The Maverick Teacher

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Is there a place for schools, colleges and universities to have a maverick teacher?

… a ​person who ​thinks and ​acts in an ​independent way, often ​behaving ​differently from the ​expected …

I have been watching back to the footage of my SSAT presentation – soon-to-be-released on my blog – in which I talk about ‘what makes a good teacher?’ In my presentation, I make brief reference to maverick teachers (and/or teaching) and if it does or does not have a place in the classroom for the collective purpose of a schools vision.

This post may divide opinion. So, let’s start with an example and then a definition.

Genius or Rebel?

The Manchester United footballer of the 1990s, Eric Cantona, is a classic example. A talented footballer, famous for being larger-than-life, physically strong, hard-working, and a tenacious forward; he combined technical skill with creativity, power and goalscoring ability.

Take a moment to look at his some of his playing highlights:

However, despite his incredible footwork, he is most-known for an off-the-ball incident many considered which far-outweigh the greater good (or effectiveness) of the team. Was this detrimental to his (or the team’s) success?

Click this image below to watch a few examples from his career …

Crystal Palace v Manchester United, FA Premier League 25/1/95 Mandatory Credit: Action Images Manchester's Eric Cantona Kung Fu kicks Palace fan Matthew Simmons after being sent off

Image: The Guardian


Definition of maverick in English: noun – an unorthodox or independent-minded person.

However we choose to define a maverick teacher, whether risk-taking, a creative, or orthodox, I am certain we can all remember someone in our school who has ‘broken the mould’. I am confident that ‘some readers’ may also considers themselves, somewhat maverick.

I was promoted in my third year as a teacher. I was 26 and had barely mastered the classroom. In my hey-day as a middle leader some 6 or 7 years later, I was at my most creative and would have considered myself to be maverick. I was confident, experimental and far away from the difficulties we all face in our first year, but I was also worlds apart from the views of senior leadership.

Despite being on the cusp of school leadership, I was still a huge step away from having any whole-school perspective. I had rarely observed colleagues beyond my department(s) – I led a team of 13 staff – in a climate when all schools (15+ years ago) were grading lessons – and colleagues were only observed 3 hours per academic year. This is still happening now in many schools!

It was rare to observe someone else unless it was your job, or that you had been told to do so. It was often voluntary and something you did in the little free (non-contact) time you had available. Schools systems for observing (to develop) and to help coach colleagues a decade ago were few and far between …

I had not yet been faced with supporting and/or challenging other teachers who were reliable, experienced and all-round solid. Sometimes, their personal confidence undermined the collective school vision by ignoring policies and procedures. I had not yet been exposed – or encouraged – to recognise these behaviours that may not have been helping the greater cause of the school.

Why? Because I was only exposed to a small number of observations. I was still developing a repertoire for observing a wider range of teaching practice.

The Maverick Teacher:

I would take a guess: that I may have observed 1000s of lessons with the 500+ teachers I have had the pleasure of working with in schools. But, I have only been in a position in 3 of those schools, where I have had responsibility to observe over 100 teachers in each of them. This a vast array of experience and practise, one size will not fit all. Ofsted is clear, and so should school leaders, that we should not advocate a particular style of teaching over another.

I recognise I do not teach as much as I would like to, and as a senior teacher I will have lost my maverick-edge to teaching because I teach much less. I have less opportunity to take risks, to be creative and to interpret school policies to be in a position where I can teach with confidence and encourage students to love learning. But, I have been placed in a privileged position to be able to observe, support and challenge colleagues who may be undermining others. And this is not because of risk, teaching style or any systems imposed, it has always been because they ignore procedures.

How often do maverick teachers leave their mark on students? Their colleagues? And their schools?

Teaching in line with school policy, beyond the threshold of my formative (and occasionally painful) years as an NQT was a steep learning curve. Mastering my teaching, as well as learning the trade of middle leadership, was a journey of mastery in its own right. As my confidence in experimenting with teaching evolved, to a degree, my risk-taking capabilities and subject-confidence heightened. Growing into the role as a middle leader exposed me to a wider world beyond the classroom; the need for every teacher, including myself and the colleagues within any department to be working in line with school policy. This ensured colleagues did not undermine each other.

