The Coasting Teacher


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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How do you spot a ‘coasting’ teacher and how can you support them?

Coasting teachers can’t motivate themselves, so how on earth do they motivate pupils? The answer to that is simple, they don’t. They fail them because they still ‘do their jobs’, but they just don’t do their jobs with any zeal, so pupils are short-changed. So, how do we identify them and how can we help them?

Primary school teacher John Dabell writes:

I’ve seen more than my fair share of coasters in staff rooms, and I’m not talking about the ones under mugs of tea and coffee. I’m talking about coasting teachers, the ones who get under the skin of their colleagues, under the wheels of progress and are forever under the weather and often under-perform. They are the fallen, no longer pedagogues but cholagogues and the system is beset with them.  They are a threat and hard to get rid of.

You know the type: plodders, freewheelers, dead- batteries and clock-watchers who just get by. Their hearts aren’t in it anymore, they’re in a rut and they aren’t good for the school.

They tend to be the sort of teacher that has been in one school for double-digit years, although not always. They can be cocky, arrogant and set in their ways reluctant to develop and adopt ‘new-fangled methods’ as they have seen it all before even though they haven’t.  They are the grit in the machine. They are tired. They are running on empty. They are worn-out dishcloths festering in their own stagnant water making the school corridors stink. They aren’t difficult to spot because they give off a whiff of despair. They require improvement but that involves movement and they don’t like shifting outside of their comfort zone so they stand still, happy to rot rather than trot.

How to spot a coasting teacher?

  1. They move with all the energy of a stone trough
  2. They are happy not to fulfill their potential
  3. They feel under attack by any new initiative
  4. They see progress as a threat
  5. They toe the line but reluctantly
  6. They have a closed-door policy
  7. They spread negativity like Japanese knot-weed
  8. They say ‘full circle’, ‘when I qualified we …’ and ‘mark my words’
  9. They pride themselves on being dinosaurs
  10. They have a sour face.

We worry about coasting and complacent pupils and bend over backwards to set up ‘interventions’  to help, but what about their teacher counterparts? Do we help them or do we fail them?

shutterstock_168524378 Closeup portrait of old elderly business man boss, checking on his young employee, pushing to work hard on project, who is in disagreement unhappy, isolated on white background. Conflict at work place Image ID:168524378 Copyright: pathdoc

Image: Shutterstock

What to do with a coaster?

Coasters are broken bits of furniture that need replacing. Coasters are riddled with wood worm who have been let down by senior managers and deserve better. Yes, that’s right coasters need saving, they need a coast guard.

We cannot let coasters fail, because they have too much to give and they need tactful management to find their fire again. Teaching somewhere, has let coasters down and they have been allowed to falter, choke and splutter. The fact is, they can be rejuvenated, they can be rewired and they can be reborn! Only a great manager can make this happen and that comes down to great ‘leadership and management’, knowing what makes your staff tick.  Coasters were once creative, engaged, connected and in their element and they can be again, if only someone would recognise it.

Being browbeaten and desolate is one stage in the life cycle of the teacher, but most teachers pass through it with sterling support and platinum partnerships. The problem is, coasters haven’t had the help to get through it, so they get stuck, pigeon-holed and soon start to believe themselves as the great downtrodden.

Tell them to leave?

Coasting teachers, or dynamic teachers, should all be told to leave their schools … at least for a short while. Doctors do it and it is called rotation. It’s imperative for development, quality, standards and reputations – which all comes through sharing practice and growing outside of the box. You can’t work in accident and emergency your whole life. You need to see different departments and work on different wards; doctors are probably the most mobile workforce of all, whereas teachers tend to be the most immobile.

A culture of learning and personal development can’t just happen in one school. Outward looking schools share staff, not just ideas. They swap classrooms, they reinvigorate each other by working out of their comfort zones, sharing expertise to move beyond, merely visiting a school for a course or a lesson observation.

Advantages of teacher rotation:

  • Pupils benefit from a variety of adult perspectives, experiences and talents
  • One teacher’s methods and preferences/biases can be compensated for by other teachers
  • Pupils see that collaboration is king and that teamwork isn’t just a pupil thing
  • The system is freshened up and rejuvenated

All change!

