It’s been a fascinating – and generally inspiring – week. I’ve spent it speaking to lots of prospective NQTs; coming towards the latter stages of their training year; looking for their first teaching job. I have several staff going off on maternity leave at the end of this year so I need more new teachers than usual. This is combined with the challenging recruitment market: there have been far fewer applications to the Newham NQT pool than in previous years. As a result, I found myself at ‘NQT Speed Dating’ on Tuesday night. Before I went, I thought long and hard about what I should be telling prospective candidates. I have so much to say about Kensington – what is of use and interest when you only have a short time to grab people’s attention? To help, I spoke to our current NQTs to get their ideas and one of them stuck with me. They said to tell them that, ‘at Kensington you get to teach how you want.’ I found this really interesting.
This idea of autonomy is absolutely at the core of our approach as a school. We fervently believe that, as trained professionals, teachers should have the freedom to decide how best to teach their children. They know them best. They are with them every day. How can I – when I haven’t been full-time in a classroom for four years now – be best placed to tell them what to do and how to do it? Not only that but, surely, part of the joy of being a teacher is having the freedom to take learning in the direction you or your children see fit? To play to your strengths. To draw on the interests of your children. All classes are different. All teachers are different. This should be celebrated and supported as this is when true inspiration and, subsequently, learning take place.
I was further reminded of this as we said goodbye to one of our teachers this week. She had joined us as an NQT at the same time I joined the school. She is a passionate and exceptionally talented baker – she has thousands of followers on Instagram. Her contribution to and impact on the school and the children has been immense. She links an awful lot of her learning to her love of baking and cooking. We’ve fitted out a classroom with ovens and hobs so she can run her baking club. Our bake sales are an integral part of our themed weeks. And children across the school have been inspired. This wouldn’t happen in a one-size-fits-all system. And the children would have been poorer for it.
This is an extreme example but applies across the board. Some of us have a real talent for displays. Others have a genuine skill at developing children’s independence. One of my favourite teachers at secondary school had an exceptionally didactic style. What works with one teacher and one group of children will not work for another.
Of course, this presents challenges. It is inevitably far easier to monitor the ‘quality’ of teaching and learning when everything is dictated by strict policies – I’ll come to this in a future post but it will come as little surprise to those of you who have been regularly reading this blog that I believe teachers are massively over-monitored and the focus is often not on what impacts learning: although this is changing, thankfully. If you HAVE to have an LI (and it has to be an LI, not an LO or a WALT). If you HAVE to have three success criteria. If your English display HAS to be backed in blue and maths in red. If you HAVE to do x before you do y and god forbid you consider doing z! Then it is very easy to identify where you are going wrong and even easier to identify how to put it right. Does any of this impact on learning? Not positively.
It also sounds wonderful in theory but can be terrifying in practice. If you have very strict guidelines on what you must and must not do then it is easy to ‘get it right’. It can be a scary place to be to have all that freedom and worry that you are going to, ‘get in trouble’. Again, does this impact positively on learning? No.
So, at Kensington, we make sure it is combined with high quality CPD and a culture that is positive and supportive. NQTs have an in-school mentor and another mentor we employ across the Trust to provide additional weekly support. They all receive personalised CPD based on their particular needs. We focus whole school training on key areas and block it so that we have the time and space to develop effectively. Everyone has a personal coach to help with their reflection.
Alongside that is the development of a positive and supportive approach. All of that CPD could be overwhelming but we endeavour to ensure that teachers are only working on improving one or two areas at any one time. We filter a huge amount of information to realise this endeavour and only pass on what is necessary, at the appropriate time. We also try and look for ways to be supportive. If you haven’t marked your books, you know you haven’t marked your books. Me coming in and telling you you haven’t marked your books really isn’t going to help anyone. Wherever we can, we look to find ways to support. So, if you haven’t marked your books, how can we help you with that? Is it because you’re over-focusing on another area? Or do you need help with developing your effective marking?
So this was what I told the NQTs I met. It was a double-edged sword. On one hand, I was delighted by the positive response to this. As I outlined our approach, their faces lit up. So many of them told me about their own passions: from art to IT to mental health to sport and physical activity and so much more. These were passionate people: incredibly excited by the possibilities having their own class presented. At the same time, it was depressing. Many told me of the experiences they had had during their training. Schools who had squished them under the iron thumb of ‘that’s not how we do things round here’. You could already see the confidence and energy draining from some as they chased their tales trying to get it all ‘right’. We all know the horrendous attrition rates for newly qualified teachers. Workload is inevitably a big part of this – and another area we are passionate about: you can read about some of our work on this here. But, and I know this might be controversial, I think we need to look at ourselves and the part we play.
People don’t come into teaching because of the positive headlines. There are no illusions. You’re not going to get rich. You’re not going to win very often. You’re going to be vilified far more often than sanctified. So why do it? The answer is so obvious and oft repeated it is not worth stating. But when you dream of changing children’s lives for the better, when you’re lining up your teddy bears and playing schools, when you see yourself standing in front of your class, I guarantee you do it in YOUR way. At no point is your dream one of delivering a rigid medium term plan that outlines which questions you must ask and comes with a ready-prepared flip chart. You never wistfully stare into middle distance contemplating printing out the worksheets that are linked to the unit of work or dogmatically ploughing ever onwards through the dictated seven part lesson, as a single tear forms in the corner of your eye. No. You dream of imparting your passion and enthusiasm to the next generation. Of doing it differently to how it was done unto you so that these children emerge more positive and less scarred by their experiences than you were.
I know that we are not the only school who is providing these freedoms. And, as with many areas, I believe that the general direction of DfE and OFSTED is providing school leaders and teachers with the freedom to pursue these…freedoms. That being said, we need to do more to make these changes and we need to do it quickly. There are only so many times we can crush people’s enthusiasm before they cut themselves free to pursue a better-paid, less maligned career. The power is in our hands.