Do teachers have the potential to change the educational landscape?
I have always believed teachers can shape policy, which is why I have been increasingly focused on sharing my thoughts with 100,000s of teachers across the world. But, imagine if we all did it, could teachers start to shape education policy? I believe so. Below is my foreword (in full) for a new book published by Richarrd Gerver, someone who inspired me to tackle education policy.
Richard Gerver has over 25 years’ experience of working in schools and more recently education settings across the world. He is someone we should listen to and, as an educator, he has continued to inspire me over the past five years, ever since I first read his work and invited him in to present a keynote at one of my schools.
A Manifesto for Change
There reaches a point in every teacher’s career when they have to walk away from a job they love. This has been a decision that both Richard and I have taken in the past decade and, as Richard describes, it is one of those ‘lump-in-the-throat’ moments.
In this heartwarming book, Richard reminds the reader of the footprints teachers and school leaders have every day: they make thousands and thousands of idiosyncratic decisions in the classroom, which, at a whole-school level, make a collective difference to the lives of children.
Those working in our schools will be familiar with political rhetoric versus our legacy; the reality that our internal decisions have little or no value for metrics and accountability, but define a teacher’s impact on developing a child’s love of learning. This sociological data, which is hard to quantify, is given no value when it comes to school improvement.
A key sentence in Richard’s introduction is this line from a colleague listening to him speak at an event: “I never thought I’d get the chance to hear you speak, as I’d been told that you were no longer involved in education.”
Here Richard explains why he has retreated from the front-line educational debate, unpicking the truth behind the challenges of working for oneself, as well as explaining why his perspective on education has changed.
On the other side of the fence …
As I find myself also sitting on the other side of the fence, I can understand why this perspective is offered, but stepping into a world that Richard has now embraced for ten years, I believe I have never been more immersed in education at a whole-system level than I am now. Although physically I may not be attached to one school, like Richard, I find myself working in schools every week or speaking with fellow educators on a daily basis all across the world. This perspective has given Richard a wider lens to remind us, and share his insights about, why we need a change from the ground up.
Richard discusses what he has learnt from his travels about assessment, curriculum and socio-economic issues, highlighting what, why and how other countries are moving towards more efficient systems, with less focus on testing, and towards new models that can better develop young people as well as educational institutions. As Richard articulates with passion and simplicity, our education model is reactive rather than proactive and in the final chapter of the book, he shares a fascinating alternative to lessen academic burdens.
Are you an educator who is dividing or collaborating?
As an active user of social media, I can see a clear division between various educators online. Views are often shared that are underpinned by political bias, positioning or philosophical interests and are designed to undermine, as Richard writes, ‘constructive discussions and observations’ about how best to meet the needs of our children.
Richard explains that education is at its worst when it is adversarial and, as one of the most active educators on social media in the UK, I know this debate is often exposed and heightened through transparent, or sometimes vitriolic and hidden, networks. In truth, although I hope to unpick some of this evidence and influence in the doctoral research I am currently conducting at the University of Cambridge, Richard shows why there has rarely been any potential for social media to help us find a new way forward. Whether social media helps us to achieve a manifesto for change or not, collaboration, a shared purpose and a clear vision for all stakeholders in education must be our future.
Name-calling, polarisation and a lack of teamwork do nothing to help a child to make progress in school, and if some educators of influence continue to behave in this way, do we genuinely believe we can achieve a balanced solution? Richard explains how in some of the schools and organisations he has visited, culture feeds success, and he explores why trust has been sucked out of our schools to be replaced with high-stakes accountability at a micro level.
What can education learn from others …
A common purpose which makes a profound difference to the lives of children and supports the moral compass of our educators can be found in successful businesses, schools and organisations. Countries such as South Korea and Finland regularly make the media headlines but jurisdictions such as Cuba or Israel are also renowned for constructing their education system sociologically, through national service, to instil a common goal for their people. We can learn a great deal from looking overseas, but we also need to look more closely within our own system to find the answers we so desperately need.
