The idea that schools should be more teacher centred has been gathering momentum in my thinking. In fact, the whole education system should be more teacher centred. Ridiculously, to some folk, that will sound regressive – because we’re supposed to say that everything we do is for the children. Well, of course. Schools are set up to educate children. It barely needs re-stating. The point here is that, in order for us to deliver the best education we can, the mechanisms, structures and cultures that constitute that delivery need to be very much teacher-centred.
In recent times, we’ve experienced the development of school cultures where teachers have been sandwiched between outrageously excessive top-down accountability structures and a discourse about pedagogy that has elevated student-centred learning above teacher-led learning to the detriment of the actual learning. Both of these tendencies have had a de-professionalising effect. In my view. Thankfully, I think the tide is changing.
In terms of pedagogy, we’re emerging from a period where ‘chalk and talk’ has been considered a crime against children, where school leaders have felt compelled to call themselves ‘Headlearners’ and when various people have stressed the use of ‘learning and teaching’ instead of ‘teaching and learning’ loading that reversal with righteous significance. All of that guff is fading away. We’re re-connecting with the crucial value of teacher-led instruction and recognising that ’empowering students to own their own learning’ is an empty phrase unless/until students are at the right point within a well-structured programme. (There’s a mix of course; let’s not go all black and white here – see Trivium and Mode A; Mode B references elsewhere in this blog).
If learners are going to learn, teachers should teach and teach well. Our emphasis in schools should be on making sure teachers have the opportunity to develop their subject knowledge and the associated pedagogy, to engage with the latest research, to absorb information about their students’ learning needs and prior attainment, recognising the complexity of synthesising all of this into a knowledge-base that informs the delivery of effective lessons. Everything we dream up or write down as the ideals for teaching and learning and the curriculum – for groups or individuals – are pointless unless teachers have the knowledge, skills and determination to put them into practice.
In terms of accountability, it’s a terrible indictment of our whole system that we’ve created school cultures where unions will fight to limit formal teacher observations to a maximum number per year. Three? That is a product of an accountability culture with teachers at the bottom of the pile, forced to hoop-jump instead of being developed as professionals. Some SLTs (oh, the delusion of it) still grade lessons, believing themselves to have special powers. The machinery of targets, floor standards, lesson grades, OfSTED judgements (graded book scrutinies for heaven’s sake!) – all of that – has corrupted our professional culture such that teachers are nervous about being observed (judged). We’ll know we’re winning when unions complain that their members are not observed enough or do not receive enough feedback because, then, we’ll have established the principle that CPD, observation and feedback are all focused on supporting teachers in their work.
(I can think back to a lesson observation I took part in a few years ago where an inspector (self-important ex-Head, ex-PE teacher, knowing nothing about chemistry) judged a one-off lesson to be less than Outstanding because the teacher (best chemistry teacher I’ve ever known) hadn’t used any differentiation. Instead of thinking that, just maybe, this teacher knew more about what to do than him and taught in a way that he could learn from, he presumed to assume authority, to judge and diminish. That scenario was a product of the system. A truly teacher-centred system would not allow for that. Some SLTs are still doing this. )
There are other dimensions to this too. Behaviour systems should be designed with teachers’ needs at the centre. Teachers should have access to systems and tools to insist on impeccable behaviour in their classrooms and also be supported in developing the skills to manage the complex array of relationships that make-up any classroom. At the sharp end, teachers’ emotional well-being needs to be supported in the face of challenging behaviour. Yes, students’ needs and emotions matter hugely; yes, we want positive, warm relationships and to repair them when they break; but let’s not be afraid to restate the simple truth of the authority/responsibility structure that exists in happy, caring schools, just as in happy, caring families. An effective behaviour system is a teacher-centred behaviour system.
(An interesting recent conversation with a student led to her querying ‘so, you’re saying that, because teachers are the adults, they get to tell me what to do?’ My response was clear. I did also explain why – we are responsible for you; you are not responsible for us; your behaviour has an impact on other people; compliance with rules doesn’t stop you expressing yourself in other ways etc etc. However, for some people it seems that the idea that teacher or parental authority/control is not at odds with respect, love, care… has to be restated and re-asserted repeatedly.)
Data and assessment systems should be teacher-centred, designed primarily and explicitly to generate useful information for teachers about how their students are progressing to inform the actions they will take; reporting this for whole-school monitoring or for parents is secondary to the needs of teachers, especially when the workload to impact ratio is so ludicrously high. I’ve been thinking recently about how we support teachers to engage with SEND information so they can act on it effectively; that needs to improve. If we place mainstream teachers at the centre of our thinking on SEND provision, we’ll be doing more to support the students.
CPD should be teacher-centred (as opposed to school-centred); it needs to be designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers: their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes or skills need to change as a consequence in the long term. In the same spirit, appraisal or professional review systems should be geared towards supporting teachers in their career development – rather than serving accountability processes as the prime objective. Teacher-centred appraisal can still be rigorous at the same time as being developmental and positive for all concerned.
And so it goes on. In this spirit, teacher-centredness is an essential precondition for establishing a high challenge/ high trust /high performance professional environment – from which every student benefits. It would certainly help if Secretaries of State and HMCIs were inclined to support teachers more explicitly in their rhetoric and policies but, actually, most of this comes down to school leaders; no excuses.
So, now I’m asking myself whether my school is teacher-centred enough. It’s not; not yet. Is yours?