Why I (largely) left teaching behind

Posted on February 19, 2017


This morning I found this tweet waiting for me. 

The first thing I thought was “how on earth am I going to get a response to this into 140 characters?” Having pondered it a little more I had resigned myself to the fact that it would probably be a series of tweets, each one with a partial reason that together would make a whole. 

And then I realised that this is too good a question, or rather too complex a question, for twitter. In fact it’s probably the most important question of all, certainly the most important that I’ve never properly addressed on this blog. 

Before I answer it, can I deal with the question itself? (He asks rhetorically). 

If the teaching is the highlight of your week, why did you (largely) leave it behind?

In amongst my thoughts about how to respond to it was a niggling sense that I was somehow being criticised. I don’t think that that was the case but that striking use of the qualifier “if” at the start of the question is a challenge, as is the formulation of the phrase “leave it behind”, and I confess to sliding a little towards defensiveness. All of which is a very good reason to blog, rather than tweet, this response. It gives me time and headspace to respond non-defensively because I genuinely believe that the question was asked in a spirit of enquiry not one of accusation. 

Let’s deal with the “if” first. Teaching definitely is the highlight of my week pretty much every week, but that doesn’t mean to say that I don’t love the rest of the job of being a Headteacher, for reasons I’ll outline later. The reason it is the highlight may well be the fact that I do so little of it (just four hours per week) but I think that it has more to do with the fact that the intensity of the bulk of my days and the hugeness of even the smallest decisions I make are, momentarily, left behind once I enter the classroom as a teacher. There is also something of a highlight about the fact that I have an agency within my own classroom that is very different to the agency I have within my office: I am far less constrained by the world as a teacher than I am as a Headteacher, even though the role of Head seems entirely unconstrained to others. 

For these reasons I don’t pick up emails when I’m teaching, partly a deliberate decision and partly because the way I teach is not a “guide on the side” style. The First Deputy is very much Acting Headteacher when I am teaching in the same way they are if I am offsite and I am fortunate to have three highly skilled DHTs who rotate that role across the year. My four teaching hours are two doubles first thing in the morning and this enables me to say no to meetings, conferences or anything else that would require my lessons to be covered, unless the circumstances are absolutely exceptional. Finally, my PA is very adept at keeping the wolves from my classroom door and so I have only ever been interrupted by her during lessons twice in two and a half years of being a Head and, on both occasions, I didn’t have to leave the classroom. 

As for the “leave it behind”, even though (partly) qualified by the parenthesised “(largely)”, I don’t think that I have. This may be a quibble or nit-picking with something someone had to squeeze into a tweet, but teaching isn’t behind me. I’m currently having to plan a Y12 Sociology course that I haven’t taught since the changes were made to the specs and having to assess students who are, for the first time this year at Canons, not sitting an AS examination. I’m also having to learn a completely new era of history for my Y8s as I have only ever taught Y7 History prior to this academic year. I appreciate that I have the luxury of picking when I can do my planning and marking for these in comparison to those who teach full-time, but I am by no means underworked in the leadership aspects of my role and so I feel the pressures of teaching on a daily basis, including the shame when a lesson is undercooked and the marking is rushed (or delayed by a week). 

But if I take Sam at his word, and assume that “leaving it behind” means doing less of it in favour of doing more leadership work, I guess that there are two simple reasons plus a third emergent one that is somewhat more complex. 

Reason 1: I came to believe that school staff needed effective leadership and management if they were to be enabled to do their jobs well. 

I never set out to become a teacher and, once I became one, never set out to become a member of a leadership team. I was perfectly happy as an English teacher and second in department for the first five years of my career in education. Even when I took on the Head of Department role I envisaged five years of that before leaving teaching to take up my dream job as a journalist. 

Those first five years straddled two very different eras in education; the dying embers of the impoverished laissez-faire Conservative administration of the mid-1990s and the financially-lubricated policymania New Labour one at the end of the century. 

My naturally leftish politics and the extra cash rolling into schools (remember that?) meant that I instinctively preferred the latter at the time, but by the time I had four years of HoD experience under my belt, I was beginning to realise that whilst extra moolah and the National Strategies might well have wrought an increased focus upon teaching and learning to enhance standards it did not necessarily bring an increased focus upon teachers and students as skilled and highly individual agents of their own destinies. There was a niggling feeling that in amongst all the things that we had gained there were some things that we had lost. 

As a HoD I had always tried to modify and mollify the worst excesses of the emergent politicians-know-best approach to education that bizarrely had gained as much traction in staffrooms as it had in Whitehall. So, when an AHT role came up at my school with responsibility for teaching and learning I felt that I had no choice but to reciprocate journalism’s abandonment of me and go for it. 