Teachers need to experience different staffrooms, different corridors and different classrooms to grow. Forward thinking managers develop staff by providing opportunities to dip their toes elsewhere. They keep staff motivated and buoyed up and don’t allow coasting to emerge. Moving about in one school is fine, but it doesn’t go far enough. Neighbouring schools can work together and a flexible and intelligent rota design would benefit all staff by working on placements, much the same way that teachers in training do. You learn from your colleagues more than from your pupils. It’s good for everyone; aren’t we employees of the system rather than just one school?

Coasting teachers need to leave in order to return to who they once were: being agents of change, enablers and teachers with spirit.

So, go and see what’s happening next door and grow a lot, not a little. All change, not short change. Coasting teachers don’t need ditching, they need to experience different roller coasters and get the thrill of teaching back inside their system.

Written by John Dabell for Teacher Toolkit.


36 thoughts on “The Coasting Teacher

  1. The language used in this is quite rude. We all know teachers who coast for a phase, often as a result of poor management or personal circumstance. They may also be trapped and unable to move due to the changes in teacher pay and conditions. A genuine article aimed at support wouldn’t mock those who found themselves in this position, would try and look at some of the varied causes and propose more than one simplistic and perhaps unworkable solution depending on the schools location.

    1. I agree. An unnecessarily offensive diatribe to discuss an important issue that is a big problem in any system. And only really one solution is offered. It’s a good one, but are there other options?

      1. Other options?

        Management: allow them to air grievances and then look at how they can move on. E.g. Unfair lesson observations, passed over for promotion, workload etc. Ensure you have a way for staff to talk about issues. E.g. We had a member of staff that was concerned about a lot of requests above an beyond the time budget of the school. She seemed “sour faced” but actually she was just being grave enough to say what the rest of us were thinking? Consider avenues outside the line management structure.
        Lessons: do they have resources, is there a culture of sharing? Are there particular behaviour issues or any other barriers? Are schemes of learning useful or just bits of paper a department needs?
        Observations: so these feel supportive? Rather than watching them, could they observe others for ideas? I’ve seen some staff come into their own when asking to mentor NQTs etc.
        Workload: are your staff encouraged to work hard, is there guidance in how to prioritise or just expected to do it all?
        Strengths: are these being celebrated and used? I once shared a wall with a teacher who’s classroom practice was a bit dodgy but he made amazing worksheets and had some fab ideas for schemes of work! He also knew resources inside out so could find things fast. I thought he was underused in the summer and would have been amazing in publishing, rather than being pushed out, he could have been supported and used. I’ve also seen some incredibly dynamic teachers pushed out – kids loved them, lessons usually had something exciting happen in them. Rather then helping rein it in……
        Culture: Does anyone ever say thanks? I know a teacher at another school going through a really difficult time personally who still give some up time to do stem club etc but no one ever says thank you or praises… just mentions what is bad..if we did that to the students?

        Role: honestly think if we gave staff a little more PPA including time to do something positive (like they would for a TLR but not necessarily pay them) it would help some of the “stuck in a rut” syndrome. If you had an hour a week dedicated to doing something you enjoyed about your job: run an intervention session, mentor someone, create something, pastoral care, organise an event or something… wouldn’t that help you believe in what you were doing?

        But then I’m not leadership so it’s easy for me to say 😉

  2. Coasting teachers lack motivation – of that there is no doubt. However, ‘C’ makes a perfectly valid point, in fact several, regarding the causation of such a demeanour in good folk who began with high hopes only for them to be stifled for a whole host of possible reasons. I believe, again like ‘C’, that the descriptors are unhelpful at best and, in fact, refer to those who may have entered the profession for the wrong reasons and simply cannot see the point. These are not coasting teachers but rather people who are in the wrong job.

    Both groups – and we ought to be clear that these professionals are in the minority! – can be addressed through fairly straightforward strategies which any decent line manager/leader should be able to implement. For the ‘I’m in the wrong job’ or even more simply ‘teaching is simply not for me’ (these are in fact courageous people for it takes courage to admit defeat – and it is defeat for they will undoubtedly have tried their best and will feel like failures – so be kind and a lot more respectful!), they just need some high quality reflection time and lots of individual support to enable them to transition to a job which will give them a sense of purpose – like teaching does for those who love being teachers.

