Your own microclimate of fear casts a cloud on others

10th October 2017 at 09:00
Allowing staff the freedom to teach, as they know and enjoy, starts with protecting teachers from the pressure leaders face in a high-stakes accountability system

For my first lesson of the new school year, I taught a Year 7 class about the merits of working hard. It was a pleasure to be back in the classroom. After all, I didn’t go into teaching to cut budgets or to know the ins-and-outs of employment law; I went into teaching to teach, and I still love it.

I broke lots of rules and had some fun. I bantered with Julia, the teaching assistant; I learned every single student’s name by the end of the lesson; and the students – I hope – learned a lot about why industry beats talent every time.

There was no formula for the lesson. No one from on high was telling me how to teach. I knew what I was doing and had the freedom to do it.

And if an Ofsted inspector had been in the room, I would have done exactly the same thing.

It is easy for me to teach like this. I am old enough now to be devoid of fear. But fear is ever-present for many school leaders, derived from an accountability system that depends on high-stakes testing.

Headteachers, under pressure in a world where the next set of results is all that matters, find it a real challenge not to push that pressure onto teachers who, in turn, hand it to their students as a toxic gift. And that is a real problem.

I believe that, all too often, the root cause of our students’ anxiety is their teachers’ fear of failure.

A few years ago, I gave a pre-Ofsted inspection briefing to my colleagues where I let my sense of sheer panic at the prospect of a poor report – the humiliation, the inevitable doorstop-thick action plan to get the school out of special measures, my eventual dismissal – permeate my defence mechanism. I was feeling the fear.

But the best thing that a headteacher can do is to protect teaching staff from this kind of pressure and allow them to teach in a climate of freedom, not fear.

What I did in that Friday morning briefing was lose the trust of staff. If I couldn’t cope with the pressure, what chance did they have? It took me a good six months to regain the trust I had lost.

Headteachers, as my friend Vic Goddard says, make the weather. The real challenge for them is to make the weather, no matter how overcast their personal microclimate.

Most fear in schools is self-generated. Teaching is, as Dylan Wiliam says, “the best job in the world…because you never get any good at it”. That’s something that, once you admit it, removes the fear of Ofsted’s arrival and frees you to lead, and your colleagues to teach, brilliantly.

John Tomsett is head at Huntington School in York and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable

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