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Meet Terry and John: the teacher forced out of the classroom and the head of department responsible

All too often, middle leaders are forced to play a hand in pushing out the staff they promise to support – we need to end this toxic culture in schools, writes one head of department

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All too often, middle leaders are forced to play a hand in pushing out the staff they promise to support – we need to end this toxic culture in schools, writes one head of department

“But he’s got kids and a family,” said John’s wife, as they sat in front of the TV one night. “Yes, but he’s not good enough,” replied John. “Who says?” she asked. John carried on staring at the TV screen, pretending he couldn’t hear. 

John had decided to be part of a process that would potentially end someone’s career.

John had started as a head of department in a high performing academy in the South of England that September. The first item in his in-tray was the “under-performing teacher in your department”. He was told of disengaged kids, a teacher who put in little effort and above all, got poor results. John, despite a flickering of moral hesitation deep down inside, embraced this narrative from leaders whom he believed were professionally superior to him because they carried walkie-talkies and wore shinier suits.

When he first met Terry, he thought: that’s a nice guy. Everyone agreed, Terry was an affable and pleasant man. But John, according to the mantras he had swallowed wholeheartedly, knew this mattered for nothing – cold, hard results in education were what mattered.

“We want you to observe Terry, as much as you can,” John was told by his line manager. “We want you to collect as much evidence about Terry’s lack of ability as possible. Minute everything,” he was instructed. He was shown the stockpile that had already been collected, an impressively formatted collection of observation, learning walk proformas, minutes of meetings, everything that Terry had done and not done in his professional life. John looked at it and felt a twinge of discomfort, but, he thought: “This is what leaders do – they don’t tolerate underperformance and they eliminate the weak.” John was innately a sensitive soul, someone who cared deeply about others, but the climate seemed to convince him that this wasn’t what he needed to be, especially when it came to Terry.

When John went to observe Terry, he noticed something. Terry had good subject knowledge – really good. Terry planned his lessons well. Terry’s classroom was not the chaos personified that he was expecting: there were no children hanging out of windows or swearing at him point blank. But he was told by his bosses that this was all because the kids were tolerating him as their teacher. In another context, Terry would flounder. John thought they must be right, and buried under an already massive pile of work, didn’t give it much more thought. But by doing so, John had become a cog in the machine that would damage Terry’s life and put his career at risk.

John was pressurised into not giving a grade above "requires improvement" in one-off lesson observation reports. John, although an intelligent young man, seemed to be under a spell. But the unease he felt ran deep – so deep that, at times, Terry was all he ever thought about.

Each morning, he would go into Terry’s room and ask him how things were going before writing another report slamming his practice, which would then be pasted into some carefully choreographed Excel document.

In a quiet moment, after all the kids had gone home, John gazed out of the window and wondered what the hell he had become.

One morning, Terry’s union rep came to visit. She walked straight past John with a face of thunder. John, being a pleasant guy, went to introduce himself and before he could get the words out, the rep replied: “Oh, I know who you are.” There was a silence. John knew, at that moment, that Terry was aware of what he’d been doing. Terry had become aware that he wasn’t being supported by the one person who should have had his back.

John tried to quell the feeling of guilt by drinking himself silly that evening. It worked. Because by the following Monday, he’d decided not to challenge his bosses. He never put his foot down.

John, at this stage in his career, was unaware of a number of points that his bosses were either unaware of themselves or more likely concealing from him. One being that the progress data that they were hinging Terry’s underperformance on was completely flawed. Its foundation in key stage 2 scores was as shaky as a bouncy castle. John was unaware that there was no best way to teach all the time, so when he was observing Terry, he did so with his own biases in mind. Far too often, he was asking: "What would I do?", partly due to youthful arrogance and partly because he knew he was a good teacher – so why couldn’t Terry just be like he was? John didn’t have time to sit down and read the research, or lack thereof, to rubbish his entire philosophy.

Pure ambition was driving John. He had developed an unhealthy mentality without even realising it, damaged by the toxic culture he was surrounded by.

One day, in spring, Terry announced that he’d found a new job. He’d interviewed and got it. John had helped him with his interview lesson. Behind closed doors, the senior leadership team were exuberant. They’d got rid of the man they wanted. It was over. And Terry still had a job, albeit somewhere else.

But, while they were already moving on, Terry and John would be permanently damaged, in markedly different ways.

Terry’s marriage had collapsed on the road to capability. His health had been affected. Nevertheless, in his new job, he was finding some solace. The traces of the teacher he once was were re-emerging, albeit minus the sparkle and confidence that he had once had. His new school would know only what Terry had become and not what he was. They’d probably be shocked if they found out. They are going to support Terry. He might still leave teaching, but it won’t be because of them.

John has started a new job as assistant headteacher responsible for teaching and learning in a large and outwardly successful super-school that prides itself on saving the disadvantaged.

One morning, he calls Lynda, his newly appointed head of geography, into his office. She is a bundle of energy, an enthusiastic fire-cracker of a teacher. She’s going places. She’s also mighty impressionable after only a couple of years in the classroom before an early promotion to middle leadership.

“There is a member of your department who is underperforming,” John says. Lynda’s expression turns anxious. After some hesitation, she asks: “What would you have me do?” John decides to “opt in” to the system again. This time, he won’t tell his wife – it's easier she doesn’t know. He's going to hate himself for it in the end, but he's already so far up the chain that he doesn’t want to fall off now. John tells himself that this is a part of the game. Now, it will start all over again. And, once more, everyone involved is going to lose something, whether it be dignity, self-respect or a job.

I’ve known too many Johns. I’ve known too many Terrys. And I’ve known too many Lyndas.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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