No time for heroes: if you want an award, get a life

15th December 2017 at 00:00
As one of the judges of the Tes FE Awards, David Russell spots a worrying trend of teachers trying to ‘work miracles’ – at the cost of their free time

For the past four years, it has been my privilege to sit on the judging panel for the Tes FE Awards. I also do the shortlisting for the FE Teacher of the Year category. The judging and then the awards ceremony are highlights of my professional year. It’s a cliché, perhaps, but it truly is inspiring to read of all the fantastic work being done by skilled and dedicated professionals all over the country, in all FE contexts.

The criteria used by the judging panel to choose the winner are simple and clear: we are looking for people who have made a tremendous difference to their learners; can demonstrate commitment to the profession and their own professional development; and have a positive impact on their colleagues, as well as on learners beyond their own classroom or institution.

Choosing eight candidates to go through to the final this year was as tough as ever. To tease apart the fine judgements between such excellent candidates, I have to think very clearly about what we are looking for.

Four winning factors

As a minimum, I want to see evidence of the teacher’s effectiveness. I’m not looking for a multi-page spreadsheet demonstrating personal value added to multiple cohorts of learners over years. But if there is no hard evidence at all about learners’ achievement or attainment, then they’re immediately starting off behind many other candidates.

Secondly, I am looking for the inspiration factor. Great results can tell a story, but I also need to read that this teacher was the thing that made the difference through their interaction with learners.

Thirdly, I want to see commitment to professional excellence and professional development. It is striking how few applications mention teachers’ qualifications, their CPD or investment in their professional practice, demonstrated by taking the Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills process or applying for the new advanced teacher status. Equally, I would like to see commitment to evidence-informed practice and ideally some participation in practitioner research that pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and practice. My experience with the Education and Training Foundation and the Society for Education and Training (SET) has shown me that our profession is, on the whole, underdeveloped in this area.

Fourthly and finally, I am looking for collegiality, which is very often demonstrated in abundance by candidates. A teaching professional is not a captain of their own classroom, but a member of a great collective social endeavour. Being linked into national developments, whether through unions, SET or some other mechanism, and taking part in peer learning and professional exchange, are signs that one is drawing strength from and giving back to the profession as a whole.

‘Force of nature’

But here’s the thing that is worrying me. There have always been applications – and an increase of them this year – that rest mainly on the depiction of the nominee as some sort of force of nature, pouring supernatural energy and time into working miracles. The number of applications that proudly recounted how Sally spent her weekend and evenings devising extra support materials, or how Max gave up his holidays, was a real concern.

FE Teacher of the Year is a very prestigious award. People will look at the winner and see what is being lauded in our profession. I believe it is a very unhealthy example to hold up those who throw their whole lives into their teaching as being the model all should aspire to. Yes, I respect those dedicated souls who give up their evenings, weekends and holidays for their learners. But there is a bigger picture.

In FE – as with all teaching – we are experiencing a very difficult period with recruitment and retention. Workload is a worry. Mental health and teacher wellbeing are a concern. The pace of change is relentless. We expect more and more from our teachers and their managers. But the most excellent teacher for me is one who changes learners’ life chances through the application of evidence-informed practice, professional skill and personal care – and then goes home to their life in the evening.

We must not hold out the “hero” model of teaching as a sustainable one, or one to be widely emulated. That way we not only drive teachers away from our profession by creating impossible standards, we also risk letting policymakers off the hook – as they may believe they can squeeze more and more out of the existing workforce by asking teachers’ home lives to take the strain.

I want a model of FE teaching that is excellent, professional, collegiate and sustainable. We don’t need another hero.

David Russell is chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation, headline sponsors for the Tes FE Awards 2018

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