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Are school hierarchies killing teacher confidence?

March 21, 2023, 8:47 GMT+1
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  • A top-down approach to CPD is stifling teachers’ ability to make changes in the classroom
Are school hierarchies killing teacher confidence?

‘If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.’

So said the eminent educationalist, Dylan William, and I couldn’t agree more. Anyone who works in a school knows that continuous professional development is essential for unleashing the full potential of both teachers and students. I have never come across a teacher who is not interested or invested in self-improvement.

The trouble is, implementing successful CPD can be problematic. And applying a hierarchical management structure to staff training is not always the solution.

Hierarchy as a management tool

Schools and MATs are, by their very nature, hierarchical organisations, led and managed by senior leaders. This structure is extremely effective for the day-to-day running of a school.

Clear lines of command and communication ensure the smooth operation of what is an incredibly complex machine. Every aspect of school life is defined by SLT, from budget allocation and data collection to recruitment and curriculum design. 

In the vast majority of schools, deciding on and implementing CPD is no different. Those at the helm set the course and steer the ship, bringing everyone along behind them.

However, there is an assumption sometimes that those at the top of the hierarchy are always the most expert at staff development and should therefore create and deliver the CPD framework.

This is not necessarily true. I know from my own experience in leadership that the teachers I oversaw were almost always far more expert in the classroom than me. And how did I discover this? Through taking the time to get to know them and having rich and fulfilling conversations about teaching and learning.

There are so many routes to leadership, that occupying the most senior roles doesn’t necessarily equip leaders with the skills to direct effective CPD to those further down the hierarchy.

As a result, a hierarchical model of them and us can actually be counter-productive and end up stifling teachers’ ability to direct and own their development. 

Even the most well-intentioned processes can fall flat if those on the receiving end feel ‘done to’ by those further up the hierarchical chain. 

Teaching under the microscope

There is no doubt that great teaching leads to great outcomes for students, which is why staff need every opportunity to develop their practice. However, one by-product of this continuous drive for improvement is intense scrutiny.

Teaching is already one of the most overly-scrutinised professions. Parents rightly want to know how schools are performing, so they can make informed choices.

This is entirely understandable, but one unintended consequence is vastly increased scrutiny from external bodies like Ofsted, and a culture of comparison through league tables and statutory assessment results.

It’s little wonder that staff feel overwhelmed and ‘done to’ by CPD processes. There’s no such thing as perfection in teaching but many feel like they are never up to scratch and that the demands made of them are unattainable. 

That’s not to say we should shy away from driving up standards. However, if we don’t get it right, we risk losing even more great teachers.

The problem with a ‘top-down’ approach

The misplaced assumption by some is that we can apply the same approach to developing adults’ knowledge and skills as we do with children. Classrooms are hierarchical by nature, with the teacher as subject matter expert, imparting knowledge to fill a perceived or identified knowledge deficit.

However, adults learn differently from children and traditional didactic methods can lead to disengagement. 

A good example is the whole-school INSET day. Aside from the obligatory audience participation and mandatory role-play exercises, INSET days tend to be passive affairs where an in-house or external expert imparts their wisdom to an expectant audience. 

The agenda is almost always decided on in response to past events or outcomes. If reading results are down, senior leaders may decide to address this on an INSET day at the start of the following term. This retrospective approach does little to address real-time practice and can overload teachers.

Then, there is the lesson observation – another traditional CPD favourite. Anyone who has ever been observed by a leader in their classroom will tell you that the overriding feeling leading up to these events is fear.

You can almost taste the trepidation in classrooms, as senior leaders stride purposefully down the corridor, clipboards or iPads in hand. 

It is virtually impossible to act naturally when someone else is in your classroom. Children sense it, teachers sense it and so do those observing. Most lesson observations are hardly an accurate reflection of true classroom practice.

And then comes the dreaded feedback. Even in schools where the culture is one of openness and trust, this process can make teachers feel incredibly vulnerable.

Handing over the reins

So, what’s the alternative? 

Lasting change relies on people having control over their own development, so we need to hand over the reins to teachers. When people feel they are in charge and have a voice, they are far more likely to buy into, and effect change, in the long term.

A ‘bottom-up’ approach puts teachers front and centre and allows them the autonomy to decide areas for development themselves. These can be identified through a reflective practice, for example by videoing and reviewing their own lessons, so they can analyse their own qualities and consider potential steps towards improvement.

These reflections may only take a matter of minutes but will have lasting impact further down the line. By taking small but purposeful steps towards agreed goals within clearly set out parameters, teachers gain an increased sense of value and confidence.

By removing the barrier of hierarchy and fostering a culture of self-reflection, we stand the best chance of retaining excellent teachers and maximising outcomes for all children. 

How to transform teaching and learning for all pupils

  • Trust your teachers: All teachers are professionals and all teachers want to do the best job they can. Whilst it is often hard to relinquish control, the reality is, if you give ownership of development to individuals, and trust them to get on with it, you are much more likely to be rewarded with buy-in and engagement.
  • Clarify your expectations: Effective CPD has to have lasting impact in the classroom, so make sure you set out the parameters and expectations with staff in advance. Agree a realistic timeframe and make sure there are channels for you to check in and reflect on progress in a collaborative manner.
  • Get to know your staff: No matter what your position or title, get out of your office and talk to your staff. There can sometimes be a them and us dynamic between leaders and teachers that needs to be bridged. Take the time to find out what’s working and what isn’t. Use the outcomes of conversations to agree next steps.
  • Release the idea of perfection: Teaching is not an exact science and often we place unrealistic expectations on staff. All this does is make them risk-averse for fear of getting it wrong. Foster a culture where mistakes are embraced, and where teachers can set themselves micro-goals that build incrementally towards overall improvement.

Matt Tiplin is vice president of ONVU Learning, and is a former senior leader in a MAT and an Ofsted inspector.