'The idea that heads must teach damages the profession and demeans the roles of both teacher and headteacher'

This is not about heads being able to teach a class and understand a teacher's modern day struggles, it's about the lack of trust within our profession, writes one leading headteacher

Brian Walton

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In Esme Lyon's (pseudonym) very well-written article for the Tes this week, she wrote that: "Giving up teaching to take up headship is senseless." She asserted that there is a "black hole of hypocrisy" within the profession whereby the higher you climb the school hierarchy, the less you are at the chalk face.

"It matters because many of the unique challenges of teaching are only truly comprehensible when you’re experiencing them on a day-to-day basis," wrote Lyon. "The idea that, as long as you’ve done a few years in the classroom you are qualified to make decisions about what will and won’t work within it, is ludicrous when you think about it."

I disagree with this.

In fact, I worry that many of the barriers that we build within our profession are born of views that show little understanding of the roles we all play within our schools.

It fuels the "Them and Us" debate and reassures the "Damn the SLT" brigade. Yet I am the first to give leadership a hard time and I have done that for the Tes in the past; I do it to myself almost daily, but over 20 years "at the chalk face" has taught me much.

The attitude that heads must still be teachers – their swords sharp – that "those who can teach" does great damage to the profession and demeans both the role of teacher and headteacher.

Teaching, done well, is a craft that takes great skill and knowledge, as well as time – as does headship.

I feel that the idea that a headteacher can just rock up to the classroom once a week and show everyone what it's all about does an injustice to the art of the teacher.

I once employed an ex-headteacher who had fallen on difficult times. I know they would be the first to say how long it took them to get back to being a "teacher". 

Teaching takes time; it's about knowing your class, understanding the multitude of complexities that you have to overcome to ensure the knowledge those children need. The skills it will take for them to embed and run with this knowledge are not some sort of magician's or corny reality show trick.

This is before we even take the relationships and social aspects of teaching them into account. I think it is a backwards leap in the way we view teaching today.

"Yeah, I taught Year 4 this week... proper job!"

I generally don't know how anyone could really gain much from this. Planning a lesson, resourcing it and having the skill to pitch it right and then reflect, mark it and make predictions about what happens next. This cannot be watered down as some sort of experiment to prove a point

"Yeah, I can still do it!"

Heads getting back in the classroom from time to time will never fully understand this – if anything, you could end up with the “…and I taught Year 4, Year 5 and Year 6 this week!” attitude.

Teaching is highly skilled and the idea that a good head is someone who must be able to do this to run an effective school is wrong.

If I do it in Year 6, well, what about Year 1? What about early years and nursery? What about specialist? Come on! You need to show us you understand!

I cannot name you many teachers who could teach well across all of these areas; therefore, you'll get a substandard teacher at best (a dodgy, and in my case, dishevelled supply turning up late, looking stressed and worn-out). 

I remember my headteacher taking my class and being utterly shocked (and disappointed) with the results. I quickly realised that he was not as good as me at teaching my class. This was not a good feeling for a wide-eyed teacher in their third year. It lessened him in my eyes.

I do see the arguments about why a head should teach.

That by teaching we will hopefully understand the "teaching idiosyncrasies" and through doing this have a better understanding of how to make the job manageable. Again, I was a little shocked that the article quoted teachers' work demands as being different to those of a headteacher.

My job is to empower my teachers

“If you can’t remember what it’s like to have your performance judged against factors beyond your control…”  

I don't know any headteacher who could have forgotten this. I regularly look at the Year 2 data I inherited when I became headteacher and think, "That’s my job, right there."  I read those Ofsted reports that begin with: “Leaders have not…”

My teachers' problems are my problems, and although I no longer have the same skills as they do in the classroom, I am the school leader. It is written right there in my job description, and the community expects me to lead.

My problems are different but are they less important in the grand scheme of the school?

I would never ask my teachers to write a business proposal for taking on a catering contract (children need to eat), work out how to cope with the cuts in the budget, be ultimately accountable for standards, safeguarding, health and safety or wellbeing, and so on. 

They are my teachers and they are the experts when it comes to teaching and learning in their classrooms. I don’t have to be because I am surrounded by great teachers who understand the EYFS, specialist provision, key stage 1 and key stage 2; teachers who understand their curriculum and its many objectives across many subjects. They are the professional teachers.

My job is to empower those teachers, although I agree that this means I have to think in a particular way.

I once had a 360 done at my school; it is a scary experience, but one quote stuck with me and I keep it close to me at all times.

"Brian has never forgotten what it is like to be a teacher, or a child, in the classroom."

This is how the headteacher should lead their school. Not by pretending we are still teachers, nor that we have the skill, time or ability to be as good as the teachers we support.

I know, having watched hundreds of lessons from babies’ early communication to a head of PE teaching Year 10 tennis, that I am a set of experienced eyes and ears with an inquisitive mind when observing. I have not taught a class properly for over 10 years now but I believe I can understand each and every teacher in my school.

I know the problems we are trying to overcome (in the widest of contexts) – I have the bigger picture flickering away in my mind. I know the worries, stresses and strains they all have because I listen to them (and feel that they believe they can tell me). I see what is going on and I reflect on what it means to us.

This is my role. It is different to a class teacher's, and I went in to it willingly.

A lack of trust

However, it was the final paragraph in Lyon's article that really got my attention: "The derision that greeted the old Tory party slogan 'we are all in this together' came about because it patently wasn’t the case. Surely in schools, we can be better than that.”

This sent a chill down my spine. That, and the fact that I know it’s true, there are teachers out there who are working with senior leaders whom they believe are not in it with them.

This is not about heads being able to teach a class and understand the modern day struggles of a teacher. Nor that school leaders can remember what it's like to do the most important jobs in the school – teach children and keep them safe.

This is about trust, or the lack of it, within our profession. This is about how far removed the role of headteacher has become from what it once was.

It is clear that many teachers want their heads to "prove it" in the classroom without really thinking about what it is their head does do.

I think this lack of trust comes about because some school leaders genuinely think they are good teachers able to deliver advice while deaf to the real issues facing teachers who have to do it every day: heads who ask for the impossible as though they could do it, given the time.  

It is about the pressure on school leaders to deliver progress and results at the cost of integrity and a deeper understanding of child development.

It is the "business world" attitude of many schools now – because this is what has changed more than anything in recent times. It has created the gap between the word head and teacher.

Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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