I am not a number
This Guest Blog is from Laura Redhead, a Teach First participant who teaches in a secondary school in Liverpool. Laura is on a Summer placement with the RSA education team.
By job description I am a maths teacher. To many people: the casual onlooker, fellow recent graduates, the officer who stamped the ‘occupation status’ on my departure form at the airport, and even the pupils I teach, talking about numbers is all I do.
They may be correct in the sense that the quality of my output is measured in numerical terms (i.e. rankings in league tables and percentages of A*-C grades). But a parent wouldn’t like to think of their child as being analysed in terms of three sub-levels of progress, and teachers don’t see individual pupils as a target level or grade. While a parent’s evening conversation may involve such data, the child’s interests and individual needs are much more important to both parties. So why aren’t teachers evaluated in terms of their qualitative values?
In a recent frontline voices podcast from the RSA, Carey Oppenheim outlines the qualities needed to be a teacher. Ideally a teacher is: “inventive and organised, a good talker and listener, energetic and calm, spontaneous and consistent”, and above all have the ability to relate to young people. Now as a new recruit, my initial naïve thought is that a number given as a result of an Ofsted inspection ( 1=Outstanding, 2=Good, 3=Satisfactory, 4=Inadequate – at least until the recent changes kick in) probably overlooks the qualitative worth of an individual teacher. Nevertheless, Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw does recognise the individual strengths of teachers and the “need to celebrate diversity, ingenuity and imagination” in the different styles in which we teach. And yes teacher training and senior leadership are right to focus on individual strengths (and weaknesses) of individual teachers in individual lessons. But stopping there implies that teachers are operating as technicians delivering pre-determined outcomes, albeit in a variety of ways. If teachers are to be considered as professionals then other aspects of their role need to be valued: for example, how their individual practice can be used within a whole school approach; how well they collaborate and contribute to innovation across the school and in partnership with colleagues. After all, the potential of innovative collaboration is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
One of the recommendations of the schools White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’ was to recruit motivated graduates, and reform teacher training. Through my graduate scheme/teacher training course I have been monitored heavily, not just by the equivalent of The Prisoner’s Number Two (the village administrator). I have been rigorously observed by a number of stakeholders; my subject tutor, subject mentor, senior leadership, a consultant from the LEA (Local Education Authority), school governors, the SIP (School Improvement Processor), colleagues, fellow TeachFirst participants and Ofsted (the chief administrator if you like). The question arises as to how effective this system of quality control inspections is. I, like many other teachers, take a pragmatic stance towards the excess paperwork involved. However, what I do value is the chance to evaluate and reflect with the professional opinion of an expert. Sometimes I am honoured by the fact they want to extract my ideas.
During my time at the RSA, I have observed how innovative and creative ideas can be put into practice. However my limited insight into teaching practice, research and theory tells me that whilst there is a lot of innovation coming from the outside organisations, there seems to be reluctance towards risk taking, research and questioning policy from within schools. Although many schools are doing innovative things, it is crucial that teachers within those schools are fully on board. Surely a social change igniting curriculum innovation should be supported by all realms of the sphere of influence:from the inside outwards as well as from the outside in. True autonomy and effective collaboration is only possible if every agent: teachers, teaching assistants, department heads, senior leadership, outside agencies, training bodies – as well as OFSTED – recognises the impact they can have.
Like Number Six I refuse to give into the pretence and accept the boundaries of my assigned number or job title. As for the theme of individualism versus collectivism, I agree with giving individual schools the freedom to do their own thing, but feel that teachers should fight their reluctance to take risks or open up their practice to reflection and scrutiny of other professionals?. However such autonomy can only be successful if all are striving for the same goal – should this be to equip school leavers with the skills and competencies (in addition to academic knowledge) to thrive in the 21st century? Or is the school’s ranking and percentage of 5+ A*-C’s enough?