Dennett is an American philosopher and in this particular quote he was taking aim at the practice of tenure. This is common practice in North America and other countries and it basically protects employees from dismissal from employment without just cause. It is common in academic areas including schools and the quote was shared with me by a colleague from Germany, where the practice of tenure is common in schools. What he described was a situation where school leaders were severely limited in what they could ask of their teachers as basically each teacher with tenure had complete autonomy over their practice and what they did in their classrooms. This meant that they could refuse to engage with personal and professional development if they so chose and he was using this quote to help describe what he thought many of Germany's teachers had become as a result.
I really don't know enough about the German education system and their teachers to say whether this is an accurate description of what school leaders face, but it did get me thinking about similar teachers I have come across myself. You know the ones, they have been teaching for a number of years and think they know all there is to know about teaching and children. They believe their practice is a good as it can get and there is nothing left for them to learn. They often say things like "I have 20 years of experience, seen it all and I know what works.' Now I would never decry experience, that is as long as such teachers have grown in their understanding and practice year on year over the 20 years, or whatever, they have been teaching. If however their practice has remained static and what they are describing as 20 years of experience is really only 1 years experience repeated 20 times, we have a problem. Then they are behaving like the sea squirt described by Dennett.
Such teachers are still around and school leaders are having to deal with them on a daily basis. They are hard work as often they are also older than the Headteacher or leader trying to get them to change or develop their practice. Fortunately, they are also not the norm. Smaller schools might only have one such staff member but by the law of averages larger schools could well have more and they will provide more of an obstacle for school development. So what do we do about them?
Well we can't ignore or give up on them. Whilst we do not have tenure for staff in the UK, it still remains one of our greatest challenges,dealing with underperformance or reluctance to change, and it takes a long time before we may even reach the stage of parting ways. I also think this is as it should be. Therefore we have to keep working with them and 'to love the ones we're with' as Dylan Wiliam has recommended. We have a duty to all our colleagues, and more importantly all our pupils, to keep finding ways to develop their understanding and their practice. So giving up is not an option. We have to keep supporting them to help them move forward, no matter how frustrating this can be at times. However, we can't let them dominate our own thinking and we certainly can't let such teachers determine the pace and direction of school development.
To keep the school moving forward and developing we have to focus more of our attention on the those who recognise the need to keep developing themselves as individuals and as professionals. Study after study has shown that if we really want to improve schools we need to have teacher professional development as a core focus of all. Most teachers now recognise this responsibility, and requirement, to keep developing understanding and practice. These are the ones we need to concentrate our efforts on in order to keep our overall direction of travel forwards. They will be determined to improve what they do by applying themselves in order to develop, and see this as part of their professional responsibilities. These colleagues will keep developing and in doing so can prove a useful catalyst in encouraging forward momentum in more reluctant colleagues. It is hard to resist a collective movement if it is only you is digging your heels in and refusing to budge, unless you have eaten your brain!
So as leaders we need to recognise and be aware that there will be those who do not want to change and who feel no need develop further. We cannot give up on such individuals, but the main thrust of our attention perhaps needs to be on the vast majority of colleagues who do want to grow as individuals, and to grow their practice. I heard someone else describe this as follows. ' don't waste your time by watering rocks, you need to water the soil between the rocks. ' I would also add that all rocks can still be eroded over time by constant watering and that is why we cannot give up and should make sure some water, in the form of our time, attention and encouragement, is directed their way to allow this to happen.
Before I finish, I would like to add that those who have achieved headship or leadership positions are not immune themselves from sometimes adopting sea squirt dispositions. It may be for some that headship or leadership is the 'rock or coral' they have been searching for and they feel that once they have found this they have no more to learn. This is just as delusional of them as it is for their teachers who might be thinking in a similar way. We really do have to think of career long professional development as a disposition for all, not just for some of our colleagues. To become a Headteacher or leader you will have worked hard and displayed the qualities and commitment necessary to fulfil the role. However, you will never know it all, and you will never know all the answers, and nor should you expect this to be so. From your first day as a Headteacher to your last you too need to keep learning and developing. Anything less and you do yourself and your colleagues a disservice. If you are the same Headteacher you were in the first year of headship when your reach 10 or 20 years, then you will have wasted 9 or 19 years. You have a brain, use it don't eat it!