Sympathy for the devil

20th April 2018 at 00:00
School leaders are being unfairly demonised by teachers struggling under the burden of excessive workload and high-stakes accountability, writes Mark Roberts. Here, the assistant head warns that, as a result of this toxic narrative, schools will be left facing a huge shortage of senior leaders because good teachers are being put off joining SLTs for fear they will be selling their soul to the ‘dark side’

I am your worst nightmare. My heart is made of ice. Brandishing my walkie-talkie like some sort of improvised explosive device, I stalk the corridors, searching for signs of weakness. Or I hide in my office, making decisions about your future based on a spreadsheet column switching from amber to red, my shiny suit glistening under the flickering strip lights.

For I am a senior leader, and I am coming for your teaching soul…

You might laugh at this description. You might say: “I’m a teacher and I would never make out that SLT are really like that.” But just think back. That whispered conversation in the corner of the staffroom, that rant over WhatsApp, that passing comment in the corridor, that discussion in the classroom after school...

“They don’t understand us”; “They don’t know what it is like”; “They are out of touch.”

Do you regularly partake in generic SLT-bashing? I’ll take an informed punt and say the answer from most teachers is “yes”.

And now I am going to be blunt: because of this, the shortage of leaders in schools is partly your fault.

When I first moved into senior leadership, I knew that, from then on, people would be wary of what they said to me. I knew that invitations to social gatherings would dry up. I knew that I’d end up “having words” with people I considered friends.

And I was aware that some colleagues would now see conversations with me as a chance to offload all their grievances about the school. I was aware that I’d have to make unpopular decisions and publicly support policies with which I disagreed. I was aware that as soon as I donned the “promotion pyjamas” and became one of the “suits”, I would have crossed a professional frontier.

None of it worried me. I’ve never been that bothered about popularity. My wife is often astounded by the thickness of my hide. It’s probably the result of leaving school at 16 and going to work in a factory. Being subjected to obscene verbal abuse was considered a sign of affection; a few gripes about timetabling pale by comparison.

However, when I finally made that jump to the upper circle of a school, I found that I did begin to worry, but not for any of the reasons above. Instead, it was about something much worse, something I realised I had known about all along but had ignored, something that is preventing our schools from being as excellent as they should be: the utter loathing so many teachers have for SLT, not just in my school but in the education system as a whole.

I stepped up because I wanted to make a difference and I felt more responsibility would mean that I was well-placed to improve the lives of children.

But it is clear that this is not how many classroom teachers see it: instead, I am someone who abandoned the classroom for the narrow-eyed pursuit of individual glory at the expense of everything else, particularly the children. I am the person in that introductory description above: mean, out of touch, self-serving.

How many amazing teachers – good, sensible people – don’t make the leap because of that hostility? My guess is: far more than we would like to admit.

The education system is heading towards a severe shortage of senior leaders. A 2016 report by the Future Leaders Trust, Teaching Leaders and Teach First predicted that England will face a deficit of around 19,000 heads, deputy heads and assistant heads by 2022. This trend would leave one in four English schools short of senior leaders, with schools in the most deprived areas being the worst affected.

To add to the problems, 28 per cent of headteachers said they were planning on leaving headship within five years.

Another survey from the year before painted a similarly bleak picture: some 43 per cent of school governors reported that they were struggling to find decent candidates for SLT positions.

What is putting so many people off moving up from middle to senior leadership?

According to the 2016 report, it was the usual suspects: stress, poor work-life balance, the threat of a dodgy inspection leading to a P45 and the end of your career.

And you can throw in the perceived paucity of professional development and feedback once you’ve slithered your way up the slippery pole.

But while these seem valid reasons why people might avoid heading for headship – they will be familiar to assistant and deputy heads who don’t want to take the next step – I am less sure of their validity when it comes to SLT as a whole.

From the conversations I’ve been witness to – on social media, in the pub and, yes I admit it, earwigged staffroom conversations – I don’t think these reasons adequately sum up why many teachers duck out of going for a big promotion.

I hear a different story. Teachers are fearful of the backlash. They don’t want to spend their time being castigated for decisions made with good intentions. They worry what their non-SLT friends will think of them if they move over to “the dark side”.

They’re put off by the sweeping negative generalisations people make about SLT. They don’t want to be “one of them” – hated and ostracised.

Type “SLT” into an education chatroom. What do you see?

