Teachers are recognised as some of the hardest-working people. For many teachers this is prompted, at least in part, by what they see as a moral obligation to do everything possible to support their pupils.
This is possibly why workload is so hard to tackle – teachers will nearly always go “above and beyond” in search of that extra little advantage for their kids. For all the cries on social media warning teachers to stop being martyrs, or bragging about working late either at school or at home, a little bit of this is quite possibly pride in fulfilling what they see as a moral calling.
The big problem with this moral obligation is that it can be exploited by unscrupulous senior leadership teams. It is easy for a SLT to highlight those teachers doing the after-school revision sessions, giving up lunchtimes, spending hours planning interventions and giving the tacit message that anyone not doing these things is somehow not meeting their moral obligation to give the best for their kids.
I am pleased to say that this is not the case where I now work, but I have experienced it.
Trust and obligation
Many people would now naturally assume that I am going to go on and talk about how we cannot allow this to happen, and that we need to hold our leadership teams to account to ensure that this does not happen. And that is partially true. But it is not my main point.
You see, as a head of department, I feel a further moral obligation. Sometimes it’s a competing obligation, and sometimes it’s a harmonious obligation to that of the pupils in my care. That obligation is to my department staff.
My staff are literally placing their career in my hands. They are trusting me to lead the department in such a way as to allow them to fulfil their personal and professional ambitions.
I have ambitious staff that want to move into leadership themselves one day. They are trusting me with supporting that progression – to run my department in such a way as to allow them access to the opportunities to do so. They need the results to show they can perform (sad as this is). They need the training and skills to assume the next level of responsibility.
I have other staff who are not ambitious, or at least to the same extent. They may consider climbing the management ladder one day, but they are in no rush. And I have staff that have been up the ladder and decided to come back down.
They need a different experience. They trust me to keep things as simple as possible. To allow them the space and time to focus on doing their job well, supporting where and when needed, without having overly excessive and time-consuming procedures to follow.
I feel this obligation as keenly as I do the obligation to my pupils. This obviously presents challenges and conflicts: what if I believe something will work for kids, but will mean more work for staff? Can I allow my staff to go to participate in CPD if it means missing a full day of teaching, or perhaps even more?
It also presents harmonies; by changing this and setting things up in a certain way, I can improve the experience for pupils and support my staff in their ambitions.
Who is accountable?
Now, of course, if staff are feeling that I am not doing this job well, they may decide to leave my department. That is their right and I am fine with it. Some have (although they assure me not for any reasons of unhappiness with the department).
I think they should hold me to account. They have placed their trust in me and if I am not living up to that obligation, at least in their eyes, that is a serious thing and needs addressing.
We need to hold our leadership to account, too. They do have a moral obligation to our pupils. But they also have an obligation to us: to make sure that the school they run is set up to allow us to fulfil our professional goals and ambitions, whether they be promotion or simply having the maximum impact while still maintaining a work-life balance.
We should be able to hold our leaders to account when they get this wrong. We should be able to question, contradict and challenge. We should be able to “be restless”, as general secretary Geoff Barton recently told the Association of School and College Leaders' conference, not letting our inaction to allow us to be pushed into fruitless directions that help neither kids nor teachers, nor help one at too much expense to the other.
Why it's important to have professional agency
To do this, of course, teachers have to be extremely well informed. I see myself as a professional teacher. I work hard to try to stay up to date with developments in my field (maths teaching and leadership), as well as occasionally contributing to the field (with my blog and upcoming book).
I engage with CPD at every opportunity through social media, conferences and ongoing work such as the National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics secondary mastery specialist training.
I try to follow some of the big themes and debates in education – progressive and traditional being just one example. I believe it is important as a professional to behave in this way to maintain professional agency, although I know that it is often easier said than done in a lot of circumstances.
Jean-Louis Dutaut recently wrote about the importance of professional agency in ensuring that the teaching profession can stand up to the powers that shape our profession and wrest back some control. But, for me, this starts much lower down. It doesn’t start at the national level – it starts in our schools.
It starts with us, as middle leaders and staff, having both the courage and the knowledge to challenge our SLT and saying “I actually know something about this from my research and reading, and I can tell you that what you are asking of us has no basis in evidence".
Or even better: “I can see you are trying to make this happen; my knowledge of this area suggests this might be a fruitful strategy.”
When we have this going on in our schools, regularly and often, it will then begin to translate to the national picture. There is no way that headteachers will soak up and act on every diktat coming from above if they know that their staff will immediately see its flaws and challenge it. They will begin to challenge (I know some that already do, and regularly!) and from there it is a short hop from challenging poor policy to being the primary influencers in the setting of policy.
So, your leadership team have many moral obligations, but one of the most important is to you. The next time a new policy or initiative is announced, try to know enough about it (or find out enough about it) to determine its merits for yourself. Don’t fall into the trap of simply accepting that this is one more thing to do to fulfil your own moral obligation to your kids, because you might not actually be doing so.
Instead, challenge those things you find wanting, hold your leadership to account for what they ask of you. You might just be doing the whole profession some good.
Peter Mattock is director of maths and numeracy at Brockington College. He tweets @MrMattock