A College of Teaching

Earlier this year I attended the launch of a blueprint for a College of Teaching. I believe that its time has come and I will be signing up for it.

Here is why I feel this way, and what I expect from it.

SETTING OUT MY STALL

First of all, let me set out my credentials.

I have two degrees (a BA in History and a BA in English), a postgraduate diploma in marketing and a level one qualification as a swimming teacher.

I have a PGCE, achieved Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) and successfully completed my probationary year.

I have also, in my time, been a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the Association for Project Management and Institute of Management Consultancy. I am a Certified Management Consultant as well as an accredited Leader of High Risk Gateway Reviews (licensed to poke my nose into the government’s most expensive and high profile projects).

Along the way, I have modelled competence, evaluated it, developed it and co-written learned papers on it. I was in at the birth of the Association for Project Management’s own accreditation scheme. And I assessed the competence of every project manager in London Underground (which made me feel something like Torquemada crossed with a school examiner).

WHY ASSOCIATE?

So what has this got to do with a College of Teaching? Because in each case – and in each profession – there was a need to reinforce credibility. That is a gross simplification: professional membership brings with it so much more. But credibility – corporately and assumed by its individual members – matters.

Now in such peripheral and obscure professions as project management, management consultancy and marketing, this is necessary and obvious. In a profession as ancient and – to most – as venerable as teaching, one might consider this unnecessary.

The difference here is the source of that credibility. Teachers gain their formal, externally judged credibility from institutions such as teacher training colleges, the TDA and Ofsted. We are judged capable and, subject to the occasional inspection, left to get on with it. The nascent College of Teaching aspires to some involvement in this external recognition, of which more later.

REASON ONE – BECAUSE WE KNOW WHAT MATTERS

Excellence can be subjective

We all have memories of teachers, whether they were our own or our children’s. Some will have had more credibility than others, for our own subjective reasons. Individual credibility matters a lot, and may be specific to a situation, or even a student.

Modelling Competence for Development

That is why some of the work I did with Dr Catherine Bailey, director of Cranfield University’s general management development programme, in the 1990s (she provided the brains; I did the donkey work) focused on very, very small-scale and specific models of competence: what it meant to a very small community of professionals. It worked well as an aid to development, as members could identify with and aspire to examples of higher competence.

One of the ways in which we developed these models was to ask our audience to picture a particular highly capable person they knew. Prompting them with categories – aspects of the job that they’d agreed were especially relevant – we asked them to give examples of how their role models behaved. We then collated the results – highly subjective descriptions of behaviour – and used our audience to determine, subjectively, the level of capability that a particular example of behaviour displayed. The trick was to retain the original language used to describe the behaviour, as this was most meaningful to the people who would be using the model.

We sometimes found, while correlating perceived excellence and the behaviour displayed by ‘excellent’ role models, that these role models demonstrated some pretty poor behaviour in one or two instances. This is, in some ways, reassuring: we are human, imperfect, and capable of development. You’d hope that these imperfections didn’t matter too much, of course. When a model like this is being used, it’s important that a weighting is applied: some capabilities matter more than others (safety in construction, life-saving technical expertise in surgery and a regard for child protection for teachers, for example).

I’d advocate, as a way of generating discussion and targeting and motivating personal development amongst teaching colleagues, a similar, small-scale exercise. Teachers in a school can generate their own examples of more or less capable behaviour for the Ofsted criteria that matter most in their school and can then say, “Here’s our unique situation and here are specific ways in which we aim to develop ourselves.”

I would like a College of Teaching to steer clear of an excessively detailed, ‘one size fits all’ model of teaching competence, to promote ways for teaching communities to articulate their own models (consistent with the College’s principles) and to support networks of professionals who are interested in learning about each other’s contexts and brilliant behaviours.

Beware Performance Appraisal

As a final note: keep the fox away from the chickens. If you’re going to adopt this approach, use it purely for development and don’t let performance appraisal anywhere near it. There’s nothing more likely to subvert one’s development than the annual round of appraisals. This, incidentally, is why I would advocate the abolition of performance appraisals. Read this book and see why appraisal perversely affects performance. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/1576752003

REASON TWO – BECAUSE WE WANT TO BE TAKEN MORE SERIOUSLY

No one listens to us

As a profession, we are often seen as whiners. We know how noble we are, we know the pressure we’re under and the difference we can we make. And we, whether as members of ‘Marxist’ unions, ‘The Blob’ or those complacent so-and-so’s with secure jobs and protected pensions, aren’t taken as seriously as we’d like to be.

Why organisations listen to ‘suits’

I used to be taken seriously. When my fee rate was £1,500 a day (cheap by some standards), my CV packed with experience and my way into an organisation prepared with a JFDI from the respective chief executive or Secretary of State, I could speak with authority.

I have to admit here: my professional memberships did little to get me to my lofty position. I did what I needed and bought the badges. What mattered was my professional apprenticeship. I was fortunate enough to work for a gifted opportunist and wise advisor called Mike Nichols. He was my boss and professional stepfather for twenty years. He gave me confidence bordering on impertinence through opportunities that both terrified and developed me, brilliantly supportive and wise colleagues, lots of money and other forms of recognition.

I made my luck, to some extent: I sought out scary assignments, identified mentors and learnt all they offered me, and always tried to be better. I am a perfectionist, feel a strong sense of accountability and am obsessed with my personal development.

To begin with, I worked in teams, kept my mouth shut and ears and eyes open, and learnt my trade. Eventually I achieved all that I wanted to and gave it up to pursue something far harder: teaching.

