Education · Teaching

In Teachers We Trust

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My first three weeks in my new job may not have gained as much press coverage as Jeremy Corbyn’s but they have been no less eventful; and I bet Corbyn didn’t wear a colander on his head for his first address to the Labour Party… Earlier this week I reflected on Corbyn’s first few days and it seems only fair to apply the same level of scrutiny to my own work.

The teaching bit has been much harder than I expected, 27 of my 29 children speak English as a second language and most aren’t really sure what school is for yet. In my first week I had to scrap everything I had planned as I’d pitched it all wrong. I ended up spending one lesson passing various objects around a circle and encouraging pupils to construct a full sentence about them:

“Try again, it’s not ‘ball yellow’ it’s “the ball is yellow.” I’ve been acting my socks off and spend a lot of time singing and miming. Most days my class look like they’re playing a manic game of charades. It is absolutely exhausting but completely worth it;they make me smile and laugh all the time and having even just the smallest breakthrough with them makes my day.

The Assistant Head bit has been extremely positive; the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) all seem to be on the same page and agree that the our philosophy should be very simple: trust. In our first meeting we agreed on two basic principles: nobody starts working in a school to do a bad job of it and teachers are trained professionals who need time and space to teach. The job of the SLT is to free up the teachers as much as possible to allow them to focus on teaching. The teachers also need to be treated like adults. On our first day it was made very clear that it is not the job of the SLT to constantly check that everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing. People can be trusted to do their jobs and are perhaps more likely to do them well if they aren’t looking over the shoulder or watching the door.

One thing that has hindered school improvement up to this point has been the regular staff turnover. If people keep leaving it’s difficult to spread and embed good practice. So job one is boost morale and make our school a happy place to work. Boosting morale can be done in a number of ways but showing trust is a good place to start. So here’s what we’ve done over the last 18 days:

1) We’ve cut weekly book scrutiny.

For those that don’t work in schools (or though I’m not sure how many non-teachers are reading) book scrutiny is when your class’ exercise books get looked through to check the marking is up to scratch the work is pitched correctly etc… it’s essentially your management marking your marking. Ofsted care a lot about books at the moment so, sadly, schools have to care a lot about them too. In my new school teachers used to have their books looked at every week. It will now just be once a term unless there is any overwhelming cause for concern.

2) We’ve cut back from two staff meetings a week to one hour long staff meeting every other week. Teachers need time after school to prepare for the next day. If you take that time up with meetings they will either not have time to adequately prepare or take all their preparation home  which makes for tired, overworked teachers. Tired, overworked teachers are not the most effective teachers and they are certainly not happy teachers.

3) We’ve scrapped the “expected” amount of work in books. Again for any non-teachers this one will seem strange (because it is strange.) Despite Ofsted releasing a document that states they will NOT be looking at the quantity of work in books some schools still insist on a certain number of “pieces” per week. This might not sound like such a big deal but remember pieces of work are not the same as lessons. A lesson may have no writing in it at all and still be incredibly valuable it might involve drama, music, debating, art, reading etc… There may be nothing “to show” in books but that doesn’t mean learning hasn’t taken place.

4) “More inspiration less perspiration.”  The policies have been stripped back and the paperwork slashed. There is a folder of the sign-in times of the staff from last year (yes really, there is a folder for that, no I don’t know who it’s for.) It makes terrifying reading. 4 teachers were getting in BEFORE 6am. A dozen were in BEFORE 7 – I get in at 7am and I’m considered an early bird by most people’s standards. Most staff weren’t leaving until school closed and they were kicked by the site manager. Yet despite the long hours the school wasn’t improving. All this suggests is that people were working very, very hard on things that were having no real impact. So the new motto is “more inspiration less perspiration” – if you free up people’s time, provide a clear vision and motivation the rest will happen (at least that’s what we’re hoping.)

We’ve been very honest about our situation: the school needs to be “Good” (in every sense of the word) by the time Ofsted come and if we get there and get that grade it will be a much easier place to work. Having HMI breathing down your neck is not conducive to a happy work place. Once we’re a good school we will be left alone to get on with our jobs.

At this point, we can’t say what all this will do for the dreaded data and we don’t know what Ofsted will make of it yet. Any “impact” we’ve had is entirely subjective but here’s what we have notice:

1)  People are coming up with ideas  and wanting to share them.

2) Staff are approaching the SLT to say how much happier they feel at work. One woman said she was actually able to get home early enough to spend some time with her children. Hurrah!

3) People are getting in later! Hooray!

I’m the second or third person in instead of the 11th or 12th! We’ve been overwhelmed by how responsive and welcoming the staff have been of the changes. Of course this is only week 3. There will be the inevitable dip when the honeymoon period fades and we still have both Ofsted and the Local Authority to face in the next 10 months. However I feel confident that, whatever happens, our philosophy shall remain the same; in teachers we trust.

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