I have been on an interesting journey for the past six and a half years. It is a privilege to lead a school and have an opportunity to shape its future and influence its culture.
We know from extensive research that the quality of teaching has the greatest impact on students’ outcomes. As a parent I wanted my children (the last of whom finished at the school I lead at the end of last year) to have the very best teachers possible. My aim and efforts have been focused on supporting all teachers to become exemplary; or put another way, my goal has been to improve the quality of teaching at the school.
Over the last six years I have learnt much. I cannot say that I have yet achieved my goal. I do wonder if it is an elusive goal for all schools. I wonder if we will ever improve the quality of teaching to the standard that all children (including my own) deserve. However from reading, research and experience I believe that I have found all pieces that are needed to improve the quality of teaching. This includes the element missing from the equation, the most challenging one; the element we are all afraid to talk about or wrestle with because it is just too hard.
The National Professional Standards for Teachers is a very powerful tool for improving the quality of teaching and which should provide a good system of appraisal to give teachers feedback on where they currently sit on the continuum of graduate, proficient, highly accomplished and lead teacher. Professional learning has long been lauded as one of the best ways to improve teaching, particularly if it is linked to good feedback. But I wonder if any school has mapped its current teaching staff against the standards? How many teachers are ‘graduate’, ‘proficient’, ‘highly accomplished’ or ‘lead’? I suspect all Heads would be really surprised if this data was available. I am willing to bet that a typical school’s profile would be:
Highly Accomplished: 45-50%
I am also willing to bet that most of those teachers still performing at proficient have had more than nine years’ experience and are therefore at the top of the pay scale. Have these people plateaued, coasting along under the assumption that they are doing ok? Is proficient good enough? Not for my children it isn’t. “The best teachers are at least 300% more productive than the least effective (since the best teachers produce 18 months progress in the same time that the least effective produce six months progress) (William, The Formative Evaluation of Teaching Performance, 2014).” We shouldn’t be settling for mediocrity, yet we do.
Schools, like most organisations, are complex organic beings. They have a life of their own, a personality, feelings (they smart when something hurts, there is collective rejoicing over a child’s success), they have a culture. There are many elements that go into improving the quality of teaching. I originally thought it was four, but it is in fact five. The complexity arises because they all have to work together, sometimes in different quantities, but nonetheless all five have to coexist or the quality of teaching as a whole will not improve.
1. Teacher Training: I was shocked to read in the Australian a few weeks ago that one university’s ATAR entrance for teaching was less than 60 (I thought ACU was as low as 55?). I don’t doubt that anyone with the right motivation and inclination can learn and develop skills (think neuro-plasticity) but what does ‘60’ say about expectations and the profession as a whole? Would we be happy if medicine had an ATAR entrance of 55?
There is currently much talk about teacher training programs. I challenge those reviewing the programs to have a look at practicum placements. Much of the craft of teaching is learnt through an ‘apprenticeship’. How many student teachers are placed with ‘lead’ teachers? I strongly suspect that a large percentage of our trainee teachers are placed with teachers who are ‘proficient’, or mediocre. Having seen many student teachers in my time, I am also appalled at how many pass when they really should be failed. Are those delivering teacher training courses at university ‘lead’ teachers themselves?
2. School Culture: You cannot expect a teacher to grow professionally if the environment they work in doesn’t set high expectations, encourage risk taking and innovation, celebrate successes as well as failures, and where the conversations are empowering and the focus is on student learning (the same can be said for the students). This can’t happen without high levels of organisational trust. We know that it is the leader who most influences that culture. If we expect the quality of teaching to improve we also need to place a greater emphasis on leadership development
3. Feedback: No one can improve if they don’t receive feedback, and specifically feedback that is given in such a way as to encourage growth. I believe everyone can improve and grow. My expectation is that we are all getting better at our craft. The quality of teaching won’t improve unless people know how they are going and how they are going to be supported to grow to the next level. Appraisal for growth is a vital cog. Do teachers know where they currently sit on the continuum? The challenge here is training people to give good feedback. This is a very particular skill and if not done correctly it can be very damaging
4. Professional Learning: Schools really need to look at designing bespoke professional learning programs aimed at supporting teachers to grow in the areas highlighted by their feedback. Sending people off campus for a day to a course that looks nice just isn’t worth it and is unlikely to promote any real growth or change in teaching.
All these elements will go a long way to improving the quality of teaching, bt my journey and relentless pursuit of my goal has revealed a fifth element in the equation; one that is rarely spoken about. Why? Because it often involves great personal cost and huge amounts of courage:
5. Performance Management: If a teacher is provided all the support to promote growth (great training, a supportive environment, feedback to promote growth and excellent professional learning) and they still sit at ‘proficient’, is that good enough? Is it good enough that after 10 years of teaching, a person plateaus at ‘proficient’ and doesn’t grow anymore? It is inherently difficult to remove underperformers, but how much harder would it be to remove mediocre performers? We really should have the courage (and the skill) to tackle this. Our students and our country deserves the very best teaching.