77 things you won’t hear a self-respecting teacher say

“So he started a fight in the lesson. Who cares? He’s on course for 5 A*-C including English and Maths”

“If this senior leader just used a bit less plain English and a few more acronyms, we’d all understand what she was on about a bit better”

“The lesson I just taught required improvement”

“Kids, these SATS will change your lives”

“I can’t wait for OFSTED to come in, it should be a helpful, informative and professional experience that will really help me to become a better teacher”

“I tell you what, it just gets easier every year”

“What these kids really need is to be ritually humiliated in front of each other for not understanding my subject”

“Apparently she’s having a nervous breakdown, but more importantly, she’s below target”

“My real priority this year is to make sure I meet my performance management targets”

“I can’t teach this interesting lesson. It doesn’t fit within the leadership’s strategic plans”

“I’ve realised that, when you work it out per hour, this job pays really well”

“I love the late nights marking, but if it weren’t for the early starts and weekends, I’d have left this job by now”

“I can’t work out who to vote for – I’m spoilt for choice”

“Analysing every individual child’s exam results after the event is an excellent use of time”

“I’m feeling really relaxed. I’ve got a rowdy year 9 class after lunch”

“No, I don’t need training in how to break up a fight – what I really need is another session telling me something I already know”

“These INSET days are always so useful”

“God, I really wish the school would hire more consultants and fewer teachers”

“I have no natural motivation to do this job well. What I really need is a cash incentive”

"I accept failure. I am the enemy of promise" (all links open in new window)

“It’s not remotely tempting to tell these parents that the data and targets we give their kids are absolute nonsense”

“I just have no idea how intelligent a kid is until a spreadsheet tells me so”

“This abusive and threatening behaviour is all my fault”

“Isn’t it great to see another initiative stand the test of time?”

“A top-down restructuring would sort all this out”

“Isn’t it wonderful to have an Executive Headteacher?”

“I spend far too much of my time brushing up on my subject knowledge”

“It’s been such a boring, stable decade”

“These changes have been brought in at a sensible pace and with due consideration for how long it realistically takes to implement them”

“I just feel so listened to”

“The source of the problem here is that we are not testing them at a young enough age”

“Observations are a very realistic reflection of the day-to-day reality of this job”

“I just love that warm, fuzzy feeling of getting one over on a colleague”

"Satisfactory is no longer satisfactory"

“Hopefully a business can take over this place and really sort it out”

“I’ve really been lazy here, I’ve only planned this lesson for one learning style”

“Nobody knew how to teach until a few years ago”

“I’ll only do something if it’s turned in to a SMART target for me to achieve”

“Right, listen up please, learners…”

“I just love the way we define children by their performance in a narrow set of disciplines”

“Supply teachers have it so easy”

“My student teacher is working 12 hour days and still feels like they’re failing. Best that I reinforce that impression”

"I didn’t join this profession to make the best use of my individual skills. I joined it to be a member of the blob"

“Anything worth having in life can be measured”

“I just love the way everything is so well planned when we come back in September”

“The IT systems here are second to none”

“We really need to outsource a few more services”

“I love the sense of professional autonomy I get given in this line of work”

“I wish our Head was a bit more focused on his own CV and less interested in the day-to-day realities his staff face”

“Why would we waste time teaching kids about the dangers of the online world when we have targets to meet?”

“He had a point. I was restricting his rights”

“So there’s a bit of violence in the corridors. Big deal”

“Spending an hour in front of a class of kids is very similar to spending an hour in front of a computer”

“I can’t wait to check my emails at the end of the day and see that I’ve only got one or two manageable tasks to do before I can go home”

“I really felt that some outstanding teaching and learning took place in my learning environment today”

“Yes, I’m so sorry, I did cause all the highly complex social problems which are disadvantaging your son”

“We really need a more complicated hierarchy at this place”

“It would serve no public good to pay me for the extra responsibilities I’ve taken on”

“You’re above target, so I’m now going to pay more attention to the other kids. You wouldn’t want me missing out on my pay rise, would you?”

"I don’t know what stress is"

“Do you know what’s definitely not worth trying? Putting people who know what they’re talking about in charge”

“There’s no chance of you getting a C in this subject, so you’re no longer entitled to my attention”

“I tell you what would really keep me in this job – better career prospects”

“Glad to see they’ve sacked more admin staff. I mean, it’s not as if records need to be kept is it?”

“This job is great for my health”

“Seeing the stats makes it all worthwhile”

“What a shame that Michael Wilshaw’s got a knighthood already – can’t we give him another?”

“Isn’t it great when a politician comes to visit your school and everything just carries on as normal?”

“What we really need to sort this place out is another strategic document for managers to pontificate over”

“There’s far too much trust in this profession”

“I really feel under pressure to show more integrity”

“Excellent, another exodus of staff – they obviously weren’t up to it”

“I can completely understand how I have gone from being rated as outstanding to being rated as inadequate in the space of a few weeks. I’ve obviously become rubbish overnight”

“How selfish of this kid with complex needs to drag my stats down”

“If only I had to do more formal observations, it would really benefit the kids”

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Why don’t we value initiative?

