Labels and Leavers: why teachers may leave teaching…

Having read Chris Hildrew’s entry into this month’s #blogsync, I too reflected on the fact that in 6 years and 2 terms of teaching I’ve never considered leaving.

I have never considered becoming a teacher, despite accepting undoubtedly being one, at any point in my life including my first two teaching posts (a rebellious need to prove my parents wrong in what they thought I’d be good at – having already dodged following my dad’s footsteps into law – they also thought I’d be good at it! These teaching posts were just a way of paying the bills while I worked out what I really wanted to be… don’t put a label on me!).

However, whilst in the classroom doing the job – no matter how many SLT based pub rants, rants about students with no aspirations, rants about colleagues – I never considered giving the job up.

Six years on and into my third teaching post, I’ve had the luck of Ofsted following me wherever I went (four Ofsteds in six years and observed in 3) and had seen many colleagues strain, stress and some crumble under the pressure and each school fight as (if) their life depended on it. Throughout this, I’ve only seen 1 colleague leave teaching behind, one trainee leave before completing training and one of my former trainees has just handed in her resignation and is taking some time to reflect whilst travelling.

I do expect to encounter more and more teachers leaving the profession as Gove, casting himself as a modern day Prospero, busies himself in creating his educational tempest, which I only assume will lead us through a series of trials and tribulations designed to reveal the error of our ways around April 2015.

Gove as Prospero, Students with aspiration as Miranda, Teachers as Caliban?

My luck with Ofsted gave me the unique experience of not caring what they think early on. An anecdote that my colleagues tire of hearing is on my first Ofsted as an unqualified instructor of English 5 weeks into my first teaching post, the inspector visited my classroom and saw me doing some peer assessed Speaking and Listening with the chance then to build on the feedback and improve. He told me it was a good lesson and the children were engaged and all improved the level they were working at while he was in the classroom (40 minutes) but he could only give me Satisfactory as I didn’t use an interactive whiteboard to record the peer feedback enabling me to then print it out and give it to the students to remind them of their targets for the next Speaking and Listening exercise they would do. This was all very well had there been an interactive whiteboard in the classroom I was using. I argued that the students all made notes of the targets they were set on a feedback matrix they had. The argument kept coming back to the lack of use of technology and me pointing out there wasn’t the technology to use. In the end we had to agree to disagree and I had a Satisfactory which my Head of Department was pleased with though I can’t stand the word.

From this point onward, I couldn’t take any inspector coming into my classroom seriously.

But this is where the crux of my argument lies. This ‘Satisfactory’ was a label despite me (precociously) knowing differently (better) and it is labels that are destroying the morale of teachers and students. If it wasn’t for the above experience, it could have been the reason for me leaving teaching in a parallel universe.

Inadequate, Requires Improvement, Satisfactory, Special Measures, C/D borderline, Underachievers, Intervention group, Nurture Group, Gifted and Talented, SEN, SEND, FSM, FSM6, Performance Management, Appraisal, Pre-capability, Capability, Pupil Premium. The list of labels and acronyms in education is endless but there is one thing that ties all these things together, which often goes completely out of the window:

Sound evidence based practice.

None of the labels above require anything other than the exposure to sound evidence based practice or the improvement of sound evidence based practice.

A colleague is given a ‘Requires Improvement’ grade but during the lesson had realised that the students weren’t responding in the way they’d expected. They change the lesson plan towards the end of the observed period and had results by the end of the lesson. The observer didn’t see this and gives the ‘Requires Improvement’ grade and enacts a procedure similar to pre-capability before another observation. That colleague is distraught because of the label, the added work and the lack of trust despite the students coming out of the lesson happier in the topic having had their learning personalised and scaffolded.

Another colleague is observed for 20 minutes and given ‘Requires Improvement’ despite the students coming out at the end of the lesson saying ‘thank you – we get it now’. The label ruins this sense of achievement the lesson should have brought and they can’t see past the label to the clear success and appreciation of the class. ‘Requires Improvement’ label for not playing the twenty minute game despite giving a good service to the students.

At this time of year, around the country’s schools you will see the sad march of the C/D borderline student – more often than not C/D borderline across many subjects – trudging through the corridors being moved from classroom to classroom being beaten with the revision stick, taken out of subjects / forms / core PE, or marched to after school sessions in front of their peers to experience ‘intervention’. The creating of hierarchies of subjects based on league tables sets  English and Maths up as the big bad subjects that have stifled a C/D borderline student’s love of art as they must do intervention instead of art to make a difference to a percentage point on the league table so the school can avoid being labelled negatively in the press, by ofsted or anonymously on forums. Of course I accept the need of these students to have the appropriate level of English and Maths to take them into the working world but by Year 10  / 11 it is too late. There hasn’t been the required focus on evidence based practice to get them to the point they need to be when they hit Key Stage 4. The perceptual circle of only Year 11 (a label) matters neglects the focus on younger students.

People’s lives are being manipulated to suit labels that are written on paper and recorded for time eternity but nothing truly constructive coming out of it because there isn’t the time as there is yet another label to focus on.

Here’s your target, work it out for yourself. A lack of challenge in an observation: target – challenge the students more.

I’ve sat through ‘CPD’ sessions where the words ‘Ofsted want you to do … like …’ without mention of why this is good practice (if it is), without challenging the potential misconceptions of the presenter (the subjective nature of the Ofsted Framework, the lack of links with the Inspector’s Handbook and the different interpretations of other schools’ inspection reports) and most importantly – and unforgivably – without anyone showing or asking about any benefit to the student. These sessions are ‘how to avoid a negative label’ or often pitched as ‘do this to keep your / our jobs’. Nothing to do with sound evidence based practice.

Teachers are confused, lost, caught up in, stressed about and often on long-term sick because of these labels. You just understand one acronym and another comes up that you must focus on. You’ve just cracked the 3 part lesson with pacey activities and now you can be didactic with a slower deeper focus. God knows if anyone else’s job requirements changed so often, they would leave.

Apart from the job requirements don’t change: the labels do.

All that is required is for your practice to be sound, evidence based, consistent and reflective. Each decision you make in the classroom should be for the benefit of the student not the label. Each decision a school makes should be for the benefit of the student and not the label. Knowing your key theories should under-pin everything you do even if it is more experimental.

Require more challenge in your lesson – See Vygotsky.

Students seem to be missing the key link that allows them to fully understand a concept –  See Bruner.

Until education values the research that relates to learning over the Ofsted mantra (these should be explicitly connected but that is for another blog) and especially over the arrogance of ‘this works (worked) in my classroom (school) so everyone should be doing it’ without a key understanding of the fundamental theories that cause that way to work, then teachers will continue to flow out of the profession taking resources, wasted talent and investment with them.

Unravel the labels to value the evidenced based practice and you will have a happier cohort of staff and students whose needs are met in every single lesson.

This is essentially all the government, Ofsted and teachers want.

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for March here:

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  1. March 2013 #blogsync: Teacher Attrition EDUTRONIC | Share - March 31, 2013

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