“You’re so brutal sometimes Miss.” That’s what one of my brightest and best students told me today. It’s true, I am. But it’s because, for students at the top of class, a good dose of honest feedback can push them to their limits without damaging their confidence.
Of course, brutal honesty doesn't work for every student and I am careful to only use it when it works in a student’s best interests.
I’ve come to realise that once outside the classroom, teachers – and in particular leaders in education – seem to have often lost the ability to either be honest or to understand the function of honesty in adult relationships and the development of professional environments.
“Are you sure that you need to put that on the report?”
“With appropriate intervention don’t you think we could predict a couple of grades higher?”
"There’s a learning walk…best acting faces everyone.”
A colleague was recently struck off from teaching for manipulating coursework outcomes through some quite farcical means. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident but simply an extreme result of the blame culture which has grown up around ever increasing pressures in education.
The truth has become buried so deeply in organisational bullying or greyness that many teachers can no longer tell what is real. See for example, the brilliant anonymous article published on Tes a few days ago: “Not good enough: the words I can’t stop hearing.” Where senior leaders demand the impossible consistently and are themselves willing to twist and bend standards of academic honesty to achieve the expectations of others, sad stories like this become woven into the fabric of the school system.
When everything you do or say is questioned, even the strongest minds can be broken. Some organisations are so endemically opposed to the truth that they are more 1984 than institutions of knowledge and learning. It was reported recently that in one school all the teachers' results were moved upwards by a full grade on the orders of the head without even letting the teachers know. Those teachers were then asked to defend those grades at the following parents evening. As everyone in a position of authority knew full well the grades were incorrect, this becomes institutionalised lying and spreads quickly.
Honesty is the best policy
Once, following a busy week, a parent of a student I had given a detention to complained. I was asked to sign an affidavit to say that categorically the student had committed the offence recorded. I refused. My record was made at the time and I couldn’t retrospectively validate it if they would not support it. The school told me that I didn’t have a choice unless I was prepared to say that I was wrong and apologise.
The truth is, I couldn’t remember. The incident had disappeared into a sea of other minor events in a week of much more significant issues and I honestly could not remember clearly enough to sign the form. This is what recording systems are for – to avoid exactly this situation. This wasn’t an acceptable answer. The truth was irrelevant as far as the SLT were concerned and as it transpired, in many other situations also. I parted company with the school thereafter.
Honesty is a value that we expect our students to hold. In many schools it forms part of the code of conduct or mission statement. And yet the truth is routinely diluted – if not blithely disregarded – by the adults who insist on honesty in the children they teach.
Leadership seems to have fallen into a hall of two options: either extreme autocracy, where all dissent from the published truth (the school’s position is…) is heavily punished and a culture of fear prevails, or something approaching anarchy with everyone looking out for themselves.
Neither of these environments is conducive to the education of young people, let alone providing valued role models for students to look up to. Too many great teachers are being lost to education because they can no longer tolerate the climate that pervades a once-loved profession.
Teachers and leaders should be role models and honesty is key to healthy formative relationships that improve the performance of everyone.
Honest staffrooms create learning-led conversations where real outcomes are the priority, not the outcome which looks best from the outside.
Honest leaders are valued for their clarity, and honest staff will enjoy their days doing what they love without fear.
Observations which offer compassionate support but also honest constructive feedback driven by the desire to improve teaching rather than fulfil mandates will make teachers better. Accurate grade predictions, with critical feedback offered as and when appropriate, accurate recording of behaviour, homework patterns and so on will benefit students much more than massaged data to improve perceptions of schools.
The only way to achieve this is to hand back to teachers the respect and trust which they once had. We need to be honest with leaders, parents and the public and remove this oppressive culture of accountability which has distorted the truth about individuals in schools beyond recognition.
The next time someone asks you to change something you wrote or recorded or decided to the best of your professional judgement, ask yourself: "What is the honest response?"
Penelope Palmer is a geography teacher in Marbella, Spain