The Elephant in the Room

Standing in the way of development

This is a really exciting time in teacher development. Over the last few years there has been an explosion in people taking a proactive approach to their own development, attending weekend and evening events, reading copious books on teaching and learning, of which there are many, many more than say a decade ago, and generally talking about getting better. Even in the first lockdown when the world around us seemed to be imploding, teachers were turning up in their droves to watch ResearchEd events and to create their own CPD opportunities. The Dylan Wiliam maxim ‘every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better’ seems to have really taken off and social media is filled with teachers exploring better ways to do things for their students, often getting quite heated in the process. The Early Career Framework has baked in opportunities for new teachers to grow their expertise and be supported in an even more meaningful way to improve and build on what they have already learnt.

However, and I have really thought hard about writing this, however, what about those teachers who don’t want to improve? What about those who think their good enough really is good enough? What about those who just don’t know where to begin when you talk about improvements?

Don’t get me wrong here, this is not a blog denigrating teachers in any way. I genuinely believe teachers are great and I adore working within a profession where so many people are incredibly dedicated to doing and being the best they can be. Teachers often go above and beyond and many, rightly or wrongly, live and breath their work (I say horses for courses or whichever way round you want it). Many of our colleagues think deeply about their subject, their practices and the individuals who make up their classes. Before they have even stepped into the classroom to deliver, that is a fulltime job in itself.

Yet we can run the risk of thinking everything is hunky dory, and everyone exists in the same instructional coaching, podcast listening world we live in. They don’t. And sadly we can’t just ignore the fact there are teachers who really, really, really need to improve rapidly, for the sakes of their students, their colleagues and themselves. That is quite a difficult thing to confront, both as a fellow teachers and leaders too. We all want people to really embrace improvements and do the right thing. Afterall, most of us share the same moral purpose and values when we decide to work in education and even when we might have differing opinions, we often identify with each other as a group, something frequently seen when the scrutinous eye of the media or the DFE turn our way.

Yet there are still those who will continue to push back against the idea of improvement and we shouldn’t ignore that reality.

I am excluding from this picture those who can’t develop due to issues such as unreasonable demands leading to lack of time to reflect, lack of support, lack of direction and a general culture which works against anybody making progress in their working lives. Scratch the twitter surface and you will find those places do still exist and teachers who are spending every moment trying to deal with issues of behaviour and safeguarding, whilst balancing triple marking requirements and writing lengthy lesson plans, are not going to be in a position to do anything other than survive. Why would they even want to spend any time thinking beyond what they next day or even lesson will bring?

But what about those who don’t see that need to develop? What then?

Maybe this is where we need that radical candour Kim Scott talks about, showing that we can both care about the individual whilst at the same time addressing the issues which underperformance, or a desire to resist change, can lead to. We need to have the right relationships for that to happen effectively and simply telling someone to do better really won’t cut it. I can recall hearing Andy Buck modelling how we might conduct difficult conversations by being as specific as possible about the area we needed to address and the professional and personal impact of this. So, for example, ‘The assessment wasn’t marked for the year 8 group. This means that the next unit won’t be quite so clearly focused on what they needed as their next steps. This does make me sad as it means we won’t be able to build on what they need to relearn or identify where misconceptions are being embedded. What can we do about this?’ All of this is framed within the parameters of student learning, drawing on the shared purpose, but there is also the idea of professional expectations and a personal connection. I am sure Andy, or indeed Kim, would be able to give a million best examples, but ultimately what I am trying to say is when someone isn’t doing something which is going to mean better outcomes in some way, we do need to address it as not everyone is able to address it themselves. We need to be specific.

Adam Boxer’s excellent blog around the idea of ‘the power of by’ shows how we can develop feedback which is clear, specific, but most importantly useful. Vague comments around pace or issues with questioning do few favours to anyone and I am yet to see someone take those and actually make meaningful change. It needs support and structure. However, we also need people to want to make that change and whilst the clarity of explanation here offers an opportunity to understand the impact of these adjustments, what of those who just don’t want to listen?

