Too old to learn new tricks?

21st May 2004 at 01:00
One of our teachers, who has worked at the school for more than 20 years, resists change. She ignores new initiatives and undermines me during meetings by rolling her eyes and sighing. Unfortunately, the Office for Standards in Education judged her to be a very good teacher.

The length of time that this teacher has worked in the school, presumably under the leadership of more than one headteacher, means that she has lived through a number of wide-ranging initiatives - eight education secretaries since the introduction of the national curriculum have had a huge effect, and it has been impossible to resist this often dizzying pace of change and stand still. I feel some sympathy for a teacher who reacts in a less than enthusiastic way to what she perceives to be change for change's sake.

The kind of behaviour which you describe is, without a doubt, difficult to deal with and can be toxic to a school's emotional equilibrium. There are all sorts of ways to convey a message of disapproval. Verbal expression and discussion facilitate openness, honesty and opportunity to debate, but sidelong glances, deep intakes of breath, lip-tightening and other small unspoken indicators of resistance to a proposal are harder to address and manage.

The third point you make should give you enormous cause for celebration.

This teacher appears to be effective. But am I right in thinking that Ofsted's judgment doesn't match your own? It is possible, when making judgments about the quality of learning and teaching, to be more concerned with the performance element of pedagogy, aspects of style and process which look attractive and charismatic to the observer, but which on closer scrutiny may not do the job in terms of learning?

There is another danger, especially when embracing some methodologies which are current, and that is to pay more attention to them than learning itself. It is possible for teachers to take on and practise these methodologies without deep understanding of the rationale for their use. I wonder whether your teacher has a well-founded suspicion of new initiatives because she is not convinced that they add value to the learning experience of her pupils.

Ofsted has shifted focus away from teaching to examining learning, a very good thing in my opinion. Its judgment is based on outcomes: levels of achievement and the extent to which pupils make progress and the way in which they engage in learning. If the inspection has judged this teacher to be very good, what have inspectors seen that you have not? It may be worth asking yourself whether your judgment of this teacher's work is coloured by your response to her attitude to you.

But something needs to be done. How can you help this teacher to feel that she is making a significant contribution to policy, rather than being a victim of it? How are you going to reignite her enthusiasm and enjoyment, stifle her cynicism and win her desire to buy into the school's process of change?

The first thing to do is to engage in some deep listening. Start by describing to the teacher the behaviour that you have observed and what you perceive that it means. You need to know that your hypothesis is accurate.

If you can convince her of your genuine desire to gain an understanding of how she is feeling, she may offer you some valuable insights about your leadership style. You might, as a consequence, think again about the way new initiatives are introduced and why.

She may believe that she is not particularly valued, causing you to reflect on your interaction with individuals and your processes for sharing expertise and building capacity.

You should emerge from that discussion with some perceptions that you can begin to test with others. If you find a fit, you will then be able to identify some barriers in the school which impede wholehearted commitment.

You might then decide to make some changes to procedures and personal behaviour which may have a powerful impact on the way things are done. At the very least, your teacher will emerge with the strong understanding that her opinions count, that she has been given the opportunity to engage in some honest talking, and that you have a real desire to take note and act.

Patricia Denison is head of village primary school near Woking in Surrey.

She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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