In one of the best ever books about teaching, The Hidden Lives of Learners, Professor Graham Nuthall peels back the layers of technique that great teachers use, telling us that at the heart of their work is "adaptation".
Teaching is about adjusting to the here-and-now of particular students. Things that work one day may not work the next. What can be done quickly with one group has to be taken very slowly with another group. What one student finds easy to understand may confuse another student. In order to navigate the complexity of the circumstances in which the teacher works, it is not possible just to follow a recipe. As a teacher, you must make adaptations.
If ever we had a dissection of the art of great teaching, real teaching, it is here, in this glorious reminder that teachers are engaged in something profound, complex and not prone to shortcuts or quick fixes.
That’s why we should welcome the government’s commitment to developing a long-awaited teacher career strategy; a plan that begins with a stronger, more robust emphasis on initial teacher induction and then explores the training requirements a teacher might need as their career unfolds. It’s why we should welcome a commitment to a small-scale experiment around teacher sabbaticals.
The benefits of teacher sabbaticals
What it recognises is the importance of pedagogy. That learning the art of teaching does not just happen in one initial burst at the outset of our careers but is something we build upon throughout our professional lives. That teaching is the profound and complex discipline that we see so clearly in Professor Nuthall’s study.
Predictably, the idea of sabbaticals has come under fire in some quarters. Katie Ivens, from the Campaign for Real Education, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Teachers already have sabbaticals – 13 weeks every year.”
This, of course, is to misunderstand both the concept of a sabbatical and the deeper issue – which is that we cannot to continue to watch as around 30 per cent of teachers quit the profession after five years, and 40 per cent after 10 years. This is a rate of attrition that is as wasteful as it is dispiriting, a sign that we are failing to do enough to develop and retain our teachers.
A sabbatical in which, for example, a teacher enters a university department to undertake research, or goes into industry to look at the application of their subject in the real world, serves many useful purposes. It gives us a way of providing more development opportunities and retaining some of our most experienced teachers. And it brings back new ideas and expertise into our schools, further professionalising our profession.
It may just be that the government’s plans for a teacher career strategy – together with the freeing up of some of the weight of accountability measures that the secretary of state announced last week, and a renewed commitment to cutting teacher workload – could be the game-changer we’ve so long awaited.
There’s still a long way to go. But we may be seeing the first signs of a new environment; one which gives us greater confidence and time to focus on the art of teaching, and spend less time looking over our shoulder at the demands of an over-stringent accountability system.
It may just be that in the age of automation, teachers, more than most professions, are going to be placed in the vanguard of what humans do so well – thinking deeply about what we do and how we do it.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton