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Teachers are Amazing – But they Can’t Show it in our Broken Education System

You want to know just how brilliant teachers can be? Stop rearranging the furniture, and fix the @*&! roof, says Tom Starkey...

  • Teachers are Amazing – But they Can’t Show it in our Broken Education System

You may be brilliant.

You may be able deftly to lob throwing stars of knowledge into the craniums of even the most challenging Y8s at 50 paces.

You may be able to create lessons, virtuoso-like, that gleam and inspire and stay with your children for their entire lives.

You may be able to decipher the most impenetrable of data and actually put it to good use. You may be able to calibrate the whiteboard on your first try.

You may be able to give written feedback that’s not only useful, but which the kids actually read. You may be able to do all these things and more.

You may be able to do all these things; but that doesn’t mean you’ll get a chance to.

Because teachers are not teachers in isolation. We all work within systems, and ultimately, it’s these systems that can either allow us to soar…or shackle us.

It’s an uncomfortable truth. Everyone wants to believe that they are masters of their own destiny – captains of their own ship. And to a certain extent we are. But, ultimately, the systems of a school are the vessel we sail upon.

If those systems work, we can go about our jobs plotting the best course, making sure everything is squared away and the decks are gleaming. If they don’t, there’s no time for anything apart from bailing out the ever-rising water in an effort not to sink.

Ineffectual behaviour systems. Ridiculously arduous data tracking. A thousand decrees that mean endless extra hours of workload. All these things and more see the waterline rise.

This is why, when I hear reports of SLT embarking on a programme of improvement that doesn’t actually start by looking at its systems, alarm bells start to ring.

It amazes me when people seemingly can’t understand that you don’t sure up a house by rearranging the furniture inside. You look at the foundations. You look at the walls. You reinforce and strengthen.

It’s only when you’ve done all that, when you’re positive the whole thing isn’t going to collapse in on itself, that you start worrying about interior design.

No-one gives a damn whether that picture is hung right when the roof is about to cave in.

But the thing is, systematic change is hard. It involves graft, possible kickback from a wide range of stakeholders, and time.

All these things can seem hugely unattractive in comparison to fiddling around with minutiae of no consequence but looking as if you’re doing something.

Sometimes that’s a much more appealing route; absolutely useless, but appealing. And unfortunately, it’s one down which many a teacher is dragged.

By placing an emphasis on individuals rather than systemic issues, the onus of responsibility is shifted, disregarding the reality of the situation and enabling blame for any shortcomings to be placed on staff.

This then can be dealt with through an ‘easy fix’ whilst the problems will inevitably continue as the systems stay the same. It also ignores something else that I believe to be critical in such situations: you’ve no idea how good a teacher can be, if they are trying to ply their trade within dysfunctional systems.

You are not seeing their optimal performance. You are not seeing their best. You are seeing them with a rock around their neck. And you’re wondering why they’re struggling? And you’re going to judge them for it?

Do one.

Sort out your systems first, then look at individuals. Without functioning systems, you’ve no idea what people can do. Great teaching can only be enabled if systems support great teaching.

Evaluating an individual teacher’s performance when this is not occurring is not only a flawed approach, it’s disingenuous.

Sort your systems out first and that will allow you accurately to identify truly good practice (or bad as the case may be – I’m not so much of a romantic that I don’t realise that this is also a reality).

Sort your systems out first because anything else is, at best, ineffectual tinkering, and at worst an attempt to apportion blame away from the real problems.

Make sure your ship is worthy. Make sure your house is solid. Don’t be the person asking a teacher why they’re not bailing out faster – fix the ship. Don’t be the person having a go about a wonky coffee table as chunks of masonry fall like rain around you – fix the house.

Systems first.

Help them be brilliant.

Tom Starkey is a teacher and writer who blogs at stackofmarking.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212.

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