If you sign up to work in a school and be part of its values, you are ‘branded’ to follow its policies (apologies for the pun)!

shutterstock_257514700 Young calf being branded by cowboy

Origin: mid-19th century: from the name of Samuel A. Maverick (1803–70), a Texas rancher who did not brand his cattle.

More importantly, students would know that there is no slippage. No gaps to expose in the system between classroom to classroom. That what one colleague was saying or doing in one classroom, would be more-or-less exactly the same expectation and policy/procedure in the classroom as the teacher next door, or even on the other side of school building!

How often have students quoted the school rules back at you? If this is the case, they understand the rules clearly and it is working.

This is only something I could understand through observing colleagues, or as a young middle leader, understanding the bigger picture and the collective purpose. As a senior leader, the challenge for us all is even harder to share and communicate with colleagues who do not have opportunities to observe one another; colleagues who need our support with managing behaviour and inspiring students to reach their true potential.

If maverick teaching is encouraged, is this freedom to teach in a style that suits the teacher beneficial for their students?

For / Against:

Maverick teaching and maverism (is that a term?), does not mean over-creativity or behaving differently. It is more about risk-taking in the classroom within a defined set of boundaries and expectations. Many will argue that Ofsted and poor school leadership has stifled teachers’ creativity, and that risk-taking and our ability to enjoy our subjects and develop students’ love of learning in a more harmonious environment is a greater challenge in our current education system.

But where does this leave us and what point do I wish to make? Is risk-taking, creativity, progressive or traditional teaching, whatever methodology it may be in your mind to define what works for you, does maverick teaching exist in your school and in what form? And more importantly is it encouraged or is it stifled?

Are your teachers given the freedom to teach in a way that suits them and their students to learn?

Most of all, what impact is (any type of) teaching having on students? This is a difficult question to answer, because every institution will have their own context and needs. One approach will not suit everyone.

I have observed ‘teachers breaking away from the mould’ in different guises. Some colleagues will fit the bill in terms of school characteristics, or in terms of the teaching methodology required for a subject and/or student, but how may this work in all of our schools? Is Ofsted and the DfE damaging our teachers’ creativity to teach in a style that suit them?

Has accountability damaged our maverick teachers inner-drive, or is being a maverick more about ‘Eric Cantona teachers’ being able to teach in a way that suits them, but teach within the rules?


Image: Shutterstock

How can we encourage risk-taking teaching in our schools, in a climate of accountability and high-stakes?

I am sure there are many headteachers and classroom teachers who want to throw out the rulebook, but before we consider this, we must be clear about the outcomes we are expecting from ourselves (a maverick teacher) and the impact we think it may have.


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14 thoughts on “The Maverick Teacher

  1. I don’t see being maverick as negative. I tend to associate it with high levels of creativity rather than not following the rules. Creative, fun, inspiring teaching is surely a wonderful thing in the classroom, and engages students so they remember. Mavericks tend to challenge things which is also a good thing on many occasions. So long as it’s about getting the best for the kids.

  2. We actually need more mavericks in leadership – those with a backbone to lead the charge against the regressive policies that schools are being force fed. Too much linear thinking leads to the cone size fits all approach that we know simply doesn’t work in any me a ingful sense. This article would have been better placed questioning the role of the yes men and women…

    1. Oh how true. Having seen a situation where only yes people surrounded the almighty, and fawned, it alienates and appalls in equal measure. Having previously seen more healthy systems, both in and out of teaching, I know which I think works better for the kids, and the health of the whole system.

    2. A most excellent point … far too many yes people in teaching unquestioningly following like sheep. Not enough “mavericks” who are actually thinking about how to get the best for their kids.

      As an AST I once got called “maverick” by a HT. At first I saw this as a negative so I asked her to explain what she meant, she told me that I thought outside the box and came up with alternative ideas compared to the conventional wisdom … which in my book means I’m just doing my job!

  3. Mavericks are important in teaching the younger generation into developing a more cognitively aware mind. Too many teachers just read from the book, allowing children to just listen with zero engagement. We need more challenging students who want to express their own opinion on the matter. I, for one, have discovered that this style of leadership/teaching is key for the children’s learning from a young age. Thank you for sharing this post, I really enjoyed it.

