What do you think is the number one thing teachers always say to me?
Over the last two years, I have worked with almost 20,000 teachers face to face. Many often speak with me privately to share the highs and lows of their work and more importantly, how they may instigate change when challenging orthodoxy…
What are you going to do about it?
“What are you going to do about it?” This is the first question I ask in our conversation.
“I’m just a teacher” is the teacher’s reply.
This is always the first response when a teacher speaks with me when explaining how frustrated they are about what they can do to make a change in their classroom or, with how their school leaders are steering the vision (or not) in their school.
Teachers have every right to be fearful of challenging people in positions of power for fear of retribution, their job and their mental health. I’ve been there myself, but at a system level, I want to be able to offer advice based on my own teaching and leadership journey, including what I have seen and heard over the last two years.
Having difficult conversations…
For many teachers, they often find themselves working in an awkward position, after all, we are not just dealing with pupils, but working alongside other people. Sometimes a ‘difficult conversation’ is for the first time. More often than not, it is avoided and teachers are either managing others without the necessary experience or knowledge and have not had any training in a) how to lead and b) how to support and challenge other people.
The most-common training request I hear on my travels from teachers is having more professional development on ‘how to conduct difficult conversations‘.
Understanding perceptions and bias
Some school leaders will find it difficult to recognise their mistakes. Rather than being humble, one of the more unlikeable human attributes is self-justification, especially when decision-making is ill-informed. The cognitive dissonance model is always worth keeping in mind when having those challenging conversations. I’ve written in great depth at all the various conversations teachers have in school and how they can spot the signs of bias in themselves and others.
It is always interesting using this graphic for leadership team professional development…
How power manifests itself?
There are at least three positions of power which I’d like to explain how they may help teachers who feel disempowered to inspire change in others, especially those who are wanting to challenge those who sit higher up on the ladder.
- Positional: The is often, for example, the headteacher who sits at the top of a traditional, hierarchical chain. The person who has the final say, simple because any decision, particularly if it goes wrong, will rest with them. This status of power is often used for decisions when it is unpopular, likely to upset the status quo or a challenge that a person is unhappy with.
- Monetary: This is the person with the budget who says ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to decisions which enable you to, for example, purchase a resource or attend a professional development session, One example of how teachers are now bypassing this is where we see teachers curating their own professional development events in the evenings and at weekends, outside of working hours. Lack of money in the budget is often used as a ‘blocker’…
- Knowledge: This is a powerful influence which can often trump other sources of power listed above (more often than the other way around). People in positions of leadership typically have more experiences or may ‘know more stuff!’ Where this can be challenged is, for example, a teacher may not be the person with the final decision or the person with the budget, but they ‘may’ be the person who knows the most about a topic.
My advice to ‘just teachers’
To all the people who speak with me. My advice to those teachers when I hear “I’m just the teacher“ is to make sure that you are the most knowledgeable about your subject. If you know the most about a topic, whether this is in your own subject or about a poor decision that your school leadership wishes to pursue, you can make a big influence to those who work around you by knowing more than others. Examples include:
- You know the most about your subject curriculum
- You know what the data says
- You know the right people to ask about a topic
- Others seek your advice for your knowledge
- You have accessed research – both for and against – and have an informed perspective
All teachers can be the person that knows the most stuff – make sure you gather as much information as possible – to make a change, not for change’s sake, but because it is the right thing to do, even if you are ‘just a teacher’.
Use this knowledge to challenge those people who hold the positional status for making decisions, or those which hold the purse-strings. If you know the most, even if you are ‘just a teacher’, I believe you can put yourself in a strong position of influence.