'We must reward great teachers – and stop pushing them out of the classroom'

2nd November 2017 at 15:18
Too often, we take good teachers and expect them to teach less and manage more, writes ASCL leader Geoff Barton

We begin with a warning: do not try any of the teaching approaches mentioned in this blog.

Looking back over my 32-year teaching career, I blame Roy Samson. He was the English teacher who suddenly, back in my first few days as a sixth-form student, made me realise what I wanted to be – an English teacher.

Roy wasn’t always conventional in his teaching methodology. In order to teach a class about the Spanish Armada, it was said that he’d taken them out to the school biology pond, put model boats on it, and set them on fire.

Anecdotes like this underpinned Mr Samson’s legendary status across the school. But, more conventionally, he did what great teachers do: he took things that were complicated and made them simple – but not too simple. He talked, he listened, he was strict, he was funny.

Thus, still sulking because my personal career plan to be the next Radio 1 breakfast DJ – specifically to be Noel Edmonds – had failed, I drifted with a handful of mediocre O-levels into a sixth form where a teacher transformed my life.

Things I hadn’t known I was interested in became things I was more than interested in. I became fascinated and intoxicated by reading: Shakespeare and other playwrights, Hardy and other novelists, Hughes and other poets. A world of literature, of language, of critical analysis opened up.

And when I announced to Roy Samson my intention to become an English teacher, he said: "You’re lucky. You’ll spend the rest of your life reading stories." He was right. That’s essentially what I’ve done.

That grounding by an understated but great teacher perhaps explains why in my own first year of teaching I received two reprimands.

'They complained I was teaching witchcraft'

I had been to see a production of The Merchant of Venice at Stratford. It opened with an eerie communal dance – the cast standing at the edge of the Grand Canal wearing those audacious long-nosed masks that characterise Venice’s Carnivale season, and then swaying in time to baroque music.

This was my first time teaching Shakespeare, and there, in an east Leeds suburb, as the fledgeling English teacher at Garforth Comprehensive School, I wanted to recreate the Royal Shakespeare Company magic I had witnessed.

So I brought in a cassette of Bach’s greatest hits, cleared a space in the English department foyer and assembled 27 Year 9 pupils to recreate the hypnotic opening dance. Except that instead of Venetian masks, I had the class put plastic bags over their heads. In an age before risk assessments, I had, of course, got them to make large eye-holes in the bags, so there was no real risk of suffocation. But I was called in and told off. Rightly so.

Something similar happened when I was teaching Roald Dahl short stories to Year 8. In order to recreate the bewitching mental skills developed by the hero of The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar – a character who trained himself to look into people’s minds – I darkened the classroom, lit a dozen candles, drew a secret picture of a house on a piece of paper, sealed it in an envelope, and asked pupils to use their inner eye to visualise the mystery image I had concealed.

You could guarantee that in a whole class, a few of them would draw a house. It led to the feeling that perhaps they too were developing mysterious psychic gifts.

The children loved it. Then a parent wrote in to complain that I was teaching witchcraft. I was called in and advised to revise my lesson plan.

Rewarding great teachers

I write about these silly memories of my early years as an English teacher because this week the Association of School and College Leaders has been hosting a roundtable meeting to look at developing ideas around a teacher career strategy. For me, it felt right to progress from teacher to second-in-department, to head of English, to deputy and then headteacher. I decided it was what I wanted to do and it gave me a career of exceptional fulfilment.

But as a profession, we’ve not been good at rewarding great teachers for being just that – great teachers. Apart from system flirtations with initiatives like the "Advanced Skills Teacher", "Excellent Teacher" and "Lead Practitioner" programmes, the dominant progression route has been to move into management. As a result, we take good teachers and expect them to teach less and to manage more.

That needs to change, because our retention rates tell a depressing tale of squandered talent. Around 30 per cent of teachers leave by their fifth year. We have one of the youngest – and, therefore, least experienced – teaching workforces in the developed world.

So there’s a big agenda – making teaching the hottest career ticket, giving teachers their freedom to experiment with different approaches, giving back teaching its professional pride.

It feels to me – all those years on from my inspiring lessons with Roy Samson – that this is the time when, together, we must make this happen.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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