The Secret Teacher, Staying the Course & Blowing Whistles

Posted on July 12, 2014

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This morning I read and retweeted a Guardian ‘Secret Teacher’ article on the horrendous mess to which high stakes accountability and it’s recently deepened links to performance related pay (PRP) have led. I liked it, at least in the sense that I found it awful but was glad to see it placed in the public domain for all to see. Like many of the Secret Teacher articles, it gave me food for thought and (yes, I’ll admit it) gave me succour that my own approach as a school leader is founded on much stronger principles and ethics.

Shortly after, Ros McMullen – a Principal for whom I have a great deal of respect, and with whom I find a great deal of common ground – put out a series of tweets in response to the article. In short, it’s fair to say that she was made cross by the piece, but that her crossness was directed more at the contributor and the series than at the issues raised by the contributor (and the series). Her tweets made me want to write this blogpost, and I will use some of them to make my points. But I want to preface the post by saying that I don’t do so in the spirit of confrontation, merely in the spirit of debate.

The first point Ros made was this:

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It was a point she reiterated again later:

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Now, on a personal level, I really don’t disagree with this. I have left two schools in my career because I fundamentally disagreed with the Headteacher on aspects of school leadership that were anathema to me. In one of those cases, I did so without even attempting to change the course (because I could see that any attempt to do so would be futile, even though I was on the leadership team). In the other, I had spent two years trying to win a battle that I was hopelessly outgunned in (being a mere junior middle leader).

In both these cases, I believe that my role as a school leader empowered me to make the decisions to leave and find alternative employment. Partly because I had built up the confidence that comes with such experience, and partly because those experiences had bestowed upon me two types of worth in the job market: worth to schools I might apply to and being worth losing from the schools I was at if I was going to rock the boat from a leadership position.

Many of the contributors to The Secret Teacher are not in leadership positions and, like many in our profession, I suspect that a good number don’t aspire to leadership positions. Many of those who read and agree with the sentiments (not to mention those who empathise with the experiences) of the articles published by the Guardian may also not wish to seek promotion, which leaves them with the dubious option of the dubiously phrased and often poorly regarded ‘sideways move’. And, in a profession that knows that school leaders often place a premium on the undoubtedly cheaper, seemingly more malleable and mythically more innovative NQT, they can see the pitfalls of changing schools.

Perhaps more pertinently, the teachers who write for – and read – The Secret Teacher articles have a well-honed sense of moral purpose and do not wish to move on and leave colleagues, students and communities at the mercy of poor leadership. I utterly applaud them for that. If there is one thing that keeps me awake at night about the two occasions when I have left schools for reasons of principle, it is that I was a rat deserting a sinking ship rather than a captain sticking faithfully to the helm.

Later in her series of tweets, Ros said this:

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And this:

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It is very much to her credit that she cannot comprehend the level of poor leadership that is out there, and it is a reason that I agree with so much of what she says and what she does as a school leader. But the reality is that there are school leaders who are this bad or, more to the point, school leaders who make decisions that are perceived to be this bad by teachers.

I think it is the mootest of moot points that this teacher, and many who read the article, perceive PRP (and it’s links to appraisal, observation and teacher effectiveness judgments) to be unfair, unprofessional and unsettling. If I have learnt one thing above all others in my nine years as a school leader, it is that the ‘perception gap’ between what you intend, what you do and how it is felt by staff is the most important consideration we need to attend to.

I have no doubt that, like all subjective journalism, The Secret Teachers present a biased and personal reflection of what is happening at their schools. Some may even exaggerate or gild the lily somewhat to bring their points of emphasis into sharp relief, but who doesn’t. School leaders are at least as guilty of doing the same in much of their day-to-day work.

