This is the true story of two teachers: Mr B and Mrs C. At a parents’ meeting one Friday, Mrs C told a boy’s mother that her son “was simply not university material” and that he should consider dropping out of sixth form. The mother was dismayed by this (she had always thought her son was pretty bright) and next visited Mr B. He said that her son was, in fact, pretty bright, and that the sky was the limit for him. Mr B said that the boy should definitely go to university. The mother left the meeting a little confused.
That boy was me. At the risk of boasting, Mr B was right: I did go to university, and eventually got a PhD in English literature. How could two teachers have such different views of the same boy? If teaching is the constant interplay of light and shade, between success and failure, why did one teacher see only the dark and another teacher only the light? How did Mr B inspire something in me when Mrs C did not? To put it another way, why can some teachers – and some schools – lose sight of something as fundamental as the ability, the desire, to inspire greatness in their pupils?
Of course, no teacher deliberately inhibits aspiration and success. But it can happen, and if it happens to a lot of teachers in one school then that place becomes a barrier to pupils’ achievement. Changing the culture in such schools is extremely difficult and can take years, so recognising why it might occur is a critical stage in school improvement.
Running to stand still
One reason is that many teachers don’t improve after their first three years of teaching; instead, they quickly learn to meet expectations for each term, often reusing resources, teaching a narrow range of topics and responding to similar situations in the same way.
Of course, this is understandable when schools don’t require teachers to do anything differently, especially if their results remain mostly in line with agreed examination targets. Furthermore, in a highly prescriptive curriculum such as ours, the opportunity to innovate and cover topics that aren’t going to be assessed is rare, so many teachers feel forced to “teach to the test”. In such conditions, inspiration can get squeezed out in the race simply to “get through stuff’”.
We must also admit that, as a profession, many teachers do not spend enough time reflecting on their craft: in other words, we don’t explore what works and why in enough depth. Professional development usually happens at the start of each term in a “one-size-fits-all’ approach that benefits only the minority. It usually addresses prosaic (albeit important) matters such as regulatory requirements, but it rarely asks teachers to discuss what inspirational teaching looks like and how can it be emulated.
Caught in the talent trap
There are other factors, too: by the third year of teaching, good and ambitious teachers start being given additional responsibilities that take up more time. This in turn results in them spending less time on planning inspirational lessons and activities. It is one of the lasting ironies of teaching that the really brilliant teachers quickly get promoted to senior positions, which leads to their teaching less.
There are many inspirational teachers who are now headteachers who rarely, if ever, stand in front a class talking passionately about their subject. I can’t think of many other professions that reward people by removing them from what they do best; such talent should be fostered and stay rooted in teaching.
All this can contribute to a divided school culture in which those who are trying to develop an appetite to learn in their pupils have seen that very quality blunted in themselves by lack of time or, ironically, by success.
Those new to the profession learn quite quickly that schools very rarely measure the quality of teaching and learning except through public examination results. The reality is that most schools do not expect meaningful professional development, nor do they link it to student learning. Making that link more explicit – through appraisal, for example – would mark a change in priorities for that school.
Breaking out of teaching silos
And schools have to learn to share good practice much more. As a school inspector I can visit one school and see inspirational teaching taking place next door to another where teaching is mediocre and uninspiring. And, after I have talked to both, it is no surprise to hear that they are often unaware of what their colleagues are doing.
This “siloed” approach to teaching is perhaps another result of a time-impoverished profession that too often focuses on immediate challenges (such as the next lesson, or next report) rather than long-term ambitions. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Mr B had explained to Mrs C why he could see so much promise in me, and I’m idealistic enough to think that, particularly in teaching, positivity usually triumphs over negativity: the light extinguishes the dark.
Changing a school culture so that inspiration is openly celebrated and greatness is seen as something that all pupils and teachers are capable of achieving requires a clear vision by senior leaders. The clutter that gets in the way of outstanding teaching - unnecessary meetings and layers of bureaucracy, to name just two - needs to be swept away so that teachers have the space to focus on what really matters.
Genius – among staff and pupils – can survive (and indeed flourish) in the most difficult conditions, but why make it unnecessarily difficult?
Dr David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School in Dorset