I have a confession to make – I used to watch Teachers TV, of my own free will and often after a long day of actual teaching. For the benefit of more recently qualified colleagues, this was a wonderful free TV channel with a range of content designed to support the development of all educators until its 2010 closure.
In the age of “tweachers” and TeachMeets, it’s hard to imagine this admission as a confession, but the last person I told advised me to “get a life” (in more colourful terms).
Teaching, for me, has always been a craft; one that I have delighted in refining through the years as I worked my way up to become an assistant headteacher in a school that shares my beliefs about the power of our work. Being the lead for teaching and learning across the school is nothing short of my dream job.
As with most pleasures in life, however, this role comes with some huge challenges and moral questions, too.
In short, how do you improve teaching and therefore learning in a supportive way without becoming a pedaguru dictator?
1. Don’t look for uniformity...
My path has many dark temptations. I need – and love – to spend lots of my time in lessons across my school’s age and ability range and, in such circumstances, it would be so easy to offer judgement dressed up as advice. Our craft is phenomenal in its range and variety, which can make for a rich experience for students…unless, instead, they get a series of identical lessons shaped by the all-powerful overlord in charge of teaching and learning.
2. …but do intervene, where necessary
That said, for every lesson where professionalism is replaced by apathy towards students who may be having their favourite subject (and future career path) affected by a dementor-teacher sucking the soul out of their lessons, I need to step – but not jump – in.
3. Don’t become a research bore
Becoming overly immersed in research is another temptation. One reason I love this role is the imperative to read and engage widely with great practice to ensure a strong basis for my leadership. However, regularly preaching about the latest initiative from a potentially very different context would make me, in leadership expert Liz Wiseman’s words, an “accidental diminisher”. I found this out to my cost when I sat in a CPD programme led by her, along with my former department, who, until that day, had endured inboxes full of my latest ramblings. Apologies again for that, everyone.
4. Leave your prejudice against a particular pedagogy at the door
But the main challenge for those in my role is taking strong personal feelings about teaching out of the equation. I am haunted by my own experience of having my teaching style dictated to when I was training.
I completed my PGCE back in 2006 and the role of active learning was considered paramount. I can remember a former mentor timing my “teacher talk” during observations. I can still see the look of despair from above their clipboard when I dared to verbalise for longer than a few minutes.
Avoiding these pitfalls may sound simple, but I am fully aware how, subconsciously or inadvertently, these things can sneak into your leadership. I’m not claiming to have any solutions to this conundrum, but I do know those of us in this position have to continually wrestle with it to ensure that we never unduly preach to colleagues about how to teach. And we have to abide by certain rules, too:
Lead by example: My lessons should demonstrate great practice but should not be held up as a universal approach. As a class teacher, I face exactly the same struggles that we all do, so I should seek genuine support when needed as I am surrounded by a community that is happy to give it. Any policies or actions that I am tasked with should embrace the rich variety inherent in schools, as a simple series of edicts hardly encourages inspirational learning.
Respect your middle leaders: Middle leaders are absolutely instrumental to your role, and, let’s be honest, schools in general. Create systems that are designed to support their work and always respect their authority on their subject and their immediate colleagues.
Get some philosophy: Use your well-informed experience to try to change habits and boost learning – don’t do this to impress anyone, but rather to ensure that your students are proud of their own achievements. At the least, stick to the principle of allowing hero teachers to continue being brilliant.
Ben Wilcox is an assistant headteacher at The Magna Carta School in Surrey, part of the Unity Schools Trust. He is also an associate on PiXL’s executive board for history. He tweets @TLatTMCS