We are in the midst of a seismic shift in education in England. Mass academisation, initiated by the publication of Nicky Morgan’s White Paper, has seized the main headlines, but we are in danger of the furore distracting us from the real truth about what will really transform our schools: helping teachers to better develop their confidence and skill in the classroom.
If everyone involved in education recognises that the difference in teacher quality across the corridor, within our schools, far outweighs the differences across various school types, we may start to get somewhere.
The three major obstacles to teachers getting better have seemingly fallen off the front page of the education debate.
1 Behaviour management
Obstacle number one is the problem with student misbehaviour. This perennial issue is not new, but it continues to unite teachers the world over in dismay, with the international OECD Talis survey of teachers showing that the biggest factor damaging teachers’ self-confidence was student misbehaviour.
2 Lack of teacher autonomy
The second major obstacle that hamstrings teacher improvement is a culture of Big Brother compliance whittling away teacher confidence. Teachers get better and develop their confidence and skill in a climate of trust, where risk and self-improvement is encouraged (see bit.ly/KraftPapay for research on this from Harvard University). Still, too many teachers still suffer within a school culture of distrust and high-stakes observations.
Finally, the third major problem that obstructs teachers from getting better is the absence of time. As the pips of school budgets are squeezed ever more, it means that staff and teachers (whose numbers are declining) are having to do more with even less. Workload is still a significant problem for teachers.
It is easy, in the face of gloomy workload and teacher-retention statistics, to sense despair, but we can too easily forget our own power. Regardless of the political noise clanging outside of the classroom, we can still focus on developing our own confidence and skills.
Here are some solutions that we can initiate ourselves to improve confidence.
Solution 1 Speak up
Too often, student misbehaviour remains a secret shame for teachers. We need to seek out colleagues who have the same class, or a similar mix of problematic students, and talk to them, teasing out their strategies, stories and solutions. If our school leadership doesn’t step up to support us, we need to speak out as a collective, voicing any issues and providing potential solutions.
Solution 2 Get social
The best schools are able to harness the power of networks, both formally and informally. The Talis study can prove helpful here, too. It shows that teachers can best develop their confidence and skills when they collaborate with fellow teachers. On our own terms, we can seek out critical friends, while tapping into the broad seam of social networking beyond our school for collaboration. This DIY networking can provide us with vital support.
Solution 3 Create your own observation culture
The answers for improving our practice can invariably be found in the classroom across the corridor from our own. We can initiate a positive observation culture within our own faculty teams. It may be a simple and quick 10-minute lesson starter, or a weekly slot for reciprocal visits to lessons, but such an open door culture can reveal to us the crucial answers for getting better.
Solution 4 Think confidently
Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As we feel the weight of hulking great school structures and the uncertainty of so many changes to both curriculum and assessment, it remains true for all teachers. We must, crucially, believe in our individual agency. We can individually change our lot and get that little bit better, even in the most trying of circumstances.
Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School and the author of The Confident Teacher: Developing successful habits of mind, body and pedagogy, out on 18 May