A Call To Arms

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How can teachers bring about national change to the education system?

For the past three or fours years, it is my belief that the Government does not have the solution to our education system. We do. And that with every Government that comes and goes, we are left in the lurch, waiting for the next possible answer or source of funding to help address the latest crisis, research or push the latest agenda. It is my belief that the answer lies in us as a profession as a collective force – to do more to resolve the issues with teacher workload and retention by ignoring eternal agencies; dictating the mood in schools. ‘Why and how?’ you may ask. Well, if enough of us start to do it, we can bring about collective change.

In this post I set about my ‘call to arms’ for teachers in England and Wales.

For those who succumb to the illusion of social media promotion and ‘rose-tinted glasses’, you will be surprised to read, that I too have struggled with teaching as a career – several times. As I write, I am entering my 24th academic year working in education having started teacher-training at the tender age of 18, qualifying at 23. It has been great journey, but not without its moments, even this year.

Teacher Attrition

The 30% attrition rate within 5 years has been commonplace for the past 20 years. Only last year, I discovered when reading the School workforce in England: November 2015, that after two decades in the classroom I will have a less than a 50% survival rate. I accept that every profession has its challenges and that there will always be natural wastage, but it should not be the norm, that our young teachers enter into the profession and work like ‘headless chickens’, burn out and be recycled by the next bunch of recruits every 2 or 3 years.

Why should any teacher have to work between 45-60+ hours per week to get their job close to complete? Something isn’t right about the system if this is now the expectation. We must use our experiences to help change the landscape, to eradicate myths and perceptions so that other teachers are not forced out of the profession.

Optimism

However, I have reason to be optimistic. If we put aside external factors for the moment, it is desirable for many people to choose teaching as a career.

Thankfully, teachers by default have an intrinsic desire to learn and work with children. We aspire to work with young people and make a difference to each and every one. Classrooms are a fascinating place in which to work. They are detailed, delicate and delightful, full of character, emotion and sound! Teachers learn to love their students – every single one of them, even the most challenging. Teachers can put their ‘empathy hats’ on, viewing their misdemeanours as learning opportunities and understanding that there is no such thing as a bad person, only an affected person.

They know there will be challenges. There will be times when the toughest students make teaching impossible. But this doesn’t last forever. Children are more than just a number or an exam result. They are our next generation, our next Prime Minister, our future.

We can each remember a great teacher – someone who inspired us and helped shape us to be the person that we are today. Because of great teachers, children in England are receiving the best education this country has ever had to offer.

Throughout this book, I have shared the work of some of the great teachers and some of the great teaching I have witnessed within our fantastic state-school system. And thanks to social media and the growth of the Internet, all teachers have the opportunity to share best practice and dispel myths created by policymakers, conference attendees and the inspectorate. Collectively, we can challenge government policy and white papers written by politicians who have never stepped foot in the classroom since they were children. We have a voice and we can shape the education landscape. It is our landscape after all, and in the midst of a battering from the media and a deluge of political claptrap, we must take control of our own destiny.

Teachers can make change happen. We just need to believe it and organise ourselves effectively, so let’s get started right here, now.

Definition of Success

The first thing we must look at is how we define ourselves in the workplace. We all need to be resilient, but that is not the single solution for survival in our classrooms. If we do not fix our work-life balance, we will struggle to recruit and retain teachers.  Isn’t it about time teachers left the school building at 4.30PM? Isn’t it about time we had our Sundays back, free from marking and lesson planning? Isn’t it about time we could turn our digital devices off so we aren’t tied to our emails 24/7?

We don’t have to work this way. Nothing is that urgent, surely?

And no one can drive teaching and learning stuck behind a desk all day? If I had a bucket list of ways to improve teachers’ work-life balance, it would include the following. Admittedly, some will never happen, but it’s healthy to have a dream …

  1. All teachers to have more allocated time to mark and plan lessons during the school day
  2. one-week sabbatical to be offered, accruing for each year of service.
  3. Any future Secretary of State for Education to be an ex-classroom practitioner. (Imagine that … policies with a degree of understanding!)
  4. School inspections to be less high-stakes and OfSTED’s measurement scale to reduce from ‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement’ and ‘Special Measures’ to simply ‘Good’ and ‘Not Yet Good’; better still, government inspections to be disbanded and to move towards a school-to-school process.

What would be on your bucket list?

Wellbeing Matters

Staff wellbeing matters. It is not a peripheral issue; it should be a moral imperative for all senior leadership teams and their governing bodies, and this is gradually reaching the radars of those who impart their advice to schools. Although this is welcome news, the day wellbeing becomes a measurable factor in our schools, (and that day will come) marks the day that wellbeing starts to have the opposite effect to the one intended. There will be sticky-plaster solutions, designed to create the illusion that schools place wellbeing at the top of their agenda, but ‘Cake Fridays’ and ‘The Annual Staff Quiz’ will simply be papering over the cracks. Imagine a swam calmly gliding across the surface of the lake but with feet paddling at an unbelievable rate beneath the surface. That’s stick-plaster wellbeing.