I’ll do it now, with you. In front of me, I can see topics such as “Who is worse? SLT or Ofsted?” and “Congratulations to all the bullying SLT”.

Let’s delve further. Browse with me the countless tales of satanic megalomaniacs, unsatisfied until they have destroyed the confidence of every teacher they encounter.

Remember: this is just the stuff people are willing to put into the public domain. Imagine what they are saying to each other in private.

For too many, joining SLT is like selling one’s soul to the devil.

You might argue that this abuse is evidence-based: SLT make bad calls, SLT are useless, SLT want us to fail. We have a right to air the grievance.

Hashtag not fair

If you are on Twitter and scrolled the posts on the recent #nobservation hashtag, you will have read hundreds of individual teachers sharing their experiences of spectacularly useless lesson observation feedback given by SLT and Ofsted inspectors. The stories are shocking, surreal and hilarious. Examples include:

●MFL teachers being criticised for speaking too much in the language they were teaching, making it difficult for the observer to understand what was happening;

●An RE specialist, teaching the five pillars of Islam, being told that they should have differentiated for lower-ability pupils by giving them the “three pillars of Islam”;

●Lessons being downgraded from “outstanding” to “good” owing to the presence of a dead plant in the classroom.

Among the incompetent advice and daft directives, there’s an important debate to be had about the effectiveness of lesson observation as a tool for measuring the quality of teaching. And yes, SLT make mistakes, and some (a very small proportion) may not be very good at their job.

But these anecdotes contribute to unfair generalisations about the motivation and intellect of senior leaders.

Education is rife with extreme tales like these. And though they are representative of only a tiny number of truly awful leaders, we let ourselves believe it is a comment on the whole, that when promotion happens, the illness of SLT cannot be avoided. That’s ridiculous.

Let’s imagine a hashtag highlighting terrible teaching that senior leaders have witnessed. The English teacher who couldn’t use apostrophes properly; the geography teacher who couldn’t explain coastal erosion; the art teacher who let children run around with craft knives: #crapclassroom anyone?

No, me neither. It wouldn’t be fair, would it? And yet…

Let me be clear: this is not an argument that teachers need to be compliant and just do as they are told, or that the traditional and natural whingeing about your boss should be outlawed. I’ve behaved in a similar way myself: pre-SLT, I rolled my eyes at certain policies, and voiced my disgruntlement over decisions I didn’t agree with.

But I did not decide that the entire SLT population of Great Britain were all useless or, worse, premeditated in their dismantling of teacher confidence, autonomy and professionalism. How have we let it happen that a whole level of the profession is viewed with such disdain?

One reason why classroom teachers end up spouting oversimplifications about SLT is their lack of awareness of what senior leaders actually do.

One former Ofsted inspector I spoke to told me that teachers “simply don’t understand exactly what’s involved” in running a school. The popular misconception of non-teaching managerialists – slaves to the spreadsheet, who spend their days in pointless meetings – masks a reality in which “most people are doing the right thing, or at least trying to do the right thing”.

Dr Jill Berry, headteacher for 10 years and author of Making the Leap: moving from deputy to head, agrees: “It’s too easy for those below senior leadership level to be overly critical of what SLT do. Ironically, you probably only understand the complexities and pressures of senior leadership once you’re in it, and if you’re put off taking the step because of your anti-SLT stance, you’ll never learn.”

Good news doesn't travel fast

Combine this lack of knowledge with the rocketing pay of heads and the astronomical payments reportedly given to multi-academy trust CEOs, and you can see how poisonous the two together can be.

Another reason for the animosity is that there is a perception that SLT have left the classroom behind, so they no longer understand what teaching is all about.

“They don’t know what it is like on the chalkface,” is a common refrain.

And finally, SLT’s negative reputation holds because some leaders in education are truly abysmal. In some schools, you will find weak, defensive bullies, motivated only by self-progression and a determination to crush anybody in their path. SLT bad apples cause a lot of misery.

And they also get a lot of publicity. Good news doesn’t sell. Good news rarely travels very far. Tales of woe, of incompetence, of horror, on the other hand, are an instant hit. We like to compare our situation to situations more unfavourable; we make ourselves feel better by doing this. We even relish it (“Imagine working for him!”).

Every time that happens, the reputation of SLT as a whole takes another step towards that stereotype. You don’t hear as much about the good people doing a good job.