I see the same regarding coaching. I think coaching is a wonderful tool and when you have created an environment where everyone reflects, explores, reflects some more and then supports each other in their next steps, it is amazing. However, sometimes when you are coming from a different environment it can sound like you have wandered into one of those sci fi films where everyone wears white and smiles at each other with a sage-like nod of the head as they meet. Not every school is even close to building the right environment yet, and whilst it is wonderful to have this aim (and I really genuinely mean that and am not mocking) there are some schools where we may as well be comparing the domain of the Elois to that of the Morlocks and expect one to emulate the other. Assuming everyone will fit into this way of working and they can set their own targets, write their own feedback and reflect on their own developments clearly can be a long way from the reality. Not everyone has the tools to do this. In fact, even when handed them some may be keen to throw the tools out of the window. Or bury them. Or bend them. Or bury them, bend them, set them on fire and then throw them out of the window. Coaching is not going to necessarily be for them, so we need another approach. Maybe that is about returning to that direct focus on accountability?

I know that I have always held myself to a much higher account than my leaders would.  I constantly reflect, sometimes dwelling too long on the areas where I find myself wanting, and need a leader who can help me to frame that in a positive and focused way (a little tip for any of my current leaders reading). However, I have encountered some teachers who don’t want to reflect. They don’t see the value of thinking deeply about their work. They want to be told what to do and then just get on and do it. I can understand that too, and we don’t need a three-hour meeting to explore the rights and wrongs of how to do a fire-drill or why we need to take a register. However, it we want a profession which puts the teacher professional at the fore, that ensures people want to continue in the job and where people aren’t being micromanaged, this approach isn’t good enough. You do need to think deeply. You do need to want to do more, not in terms of hours or in terms of producing more, but in terms of ensuring what you pour your energies in to will make a difference. If someone isn’t interested in that then we need to ask some probing questions which they may not always like the answer to.

Finally, there are those who simply have not been developed in their time of teaching. They have done the same things for the last ten years, have never been questioned or challenged on any of it and were never supported to reflect. They may not understand why any of it matters, but they need to be given the opportunity to explore. That may be nearly as uncomfortable as dealing with those who simply don’t want to make changes for other reasons. It means suggesting there may be a better way to people who have only ever done it like this. It means suggesting that perhaps they need to make changes which they might not understand, let alone value. It will expose gaps not only in their own practice, but in their understanding. Some people are very open to that, but to say it is confronting would be an understatement. When you are suddenly surrounded with people talking about the science of learning or name dropping the latest book or research paper into the conversation that can be difficult to come to terms with. That kind of realisation may be quite shocking but the change that follows may also need to be a slow process. They will need time to be given some of the information, enough to tantalise and make it seem like a path they want to follow, but without feeling overwhelmed by the plethora or information out there, some of which is also conflicting. With these people though, simply telling them to reflect or set up some coaching won’t be particularly helpful. It will need small steps and regular and careful reinforcement. There should be similar opportunities to check misconceptions and redirect we would use with students. This will take work and investment of a similar level to what should be on offer to trainees and early career teachers. That is not an easy ask of a leader or a colleague and not an easy ask of the individual. It needs as much careful consideration to do well so we need to understand that commitment.

Like I said before this is a time where the profession feels like it is growing and developing like nothing before. There are CPD sessions going on as I write this on a Saturday morning with hundreds of teachers in attendance. There are others teasing out the nuances of pedagogy and knowledge on twitter threads. There are plenty more who are planning lessons in their heads as they walk to the shops or go for a morning run. However, we need to consider the others. There is no obligation for people to be doing all of those things listed on a Saturday morning of course, but there is an obligation for all to develop and ensure they are giving the best opportunities to our young people. We need to create the right opportunities for this and direct those who need it. Forgetting about those who don’t want to or can’t might leave us with more elephants in the room than we might like to admit.

Zoe Enser is the lead specialist English advisor for Kent schools with The Education People and an ELE working with the EEF. Her second book, The CPD Curriculum: Creating Conditions for Growth, is available for pre-order now.

One thought on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. Pingback: Getting better all the time – Matthew Evans

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