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 …
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)!
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?
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.