When I first started out in teaching 22 years ago, research didn’t inform much classroom practice. Over the years that picture has gradually changed, as organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation and the Sutton Trust have worked hard to promote the importance of good quality and accessible evidence.
Thanks to these and other such bodies, we now have a much better idea of which interventions are most likely to be successful. This success, however, has been accompanied by three additional problems, which, if not addressed by senior leaders, have the potential to add to teachers’ burdens rather than relieve them.
The first is that there is now so much research that teachers often have a hard time deciding which to use. In my view, school leaders have a responsibility to steer colleagues towards the most compelling research, namely that on effective lesson delivery and good quality feedback.
Teachers should be encouraged to really think through the planning of how they are going to deliver exciting lessons, with great questions that stretch and challenge. And they should also be supported to develop genuinely good quality feedback – in other words, feedback that doesn’t entail teachers writing half a page of marking on every piece of work but does enable students to understand what they need to do to improve.
The good and the bad
The second issue is the growth of bad research alongside the good. Education, perhaps more than other professions, is awash with recommended tactics, ways forward or tricks and tips that often sound compelling but are not actually based on any evidence. The EEF and others do a good job of putting research through a quality sieve. As school leaders, we must take note of this and help sort the wheat from the chaff so colleagues in our schools aren’t wasting time on bogus interventions.
Headteachers, in particular, have a responsibility to keep evaluating and re-evaluating practice and to be conscious of the cumulative effect of introducing initiative after initiative. As a profession, we could be better at ditching what is familiar but ineffective. Policies, for example, should have a shelf life and be reviewed intermittently for relevance. If they are no longer useful or relevant, they should be discarded.
Which brings me to the final problem – teacher wellbeing and work-life balance. The hardest job in any school is classroom teaching. Senior leadership and headship bring their own unique pressures. But a classroom teacher has to come in fresh every morning prepared to energise students. And that is hard. It’s also an issue too easily forgotten by managers. As a head I was sometimes guilty of expecting colleagues to work long hours on different initiatives when what they really needed to do was go home, recharge their batteries and switch off.
Teaching day-in, day-out is exhausting. As school leaders, we have a responsibility not only to enthuse our colleagues but also to ensure that we only introduce initiatives backed by evidence, which by virtue of their effectiveness will ultimately lead to a reduction in workload, not an increase.
Nobody entered our profession expecting an easy life. Teaching is a challenging profession and it will remain a challenging profession. Yet it is also immensely rewarding. We hear a lot about its stresses and strains but too little about the huge satisfaction. So as today is World Teachers’ Day, we should perhaps remember that whatever our frustrations, few professions can match teaching for sheer joy, intellectual fulfilment and a sense of personal achievement.
Simon Camby is Group Director of Education at Cognita.
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