Enough of 'Whatever it takes'

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

Do you remember the moment you decided to be a teacher?

For the longest time, I have wanted to teach. I recall, as a child, watching an episode of 'Little House on the Prairie' on my Grandma's 14-inch portable. In this particular episode Mary, the eldest Ingalls daughter, is given a temporary teaching position at a one-room school in a small, backwood town called 'Willow Prairie'. On her arrival, despite her warmth and enthusiasm, she is met with bile and hostility from the local town leader, Miss Peel. Having driven previous teachers from the town with her anger and disapproval, Miss Peel opposes the creation of a school on grounds of biblical purity — "Know the Bible, that's all you'll need..." kind of thing. She opposes reading, worldly knowledge, independent thought...

Mary receives a barrage of abuse. She is pushed to her limits and returns home to the counsel of her father, who asks her what she really believes is right for the children of that town. Determined to stand by her morals, she returns to the school and confronts Miss Peel. "Read some of those words from the Bible you claim to live by..." she tells her in a heated and emotional exchange. And that exposes the truth: Miss Peel cannot read. And it is a secret that has eaten away at her for her whole adult life. It is the crux of her opposition: fear and judgment. In time, Miss Peel learns to accept — and even support — the work that Mary is doing to open the minds of the children in her town, acknowledging that the impediment that has limited her life, should be no reason to impede the lives of others.

Honestly, I watched that episode with my mouth open. I already knew I wanted to be a teacher, but that was definitely a moment of realisation for me that teaching is about more than a Mary-Poppins outlook. Sometimes, it's standing up for what you believe in. It's about grit and the importance of pursuing what's right in a culture that might point in the opposite direction. Mary was like a superhero, who did what it took to right the wrongs, even though others before her had not succeeded. I wanted to be Mary Ingalls. To this day, I do.

Well, some 30 years on, I have been a teacher for fifteen years and proudly call myself an educator. I have worked in a special school, an inner city school, opened a brand new school as its Deputy Head and, latterly, been Headteacher of Shropshire's only 'Free School'. In every post I have been in (one or two of which have borne a passing resemblance to Willow Prairie!) I have given my very best to fulfil my duties, to reflect on feedback in order to improve, to see challenge as opportunity and to be the teacher (or leader) that I know I am. Like many out there, when describing the job of teaching to others, I have summarised it as such: I do whatever it takes to help children realise their potential.

And that - from what I can see - is becoming a problem in our profession that needs to be discussed.

In a system of ever-increasing scrutiny, accountability and culpability and ever-declining professional support, frontline budget and good old respect and decorum, whatever it takes is simply no longer fair.

"Teacher Shortage Getting Worse, say MPs"

"Teacher Retention: Government Failing to Get a Grip"

"Heads Warn of Chronic Funding Shortage."

These three BBC News headlines, all published in the last eighteen months, sit amongst a sea of similar rhetoric. But I can't help but feel that they barely scratch the surface.

Both from personal experience and from what I hear from fellow teachers, I know that our job is so, so much more than imparting skill and knowledge - it always has been. It's far more than the huge responsibility of shaping characters or allowing the exploration of beliefs. The reality is that the call to go 'above and beyond' this, in today's education culture, is the over-expected and under-appreciated norm.

Sometimes, it's about being the parent that the child deserves, but doesn't have. It's taking their P.E. kit home each weekend to wash it, so they can feel less self-conscious amongst their peers. It's bringing in an unused alarm clock from home and setting it for an appropriate wake-up call because, "Dad works nights and can't get up with me..." It's getting to school ten minutes earlier than you did last year because there's only one photocopier on the site since the second one broke and wasn't replaced and "you just know there'll be a queue!" It's spending hours on your evenings and weekends poring over health and safety law and recruitment and employment law, so you can be held to account for its implementation, even though you're clearly not the right person for the job! It's adding school supplies, like pencils and glue sticks, to your weekly grocery list, because your class budget is gone until next month. It's happily accepting that your pay won't increase for the third consecutive year, as you know all too well that to receive a pay increase would negatively impact on others around you. It's making sure you're there, whatever it takes, to greet your class with a smile as they enter the room in the morning, when you barely had time to make eye contact with your own loved ones as you left the house... It's completing form after form after form, waiting on the phone for hours on end, often in your own time, to reach the professional support you require to meet the needs of a child in crisis...

Whatever it takes does not mean what it used to mean. Whatever it takes must be addressed as the cause of our workforce's ailing mental health and wellbeing and highlighted for what it is: an epidemic that is eating away at the heart of schools; committed, diligent, passionate and wholehearted teachers and school leaders. The people who intuitively give of themselves for the good of the children in their care. And we need them if education in our country is going to meet the needs of future generations.

Funny thing is, despite all of those 'extra miles', I still love teaching. I still see happy, effective teachers and schools in practice. I hear supportive discussions between colleagues that spark friendly debate and genuine improvement... I would encourage anyone who thinks teaching might be the right path for them, to stick with it. That's part of why I do what I do today: support colleagues as I would a friend, in order to realise the potential in our teaching workforce. To reflect, learn, better myself and my own skill and knowledge so that I can share it with others. I feel there is a real need for this, now more than ever. Ours should be a supportive profession, uplifting and nourishing our teachers because without them, there is no education system to reform!

