Why there are no bad teachers, only bad school leaders

If teachers are underperforming, we need to look at the opportunities they have been offered, argues Kulvarn Atwal

CPD: School leaders need to make sure that they are presiding over a learning environment for their teachers, says Kulvarn Atwal

I have always been confident that our most committed and reflective practitioners in school are also our most effective, and I strongly believe that school leaders make a powerful difference to teachers’ experiences and children’s learning. 

Nonetheless, I didn’t know how to go about creating such a learning community. 

The quality of the learning environment for teachers varies widely between schools – and, consequently, the quality of children’s learning experiences also varies – and much more can be done to improve these learning experiences. 


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The teachers I interviewed on the topic spoke about the significance of learning that happened informally within their year group teams and across the school.

It was clear that some had experienced restrictive environments in their schools, where their learning was constrained by organisational difficulties or lack of opportunities. 

CPD: Learning opportunities for teachers

They put this down directly to the decision-making within the school, particularly by their school leaders.

My findings show the huge influence of school leaders in determining the expansiveness of the learning environment – or lack of it – and whether learning opportunities were available to teachers. 

The teachers I interviewed valued opportunities for collaborative planning, seeing such activities as promoting a positive culture for learning within the school. 

They viewed school leaders as being able to design professional learning opportunities that would enable them to engage in professional dialogue and learn collaboratively with and from each other.

'Confident but humble'

School leaders need to be confident but humble. They should be informed about their practice and unafraid to be creative and take risks.

Openness and transparency should be central in professional dialogues with staff, maintaining the focus on children’s learning and progress. 

School leaders must also accept that they can learn from their peers. They operate in a culture of high challenge and high trust, able to challenge the team to achieve optimal outcomes for their children yet open to challenge from team members because it’s all about the impact of their actions on children’s learning.

When I am presenting to senior leaders, I am often asked the question “How do I get rid of underperforming teachers?” 

Considering that I am usually extolling the virtues of teacher engagement in a wide and diverse range of professional learning activities, this question is disheartening. 

I always answer it in the same way: if a teacher is motivated to develop and improve, then, regardless of their starting point, school leaders can and should enable their professional learning and development. 

When I arrived at my current school, I worked with a number of teachers who had only been in the profession for two or three years. Their professional capabilities had been questioned, yet I could see that they had the drive and motivation to be successful.

Teachers are developing their craft during their first few years of practice, and we need to give them opportunities to learn and improve. 

One of those teachers has since told me that they would probably have left the profession if those negative early experiences had continued.

Don't give up

We have to believe that with the right culture and conditions in place, our teachers can learn and develop, in the same ways that we believe children can learn and develop. We wouldn’t give up on children, so why are we so quick to give up on teachers? 

I have worked with teachers who have been reluctant to improve and have shown a lack of commitment to have children’s learning as the core purpose of their work. But these were extremely rare exceptions. 

The dynamic learning community is designed to be collaborative and if you are a member of staff at such a school, you have to be committed to the process. 

If this is valued and modelled continuously, teachers who don’t share those same values will look to move on.

Engagement in activities such as action research, peer learning and lesson study enable teachers to gain confidence and become more positive about their learning.

Kulvarn Atwal is executive headteacher of two large primary schools in the London Borough of Redbridge. His first book, The Thinking School: developing a dynamic learning community, is out now

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