If we are to achieve any certainty, we need trust, knowledge and common goals. Richard highlights some interesting examples of each from a wide range of organisations. He explains how collaboration and bringing people together informally, in a shared space, often without an agenda, is so powerful. This is quite the opposite of what we see in most of our educational settings, where we construct groups of children by age or subject – far from the reality of what actually happens day-to-day in the real world and how people live and work.
Of course, the answer isn’t simple and to make a real change will require people from all sectors of the education community coming together to think deeply about the purpose of education, not only to discuss, but also to rethink how we can meet the needs of our children to ensure parents, politicians and most of all teachers to answer one of the simplest yet most complex questions about education: What is the purpose of school?
What is the purpose of school?
Richard reminds us that we must be prepared to leave our comfort zones and put aside our bias and egos if we genuinely want a better society. He highlights what I have observed over the past ten years on social media: that there are people within the system who are happy to promote fragmentation and a blurring of purpose and polarisation. To prevent this dichotomy from evolving further in our society, we must reclaim our voices so that every child is included. How we do this, Richards suggests, is to go ‘beyond the walls’ of our own perspective.
Once a teacher, always a teacher. This is true, but it does not mean that this is all that a teacher can do. ‘I’m just a teacher’: for years I have said this myself and have heard it on the lips of thousands of other teachers, particularly when introducing themselves to others in a formal setting. Teachers are humble beings who do not know their true potential and, with high-stakes accountability, teachers are under significant pressure and rarely have the time to seek innovation.
Research published by The Varkey Foundation in November 2018 highlighted that ‘teachers’ perceptions of themselves’ are actually lower than public perceptions of teachers. The study from 35 countries highlights that we, therefore, should become more confident in our capabilities. As a school leader, I started to develop a wide range of experience and expertise, and as I stepped nervously out of the classroom for the very first time in 25 years, little did I realise how deep and complex my skill set had become, from having the ability to speak on a stage in front of 500 people, to running a business and having my views shared with educators around the world. When I left school in 2017, little did I know that two years later I would be influencing national policy, conducting groundbreaking research and travelling the world to work with schools.
Teachers are a force for school improvement …
Teachers are a rare breed: intelligent, articulate and experts in people and their behaviours. There are not many other professions that know the human being better – what drives them and how to seek improvement. Yet, if teachers could mobilise themselves, they would be able to shape policy. So, imagine what we could all do if we got ourselves organised? Richard strikes a chord in all of us when he reminds us of how we have developed as a human race. Society has not evolved simply because of a focus on efficiency, but because of our curiosity and desire to learn.
This book manifests itself in many forms. It is not a ‘how-to’ practical guidebook for teachers but rather a ‘heads-up’ and ‘take a look around you’ read for those who want to understand what is happening in education and how we may solve it, together, with optimism.
There is no single way to improve schools, no structure or label, but there are people, and it is the workforce who can take on the challenge of school improvement. If we can reach the moon, cultivate an embryo and grow a human ear on the back of a mouse, then we can certainly design schools that are fit for purpose to support children’s mental health, reduce exclusions and allow all of our children to leave with a set of qualifications so that they can contribute to wider society.
What I hope you take away from Richard’s book is not just a soundbite from the title, but an understanding of how you can use your experiences within education to collectively produce change. How you do this relies entirely on your knowledge of teaching, your experiences and, most of all, your capacity and desire to make a switch, but if I could add one piece of advice to this brilliant book, it would be my additional call to arms to:
- Recognise your passion.
- Find your niche.
- Gather people around you who can give you the belief that change can happen.
Tomorrow, rather than end a conversation with your critics with a ‘Yes, but…’, start a conversation with a ‘Yes, and…’, and ask how you can both work together to solve the issues we face. Our schools can only be as good as the people who want to improve them. It starts with you, and it needs to start now.
I am flattered that Richard has asked me to write this foreword. Don’t miss out: Buy a copy of the book.