The Number One Thing Teachers Always Say To Me…

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Just A Teacher


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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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…

15 Cognitive Bias Which Influence The Way You Think

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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’…
  3. 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.

One thought on “The Number One Thing Teachers Always Say To Me…

  1. I like it that you are bringing this aspect of teaching into the open Ross and that you make the link to mental health. In my own experience, difficult conversations are very hard to initiate and often you ‘stumble’ when at first trying to make them. We need those that manage or lead others to be ready to have difficult conversations and no matter how uncomfortable they are, understand they are part of their responsibilities.

    In terms of mental health, there is a distinction that needs to be made between those factors that are job-related and those that are not to ensure the conversation is not dismissed. I once told a senior school leader in my line management meeting that I was an “unhappy professional”. This one declaration took an enormous amount of effort on my part and reflected my desperation, the stress and anxiety I was experiencing as a result of the conflict between leadership decisions being made and my own experiences and specialist knowledge. The declaration was ignored and the conversation topic changed. The opportunity was lost and it was the beginning of the end for me.

    Being the most knowledgable about your subject (and that maybe other areas of teaching and not just a subject) is not always the best way to instigate or effect change where you are. If the leadership is not open, listening, willing to explore I have found that no matter how much evidence you present or how persuasive your arguments are you will be ignored. This highlights another way power manifests itself – relationships. It’s not what you know but who you know! Relationship power is much harder to overcome when trying to make changes.

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