To redress this imbalance, we have to shine a light on a few things:

Don't let perfection stand in the way of good enough.

Firstly, teachers, we have to shed this belief that to be an effective teacher, you have to be the hardest working. You don't. End of. You don't need the prettiest classroom, or the jazziest resources. You don't need to be the bona fide expert on every aspect of the national curriculum, or to be unwaveringly and doggedly focused on the pursuit of progress. You don't. Some days, being a great teacher means turning up and doing a pretty good job, because your own son is in France on residential and you wanted to make sure you were there to accept his call when he phoned to check in, rather than stay on later at school to make that flipchart. It's about the balance. It's about the skill and the professionalism of the teacher to know how to master their craft with the support of others who have gone before them.

Hard work + support + patience = success.

You need to be open to feedback, constantly willing to learn and develop, able to operate under pressure, but fundamentally not sabotaged by unrealistic workload or underfunding. You need to be able to say, "no" and state your case, to ask questions and give opinions without fear of repercussion.

Expect to be happy sometimes. If you're not, something's wrong.

My biggest asset as a teacher, by far, was my happiness. It allowed me to learn, gave me the strength to pick myself up after a fall and the courage to take risks. I know for sure, when I was unhappy, I was ineffective. Let that sink in... I wasn't ineffective because I wasn't using open-ended questioning, or because I didn't triple-mark my books. If I was ever ineffective, I can almost guarantee it was because I was unhappy.

Celebrate the child, not the statistic.

Next, we have to ensure we place the pride of our schools in the achievement of those it exists to serve: the children. That sounds like a "whatever it takes" comment I know, but I don't mean that at all. I mean, we need to insist that schools are evaluated and applauded not only on the basis of academic outcomes, but on their ability to engender happy, confident and fulfilled children. Everyone says it is the more important outcome, so why do we diminish it? We want parents to know that some of the most inspirational practice exists in schools that are far from OFSTED Outstanding. The banners outside schools need to say: 'Our children are thriving!' rather than 'It's official - OFSTED say we're Outstanding!' (Perhaps both, but not the latter without the former).

Scrap the grades. They don't help.

We need no-grading inspection, which focuses on fair, descriptive evaluation of the school's achievements to help the children they have to reach their potential, with the budget they must operate within. We need an inspection system which seeks to support and improve, not just to judge.

Curriculum: vague in content, specific in ambition.

We need a curriculum that flexibly accounts for life in modern Britain, that is vague in its content, but specific about its ambitions. I am most certainly not averse to the teaching of facts, but only when the context is right... Why teach the names and dates of reign of our country's monarchs, or the intricacies of complex grammar, when the child can't tell you their home address or the approximate cost of a loaf of bread? "Don't teach them those facts then," says the observer. "What happens when I don't meet my targets?" asks the teacher...

Invest in the future. It is our moral imperative.

We need to be getting children back into green spaces, where they can engage in authentic communication, problem solving and resourcefulness. We need to develop their sense of awe and wonder, to show them that a consumer society is not sustainable and that the future is theirs to shape.

You know, I could go on...

If Mary Ingalls were here today, she'd probably be in the midst of capability proceedings.

Not because she is incompetent, impertinent or naive but because she competently and lucidly strove to teach the children what was most going to empower them to make a positive change, despite the constraints she was under and the opposition she faced. If she had returned home to her father a second, a third or a fourth time to seek his counsel, to tell him she had tried to make a difference, but that it was falling on deaf ears, that she was giving her all but was exhausted, demoralised, lonely... Like any parent, he'd tell her to leave. That's what we have to prevent: our most passionate and potentially life-changing educators, walking away.

Our children do deserve the best. They really, really do. And any teacher or school leader who is in this profession for an easy ride, for the power trip, for the bursary to train or because schools are responding to the recruitment crisis by appointing the best of a bad bunch, then this is not for you. But for those who simply want to be the best teacher they can be — and are willing to work hard to achieve that — then they deserve the fair chance that any professional would expect. But the best is achieved through empowerment and support, which takes time. It's achieved by recognising that all of us have limits and that it takes a village, not an individual, to raise (and educate) a child. Giving teachers and school leaders the best shot at having their own Mary Ingalls moment comes not by eliciting fear, but by eliciting hope.

I'd rather my son be taught by a hopeful novice, who is well supported by a happy and empowered school leader, given the time to offer their support, rather than an experienced teacher who works 60+ hours a week, never makes it to the staffroom for a cuppa or to the loo for a pee, let alone having time to reflect or to learn from colleagues or to improve their own state of happiness.

As a happy, successful educator I believe we have to put away our "we did whatever it took" badges of honour and acknowledge that the pace of change and growing expectation is too much. There's a reason we're told to put our own oxygen mask on, before helping others in an emergency.

As educators, we have to ask for help and we should expect that help to be there. We have to apply some self discipline, to ensure we turn the computer off when it is the right time to do so. That's the 'whatever it takes' we need to pursue today. We have to add our voices to those who are calling for fairer funding or inspection and accountability reform. But most of all, we have to be in the room: happy, hopeful and unafraid. Here's to those making it happen.

To find out more about how John Newton Education can support you, your school or your event, please get in touch.

Thank you for reading.

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