Since then, I have held briefs around teaching and learning (twice), staff welfare and development, assessment, Teaching Schools and, as Headteacher, all of the above plus all of the rest. My first term as a member of SLT saw me heavily involved in the nationally-driven, locally-enacted TLR restructuring and that shaped me hugely for the things we got right and for the things we got wrong. Since then I have more fervently come to believe that it is through people – happy, empowered, skilled and secure people – that everything good in a school happens, including, but not exclusively, effective teaching and learning. Many other experiences have shaped, reinforced or even challenged this but none was so enlightening, cathartic or influential in this respect. 

A core motto of my work is “look after the individuals and the groups will look after themselves”. It’s often applied at school to our work with students, but I think that it sits equally well with staff. But it is only by becoming a member of SLT that I could have enabled this to gain traction in a school and it is only as a Headteacher that I can ensure it is rooted into every process, procedure, practice or policy within that school. As a bonus it also bestows upon me some status to take the same message to other schools, school leaders/managers and to the wider system. Hence, I suppose, this blogpost. 

Reason 2: I came to think that I could do a better leadership and management job than many I had seen done before. 

The reason itself, particularly when it is written down, may seem arrogant. I hope not, but I would also argue that anybody taking up a position needs to think that they have something to bring that needs to be brought and, by extension, something that others are not bringing. When I was a HoD I was fortunate to work at a school with a very good leadership team, two of whom (the Head and my DHT line manager) were brilliant and hugely influential upon me.  But even so, I thought that I could do a better job – or perhaps a different job not currently covered in their roles – in representing the interests of teachers and support staff for the benefit of teaching and learning. 

One of the worst outcomes of the National Strategies era, for me, is the dilution, disempowerment, disruption and (at its worst) destruction of professional identity and professional integrity. There has descended upon the education sector a ‘culture of compliance’ and an emphasis upon a ‘delivery model’ that allows ‘perverse incentives’ to take root which disincentivise those in the classroom and lead to ‘unintended consequences’ which stifle the lives of staff and students alike. You know what these are, probably better than me, and you know how far they have taken us away from the promised land of ‘moral purpose’ that school leaders rhetoricise about. All of those things have permeated leadership teams far more than can ever be healthy for the school system and for schools themselves, to the point where we have become the agents of the worst excesses of the era. None of us are immune, least of all me. 

The only solutions I have to this problem in my own work, and that of those at Canons, are to keep standard scale staff and their concerns at the heart of our thinking and actions, to implement an evidence-based approach to school improvement, to reduce prescription and promote professional autonomy, and to cherish the colleagues who challenge conventional ‘wisdom’ (mavericks, discontents, naysayers, morale vacuums as they are often labelled) whose voices are often marginalised  within schools generally, as mine would have been given a different set of circumstances. 

In doing so my hope is that I can use my own lack of teaching time to ensure that the teaching time of others is enhanced at Canons in ways that it is not at other schools. To know if I am successful at that or not you would probably have to ask our staff directly. I’d be happy to welcome anyone to the school to meet and speak with them or to guide you to their twitter accounts.   

Reason 3: I have come to know that leadership and management is a role I love, am not bad at and is one that makes a difference to teaching and learning if done right. 

If the first two reasons explain why I “left teaching behind”, this last one is why I continue to do so. Whilst being a classroom teacher with my Y12 and Y8 classes are undoubtedly the high points of most of the weeks I have as a Headteacher, being a Headteacher is by some distance the most rewarding job I have ever had in teaching. It can be as frustrating as anything and there is no doubt that it leads me away from as much direct involvement with teachers, support staff and students than I would ideally like, but once I came to enjoy getting my kicks through the achievement of others, rather than through my own achievements, I have found unending peace with my lot in life and unending joy in it too. 

Two comparisons for those who aren’t in a role like this may give an understanding of what I mean. For parents, think about the joy you get when seeing your child on stage in a play, at a recital, receiving an award or in a dance production. For teachers, consider the joy you feel for your charges who do well (and, for that matter, the sadness you feel when they don’t) on exam results day, or when they return years later to tell you what they have achieved in part thanks to your support. 

These are the very real pleasures of being a Head and, with regard to teaching staff in particular, they are very much not about “leaving teaching behind”. I often say to those peacocking members of SLT who boast about being a role model or lead practitioner in their teaching that I would far rather be the worst than the best teacher at Canons. I say this because I know that I am pretty darn good in the classroom, and so if everyone else is better than me because the culture of the school enables them to be so, then I can sleep well at night and hold my head high whenever I pass a mirror. That, in a nutshell, is what I think it means to be a Headteacher. 

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