Solution

For me, the solution is obvious. The crux of the matter is that every teacher must be able to mark, plan and teach with simplicity and passion. We must give our teachers the space to be able to do these things well and be in front of their students, their lessons and their classroom ideas. That’s it, but we need well-funded schools to be able to achieve this simple aim.

Let’s not over-complicate classroom life with shifting goalposts, fads and preferences dictated by external watchdogs and policymakers. Teaching and learning trumps everything we do in schools and the sooner politicians, experts and school leaders remember this, our students, teachers and our profession as a whole will gain.

Let’s strip back the nonsense and focus on what every teacher across the world needs to do; Mark. Plan. Teach.

@TeacherToolkit

In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

10 thoughts on “A Call To Arms

  • 24th September 2017 at 9:55 am
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    I agree with every word of this. I’m in my 22nd year of teaching and the job has got harder and harder, the hours longer and longer and the work/life balance unsustainably tipped in favour of school. It’s Sunday morning, the sun is out and I’ve already worked over 60 hours this week, going to work on 5-6 hours sleep. So how will I spend my day? Not marking or planning which will directly benefit students. Instead I’m analysing data, writing a report then ordering stock. Don’t tell the office staff but I smuggled the YPO catalogue out on Friday ( easy to do, they’d gone home) as I really need stock for the department but literally haven’t had a moment to do it. I have asked countless times, what are our unions doing about our workload and when?

    Keep writing Ross. A voice of reason in the wilderness is reassuring and uplifting.

    Reply
    • 24th September 2017 at 10:07 am
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      Hi Fran – your tale is all-too familiar for teachers; particularly me. Snooping at resources after everyone has gone – simply because you are still in the building at 7pm needing a solution; or the sleeping all Saturday to catch up with the exhaustion. It is not sustainable for anyone, let alone the sector. Is it any wonder we have a problem? Thanks for feedback and support. Best wishes.

      Reply
  • 24th September 2017 at 10:48 am
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    You don’t mention the role here of teacher unions Ross- surely a unified voice is there for the taking.

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    • 24th September 2017 at 12:24 pm
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      Absolutely! Good work from ATL & NUT – need this for all unions and then aslo NAHT and ASCL… then one day, just ONE voice.

      Reply
  • 24th September 2017 at 11:49 am
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    After 36 years of teaching, the greatest joy is being with my classes. But this year I have decicided I have had enough of form filling, completing and marking assessments which tell me nothing etc. The result being, I am working part time or reducing my hours as I would rather describe it. I am hoping the result will be a better work life balance, it is early days yet. One negative result though has already raised its head, comments like ” Oh well, you won’t want to do that any *job* anymore because you are part time! I think one of the important jobs I might have is to educate some of the teachers I work with.

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    • 24th September 2017 at 12:25 pm
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      It is my belief, that the profession need MORE part-time teachers – not to support them to complete their job in their own time, but to offer much needed reflection / headspace as well as enrich their classroom work from doing other things e.g. attend conferences where they wouldn’t normally be allowed to attend during school hours.

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      • 17th October 2017 at 7:35 pm
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        Ross! I was lucky enough to attend your ‘Just Great Teaching’ event in London and we chatted a little about flexible working and part-time working. Education is so far behind other sectors as far as flexible working goes and, while it would be great if we could walk out at 4.30pm, in the meantime let’s not haemorrhage any more quality teachers by ignoring their need for a genuine work/life blend. To that end I’m working on a pilot solution in South London with the support of Teach First as part of their Innovation Series. We’re hoping to tackle the barriers for SLT and teachers so that flexible working becomes normalised in schools. If you’re interested to hear more then let me know and follow our progress on Twitter @Luceassociation @Mumsyme
        You have such a powerful voice, keep up your excellent work

      • 18th October 2017 at 9:26 am
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        Hi Lucy – thanks for the email – would like to know more. Email me here.

  • 24th September 2017 at 12:57 pm
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    A bit of Wolfie for teachers speech but with many nails firmly struck in contrast to Citizen Smith!

    I, like many, am hoping through our Chartered College advocacy work and networks that the College have been nurturing will lead to the unifying of teachers alongside our unions such that we create a single voice. It would appear the easiest and most rational approach as an organisation created by, led by and driven by teachers.

    Keep ‘me coming Wolfie 🙂

    Reply
  • 10th October 2017 at 8:36 am
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    The main impediment to teaching being treated as a respected profession (like others) by the government, media, parents etc is the lack of a shared ‘theory of learning’. Teaching is still a ‘this is my opinion and here are a few facts to support it’ profession.

    Professions like engineering, archeology, midwifery etc all have the same contents in their textbooks for training new professionals. In teaching there is no such shared conceptual framework.

    Even if a single union were formed, the theory-of-learning it used would simply depend on who was at the top of that organisation.

    What is needed is exactly the same process which made the other professions resected – a shared, evidence-based approach. Fortunately for us media such as TT and Twitter are able to accelerate this process 9which would otherwise take 30 years).

    Simply focus on the evidence. Look for areas of agreement. Tackle differences of opinion with an open mind. If a reasonable percentage of the profession were to speak with one voice, the movement would be unstoppable.

    Reply

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