The fruits of our labours.

There are times when I genuinely wish I was a head teacher. Once, I would have been just about considered ripe, aged fifty, for that role; nowadays, if you’re not well on the way by your late thirties, you may as well forget it.

The trouble is, headship in the sense I am thinking about it is about leading a learning community to an enduring and principled sense of purpose – so my reverie rarely lasts long. I have little time for the bureaucracy, logistics, educational politics and general sabre-rattling that seem to make up so much of the present-day role. I dislike paperwork and matters financial, and I am not really cut out for a role as inspectorate high-jumper or strong-arm enforcer of government policy. I sincerely believe that these influences have had a net harmful effect on the spirit, let alone delivery, of education in Britain. No, if I were a head teacher, the direction would come from the humane instinct within, from the kinds of issues I discuss in this blog. I would probably be rapidly out on my ear.

Over the years, my insight into the purpose and functioning of education has developed significantly (as one hopes it would) and I would like to think that in personal terms, in another life this would allow me to offer leadership of value. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake – but on the other hand, I have my doubts whether the kind of life-wisdom required to do the job in the sense I understand it really can be acquired quickly. There again, I suspect that this is relatively low down the priorities of today’s would-be heads when they take those precipitate and perhaps premature steps into school leadership after only a few years in the classroom…

After the depths plumbed last term, the week following Christmas was a blissful time of long sleep-ins and much staring into space. I mean that in an entirely positive sense, as by the time Black Monday came along, my wife and I felt well-rested and (dark mornings notwithstanding) ready to face the world again. What’s more, there was time just to savour the fruits of our labour: the remnants of season’s food to be troughed, slow cooking to be done, a few glasses of good red to be savoured, time to advance a few domestic plans we have without undue rush – and time just to be comfortable.

There seem to be two contradictory models of school management; though they both of course share the same main objective of educating children, they take differing views of how to get there. In particular, they disagree about how much comfort to afford one’s staff.

The first sees a school as a quasi-corporation. In this model, outputs are all, and the means by which one gets there less important; I suspect that this is close to the way the majority of modern schools function. The problem with it, in my view, is that it fails to appreciate that in both education and general human development, in many ways the journey is the destination. Be it in terms of the learning process, the day to day experiences of the people, or the way it treats its resources – most particularly its personnel – it risks having little regard for what happens along the way, so long as the results are as specified.  Resources are for consumption, not sustaining; to put it bleakly, in this outlook the pathway to children’s success lies over the prostrate bodies of their exhausted, burned-out and in some cases discarded teachers. And when people do indeed fall by the wayside you simply bring in a replacement, since staff are little more than the machinery to deliver one’s purpose and certainly not individuals with their own unique value.

The fact that this appears to be the officially-sanctioned default model in the U.K. is in itself enough to kill my dreams.

I suppose it’s easy to dismiss the alternative as either hopelessly old-fashioned, or just too touchy-feely to be workable, but I think it need be neither of these things. There is an alternative vision of a school as a place where all can thrive, not some at the expense of others. Naturally, adults and children have differing interests, but while the children’s may be reasonably common to both models, the degree to which adults’ needs are attended to varies greatly. I am not only thinking of the need to provide for professional development, important though that is – but whether a school accepts that its adults have legitimate lives and needs of their own, rather than simply being ‘the machinery’; let alone the ways in which the school might make life for its staff not only easier but even more pleasant. There are enough studies out there showing that pay alone is not enough to motivate people, for it to be urgent that we re-think this.

It is of course widely true that teachers go into this profession with the needs of others rather than themselves at heart; they do not expect a cushy number, and nor should they. But they still need to earn a wage, and derive reward from what they do; they still have wider lives and obligations. There is no reason to expect them to behave like martyrs, constantly denying their own needs as though this is the only way to secure their pupils’ advancement, and I would suggest that fact that some do seem to think that is either a peculiar form of masochism or something their managers should be ashamed of propagating. I can see neither logic nor moral justification in presenting a model to the next generation of adults that involves asset-stripping the present one.  There is the oft-repeated mantra that happy teachers are good teachers; well there may be more to it than that, but everything I have witnessed over the years would suggest that that opposite at least, is true: unhappy teachers are rarely at their best.

This is not merely the whinging of someone dreaming of an easy ride; I see no conflict between configuring a teacher’s life in a way that makes time for other commitments, the development of their own needs and interests – even a degree of material and mental comfort – and the job they are able to do for their pupils. In fact, I have found through experience that my own welfare correlates directly with what I am able to provide for my pupils. Just where did this idea of martyrdom come from?

The first week of term was good – and a number of colleagues said the same. The sixth form are away on a fortnight’s mock-exam study leave, and this left me both sans tutor-group and with a few extra non-contact hours. Coming at a time when we were fresh, it was a hugely productive week; there was adequate time for preparation and marking, time to plan somewhat further ahead, time to chew the cud a little with colleagues – and, without the need to work until bedtime every evening, still time for a little home comfort at the end of the day. All in all, it was the first working week for some considerable time that felt balanced, that was genuinely pleasurable in and of itself.

