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Book review: The Teacher Gap

‘I will be a better teacher and leader for reading this book’, writes one secondary teacher

Book review: The Teacher Gap

‘I will be a better teacher and leader for reading this book’, writes one secondary teacher

The Teacher Gap

Authors: Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims

Publisher: Routledge

Details: 166pp, £14.99, paperback

ISBN: 9781138730892

The Teacher Gap is such an exciting book. I read it as a fellow writer, as someone with a professional doctorate, but primarily as a teacher and middle leader. I read it with shouts of triumphant recognition (empirical evidence that “trust” is the key) and with lightbulb moments (it was because of the lack of a “shoulder to cry on” that I struggled in my first placement). There were also moments of prolonged reflection (the mismatch between the support leaders believe they offer new teachers and the support new teachers believe they receive has given me pause for thought as a mentor).

There is a sense of meaningful and valuable collaboration between school leaders, policymakers and the authors. This book, and the treasure trove of research materials and references within it, offers some serious clout.

As an “insider” teacher-researcher, I’m all too aware that we can be in our own bubble and draw conclusions based on experience and instinct. The Teacher Gap offers some meaty research to render viable the truisms we know about teaching as well as challenge my thinking, sometimes uncomfortably.

While the book is clearly the work of formidable brains, it is very readable and there is a sense that the authors share the determination and moral purpose around improving children’s life chances epitomised by the best leaders I’ve worked with.

The “teacher gap”, we are told, is threefold: there is a disparity between what we know about the importance of teachers and how we treat them; there is a difference between the number of teachers we have and the number we need; and there is a difference between the quality of teachers we have and the quality of teachers we want.

There is a fascinating comparison with the medical profession, exposing the folly of “front-loaded teacher training”. Here, we encounter the first of many metaphors that made my heart sing – “learning to cha-cha on a ship full of mouldy fruit”.

I found the case studies of two former teachers now working in the City upsetting. The loss of teachers because of bad experiences (lack of feedback, isolation and ridiculously arduous paperwork) makes me gnash and wail. Oh, the waste of resources, money, time and potential. And take these figures as a punch in the guts: “Around one in every 10 who enter training each year fail to qualify, a further 10th enter alternative professions after qualification and half as many again decide to teach in private schools. By the end of the first year in the classroom, only two-thirds of the original cohort are left.”

Just as we start to lose hope, there’s a beautiful reference to the Cadbury model, which focuses on professionals’ wellbeing, and the nearby University of Cambridge Primary School, which provides teachers with enrichment, and meaningful and regular training and development.

We hear how supposedly “good” and “outstanding” schools get through new teachers “like sausage machines, effectively grinding the fresh meat from teaching training programmes into a gristly past”.

The “funnel plot” model, which allows for an analysis of teacher turnover at school level, offers a genuinely exciting way forward in terms of holding these schools to account. I did find myself thinking that classifying teachers as “lemons” and “peaches”, while useful as a conceptual model, grates slightly with the growth-mindset approach – I have seen lemons turn to peaches and vice versa.

Drawing on a fascinating model external to teaching (violinists), there is a look at teacher development and the consensus that “deliberate practice is a key component of how people acquire expertise”. The discussion of the difference between pupil performance and genuine learning is fascinating, as is the data from the Gates Foundation on the disparity between teacher-observers’ judgement of lesson quality.

I didn’t expect the chapter on teacher workload to contain surprises, having researched the area myself, but I was struck by the descriptions of how brainwashed school leaders have become and the bad habits to which we have succumbed. A new model of teacher training is suggested that holds schools to account for quality training and mentoring, and emphasises meaningful and progressive practice and feedback.

The book begins and ends with Professor Rob Coe’s assessment that “standards have not risen; teaching has not improved”, a bleakness that has not been my own 20-year experience. I would have welcomed a little more emphasis on the great practice out there.

Overall, though, I will be a better teacher and leader for reading this book, which fired me up and equipped me with strategies to bring this wealth of evidence to my own professional role, sure in the knowledge that it can only help to bridge the gap.

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets @thosethatcan

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