    For the ‘coaster’, the task is very different and, whilst school swaps sound great in theory, they are ridden with organisational issues alongside continuity (for children) challenges. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. However, the fact of the matter is that these ‘disaffected’, if you will, colleagues need sensitive and highly personalised support from exceptional leaders to enable them to regain their thirst, passion and drive. For their situation to have reached this state means their leaders have not done their job – so the magnifying glass of the article could really have better focussed on effective leadership and possibly coaching/mentoring rather than the unnecessarily negative language and descriptions/assumptions. The process is straightforward but we need better training for coaches and mentors (preferably solution focussed in their approach) in order to support our talent pool and ensure a sustainable and responsive culture within schools.

    1. Good to see the discussion being had. Lots to elaborate on here. First, what is under performing and how is this benchmarked? It cannot just be about student outcomes. We know teaching is more than just data. Secondly, ever teacher goes through a sticky patch, even when changing schools. Life is already not easy and teaching is a hard career. Important that all teachers are supported when times are hard. It takes a wise leadership team to identity and support the issues.

  3. @C – I actually enjoyed the article’s descriptive language. The thing is, I don’t know many teachers that are in a “coasting phase”; Most coasters I know seem intent on carrying out the rest of their days in full coast mode, and have been doing so for a while. While I agree that it is important to have empathy for such adults on a personal level, in the end of the day we have a professional obligation to the children that we serve to provide a world-class education. With all of the evidence that indicates that no single factor has a greater impact than the classroom teacher, how can we continue to allow those that don’t care to undermine progress in education?

    1. And what does that world class education looo like? Would we all agree?
      I also think that empathy on a personal level and your staff need to come first if you want to send a message. I have no issue with helping staff improve, but it’s a long road, there are no quick fixes, especially if you don’t take the time to understand the challenges that teacher faces in the first place.

    2. Majority of the coasters that I have come across have a story to tell. More often than not, that story is about complete and utter mismanagement and feeling disillusioned. Yes – there are teachers who may purposely choose to coast-but many have lost the spark and leadership should be held accountable especially when there is a history of exceptional performance. I know outstanding practitioners who have lost the spark – all down to mismanagement, and being used and abused. Once management have ‘got the best out of that teacher’ they turn away and move on to someone else.

      Teachers are in coast mode for a reason. Listen to their plights.

  4. @C – I actually enjoyed the article’s descriptive language. The thing is, I don’t know many teachers that are in a “coasting phase”; Most coasters I know seem intent on carrying out the rest of their days in full coast mode, and have been doing so for a while. While I agree that it is important to have empathy for such adults on a personal level, in the end of the day we have a professional obligation to the children that we serve to provide a world-class education. With all of the evidence that indicates that no single factor has a greater impact than the classroom teacher, how can we continue to allow those that don’t care to undermine progress in education?

    https://educationrickshaw.com/

  5. Why illustrate the piece with a grey haired older man? Sends the message only older teachers ‘coast’. And that my dear is not true.

  6. What a nasty piece of writing. I don’t know where you work but I don’t know any teachers who coast. Perhaps it’s because I work in a primary school where you teach the child rather than teach a subject. Maybe I’m just lucky to have been surrounded by people who give their all, often to the detriment of their health and family life. Yes, I have known teachers (and not all of them old) exhausted by this absolute commitment but to label them as coasters is an insult. Is teacher burnout the real concern?

    1. Such a shame there are such misconceptions about secondary teaching, with an example above. I don’t teach in primary school; I teach in secondary school. I also teach children, not a subject!

  7. I’m finding it hard to reconcile the first and second halves of this post. The latter part is positive and the proposal about rotation is entirely valid; good teachers learn from each other and see networking as vital to their development.
    The problem is that this is completely out of kilter with the abusive language used to describe teachers In the first part of the blog. There are several references that are ageist. I’ve seen ineffective teachers of all ages / lengths of service and inspirational teachers of all ages. I’m surprised that a blog which is normally such an advocate for teacher wellbeing allowed this to be included unedited.
    The symptoms described may be due to a lack of individual professional responsibility but an enthused, creative and engaged staff team is a hallmark of good leadership (at all levels). If colleagues are flagging, leaders must step up to help them.

  8. I really don’t think this describes a ‘coasting’ teacher, more under-performing and down-trodden. The piece seems to not be written with a particularly supportive tone, if we looked at the underlying issues rather than the outward behaviour of colleagues, then we could help better, rather than taking an ‘better than thou’ perspective.

