy takes place over the lifetime of the student if we’re lucky and not within education policy chapters. But it encourages a focus on the short-term at the expense of the long view. These are a few of the things I think we could benefit from addressing over the weekend:

Long-term interests rather than short-term expediency. If we learn anything from the financial crash, it’s that you can serve the short-term interests of shareholders for only so long before the system collapses under its own self-delusion that each participant has found a better way of getting an ‘edge’ over their competitors. In our sphere it feels like we are all trying to keep the Ofsted major shareholder off our backs with short-term fixes and accountancy tricks to make sure the bottom-line figures give the right number so that we are not liquidated and absorbed into an academy monopoly. The sharks are munching up the little fish who don’t swim so well. Or – if we’re already in one – there isn’t a sacking of the entire board and the installation of a new one. But we put an inordinate amount of time into levering up ‘next year’s results’ rather than thinking about the results in five year’s, 10 years or 20 years time. It would be valuable to have a chance to discuss what we need to do now, for the students passing through in that longer time-frame. As I read yesterday in a tweet: A society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit. (Greek proverb).

Keeping the best in the classroom. It must be a particularly perverse irony of education that those who are most effective in the classroom are frequently promoted to spend significant amount of time out of it, managing others to do it as well as they could. I don’t think we can afford this model. It’s been lovely to see the excitement and anticipation of many fine teachers on twitter get promoted to SLT positions over the past year, but I grieve a little that they will be in classrooms less doing the things they are expert at. I realise this has always been the case and that good school managers need the time to carry out their responsibilities, but I also see two factors that will exacerbate the loss. One is the move to pensions based on average earnings; with the inevitable financial incentive to get promoted as early as possible in one’s career to move that average up. It makes pension sense. The other is the intolerable demands piling up on heads of English and Maths departments, in particular, to get those absolutely vital scores on the doors each year. We are encouraging burn-out in some of our best practitioners who are superb in the classroom, but know they can’t maintain the discharge of such pressured responsibilities for more than a few years. Promotion is a way to ease that daily condition. We should try to find ways to keep the best doing the best in the place where the best matters so fundamentally and, where promotion is sought for all the best reasons, to maximise the time those in leadership roles continue to perform in the place that matters most.

A lifelong career. Reducing the leakage of many fine teachers from the profession in their first decade of teaching has to be a concern to be addressed. But the issue of career-managing affects us all. In a half dozen years the increasing number of students that primary schools are now seeing will be entering secondary schools. Just as rolls increase, teachers in their mid-50s will be the first for whom the full retirement age is raised to 68. How we manage that will be a question not just for those in that age-group, but all involved in schools. Yes, the pension proposals move pensionable service to 1/57th salary accrued each year, and teachers will still be able to retire at 55 if they so choose – but will take a hit on their reduced pension. I think we need to be looking at far more flexible career arrangements for teachers towards the last quarter of their career. Part-time teaching may need to be an option for some, less classroom-based and more back-room management roles may be an option for others, and the opportunity to scale-down from positions of responsibilty may be the answer for yet others. It will depend on health, wealth, need, capacity and competence. Visiting schools in New York a few years ago I was staggered by the age of some teachers conducting classes. I never got to ask if it was from choice or financial necessity of the septuagenarians I came across, but would like to think we can start considering how our system can benefit from this predictable change for all concerned. In contrast, a school I visited in the Netherlands told how 85% of their teachers worked part-time, flexi- and shared-role contracts from personal choice of the teaching staff. Only the senior managers were in the school five days a week on full-time contracts. The changes we face are predictable; we know they are coming and we would do well to start thinking about how we can make them work for the benefit of schools from now.

And, yes, it will be good to meet with people with whom I’ve got a sense of what they are like from their tweets and blogs but not met in the flesh. Putting a personality into the avi will be a good thing to do. One of the hazards of being in the profession for three decades and a bit is that people may assume you have got a bit stuck in your ways, cynical about progress and change, and looking for the quiet life. We may all have come across some who inhabit that stereotype. I’ve always been guided by two touchstones: one, a belief that a teacher should be at their most effective the year before they retire (‘before’ – as people stop listening to you when they know you’re not going to be around in 12 months), and I hope there is still some time before I hit that particular zenith; and the apocryphal tale of the middle-aged teacher who, after another unsuccessful interview for an internal promotion bursts into the headteacher’s study to announce: “I really must protest that once again you’ve ignored me. I have twenty years experience you know!”  To which the headteacher, looking slowly up from the desk replies “I disagree. You have one year’s experience, that you’ve repeated twenty times.”  I’m anticipating SLTcamp will be the foundation for this year’s ‘new experience’.

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