  4. It is interesting to juggle the terminology and methodology. I think anyone who knew me would class me as a maverick. Drama is my specialism and I had success in both exams and student achievements. Two ex-pupils graduated from RADA, both winning stage fighting awards at RADA, and pursuing professional careers. Other puplis have had professional experience and gone into production/directing. I have had many pupils coming back and saying how I changed, and on some occasions saved, their lives. I inspired pupils to follow professional musical careers when I was not a music teacher. I think SMART targets produce only results that can be measured which leads to mediocrity. The tick box mentality is ruining education. To give one example. I was in a school that had strikes over discipline and I was interviewed why the Head maintained the system was effective whereas the staff stated the opposite. A lesson was being disrupted continuously by one pupil. The experienced teacher tried all the usual techniques and followed the school procedures which eventually ended with a senior manager being summoned with the possibility of the pupil being removed. The pupil was taken out into the corridor, given a talking to, and then placed back into the lesson, where they continued to disrupt the lesson. As far as the Head was concerned everything had been ticked on the list and hence the problem was solved. In reality the situation was worsened. My drama department had a national reputation and as a result had interaction with professional film and tv companies to the benefit of the pupils. Then along came Baker and the NC and there was no room for drama. When, eventually, it was re-established it came with the regime of targets, lesson plans and the rest of bureaucracy which killed the whole creative basis of the methodology.Recently the HoD was told that GCSE grades were suffering because the candidates were using the most effective dramatic techniques to communicate their ideas, instead of making sure they gave an example of each drama technique in their work. Another example of tick boxes over ruling artistic merit. An artist chooses the most effective technique(s) for their idea. (Witkin: Intelligence of Feeling). As far as I was concerned the only target acceptable was 100%. Education has fallen into the trap of accepting data as all important rather than looking at information, following the fallacy that all children will progress at the same rate. As reliable as Mr Baker’s target that all children should leave school with their reading age above average. Being a maverick is not about breaking rules, its about horses for courses, not following tick boxes. Headteachers have failed to defend education at the highest level and still think in terms of valuable knowledge rather than the importance of the ability to think. I recommend reading “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, and the most inspirational film I have ever seen regarding teaching, “Temple Grandin”.

  5. A kindred spirit Ben! It is no doubt true that data has become king and the artistry of teaching undoubtedly stifled by a drive for exemplar evidence at every step of the learning journey – often at the expense of creativity and deeper learning through the experiential application of thinking and working through challenges. My only disagreement would be with respect to the role/impact of headteachers in these developments. You might be forgiven for thinking my last role in school as a headteacher makes me biased but my role was in a PRU where ironically we were encouraged to be more creative (for a while anyway). Sadly, the last couple of Ofsted framework changes have denied PRU’s the opportunities to develop more integrated curricula.

    So, what’s my point? Well, in the throes of trying to align a PRU curriculum more closely to a mainstream offer, I spent a great deal of time and effort with mainstream colleagues attempting to create an effective balance of target driven (every child looks the same, progresses in accordance with a formula, and at precise rates irrespective of anything else in life!) absolute claptrap. Whilst addressing this uncomfortable challenge, I encountered few headteachers who would disagree with you regarding the freedom of teachers to just get on with teaching. Fewer still would disagree about the crazy notion that all children can be reduced to a numerical progress rated value. Indeed, many, many heads are desperately attempting to redress the balance but against the odds – who goes first when schools are described as failing?

    The profession has allowed this situation to go unchallenged – it’s all of us who hold responsibility. We need one voice supported by the profession if we are to make the politicians pass teaching back into the hands of teachers.

  6. I have always been a maverick teacher. How can you teach subjects like Art & Design in any other way? Over the years I have seen too many teachers with individual approaches leave teaching to be replaced by sausage factory operatives.Strange as it may seem to the data manglers I and my team got great results so they left me to get on with it without asking how I did it. Perhaps they did not want to hear. I am semi retired but still work freelance. Last year I gave seminars in amongst many places Amsterdam entitled Marks, Mavericks and multimedia. I suggested that the teachers they remembered were the mavericks and not the operatives, which all agreed was right. However, sadly some of these young teachers from the UK said they did not have any mavericks type teachers so remember little about my time at school.I take inspiration from Sir Ken Robinson and in my own way try to encourage teachers to adopt a more radical approach to teaching. Not easy but worth it when you see them fly.