  9. I once had a drive to rise to senior leadership but that was knocked out of me. I am now content to run my department the way I think it should be run. Various colleagues have risen to SLT level by a combination of skill, success, saying “Yes” and being downright conniving. It is hard to take some of their suggestions for what I should do to improve my department when there are gaping holes in the way the whole school is run.

    Does a coaster attend (and contribute to) CPD in other schools? Does a coaster constantly evaluate his/her own performance against high standards? Does a coaster seek (and gain) accreditation by national organisations? Sometimes a so-called coaster is trying to raise the aspirations of the whole school, maybe not in the most useful way, in the only way they can.

    Some change is good, some change is bad just as it can be wrong to cling to the old ways just for tradition’s sake. Please though, before you condemn someone you think is coasting, check to see whether their failure to keep up with you is actually them trying to avoid falling down the slippery slope as quickly as you are.

  10. Let’s face facts. Teachers do a job. Many might do far more than that but the base line is that it is a job. Many of us think it is a great job, but it is still a job.

    In a job, you try to keep to a decent standard that keeps the customers sufficiently pleased to recommend you to to others. You do not go to extreme lengths to prove yourself to be the best there has ever been. When new techniques come out, you keep aware of them and decide if they are good for you to use. A builder might recognise that becoming an architect might help him do better. Nobody forces him to do that, he decides if he wants to.

    If, as a builder, someone asks you to build a wall of x metres for £y, you might suggest that they spend £z extra to complete the job to a better standard. A teacher, in this situation feels (or is made to feel) obliged to do the extra bit at no extra charge. If the customer doesn’t like the wall, or deliberately drives their car into it or moves house, the builder still gets paid for what he did. The builder doesn’t get blamed if another of his (angry) customers decides to sabotage the project. The angry customer must channel his aggressions in the right direction. The builder isn’t expected to change the design to suit the new whim, or repair it or transport it to a different place free of charge. (Of course, good builders can be female too)

  11. Or……….

    1.They have had all their energy sapped out of them leaving them like a stone trough
    2.They have not had the opportunities to fulfill their potential
    3.They are constantly attacked by new initiatives.
    4.They are threatened by targets that expect to much progress.
    5.They are made to toe an unachievable line.
    6.They have a barrage of unannounced visitors through their door.
    7.They are surrounded by negativity that strangles them.
    8.They see a reinvented wheel, and develop cynicism because of initiatives that are enforced then dropped
    9.They are seen as dinosaurs because they stick with strategies that work for them as an individual.
    10.This leaves them with a sour face.

  12. This piece of writing is ill thought out, patronising, condescending and generalising and has undoubtedly offended many people without reason. It got a ‘conversation started’ though. I would ask whether it was a conversation that needed to be started. Throwing a brick through a window starts a conversation but it doesn’t mean that the brick should have been thrown.

    ‘Coasters are broken bits of furniture that need replacing.’ I mean, come on Teacher’s Toolkit.

    An image of a demotivated old man looking over the shoulder of an exasperated, ‘motivated’ young man? Again, come on Teacher’s Toolkit. This is very unlike you.

    Can we really blame a constantly changing education system for demotivating people? Teaching is a job and like any job in the world it is peppered with different personality traits, motivated and demotivated and alike.

    Is it fair for a teacher who is motivated to write obviously personal comments based on his perceptions of colleagues in such a glib way as of offering rotation as a helpful suggestion. Rotating crops works. Perhaps the author thinks that teachers should have a fallow year. Now that might work!

  13. Astoundingly obnoxious and arrogant writing. Perhaps you should exercise some editorial control over the material published here: there is nothing of value in this diatribe and attempts to engage previous commenters in discussion on some of the issues seems like a desperate attempt to rescue some credit from an abysmal mess of an article.

    A very, very poor show indeed.

  14. I read your remarks about your choice of picture and I found your response glib. To say ‘Either way, it was a losing game no-matter what image was published’, is entirely false. Would you have illustrated the article with a picture of a teacher of colour, a woman or a disabled teacher? I have seen far too many teachers drummed out of the profession once they reach a certain age to find this amusing or fair; or indeed an adequate explanation. You chose it because of your own inbuilt bias. You didn’t need an image at all. I am quite disgusted and upset. I enjoy your blog and find much of interest in your work. But this for me betrays a lack of judgement on your part.

