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Can improvement be imposed?

One of the issues I have long considered as a school leader is whether it is possible, or even desirable, to impose improvements in performance on teachers? I would extend this even further to include school leaders themselves. Can you impose improvement on school leaders?

The first issue to consider is, whose  improvement? Dylan Wiliam has spoken for a number of years about the fact that we still remain unclear as to what constitutes good teaching, or good teachers. What we do know though is that the quality of the teacher working in a classroom  is the most important factor in terms of student progress, above all other factors. The link below from Dylan's website talks about this in more depth and is worth a look. 

You can ask many school leaders and researchers what good teaching and teachers look like and the only guarantee is that you will get almost as many different answers as the number of people you ask. Wiliam and others suggest that perhaps our focus should be more on the outcomes teachers achieve, rather than in how they achieve this, in order to identify our best teachers. He does however point out that we have a whole body of evidence about what practices have positive impacts on student learning, and we would be negligent in ignoring these.

Not only school leaders, but also many others have opinions on what constitutes good teaching and good teachers. So we have politicians, Ofsted, HMIE, the media, business leaders, parents, pupils, just about everyone has an opinion. Often this opinion is based on little more than their own limited experiences or political ideologies but, unfortunately, some of these can have a major impact on policy development and are able to impose their views onto teachers, schools and their leaders. Many of these would, I am sure, argue that we just need to tell teachers and schools what to do and then make sure they do it. I really don't think it is that easy, and nor should it be.

Teachers and school leaders are intelligent professional people and we need to treat them accordingly.  They are also individuals with their own views and opinions, and we ignore these at our peril. They have demonstrated talent and commitment during their pre-teaching learning, and the vast majority continue to display the same qualities when operating in the profession. With such qualities available to schools and systems, why would we look to negate these by seeing teachers and school leaders as mere deliverers  of practices proscribed by others? As Mark Priestley has often pointed out,  'we are not milkmen.' Many business leaders outside of education talk extensively and enthusiastically about how their core function is to find the best people they can for their companies, and then give them the time, space and support to use their qualities to improve the company and move it forward.

'I hire people brighter than me, then I get out of their way.' Is a typical such quote from Lee Lacocca CEO of Ford. We hire very bright people in education then seek to treat them like idiots who are incapable of making reasoned, rational decisions. Worst of all, we seem to have a vast body of opinion outside of schools and classrooms that thinks it knows better than the professionals employed in them about how they can do better!

Let us assume that you, me, or others do understand completely what individual teachers need to do to improve. Are we then able to impose those changes onto teachers? I would argue, not. In my experience, if you adopt such tactics as a school leader, or from elsewhere in the system, all you get are the outwards signs of compliance, depending on how big the stick is you yield. But nothing really changes for the teacher or the learners. As soon as you are not around, or following a regime change, people go back to what they are comfortable with, and what they believe. In such high-stakes working conditions people will comply as little as they can get away with. No, to bring about deep sustainable change we need to reach hearts and minds. Professional, intelligent individuals have to see the need for them to change, and understand how this will improve outcomes for their learners. When that happens, they are more likely to embrace change and embed it into their practice. Teachers deliver every day in classrooms and those of us outside of classrooms can only spend our time supporting them and creating the conditions, culture and ethos, that promotes enquiry and adaptive expertise in them, and which expects us all to keep learning and developing. We all need to become self-improving learners as a professional disposition and school leaders, and system leaders, have to create the conditions to allow this to happen, and support everyone to achieve this. 

If we treat intelligent professional people as mere deliverers, or milkmen, don't be surprised if school development curdles and leaves a bit of a sour taste.


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