  7. The climate of public education perpetuates safe teaching instead of encouraging risk taking. For teachers not feeling comfortable with the idea of being a maverick, I’d say the safest risk you can take is teaching by doing what is best for STUDENTS (not for anything else….tests, principals, other teachers, etc.).

  8. Maverick teachers often get pushed out though because management have a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. It’s not easy to swim against the tide of conformity.

  9. I consider myself a Maverick, I know my colleagues do, whilst I’m part of the team, I’m an individual, i’ll do almost anything for the school and moreover my pupils, but after 10+ years of teaching Design & Technology to the system I re-thought things and re-invented what I did. I wrote to the SMT to opt out of appraisal (yes you can do that), they still pop by and observe, but I don’t receive or request feedback or fill in silly forms.
    I don’t do lesson plans, only schemes of work, I don’t do written feedback, I give verbal feedback in regular sittings with pupils critique style as we did at art college. And I always force Ofsted inspectors to do the work the students are doing or shove off. This mid life crisis approach did raise eyebrows, especially when I asked the lead inspector to leave if he did not want to participate in brazing. (he capitulated and afterwards told me how much he enjoyed it, then tried to give me feedback “no friend” I said, keep that to yourself, I only want feedback from my pupils, and I regularly request it.
    The department has gone from strength to strength and we have two outstandings with the department singled out as outstanding.
    Now I don’t advocate this approach to everyone, you have to be prepared to walk away if the SMT get all upset about the new approach, you have to know what you are doing inside, outwards and backwards, you have to be willing to stand tall and say it’s my way or find someone else, with confidence that they respect you enough to give you the latitude to plough your own furrow. but my life is free from school stress, I love every day, and the feedback I get from pupils, through results and from parents shows that for me I’ve got the formula right.

  10. I’m assuming as my last post did not pass moderation that Mr McGill doesn’t agree with my stance as a maverick (an unashamed one at that), I’d encourage him to reach out and tell me why!
    In terms of my strategy, I have been teaching DT now for 17, or is it 18 years, cripes who knows, years gathering dust. After about 10 years I realised that a huge proportion of my time was being wasted on tasks set by the accepted management of schools, and that it was time to do away with that. The first to go was appraisal, it’s a waste of my time, so I wrote to SMT and opted out of it from my side, that means they still come and see me teach but I don’t get feedback or contribute – I have replaced that by establishing meaningful relationships with other DT teachers round the city, we meet, exchange tips, drop in to see each others lessons, it works well, their input is valuable.
    I cut out written feedback, the students unanimously told me they found it not as helpful as good verbal discussions and so feedback is done in crit sessions, an open forum to discuss progress.
    When it comes to Ofsted I have firm rules, the inspector is only welcome in the room if they partake in the excercise, after all, how can they judge learning if they don’t learn something, and I won’t do anything for an Ofsted inspected lesson that wouldn’t normally be on the agenda. This has caused shock, particularly with one inspector who I said couldn’t stay if he didn’t have a go at brazing, he capitulated and had the time of his life.
    The end result is I get to focus on my students, they are who I’m there for. I just had a lovely card from a parent thanking me for the role I had played in giving their son confidence to go into his chosen trade, notes like that are very humbling and all the validation I need.
    My head says, with a grin, that I’m a fully paid up member of the awkward squad, and i’ll take that with a beaming smile, I do things my way, but it works, and it works well, but it might not work for someone else. And I’m well known to do all and everything for the school from hanging whiteboards, fixing squeaky hinges or non flushing loos to doing the props and lighting for plays. Last year I had a crew of year 8’s help me re-screed a classroom floor, an experience that will hold them in good stead for life!
    If someone in authority ever decided the didn’t like my methods any more I’d get my coat, no problems, It’s my way or I hit the highway, but my way works, so why would anyone object!!

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