I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing a position on teaching & learning.
I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.
I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:
- Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
- Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
- Understanding the finances;
- Establishing your core purpose;
- Being patient;
- Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
- Understanding change management;
- Coping with the loneliness.
In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This post explores, establishing a position on teaching & learning.
Establishing a position on teaching & learning
Considering your title as an early career head teacher is head teacher, it is deeply ironic that, in the first few months of being in post, the last thing you’ll have time to think about is the quality of teaching in the school!
Overwhelmed by the buck stopping with you, by the time you have decided on your electricity and gas supplier, how to respond to the proposed change in your catchment area, what to do about the Facebook campaign opposing your change in school uniform, and whether or not you are going to make the call on a wet break, who is teaching what and how in room W17 on a windy Thursday afternoon in November is the last thing on your mind.
But if you are an early career head teacher today, now, in November 2019, when it comes to teaching and learning you have a huge advantage over us old lags. The support out there to help you understand which teaching techniques best help students learn is better than it has ever been since the school system began. Truly.
Recently, I have been doing a talk called 25 years of hurt. Looking back, my PGCE training was poor. Consequently, I taught for a quarter of a century without really knowing what I was doing – I got by on force of character and sheer enthusiasm. Students enjoyed the lessons. They were engaged. Results were OK. But looking back, it could have been so much better. Only in the last six years, since I have learnt so much about teaching and learning, have I begun to employ teaching strategies which have the best chance of helping students learn. And it took me the first ten years of headship before I grasped what I should be doing as a head teacher.
So, when I was first a head teacher, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about teaching and learning. I was a feather for each wind that blows. I was Dylan Wiliam’s magpie, made real – a snapper-up of myriad shiny teaching and learning techniques which one training course after another said would transform examination outcomes overnight.
Some elements of the KS3 Strategy were useful and have stood the test of time. Dylan Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box came out the same week in 1998 that I began as a Deputy at Huntington and I even bothered to ring Dylan up to chat about it with him. I have heard him repeat what he said to me during our ’phone call on that autumn morning in 1998 at conferences for the last twenty-odd years. But when I became responsible for everything in a school on 1 September 2003, I hardly knew anything about teaching and learning.
The thing is, it is easy to make token gestures to help you feel like you are doing something. In my first headship, we bought every teacher a copy of Paul McGinnis’ tremendous book The Teacher Toolkit. It was a big deal. The book is great if you use it judiciously, over several years and work on one or two elements of practice you need to improve. Just throwing books at teachers and thinking that is all you need to do will do diddly squat to improve teaching. Goodness knows how much that initiative cost us and goodness knows where those books are now.
Looking back, I don’t reckon that gesture of largesse had any impact whatsoever on the quality of teaching and learning. But it made me feel a bit better. I could tell governors that we had bought books and had had a whole training session launching the initiative. What I didn’t tell governors was that there was no follow through at all on the Teacher Toolkit initiative, just an after school launch session. The thing is, I didn’t know I was being so rubbish.
If I had my time again, I would have done things very differently. So, if you are appointed to lead a school for the first time and you haven’t had a moment to think about improving teaching and learning, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for establishing a position on teaching & learning:
WARNING – of all the ones in this series of posts, this has been the most difficult set of tips to define and put in order, maybe because establishing a position on teaching and learning is damned hard. And I could have gone on and on…
1. To begin with, read nine essential publications on teaching and learning. There have been more books on teaching and learning published in the last five years than you can possibly find time to read. However, if you feel like you need to get up to speed so you have a position on teaching and learning, this admittedly subjective selection will help enormously:
- Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school?;
- Dylan Wiliam’s Leadership for Teacher Learning;
- Vivian Robinson’s Student Centred Leadership;
- Graham Nuttall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners;
- Tom Sherrington’s The Learning Rainforest;
- Daisy Christodolou’s Making Good Progress?;
- Mary Myatt’s Gallimaufry to Coherence;
- Barack Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (or Tom Sherrington’s brilliant explanation of the principles); and
- Adam Boxer’s Explicit & Direct Instruction.
As a head teacher I think you have to take responsibility for your own professional development, and these nine publications are a great start. You have to know what you are talking about. And to keep you up-to-date there are so many good resources online. People like Tom Sherrington, Harry Fletcher-Wood, Kate Jones, Adam Boxer, Mary Myatt, Mark Enser, David Didau, Ruth Walker, the Education Endowment Foundation, Alex Quigley, Christine Counsell and so many more, are publishing their ideas on a daily basis. And this guide for how to teach teachers the science of learning, overseen by Harry Fletcher-Wood is, as far as I am concerned, an absolute game-changer. And published only this month.
2. If you need to, sort out behaviour before you do anything else in school. Until you have good student behaviour in lessons right across your school, you cannot focus upon developing teaching and learning. You may never get student behaviour perfect in every lesson, every day, but you have to establish consistently good student behaviour before your colleagues can begin the challenging work on improving their teaching. Even at Michaela School – Britain’s strictest school according to press reports – they still advertise for a “detention director”.
3. Watch everyone teaching in your first two terms. Be ruthless. Once behaviour is sorted out, make this a priority. And emphasise that you want to see every day lessons, nothing fancy. No show lessons. Just what we do in our classrooms, day-in, day-out. Feedback swiftly and dialogically. No judgements, just have a discussion about what people think about teaching and why they choose to teach the way they do. Reflect upon what you have learnt and engage in professional conversations and teaching frequently, both formally and informally. But, remember, you can only do that if you know what you are talking about. This process will help you understand what needs to be done to improve the quality of teaching in the school you are leading school, in its context. And show wilful humility, something Jim Collins defines as, “tremendous ambition for your school combined with the stoic will to do whatever it takes, to make the school great. Yet at the same time display a remarkable humility about yourself, ascribing much of your own success to luck, discipline and preparation rather than personal genius”.
4. Prioritise professional development. Tom Bentley said at a NCTL conference in 1996 that once you have found your core purpose, change your school’s existing structures to accommodate your core purpose rather than accommodate your core purpose around your existing structures. The development of teaching and learning is your priority. In essence, find the hours during the school week for your staff to work on their practice. You must not expect them to do it all in their own time. And any logistical barrier can be overcome. Just because half your students come to school on buses does not mean you cannot finish early once a fortnight for training: just sort it out with the bus companies and with your parents. No logistical barrier should stop you in improving the quality of teaching.
5. By the end of your first year, aim for everyone to understand the relationship between curriculum content, pedagogy and assessment. If you accomplished that, it would be an enormous step forward. Once that is clear in everyone’s mind, you can begin to shape a professional training and development programme which is tailored around the needs of each subject area in your school, something that will take you five years to mature. You might need to begin with curriculum content, or it might be that you need to focus on the teaching of domain specific vocabulary, or you may need to reset the assessment regime. Whatever it is, do not overwhelm colleagues. One step at a time. Implementation over years is the key.