- What got you into teaching?
- If you are/have been a headteacher; what was your motivation?
- What would you do to improve the current system?
During the past couple of weeks, the question arose of how to deal with the impending significant teacher recruitment need, which apparently, according to the DfE is not a crisis. This is coupled with a subsidiary question of how to attract teachers to become head teachers, as there is apparently a non-crisis there too.
When I was interviewing for staff as a headteacher and when I am interviewing prospective entrants into the profession for ITE providers, I ask what on the surface is a relatively simple question; “What was the significant event that persuaded you that you could be a teacher?” This allows the interviewee to reflect on their past, but also to develop the theme through significant skills that they bring to bear on their role. This tipping point can be important to explore, especially where the candidate is a mature trainee, changing career course.
I have a vivid memory of one trainee who described how she had been involved in a summer residential scheme with a group of physically disabled children and supported them individually to overcome fears to be able to attempt to tackle a climbing wall. Another told of how he had worked in a refugee camp and learned that he could find innovative ways to help children learn without expensive resources. The insights and the obvious enjoyment of the experience came through and they both went on to become a very high grade prospective teachers.
While some get into teaching through their interactions with children, discovering that they can communicate effectively and make relationships, enabling their charges to attempt challenge, others love their subject and sharing their knowledge. Marrying the two creates a whole, which is the purpose of teacher training; the what and the how.
Why did I become a teacher?
I had a job with ICI, in a biological research station, nestled into an old quarry beside Brixham fishing harbour. Becoming a “scientist” had been my lifelong ambition. The reality, of counting bivalves and worms in bottom samples that we sourced from the North Sea off Teeside and Whitby, palled after several months, partly because of the horrendous effects of sea-sickness and partly the counting. Finish one tray, record, start another. When looking at colleagues who had progressed to Experimental Officer, it became clear that I’d be doing the same for years to come. I loved the outdoors, the environment, entomology, history, geography; in fact I was interested in the world around me. Ok, I was probably a bit geeky, in that respect.
A mature team colleague at Paignton Cricket Club had just finished his teaching course at St Lukes College, in Exeter. After talking with him, he suggested taking the train to chat to someone about the possibility of training. As it was June, the campus was empty, but a kind receptionist tracked the head of science to his room and sent me along. We chatted broadly, across science, but also sport (St Lukes was a PE college) and after half an hour asked if I wanted this to be an official interview. Fifteen minutes later, I was sent to fill in the application forms and started that September. That is a decision that I have never regretted, even when the going has got really tough. I found my natural niche.
Becoming a teacher was never designed to make me rich; perhaps comfortable was the best that could be hoped. I started teaching in the year of the Houghton award, where teacher pay was enhanced after many years of very low pay rises. Four times that income, plus a small borrowed deposit, was enough for the mortgage that bought the first house; I could aspire. Today, a teacher in similar position would need a mortgage ten times their income and a large deposit. That cultural shift may well have an impact on thinking.
Why become a headteacher?
In whatever role that I had in a school, I was always conscious to learn about and from the roles of those who were in leadership positions. Supporting, taking on aspects of roles, then the substantive posts ensured a gradual, upwards momentum. Promotion came from being able to describe implementing ideas, achievements and what I had learned from the journey. Working across cluster and area wide discussions meant that my name and “stock” were well known.
Eventually, having undertaken the Local Authority Deputy Head development programme, I applied for headships, was unlucky with two, but was appointed to the third, which turned out to be the “right place at the right time”.
The joy of headship is putting ideas into practice, developing and leading a team, sometimes from the front, often supporting the efforts of others. It is a heart, mind, body and soul job, as is every teacher role, but knowing that the buck firmly lands on your shoulders, periods of “slopey shoulders” or sweating blood and tears have to be short lived.
Making the school the best place for children and teachers to be was the central goal, which sometimes meant filtering external distractions, so that digression and diversion did not distract from the main thrust. If teachers know where they are going and have stability, they create the ideal environment for learning. Teacher insecurity creates learning insecurity, leading to depressed performance.
Improvements in the system?
Teaching is teaching and of it’s time. It has to adapt to change and changing needs, but, over the past years, we have seen revolutions from politicians that have put pressures on the system, such that successful, experienced people left. This reduced the core of knowledge available, with new people learning to make things work for them. The fact that you are teaching one approach while a “new” version has to be developed and embedded in turn is stressful and an additional burden. If change was handled in evolutionary fashion, this would reduce the stress burdens of people who are at centre paid to think.
As a headteacher, having developed an approach that evidently “worked”, for me, my teachers and the children, who learned and learned to love learning, so that at transfer, they still wanted to learn, I made sure that Government initiatives were scrutinised to see what benefits were offered.
Rarely was there an adjustment of more than about 5%, which could be accommodated, but someone had to be detailed and supported to do the reading on behalf of colleagues.
Change does not necessarily mean improvement.
Governments see change as synonymous with improvement and then have to twist and turn as consequences become apparent to everyone.
I’d still encourage someone with aptitude and the right attitude to become a teacher, but also to develop themselves towards headship. Both are great jobs and they are very much needed. I sometimes think we need Governments to step back and let teachers get on with the job.
I'll be interested in your story.