The fact remains that this teacher felt so strongly about their perceptions of this Head’s actions that they wrote this article. The fact also remains that many teachers up and down the country would have had trouble reading it due to the vigorous nodding of their heads in spite of their ability to see the contributor’s possible one-sidedness and sharply focused indignation at their experiences. This makes it a problem for all of us in school leadership, and we need to respond by communicating (through all means at our disposal) that there is a better way of doing things. By countering the poor leadership, rather than the possibly overly subjective journalism, demonstrated in this article with a ‘better way’ we can hopefully persuade those in non-leadership positions in other schools to fight from within rather than flee to without.

As an aside, my personal approach to PRP is that it should be near universal. We have supportive capability procedures in place as a legal entitlement for teachers in need of support, with all of the legal protections this affords those undergoing the process and those leading the process. If a teacher is not undergoing such a process they are, by definition, doing their jobs well to a greater or lesser degree. PRP done by any other criteria (such as one off lesson observations) decreases the moral, ethical and legal objectivity of the process, and lays school leaders open to all sorts of accusations, founded or unfounded. Why would we even think of looking beyond this?

Finally, at least for the purposes of this post, Ros tweeted out the following:

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In many ways, I can see her point. Reading The Secret Teacher each week isn’t the most comfortable of experiences for a school leader heading into the sanctuary of a weekend. I’ll admit that there are times that I froth at the mouth with righteous indignation that there isn’t a more uplifting tenor to the pieces that are presented in the series. But this is The Secret Teacher and, as such, is going to attract teachers with a spleen to vent much more than it is one with a Headteacher to stroke. It is also a vital release valve for teachers who are reading (at the end of a long week) the series. The genuinely heartwarming #PedagooFriday performs the same function in a very different, but equally necessary, way.

Beyond its steam-emitting function, The Secret Teacher is a form of public whistle-blowing (I’m conjuring a picture of kettled teachers with this collision of imagery) in an educational world where private whistle-blowing is so unfit for purpose. The teacher writing today’s article clearly feels like they have no redress within the schools policies and practices. They probably feel like they have no redress through grievance procedures, or union involvement, or through governance of the school, and certainly not through the involvement of the local authority or DfE.

We work and live (perhaps most importantly, live) in a school system where the autonomy of leaders is increasingly unchallenged, and this autonomy itself is placed within a world where competition and free market policies are increasingly unchallenged. The consequences, in many schools if not the majority, are highly threatening to those with the least loud voices, those in the classrooms of our schools. The Secret Teacher (a single article, published once a week) is a small, but rightly prominent, space in which all those without power in their schools can challenge poor leadership. For me, it is a small, but rightly prominent, space in which I can challenge myself to wield the authority I have more responsibly.

What struck me most about this final tweet from Ros, was how much she had in common with The Secret Teacher writing today’s article. Like that person, she felt alienated by something but was simultaneously unable to walk away from it, and so instead chose to speak out about it. It was, perhaps unwittingly, a powerful message to send.

The Secret Teacher is often an ugly reminder that all is not well in our schools, but it is one that we all need to face up to and challenge. Without it, we are left with the atomisation of our professional integrity for which we are all equally responsible. Good school leadership in every school is one that we should all be fighting for, as much (if not more) as good teaching.

Having grown up in a north east pissed off en masse by Norman Tebbit’s “get on your bike” message to the unemployed, I fervently believe that the fight starts at the grassroots. With the growth of social media and a willingness to use autonomy more fully than Michael Gove may ever have intended an ‘education spring’ uprising is within our grasp. The Secret Teacher, alongside ever-more-numerous and ever-more-challenging teacher-bloggers, may well just provide us with the call to arms that we need.

At the very least, for school leaders, The Secret Teacher provides us with the food for thought. It may often seem unpalatable and hard to stomach, but the internal army of what we know to be good and what we know to be right marches on that very stomach. Let’s at least try to chew it over a little, swallow it down and come out swinging equally for those teachers we lead and for those we will never meet. It’s what we (and I very much include Ros in that ‘we’) went into leadership for.

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