An open letter to those in education

Dear colleagues,

A new year and time to reflect on not just where we are headed, but also how. Towards the end of 2015, there were a number of public blogs and articles that served to highlight how many teachers and schools leaders were now leaving the profession due to increased admin, workload, stress pace of change etc. I emphasize with these challenges and wish each of them every success in the future.
However, in 2015 we also had quite lot of public chatter about the recruitment and retention problem we face and will increasingly face in education. Therein lies the first problem – mixed public messages from credible and esteemed individuals.
In my work, I travel a lot and last year I met on the train a woman (mid to late 30s). We started talking. From my reading material, she guessed I was a teacher and then began to tell me about her dream of training to be a teacher. I was so excited for her and encouraged her to explore different options as well as gave her a few tips, based on the what she shared with me. She said she would look into it. Her parting remark to me, “You are the first person to encourage me to be a teacher; everyone else just keeps telling not to bother – it’s too hard!” Of course it’s hard – we are tasked with learning from the past, to teach in the present in order to build a better future. Teaching is a privilege and every profession has its challenges!
There isn’t a day on Twitter, when there isn’t some sort of scheduled #chat around education or educational issues. Those involved in these dialogues (and I’ve been guilty of this too) believe that in the main they are talking to like-minded colleagues. They are, but in a public forum; where comments/opinions are open to all and recorded! In schools, teachers have professional dialogues within the confines of the staffroom or on a CPD session. They discuss, debate and openly challenge in order to ensure the best outcomes for children and young people. How many head teachers would issue an open invite to any parent or colleague from another school to join in a professional staff meeting discussion? I’m guessing, not many. So we need to re-think; what messages we are putting out there. I would say the same to colleagues at the DfE. The #AskNicky sessions do little to engender parental/community confidence and the reality is the dialogue is open to everyone, not just teachers and leaders. Those of us who enjoy interacting on social media need to be real; but transparency and being completely open are not the same thing.
NQTs use Twitter quite extensively to connect to more experienced teachers and leaders in order to learn as much as they can. Again, not a new concept – learning from those who have gone before. However, they also then get sucked in to other debates about change. Therein lies the second problem – implementing change. There is no doubt the pace of change in education since 2010 has been phenomenal. However, where I think our memories have lapsed is the thirteen years prior. When the Literacy Hour was introduced, I was teaching primary children at the time … those were the dark days! Observed in class on a nationally defined hourly clock! Ten minutes for spelling … move on ten minutes guided reading … move on. There wasn’t time or space for thinking conversations with the children, for pursuing different lines of inquiry, creativity etc. And we were ‘graded’ as ineffective professionals, if we didn’t keep to those nationally set times! It was during this period, that Ofsted changed radically to grading our lessons!
We now have greater autonomy in schools over curriculum, assessment, finance and strategy. Leaders, who separate the operational from the strategic are able to manage and direct change at a pace that is suitable to the local community. They use a robust theory of change to ground their vision and values; not just create ‘to-do’ priority lists that claim to be a school improvement plan. It is too easy to blame the government. The reality is the government simply creates generic frameworks (statutory and non-statutory) for us to professionally and pragmatically work within. They do not and cannot tell schools or school leaders what to do. Admittedly, the removal of the local authority personnel has resulted in local areas not guiding schools on what and how to implement change. Change, in itself is not the problem. As educators, we are in the business of life-long learning; which fundamentally is all about change and continual improvement. Before anyone jumps on the bandwagon of ‘education is not a business’, I would recommend you look up the definition of business.
One of the reasons, I think we in the profession struggle with change is because we assume it means ‘more of’. We are hoarders by nature and so when something new is introduced, we sometimes tend not to let go of the past – holding onto the past and the new simultaneously – added burden. Other times, we do not take time to reflect on what we are doing and how it can be ‘adapted’ (not necessarily changed) to meet the new. During the constraining era of The National Strategies, with my SLT, I developed a strategic management system; so every time a ‘new initiative’ was put on the table, we would evaluate it in terms of the vision, values and current provision. On numerous occasions, we were able to go back and say (with confidence and authority), we don’t need to do XYZ new initiative because this is what we are already doing, this is how and this is the impact it has had. Strategic management gave us the confidence as a team to say “thank you, but no thanks” as well as sometimes shape the policy delivery for others.
Before I end, I feel it necessary to explain why I am no longer in the classroom. I have a sense no doubt someone will come back and say “easy for you to say – you no longer teach!” The classroom has and will always be where my heart is. The truth is simple, as a Senior Leader I facilitated a TA redundancy situation in a community, where there were falling numbers on roll. It wasn’t easy. The year after we had to make a teacher redundant. I did the maths and in order to protect final salaries of my longer serving colleagues, I took voluntary redundancy with the expectation I would be deployed to another school in the area. The school was scheduled to close the following year. My background in special educational needs led to my deployment to a local authority post as a SEND specialist teacher (strategic and statutory casework); which in turn led to my current work. So yes, I may not be currently in a classroom; but across the country, I enable many (who are in the classroom in diverse settings) to fulfill their role effectively. This is supported by my background in finance and Prince2.
I do believe this is a great time to be in education and we have great opportunities ahead of us to improve the system. However, I would also share four reflective thoughts; especially for those in leadership:
1. If you are serious about addressing the problem of recruitment and retention, stop airing negative comments and moaning in the public. Let’s celebrate the positive aspects of the profession and encourage/support each other. Find a confidant to share your worries, issues etc. These need to be expressed, but we need to think about to who, when and how.
2. If you want to positively influence the next generation of teachers, think about open chats in social media – do they help or hinder? Do they foster deeper relationships of trust?
3. Discern the operational from the strategic and use your community’s mission to choose what/when/how to implement new/different ways of doing things. You know your community!
4. Finally, embrace change! Sure, there are always going to be challenges, but I would rather be a part of the solution, than the problem – how about you?

Be the change you want to see!

With every good wish,
Anita

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