How to make room for being an outstanding teacher in 2014

Nic Ponsford

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

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Having accumulated plentiful experience in both the classroom and the education-based private sector, Nicole Ponsford considers how teachers can make the most of the current education sector.

How can you be an outstanding teacher in 2014, against strikes, changing school forms and new curriculums? How can you be, and why would you want to be, outstanding all of the time? I have been graded at this level several times in my profession, but I started teaching well over a decade a go. I suppose my question is… since leaving the classroom in 2011, would I be ‘outstanding’ today and what would I change?

As a school improvement coach and consultant, my heart always goes out to teachers ‘in the field’. I know of the pressures – I have been there – but feel that there is more of an edge in 2014 than there was at the start of the Millennium. Today, there seems to be a shift in morale in schools as a result of the changes in education – politically, digitally and as a professional generally. I don’t recall ever really feeling a huge impact of outside forces, nor watched the news to find out what I would be teaching in September.

I think it’s safe to say that teachers are more ‘frowny’ than smiley at the but if you manage to be outstanding - against, let’s face it, some really shaky ground at the moment – are you celebrated or are you seen an outsider in other schools? In the USA they rate their schools in terms of regions. They have top states for education. Can you imagine that in the UK? We struggle to celebrate the success of our neighbouring schools on the whole. But wait; before you scroll down to write comments about ‘how could I know as I am not in the classroom’ – I am on your side and this is why.

The real change from ten years ago, it seems, is that the offers of support are not always there in many schools for the teachers. People (meaning teachers and schools) have less time, mainly due to less / more local authority contact than you really want, tighter budgets / less offsite CPD and less time to… just talk about how things are going.

I work with a range of schools, and hundreds of classrooms, but – as an external professional – am always surprised how willing teachers, TAs and Leadership Teams are to talk to me and ask for advice. Back in my day the brought-in consultant was always the one you closed down to – they could never know “what they were talking about” as they didn’t understand. Seemingly now, however, many more teachers want more support than they are getting. I believe you can only get the best out of yourself as a teacher when you are supported. When you work in partnership. It is a lonely job surrounded by people, but you need a team around you and lots of positive, realistic support (tea and cakes help too.) So, what has changed?

Fresh from my PGCE, I was keen to make an impact and “make a difference”. When I got into the classroom, there were ‘Golden Hellos’, the Fast Track (to leadership scheme) and Advanced Skilled Teachers - all incentives for the ambitious and competitive teacher that I was. I was able to take advantage of all of these and climb the ladder to leadership and ensure that I was getting results in the classroom (most of the time).

I don’t mean to sound arrogant or flippant, honestly! It is not easy to teach for results, and it is not easy being a young teacher entering Middle Management, but there were systems in place at my first school (which was graded Outstanding) and a very supportive working environment. I was hard working (newly single!) and happy. However, reflecting today on what it is like to be a teacher today, it does trouble me.

Going back, I was lucky enough to be a natural teacher and was able to produce outstanding lessons - with help from a very supportive mentor - and good results, good results and the Teaching Award really was the icing on the cake after a few years of hard work. However, I had a great tutor for my training, excellent line managers and a Mentor for the Fast Track course. I do recall the more cynical teachers who had seen it all before. They would sit with their arms folded and poo-poo new ideas. They did not seem passionate about their students, and were not interested in the next wave of new ‘meat’ (NQTs, OTTs and GTPs).

Now, more than a decade on, I look at new teachers and wonder if you really can 'teach' all teachers to be outstanding. What if teaching isn't so much a taught skill than natural talent in a range of areas (management, relationship building, professional coaching, data analysis, event planning and software training, for example). You need the clay to mold in the first place, surely? They need the three ‘T’s: tools, the time and the team.

So looking at the new recruits, how are they faring against this and against these three ‘T’s? I think well in the main. They are getting there, just as we did. Teams are stronger on the whole, although time and tools are still not what we would wish for.

In 2000, our line managers were the same mixture of abilities and attitudes that the Heads of Departments / Years / Key Stage leaders of today. However less middle managers hold these positions merely because they have clocked more years up / “organized a trip once”, as they had in one of my schools (and yes, that was for a core subject). It might be as the LT are more stretched today, or that it's the belief that a '1' lesson can be delivered by someone who hasn't quite honed their talent yet. I believe that the way forward is for a personalized approach to CPD – personalised to the needs of each teacher, just like we differentiate teaching and learning for our students.

We also need to recognise more that parents are part of this team. They have a wealth of information and knowledge on their children, yet some of us are closing the door on one of our key team players. In light of 24/7 schools and having a holistic view of the student – I am surprised that many parents are unable to have a sincere dialogue about learning with the teachers of their children. Why do we not allow enough time for this? Maybe we need some team building exercises with families - and our peers.

What’s next? Assessing the tools that we use to educate our students and the environment in which we work. Do you think UK schools on the whole look like schools a decade down the line from 2004? Some look no different to what they did in 1970. Where are the suites of tech? The innovative classroom environments? The exciting online lessons where global classrooms sing? Well they are there in corners of schools, but mainly housed in the same buildings that they were 13 years ago. Edtech just isn't consistent (in implementation nor content) from one school to the other around the corner. Many new exciting teachers haven't heard of (the now ‘old’) teaching strategies (like flipped classrooms and power teaching) that can keep lessons fresh.

Why is this? Is there less of a thirst for what's out there, or is it just not important? I hoped / expected teaching to be seen as more inspirational a decade down the road. I'm not sure it is any more than it was a decade ago. This isn't for a lack of trying or want - I think results, reports, new curriculums (and arguably what leads to) disengaged students and overloaded heads doesn't leave much time to focus on 'the craft' for many teachers today.

So where do we go from here? What advice do I give? Stop. Look. Reflect. Look at what your day entails and what successes and strengths you have. Speak to your line managers and peers and think about what you could do to improve both your day, and those around you. I think it is time to assess. But not based on what a consultant says – based on your needs as a school. Make time to talk to one another and your school will not only be one for today, but one for your tomorrows too.

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