Summaries and overviews of last week’s #TLAB15 can be found by @nikable here and @thosethatcan here. Both posts offer an excellent overall impression of the day, and so I will not post something similar here. Instead, I’m blogging about just a few thoughts that followed the two leadership workshops I attended at #TLAB15: the leadership panel of Heads and Principals in discussion, and @tomboulter’s session on “Re-culturing” a school from the perspective of a Deputy Head (the slides from Tom’s session can be found here). Both sessions were extremely good, they were scheduled back-to-back, and they took me through from mid-morning to lunch during which time any themes that emerged in my own mind came out of the two sessions cumulatively, and so that is how I will present things here. I could quite easily have written about half a dozen further areas because so much of what was said set my mind off, but have focused on just a couple of overlapping strands. Apologies to the speakers if any of my interpretations are inaccurate and do not reflect your intent – this is my take on a few of the notes that I made while you were talking.
In response to the question, “What is the most important aspect of leadership?”, @stephenperse sensibly said that, “You have to have a shared vision of education. Education has to be about values that are shared in the community. Not come from the Head but come from staff over a number of years”. This was very similar to @headguruteacher’s reply that, “You need to understand the community that you are part of, the context of that community. See yourself as serving that community.” It’s not hard to like and support these sentiments, although in truth they haven’t been explicitly addressed and put into practice successfully in many of the schools where I have worked.
This idea of striving to understand your community, of getting to know the actual lived culture and daily experience of teachers as opposed to what is written down somewhere, and of then responding to the needs of that actual experience, was also addressed by @tomboulter. In Tom’s school they asked teachers what they each thought this day-to-day experience was like, typed up responses before trying to make sense of it, and found, unsurprisingly, that the highest frequency word was “time”, as in not enough. Learning from this, Tom and his colleagues devised just three principles for professional learning. Just as importantly though, they then consciously aimed to respect teacher capacity, to ignore stuff, to narrow the lens, and to restrict focus.
In each of the four schools that I have worked in there has never been enough time, and I doubt that there is a school in the country where this is the case. There are quite possibly very good and/or inevitable reasons for a large amount of the term-time intensity and pressure we all experience. For the majority of my teaching career, my responses to colleagues’ concerns about time have included thoughts such as:
- teaching is a vocation; we don’t enter the profession for a 9 to 5
- unlike many other dedicated employees we enjoy very good holidays and so we should work extremely hard in term time; it balances itself out over the course of a year
- falling over the finish line at the end of each term means you have paced yourself well (not my best thought, I know)
- if we are really serious about wanting term time to be less intense then we should either have fewer holidays and longer terms, or more time in school after the students break up to set ourselves up for the next term
Understandably, such thoughts have not have always been popular with some of my colleagues. I get that. I should add that I am aware of and agree with more enlightened views too: @headguruteacher has written very well about workload here and Keven Bartle about how SLT can best support people here. As @KerryPulleyn has rightly reminded me, if teachers don’t have time to do the basics properly then there’s a problem. But I would be lying to claim that I have not held and expressed thoughts such as those listed above while an NQT, class teacher, and Head of Department. It is as a member of SLT for the past three years that I have been less inclined to state them. I do still think that there is something of merit behind this line of thinking, but I have become increasingly aware in recent years of the extent to which the intensity of our working lives can take its toll on the most dedicated and hard-working of teachers. It was after hearing Tom’s talk in particular last week that I remembered and returned to something a teacher told me in my first year in my current post: that I should not underestimate the power I have to help or hinder teachers in real ways, and most importantly by extension, to help or hinder learners, through my part in the decision-making process of a school.
Respecting the capacity of teachers was a great phrase that Tom used and which has stayed with me all of this week. Part of my responsibility as a member of SLT is to best help the students by shielding staff from being spread too thin. In every school I have known, including my current one, teachers are pulled in many directions: dedicated form tutor, committed House tutor, leader of co-curricular activities, class teacher with seven or more classes a week to prepare for, mark, assess, prepare for, mark, etc. Schools need to decide what to focus on and what to ignore, what they are about and most value and what has less priority for them, rather than trying to be all things to people and expecting nothing to give. Making certain decisions to prevent teachers being pulled so strongly in too many directions will, perhaps paradoxically, be unpopular with some of the busiest teachers because they greatly value their role with House activities, their co-curricular work, etc. But there is a quality/quantity tension in many schools and we cannot serve all masters. Governors, headteachers, senior leadership teams, middle leaders and class teachers should all always be mindful of this. Education has to be about values that are shared in the community, everybody in a school community has an important part to play in devising a school ethos, and no vocal minority should overly dominate in the setting of the school’s strategic direction.
I am not a Headteacher and I do not lead on deciding a whole-school culture. But in my current role I am responsible for overseeing the learning and teaching at my school, and in Tom’s talk he stated a simple but nonetheless valid set of views that I have become increasingly conscious of over time: however well-intentioned they are, if initiatives to improve learning are too diffuse then there is less likelihood of there being coherence; asking teachers to look at too much stuff restricts the quality of improvements that will take place. I need to play my part in ensuring that at my school we narrow the lens and consciously restrict the focus. I will be serving my community and our students more successfully if I can help us together to better understand the few things that we agree will make the most difference to improving learning. #TLAB15 was an excellent, inspiring conference, really well curated by @nickdennis and the team, and an undoubted success in its aim of stimulating thinking that one hopes can lead to useful change in schools.