It’s not me, it’s you
It’s been a tough week when deciding what to blog about. Steve Brown posted an interesting question about whether or not we are too nice for our students. @pterolaur retweeted a great article from my distant cousin The Secret Teacher, yearning for the days of more professional autonomy. I’m going to merge it all together and ask the question: am I too nice to my teachers? Are there limits to professional autonomy?
In my experience, some teachers seem to have become deskilled to the point of wanting everything done for them. At the start of term, they often expect to be given schemes of work; they want to be told the level that the students are at; they want to know which books they will be using in order to deliver the scheme of work; they want to know the format of the exam that they are going to prepare the students for; they want to know the criteria that they will use to grade the students. And as I type it out, I am imagining a readership which is asking itself, “And? What’s wrong with all of that? They should be told these things and more.”
Instead of teacher autonomy, I think in terms of professional judgement. The teacher is employed to know their students and to know what best suits them. The last thing that they need is a manager who comes in and tells them what they must do, how they must do it and with what tools. That may be the last thing that they need, but in my experience, it is often the first thing they want.
And that’s fine. The only problem is that I disagree with them. Probably entirely. Or possibly not; I would like to propose one simple amendment. As far as I am concerned, teachers should be asking themselves these questions. What scheme of work will I need to deliver the syllabus? What level are the students I have who are sat in front of me? What books (or other materials) can I use that will help me deliver the scheme of work that I have devised? What type of assessment will I use to help me determine if students are learning? What criteria will I use to determine if they are achieving?
As DoS, my job is not to answer the questions; it’s to oversee the quality of the teachers’ answers to these questions. To find the answers, the teachers are expected to exercise a lot of professional judgement. In my world, the teachers need to meet their students and to determine quickly enough what level of our syllabus is best suited to the needs of the class. They are expected to source materials that will help them manage student progress and they are expected to be able to devise activities that will provide feedback both for themselves and for the students about how effective this progress actually is. They are given full autonomy to decide levels, books, materials, activities, tests, feedback mechanisms etc.
I think some teachers hate it. They want certainty, not uncertainty. They want decisions made for them, not to have to make the decisions. They want the responsibility to be someone else’s, not theirs. Being told that you are the master of your own destiny is all well and good, but what if you don’t feel capable of taking up the reins? With some trepidation I type: Well, in that case, you need to ask yourself if you should be accepting the thirty thousand pounds a year for doing just that. It might not be a great wage, but it is a fairly professional wage. The amount of personal freedom that is on offer is commensurate with the expectations that you should be working as a professional. You are not a guileless apprentice who is learning the ropes. You are expected to be able to rise to the challenge. Just do it!
But you won’t be alone. The structure that I provide is one that allows teachers to come and ask for help whenever they feel they need it. There are developmental opportunities aplenty. You don’t need to look to see if my door is open: there is no bloody door! Peer observation is given official support to the point that a manager will actually come and teach your class if you want to go and watch one of your colleagues teaching. We buy pretty much any material that teachers request. In short, anything you want, you got it. Anything you need, you got it. Anything at all, you got it. Bayyyyyyyyyyyyyy-beeeeeeeeeeeeee.
You see, I wanted to write a post today about how I am constantly building a narrative around myself that finds faults in others and never myself. I wanted to write some sort of duplicitous mea culpa whereby I could show you all how sensitive I was and how I I am sufficiently self-aware to know that I must be doing something wrong. I wanted to leave you with the image of a flawed hero whose redemption could be found in my own ability to publicly recognise my shortcomings. The only problem is that I think that the teachers who work on my team are bloody lucky and yet some of them don’t know the half of it; I think I am the kind of manager that I would be happy to work for. I think I am the kind of manager that others should be happy to work for. I am clearly deluded.
So, here’s the deal: you are offered £30K a year and expected to teach for around twenty hours a week over around forty weeks a year. You are given a syllabus that is supposed to guide you in your work. You are expected to accept the quality assurance tools that are in place (teacher observation, student evaluation, monthly progress reports to be written by the teachers). Outside of your teaching you are free to come and go as you please with the only condition that the work must be done. You are expected to work to standards that are communicated clearly to you. You are provided with a supportive framework that means that your managers will not rush to judge you if you fall short, but will begin with the assumption that you are capable of managing your own action plan to improve. If it later becomes clear that you are not capable of doing this, then help will be provided. Everything else is left up to you: you are expected to do all the planning, sourcing of materials, evaluations of progress, determination of levels, means of assessment, guidance of students, selection of activities etc. And you are expected to take full responsibility for your own actions: you are not allowed to whine about anything unless you can show that you have tried to resolve your problems and been stymied by the organisation or by your managers. If you are failing, it is your problem and your responsibility. You determine what needs to be done – my role is to be on hand to help you in your efforts to do this. I set the standards and hold you to them. You do whatever needs to be done to meet these standards or to exceed them. I offer a critical eye, a supportive hand, and an ass-kicking foot. You need to provide the brain that coordinates feedback received from these appendages.
So, whadda you think, punk? Would you sign on the dotted line?