  15. “They have a sour face”. That’s what you’ve got? You judge my professional ability on my face? No wonder it has gone sour!

    I belong to that group of teachers (middle aged women with double digit years of experience) who are finding themselves more and more as the target of “capability measures” because accusing us of coasting is so easy. “We’ve got the data to prove it and we’ve been giving you the most challenging students, without support, for years”.

    I spent ten years teaching foreign languages in a school that would have benefited from my master’s degree in Second Language Acquisition (with Larry Selinker as my supervisor. Nobody was impressed because they were too ignorant to know who he is). My head of department, a French nursery teacher turned “middle leader” because she was friends with the head was very keen on spotting “lack of professionalism” and “coasting” but not so keen on providing schemes of work because that would have been doing my work for me (even when I was an NQT!). Another of the head’s friends was a consultant who had not heard of “spot the odd one out” as an exercise to encourage thinking and interaction (Barry Teare is perhaps another smelly dinosaur?) and who observed my beginners students agreeing and disagreeing on grammar points in Spanish. He could only speak English and claimed that four levels of development in five months was not satisfactory progress, and that it was my fault for not giving them the right answers at the end of their lengthy interactions in perfect Spanish (that he could not understand using a technique he had never heard of).

    After his observation I complained to my head, whose answer to my suggestions were usually “that is not excuse for lack of professionalism”. This time she only shouted at me “whatever he says you take it”. And then my head of department comes into my lesson, observes me as part of my appraisal, gives me feedback full of lies nearly two months later (not the statutory 48 hours) and when I complain (armed with lots of evidence!) another of my leaders asks me “what do you want me to do?”. Well, your job, you coasting leader who presides over institutionalised bullying.

    When I became a teacher I thought I was joining a profession full of highly articulate and trained people who could work both independently and as team members, and I thought that my training and knowledge would be appreciated and used for the common good of the school. It turns out that we are all budgies trying to get to the higher branches of the profession so that we can crap on the lowly, ugly budgies below us who only want to teach to the best of their ability.

    I don’t have a relationship with my doctor (thankfully, I am middle aged, smelly and sour faced but healthy) but I have relationships with the students that I teach. These relationships benefit the students’ learning: my last group in my last school (the one where I was constantly told that I required improvement) achieved 50% As and A*s, despite being bottom sets with half the teaching hours that my “leader” has with the brighter kids. One of the reasons why they did so well is because they trusted me, I took quite a few of them on school trips and I even knew about their favourite toys because we had done a project in Spanish about them. You start rotating me and not only more children are exposed to my “coasting manners” but I also lose this relationship.

    Still, what do I know? I am just a lowly teacher and not a Shatneresque leader.

    1. This is an excellent response to a terrible article. I came to this post via another blog which had given a very articulate and angry response to the nonsense published as wisdom in the main article (https://whenisitdueinsir.wordpress.com/2016/12/03/the-coasting-teacher-myth/) and your reply here has added further to the demolishing of the arrogant nonsense here.

      One of the many issues I would take up with the main post is his sneery attitude towards teachers who have spent years (doube-digit years no less!) in the same school, perhaps in the same post. It is one of the worst aspects of the new management style of senior leaders, that only constant movement and frenetic introduction of the latest educational fad as an initiative will really work. Of course, “managers” need to do this as a replacement for their own lack of impact on actual children learning in the classroom. Many of us who have stuck to classroom teaching for many years have done so without ever feeling jaded, or feeling that we know it all and can start coasting, but because every new class offers different challenges. They are bound to. They consist of ever individual and unpredictable children. There was a view once that a sense of permanence in schools was a good thing, that students benefited both from the influx of new teachers and the institutional wisdom and stability of those who stayed. I can, though, understand why any teacher in Mr. Dalby’s school might feel they wanted to move – their own head feels they shouldn’t hang around and get in the way of his next initiative.

      I am lucky to have worked under a head who has given his staff considerable leeway as professionals, who offers nothing but support, resists unnecessary fads but carefully uses inset to promote credible ideas on teaching, and unsurprisingly presides over a happy and successful school. Sadly, he is in a minority.

  16. This poorly conceived article shows us why the teaching profession is in such a mess today. It’s no wonder we can’t unite to fight crippling workload, pay freezes and a lack of funding for our schools; we are too busy watching our own backs or – like the author of this shoddy piece of click bait – too busy blaming others for not being resilient enough.

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