It also served as a reminder that time remains our biggest enemy. It is not that teachers are generally lazy or incompetent: it is the shortage of time versus huge demands that prevents them from doing their best work. Releasing a few extra hours shows just how true that fact is: were the load simply lighter, then everything could be done that much better. One colleague pointed out that having teachers doing less would lead to laziness and indulgence. Well, when 150% is the norm, yes, I suppose a reduction to 100% would indeed look and feel strange for a while – but does that make it wrong?

As a Head, the first thing I would do would be to cultivate a sense of comfort amongst my staff; emphatically not complacency – but the sense that they mattered enough in their own right to know that they did not need to martyr themselves in order to meet my expectations. This is not a zero-sum matter, but it would mean ensuring that my expectations were realistic and reasonable in the first place.

The second thing I would do would be to ensure the sovereignty of the adults in the school over that of the pupils. This is not a way of inverting a school’s true priorities – simply of ensuring that the pupils appreciated that it was they who were the guests in the school, not the teachers.

But above all, I would buy my staff time. I would maximise, rather than minimise the number of staff I could employ; I would create as much non-contact time as possible rather than paring it back to quota at every opportunity. I would view the maximisation of the wage bill as the sign of money well spent. In education, the quality of the people is all – but unlike the first model, I would remember that this is an internal as much as an external matter. You can hire good people, but if you make it impossible for them to function well, you’re wasting your money.

I would not always employ the cheapest teachers I could find, but I would require all staff to take an equitable share of the teaching load. After all, what is the core function of a teacher? I would allow people maximum freedom to work as they needed to, both within the classroom and without; I would consider allowing them to spend at least part of their non-teaching week away from the premises if it suited them. I would ensure that the management just created the minimum expectations of what was required, and then left people to get on with it with only those wantonly abusing the position being pursued.

I would emphasise that the adults’ personal, academic and professional development went hand-in-hand with that of the pupils, and was not viewed in opposition to it. I like to think that this would offer a genuinely wellbeing-based school and create a win-win situation whereby everyone felt valued and could thrive. I like to think this would rub off on the more specific indicators of institutional success, too.

It’s probably clear why I will never, even in another life, make it to a headship. I would no doubt have people chasing me over my staffing costs alone, before the first year was out. I would have others chasing me for giving my staff too comfortable a time, for tolerating ‘low standards’. But comfort exists for a reason: it is a sign that one’s body and mind are not being unduly stressed, that their basic needs are being met – and I believe that people perform best when they are not under duress. Striving certainly has its place – but this is not opposed to comfort: intelligent, motivated people are generally quite capable of separating this from an excuse to be lazy; Flow will be their greatest motivator – if an institution makes that possible.

Neither is the above anathema to high standards; it is about giving people the autonomy and trust to do a good job. The punitive mentality of the mill or sweatshop is outdated and particularly inappropriate in places where people function with brain rather than brawn.  In reality, my model is little different from what happens in other European countries that have more socially-minded institutional frameworks than the U.K.’s sweat-the-assets, dog-eat-dog approach.

The fact that it probably sounds hopelessly naive is not in itself a reason why it would not work – but it probably is an indication of just how far we still have to go.

5 thoughts on “The fruits of our labours.

  1. I believe teachers need time to get to know children; then need enough time to mark their development. That requires more teachers and smaller class sizes. Professionals (and other staff) deserve working environments that are secure, supportive and avoid burnout. Children deserve the same in order to learn. The profession needs to hold retain teachers.

    As a parent I agree with teachers having authority over children in school.

    Perhaps I misunderstood, but I was uneasy with your statement, ‘ensuring that the pupils appreciated that it was they who were the guests in the school, not the teachers’. I think this is a curious attitude to foster. To feel part of the school you attend while a guest visiting other schools or establishments seems far more desirable.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think you are right that the qualitative aspects of school need far more attention than they are currently getting. Most of the emphasis seems to be on systemic activity, and we risk forgetting that we are dealing with human experiences here. And in that case, as you say, reducing the quantity of interactions can only help increase the quality – even if there is no proven link with better exam results…

      You’re absolutely right too about my use of the word ‘visitor’, which was a little clumsy. I would certainly want children to feel that they belonged to their school – but I had in mind the other extreme, where children are so self-confident that they seem to think the school ‘owes them one’. I see a lot of that. Unfortunately, the customer-is-always-right mentality does not help – either with general attitude, or the way in which they approach their lessons.

  2. I reflected on my childhood and remembered that in primary we went into our classroom and were visitors in other classes. At secondary schools we had a form room, but went into a teacher’s classroom in our school. I had forgotten the silent ownership and classroom lines of respect we had.

    I understand the second part of your response – I wondered if it was the result of a current imbalance you were experiencing. Interesting times when people forget that rights come with responsibilities.

    School culture is determined by HT/SLT. I think they are letting down both the staff and the children if a culture based on respect, integrity and hard work is not fostered.

    • ‘The respect we had’ I think sums it up. I believe that you can’t really learn much at all if you don’t have the humility to respect the places and people who personify learning. I’m afraid that recent attitudes both in education and more widely have eroded that.

      Yes, I am thinking of a specific imbalance, which it would be better not to discuss in detail in public. Suffice it to say that some child-centred policies are misguidedly indulgent in this respect. They can end up making it harder for us to help children, and also erode adults’ esteem and reasonable status within schools in the process.

      I think there can be few schools that do not *espouse* the values you mentioned – but talking about them is one thing and creating a school that really does live by them day in day out is something else entirely.

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