It's safe to stick your head up

14th January 2000 at 00:00
With the teaching awards unleashing a torrent of enthusiasm for praising

those at the chalkface, staff can come out from behind their 'cloak of collective mediocrity', says Bob Salisbury

ON REFLECTION, the teaching awards last year had a significant impact on all of those who took part. Individuals, teams, pupils and whole communities were given a legitimate reason to celebrate their school successes and most took full advantage of this unexpected opportunity.

Unusually for education, wonderfully positive vibes coursed through the whole process and it was clear that everyone involved had a really good time. It was as if those who had the courage to nominate, suddenly realised, perhaps for the first time, the power of saying an unashamed "thank you" to those people who they admired, respected or simply worked with.

It is true, there was initial scepticism. Some teachers were unconvinced of the motives and the more malicious believed that this perfectly honourable idea was, in reality, a devious, back-door way into performance-related pay.

Of course, this was nonsense and the awards helped in changing perceptions of what teachers actually do and the positive effect their efforts can have on the lives of other people.

What is truly astonishing was that no easy route had previously existed nationally or regionally to identify and praise the outstanding performers in our schools. It was almost as if it was better to retain a degree of anonymity and hide behind a cloak of collective mediocrity.

One teacher said that, in her staffroom, any display of personal excellence was viewed as unhealthy ambition and something to be ashamed of. She likened it to a bucket of crabs. If one had the drive to try to escape the bucket, the others dragged it back.

Curiously, individual parents and students usually do recognise the star performers in their midst and are happy to acknowledge this fact to anyone who will listen. They are keen to explain how certain personalities and their teaching strategies have managed to motivate and inspire whole families and sometimes generations of young people.

Many eventually become part of the community folklore and their efforts are discussed wherever people meet to talk about schools and classrooms. Unfortunately, this good news usually stays local and the message which permeates to the national stage seems to be that education is beset with failure and run by uncaring eachers who are anything but professional.

Anyone who has faced a class will know that good teaching is not easy. It is not something everyone can do and the star performers in our classrooms are worth their weight in gold. It is surely sensible that those people with enthusiasm, commitment, skill and a genuine passion for the learning game are acknowledged and celebrated in the most public way. With all to gain, why then have a few schools this year been slow to forward nominations in some categories?

Certainly, there is evidence that the documentation from the Teaching Awards Trust is not reaching those who would want to put a name forward. Too many parents, governing bodies and teachers have simply not heard about how the process works and, therefore, cannot be expected to take part.

Also, carrying out community surveys, collecting supportive data and generally organising the logistics can be time-consuming and usually depends on enterprising individuals who are happy to do the leg-work. Last year, schools that recruited small teams of willing governors to organise things seemed to have hit on a very successful approach. But where such people do not exist, other demands can take precedence.

The notion that teaching is a team performance and that singling out anyone for special praise would destroy this collegiality has also clouded the issue. Team-based approaches work in almost every other sector of life so why should teaching be different? In fact, those who were put forward last year were, in almost every case, representing teams, had usually been nominated by their teams and were always eager to acknowledge the collective effort publicly when they finally received their awards. One winner commented last year that the nomination of the special-needs teams in which she worked "was the first positive thing" in nearly 10 years of teaching.

Forgetting to say "thank you" for an exceptional performance is all too common and seems incredibly sad. Hopefully the awards will continue to give schools the route to celebrate good teachers.

Sir Bob Salisbury is head of Garibaldi School in Mansfield. He also chairs the judging for the East Midlands regional teaching award.

Nominations for the awards close on February 14. To make a nomination, phone the Teaching Awards Trust on 020 7907 1500 or e-mail or write to the trust at 6th floor, 15 Berners Street, London W1P 3DE

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