And yet, they are in the majority by far: Berry argues that in “30 years in teaching and the eight years since then, I have met far more strong, committed senior leaders and heads than weak ones”.

So, what’s the solution?

Concerns about losing touch with teaching are understandable but, in my view, often misplaced. Senior leadership doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to the classroom. Even very busy and very successful headteachers can teach a weekly class. When Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was a head, he maintained a regular classroom presence. Other heads and deputy heads out there also make sure they take tricky classes each year. One deputy head from London whom I spoke to explains how he “teaches a lot, as well as mentoring teachers and talking about teaching all day”.

Of course, you teach less when SLT. When I moved from head of faculty to assistant principal, my teaching allocation did drop, from 32 to 23 periods a fortnight. Yet I’ve found this timetable reduction has made me relish each hour I spend in the classroom. My planning and delivery is better; my levels of enthusiasm higher than ever.

Several senior leaders tell me that their teaching has also improved since they made the leap upwards. In difficult times, such as long-term staff absence, SLT members also tend to pick up extra teaching. I did this last year with two Year 13 classes, prioritising students above school improvement plans.

Not every member of SLT teaches, and that may be for very good reasons. But the notion that none of us do, or that we would not like to, is wrong and extremely damaging.

We need to try and teach classes, and where we cannot, consistently demonstrate that we understand what teaching in our schools is like. We can do the latter by putting teacher views at the heart of what we do and by constantly talking about impact not just on learning but on the classroom teacher, too. We need less “done to” and more “done with”.

A different point of view

Another suggestion is for headteachers to invite more members of staff to gain SLT experience as a way to counteract negative attitudes. Staff who are invited into SLT meetings might be surprised at the amount of thought that goes into decisions and will come to appreciate the conflicting issues that SLT must often work hard to resolve.

When I volunteered to join my school’s extended leadership team, I, too, saw the roles in a different light. The sheer complexity of certain situations – especially those of a financial or legal nature – left me bamboozled. And impressed.

The onus here is on SLT to demystify the job, to share more and be more transparent. If teachers do not understand what we do, the responsibility to inform is ours.

But classroom teachers need to take some responsibility. How much effort is made to understand what an SLT does? How many of the opportunities to partake in decision-making or report back on policies are taken? How far is there an appreciation that the SLT side of the story is worth hearing? Do teachers ever talk up good decisions, tell their friends, “We are so lucky to have an SLT like this”?

SLT-bashing is amplified when things like redundancy, disciplinary or capability procedures happen. Rank-and-file teachers become irate on behalf of their colleagues. But there are always two sides to any story, and what many don’t get is that, because of confidentiality constraints, the SLT side usually goes unheard.

And teachers need to be realistic: there are shortages of quality senior leaders. The only way this will change is if more good people step up. At the moment, the narrative around SLT stops that. That narrative is created, maintained and propagated by teachers.

We need to change the tone of our discussions about leaders. We must continue to highlight terrible practice that puts unnecessary burdens on hard-working teachers. But we need to avoid demonising those who put their reputations and careers on the line when trying to transform schools. As Berry says, “We need to be kinder to ourselves and our colleagues – and that works both ways.”

If we can’t do that, then we create a self-fulfilling prophecy: the vast majority of SLT are there to support teachers and improve the lives of young people, but teachers are fast creating a situation where no one with those aims in their heart will be willing to step up.

So let me get the ball rolling. Here’s my counter to that narrative from the start. Here’s what I truly believe the reputation of SLT should be.

I try to be a shield, protecting you from some of the crap hurled at you by truculent pupils, short-sighted governments and society at large. Like you, I get things wrong at times. My heart is warm, but sometimes my decisions have to be cold: rational and unemotional.

Unless you’ve done something really stupid, I’m not trying to undermine you. When I step into your classroom, I want to help out and see the good stuff, not find fault and condemn.

When I’m away from my classroom, and am chained to my office desk, you’ll probably find me placating irate parents or attempting to manage unpleasant safeguarding issues. Or, more prosaically, like you, I might be planning a lesson, marking mock papers or entering data on a spreadsheet (yes, I don’t like doing that either).

Frequently, you’ll find me smiling and telling a colleague how much of a pleasure it was to watch their lesson.

I am a school leader and, believe it or not, I am here to help you maintain your teaching soul…

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England

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