Praise and prejudice

9th January 1998 at 00:00
British teachers feel undervalued. They sense criticism from every quarter - parents, heads, inspectors, government ministers. But applaud them and these same teachers feel just as uncomfortable. They may be in the professional business of praising children, but they are coy about receiving glittering prizes themselves, especially in public.

This reticence is confirmed by the history of awards. Disney's Teacher of the Year still only pulls in 1,000 nominations. And the annual #163;150,000 Jerwood Award for Teachers, started by millionaire John Jerwood to recognise good teachers and improve the profession's public image, was dropped in 1992 after four years of indifferent support. The Jerwood Foundation's chairman, Alan Grieve, feels it may have cast its net too wide - "and the amount of money was probably too large".

Pat Partington, chair of this year's Disney selection panel, believes many teachers won't let their names go forward - and even among those who do, "there is a real reluctance to say, 'I am a good teacher'. They're terribly modest."

David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers says this reticence may in part be because teachers see their job as a team effort - "they're worried about being singled out when they know that their results are the results of a whole team or faculty or school".

There's another theory that some teachers are mirroring their adolescent pupils who dread the spotlight for fear of being called a show-off or a "boff". But something deeper lies behind these objections; something essentially British. It's the feeling that public recognition may not evoke the admiration of your colleagues. As Julia Kelly, last year's TES Primary Science Teacher of the Year, puts it: "I was very very proud to have won it but other teachers sometimes seemed in awe of it. The response was not, 'Oh, well done', but 'Well, how did you get that?"'

This minefield of professional feeling puts new Government plans for teacher "Oscars" on a tricky footing. Masterminded by film-maker and Government adviser Lord Puttnam, the Oscars will need all the cash and clout they can muster when they are announced this spring. Lord David himself is upbeat about the possibilities. "I believe in a kind of optimism - constant, constructive optimism. We are going to be very imaginative and I hope we shall surprise people."

Government intentions for 1998 started positively with the New Year's Honours List focusing on education and a clear message from Downing Street that "we are not only honouring the best of this profession, but the profession itself". Was this a recognition, at last, that praise could be a vital lubricant in the drive to improve schools' performance? The teachers' verdict on the list, which created two Dames and a Knight, was that "naming and acclaiming" made a nice change from "naming and shaming". Lynda Roberts, the Kent primary teacher who helped rehabilitate Josie Russell after her mother and sister were murdered and who was made Disney Teacher of the Year last autumn, was undeniably deserving but she still declared herself "overwhelmed" by her MBE.

Compare British teachers' reticence with the delight and celebration that surrounds America's Teacher of the Year award (see box above). "The person is feted, visits the White House, takes a year off and goes on a speaking tour," says Janet Bass, of the American Association of Teachers. "There's nothing wrong with celebrating really fine teaching. Teachers work in teams, but some people bring more to the team than others. You can have five terrific movies nominated for Oscars, but only one gets chosen. That's the way it is in this country."

Reach behind British caution and the modesty, and it becomes clear that our teachers probably do respond well - if not to wild public applause, then at least to recognition. The teachers who attended this year's "Peoples' Banquet" held to celebrate the Queen's Golden Wedding, were deeply appreciative - the 15 who attended made up the largest professional group after the military.

Jeff Brown, head of Moffat Academy, in Dumfries and Galloway, sat at a table with Cherie Blair and the Duke of Edinburgh. "I was delighted, and I did look on it very much as recognition."

Lyn Fryer, head of Worthing High School, says her invitation to the banquet was "a great boost to the whole school". Both heads described the event to their pupils at special morning assemblies - where they both emphasised their belief that the honour was due to the school as a whole.

Birmingham's chief education officer Tim Brighouse acknowledges teachers' efforts with personal handwritten letters. Clare Williams, head of Four Dwellings Infants in the city, received hers for her contribution to a maths working party. "Sometimes we feel we're ploughing a lonely furrow," she says. "I think it's important for teachers to feel that the work they do is known by somebody in charge." (She also admits you have to get a staffroom team together to decipher his handwriting.)

Tim Brighouse writes a phenomenal number of these letters - 300 last term alone - and has been heard to say it's the most important thing he does.

Psychologist Stephen Palmer of the Centre for Stress Management says award systems are proliferating in other areas of working life - "employee of the week, certificates, photographs on the wall, often a financial reward. Why not in teaching?"

He also believes that if schools were more open in recognising their own staffs, teachers would feel more able to accept other awards - and rewards.

That they do not, he believes, is quite simply the result of pressure and stress. "You tend to see more negative feedback in an organisation that is under unhealthy pressure - people don't feel they can talk to each other, or apologise. They dare not admit fallibility, and they expect too much of each other. Someone may have done a hundred successful things, but the only feedback they'll get will be on their two mistakes."

It's the opposite at Thomas Telford School, in Telford where head Kevin Satchwell routinely praises staff at morning briefings. "For example the PE teacher who organises and manages everything for the football teams. There's nothing wrong with being publicly thanked, though I might lighten it with a remark about 'sparing his or her blushes'."

Andy Raymer, head of Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, uses certificates, "as we do with the pupils. For example, a teacher who did particularly well with an examination group would be singled out for praise."

He and his colleagues are constantly looking for opportunities to put the spotlight on successful members of staff. Pieces of pottery and art by their talented art teacher are used as special awards, and once, for the caretaker, a spot on local television. "There was a really bad school caretaker on Coronation Street, so we wrote to local TV saying that ours wasn't like that, and they came and did an item about him."

Thanks and praise are more welcome and effective when they come from someone who is held in respect: Kevin Satchwell is adamant that effective praise is founded in professional

knowledge, and openness about failings as well as successes. For him, saying "well done" all the time is not enough. "People see through that. What they

prefer is a relationship which is open, robust, objective and honest. Then when you tell them the good things they appreciate it."

He believes that where this sort of thing is done consistently and well - and in public where appropriate - "it becomes part of the ethos; it gets into the grain of the school. Nobody performs at 100 per cent all the time,so you have to support them in the dips and put momentum behind them when they are doing well, making them feel good."

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