Society is full of reminders that we don’t value the precious attribute of initiative. My theory is that this is because we are too willing to use easy explanations for complex realities.

Schools and initiative

I’ve seen it in particular as a teacher, and I wrote about the impact our exam results culture has on it (all links open in new window). Treating kids in schools like customers in shops sends them the message that someone will always be there to bail them out, when they need to realise the value of taking responsibility for themselves.

Initiative in wider society

We have a problem with initiative more widely. Some examples are merely irritating. Get on the tube in London and you will be bombarded with announcements telling you exactly how to behave. Pick up a cup of coffee and you will be told “CAUTION: CONTENTS MAY BE HOT”. But elsewhere this matters a lot more – for example, instead of looking after our health (look at our rates of obesity), we sue doctors who are just trying their best.

Why?

We don’t value initiative because we’re far too willing to accept easy answers to questions.

In school, I always felt that the failings of wider society were blamed on teachers. If a kid was struggling to get a good grade, you were made to feel that it must be something that the teacher was doing wrong – as if the grade were somehow a product, being made in a factory, rather than a reflection of a complex interaction between that child’s natural cognitive abilities, their upbringing, their social climate, their effort levels, their enthusiasm for that subject and the teaching that they were given. We should be trying to change wider social factors and finding ways of allowing children to succeed in their own way; instead we undergo a pitiful charade of recycled short-term measures designed to make test outcomes go up by a small amount each year.

Beyond school, we’re so short-termist in our outlook that we can’t see past the ends of our noses. Better, we think, to make yet another announcement on the tube, or to make clear that the cup of coffee might be hot, than risk being blamed for something. In its individual context, that may be the case; but the damage that such an attitude does to our society is more important when taken as a whole.

And everything is someone else’s fault. The kid who is not getting the grade they want must be being taught badly (and we give them this message, which is so damaging). The person who hurts themselves doing something stupid can’t possibly need to take a look at themselves.

We want to be able to blame someone else, but it’s not always good for us. And unfortunately, in our marketised society, we only give people what they want, and too often forget what they need.

Teacher workload can’t be tackled in isolation

Our politicians are, suddenly, desperately trying to prove that they care more than each other on teacher workload. Good – but only a bottom-up solution which remodels our approach to education as a whole will make the necessary difference.

Politicians’ rhetoric

All three of the main parties have accepted that there is a problem – an important start. They are also all trying to claim that they hold the solution to it. Tristram Hunt said in yesterday’s Guardian that he wants to tackle the issue (all links open in new window). Nick Clegg is in on the act today. And last month, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan promised to make it a priority.

Call me cynical, but I can’t help but notice the looming election in all this. Morgan couldn’t resist finishing the section of her speech on workload with a pointless dig at Labour (at 6:30):

Hunt’s piece – which, on the whole, I found more encouraging than some of his recent pronouncements on an oath for teachers and master teachers – only got as far as the second sentence before blaming “this government” for the problems (the rot goes much deeper, Tristram, and while I’ve got your attention, you can’t credibly criticise “initiative-itis” while also proposing half-baked new ideas based on a “fact-finding trip” you took to Singapore).

Clegg comes across as well-informed on what the problem is, though I will reserve judgement until I see some tangible impact; he made similar noises in 2010 (a call for reduced class sizes led to a big “I agree with Nick” moment in the election debates) and has made no difference to teachers’ workload in four years of government since.

Workload itself isn’t the issue

Teaching is a naturally stressful job and nothing will ever completely remove that impending sense of doom when a year 9 class is about to walk through the door, but a good teacher can cope with that if they feel that:

  • They are supported
  • The work they are doing is meaningful
  • They are valued

Teachers are not shy of putting hours in, but they have a real problem doing so when one or all of the points above are violated. They will become disillusioned if they are fighting losing battles because systems fight against them; if they’re doing work to cover the back of someone in an office; or if they’re not treated like professionals.

Politicians are the problem

Westminster will not change teachers’ workload in a meaningful way, because the priority there is to try to get one over on other parties. Education, like other public services, is dictated by the demands of the electoral cycle and, to win an election, one must convince the public that you have “improved” things in the previous five years. This usually involves something measurable being perverted to convince someone who doesn’t understand the job that things are going well.

If we want to tackle teacher workload, we must get to the bottom of this. We have to stop patronising the electorate and our teachers. If politicians want to tackle teacher workload, they should stop trying to score points on that or other educational issues and stop treating public sector workers as if they are permanently on the naughty step (I know, wider society pays for the public sector – but good management and leadership involves trusting those who work for you). Accept that teachers mostly know what they are doing and respond to on-the-ground realities rather than dictating from above.

Do that, and you’ll see just how willing teachers are to put the hours in to help the next generation.