Why ‘the power of suits’ won’t work in teaching

Management consultants (and other professions with a longer pedigree) have an aura about them. They are reassuringly expensive, have your boss’s say-so and know things you don’t. Their confident smiles, smooth faces and costly suits speak volumes.

This, incidentally, is why teachers in some schools may feel more valued than in others. Some parents’ culture or personal experience leads them to respect their children’s teachers; others think it’s money for old rope, read about how lazy, incompetent and complacent we are, remember their own days at school and can’t see how some teachers can be so useless. I count myself as fortunate not to have encountered the latter in my professional capacity.

We seem to lack that externally conferred credibility. Teachers in other countries have it; a College of Teaching might enable us to gain it.

I said that I learnt with the support of my boss and through my apprenticeship. Teachers, once we’re through our BEd or PGCE and our NQT year, are somehow considered to be fully fledged. We operate more or less on our own and may have little opportunity to learn on the job. I’m not going to opine on the many opportunities that teachers can grasp for development in their classrooms; I’d just add that it’s different. We may feel isolated, overwhelmed and just too knackered to develop.

I hope that because it speaks authoritatively and independently, a College of Teaching will give us greater corporate, professional credibility. But more than this, I hope that a College of Teaching will offer teachers a way of stepping out of our relative isolation and into a vibrant network of professionals who support one another’s development.

REASON THREE – BECAUSE SOME THINGS THAT MATTER CAN’T BE MEASURED

Most importantly for me, what really matters are the aspects of competence that are most difficult to measure and develop: our values and attitudes.

My former associate, Dr Catherine Bailey, saw a model of competence with various layers. It’s old hat now, but wasn’t then (and still isn’t widely recognised, in my experience).

When you look at a teacher at work, you see performance, which is behaviour within an environment. Below the surface, the teacher is applying skills, underpinned by knowledge and understanding. That’s the stuff we go to teacher training college to acquire.

It’s not all: college admissions tutors, supervisory tutors, mentors, head teachers and, occasionally, Ofsted inspectors will be looking for signs that teachers value what they do, their colleagues’ and parents’ contributions and, crucially, their students.

You see its presence, or absence, in all walks of life. A barista who genuinely likes and is interested in his coffee and his customers shines beside the adequate drinks, forced smiles and inauthentic repartee of some who have all the same skills but, at the heart of it, don’t care. The surgeon (and I have David Houlihan-Burne in mind) who treats patients as whole human beings rather than symptoms, clearly cares about their emotional wellbeing and values the part that colleagues such as physiotherapists have to play in a patient’s full recovery, stands head and shoulders above, well, I can’t be bothered to list the negative attributes of some. You see the values and attitudes shine from deep down in excellent managers, barristers, shop assistants, police officers… and teachers.

The danger is that these less measurable aspects are treated as hygiene factors. So long as we’re not overly cynical, not at colleagues’ throats, not openly rude to parents and not (you get the idea), we’re okay.

We may even have colleagues who shine in an intangible way, whose classes thrive happily and whose results reflect their personal saintliness. Damn them, they’re brilliant; you just can’t quite pin down why.

My experience of the young graduates who trained alongside me was of bright individuals, most of whom were imbued with these values. My experience of older teachers is that the years, the pressure to deliver results, the constant changes and fads, some management ineptitude, and a lack of spiritual or emotional renewal (please forgive my wooly way of expressing that) may take its toll on less resilient individuals. In short, unless we nurture these values, we may lose them.

Gareth Davis, the chair of the teaching committee tasked with devising a blueprint for the College of Teaching, summed up what is vital in a teacher. “Be interesting and be fair.” That’s what we chiefly remember, either because our teachers had it or lacked it.

I instantly remembered my English teacher, Adrian Barlow, who made us laugh, made us care, offered me English literature as if it were a series of choices I could make, and was a model of gentleness and fairness in a sometimes brutally unfair world. While he could become incandescently angry (for example he walked out of the classroom when I said that Shakespeare was boring) I was never belittled or made to feel like an inferior receptacle for knowledge. He also directed me in many plays, lending me his dinner suit in one (to my undying shame, I lost it). Before I took up my place to train as a teacher, I had lunch with him, thirty years after I’d left his class. I could tell him, with confidence, that I had been inspired to study for an English degree in my forties because of the love of the subject he’d given me in my four years in his classes. And I could tell him that I aspired to teach like him: he continues to be the model of excellence I carry around in my head.

I also had in mind Dame Alison Peacock, who embodies the values I respect. Her colleagues know how great they are and want to be even better (I mentioned Steve Davy, who epitomises values-driven teaching); she respects her students’ parents (she has a model of a crocodile on her desk to remind her to shut up and listen to her visitors, because they matter); and she has, at the centre of her practice, the students (find out about the Wroxham School and see for yourself).

I asked the teachers, amongst the august gathering of panellists on the stage, what values they would seek to nurture. “Respect for your students. Then you get to know them, and then you come to understand them, and you can help them. It helps if you stay at the school long enough to find out about them.” That sounds good to me.

In an age of change, of fads, of adversarial attitudes amongst politicians and professionals, I believe that a College of Teaching can identify, promote, embody and help to develop and nurture values and attitudes that transcend politics, mark us out as excellent and, above all, help to improve the lives of the children we teach.

post-script

At the end of yesterday’s event, as I remained seated and attempted to make sense of everything I had heard, a man sat down next to me. He smiled at me and eventually I recognised him. Adrian Barlow, still supporting the teaching profession through The English Association. Once again, I was able to tell him, to his face, how much he mattered. Many of us will have just such encounters with former pupils; it’s life-affirming but it’s not enough to ensure the recognition that our profession requires. That is why we need a College of Teaching.

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