Tongue in Groove

A couple of weeks ago I got it both barrels from a colleague.

Bob is an experienced member of staff. I approached him whilst he was at the photocopier preparing for his lesson. I wished him a Happy New Year and asked how the start of his term was going.

‘Have you come to fit your tongue in my groove? I’m surprised your doing that with me as I can’t give you a promotion.’ I didn’t have a response to this and went silent. Inside I was fuming and I wanted to snap. I wanted to scream in his face, but my upbringing kicked in. I still call my father ‘Sir’. He is that sort of man.

Trembling with anger I calmly asked what was up. The issue it seemed was a lot of things. Many deep rooted and have been troubling me since we finished our ‘conversation’. But I suppose the thing that set him off was a recent email regarding ‘observation fortnight.’ A voluntary initiative for staff to engage in observing each other for PD over the upcoming weeks.

This had upset him and he mockingly quoted parts of my email back to me. He questioned the point of observation at all, explaining very kindly to me that only a real subject specialist could tell him how to teach his subject. A fair point which I agreed with. He also didn’t want someone coming in and watching him teach. He had enough of that over the last 5 years. A languages teacher, a historian and a drama studies teacher all telling him if his students had made expected progress in his lessons. Whether his teaching methods were the best suited suited to his subject. Basically telling him what to do. This because his teaching methods weren’t considered ‘modern’, although his grades were respectable year on year.

He then proceeded to explain to me that CPD was a waste of time. He’s spent countless hours in after school CPD, being lectured to about this and that new thing which would revolutionise his teaching. There was no follow up afterwards. No one offering him support. Just as he put it ‘a young teacher showing off ideas that really had no place in his classroom’, all so that they could place their tongue in the groove of the next person up the chain. Where was the CPD and support on behavioural management when he needed it in his career? If he couldn’t control a class, then it was the quality of his teaching to blame. Where was the CPD on subject knowledge? Reading books and attending lectures on his subject, to deepen and strengthen his knowledge have never been considered CPD, but without it he wouldn’t be a teacher of his subject. He would be SLT!

I should interrupt. I should stop him. But the honesty I’m getting is incredible. My anger has turned to fascination and worry. How could a school system get things so wrong, that it could make an experienced member of staff feel like this; unappreciated, undervalued and distrusted.

Bob then turned his attention to the re telling of five colleagues who had left the school or the profession in the last three years due to capability. He kindly explained, to a layman like myself, that the mentor-coach system I’ve been trying to implement was going to go no where, and was considered a ‘joke’. His response when I asked him why was ‘well in the last decade, if you got a mentor, you were basically in the shit and were next on the hit list’. The use of coaching or mentoring has, because of capability, been seen as the teacher having a deficit in their teaching. It has become a stick to beat a teacher with, in Bob’s eyes, along with many other experienced colleagues. So a possible model of improvement and professional development has lost any importance or power because of its negative uses.

I’ve reflected on this conversation many times in the last few weeks. When I got involved in CPD provision and Teaching and Learning I thought I was going to be a solution to the problems that many staff had with the system of provision. I clearly see now that is was a hugely naive and a presumptuous thought. Perhaps I’m just another step in continuation of the issues? Changing PD to more become more flexible, allow choice and staff to be recognised for what they already do to improve themselves does not fix the underlying issues, which are not systematic but cultural. Accountability and quality assurance is important, as my SLT say ‘the child has only one chance at school’. That shouldn’t be seen as a way of getting rid of teachers by making their working lives unmanageable. If a teacher has reached that point, surely we first need to be more self-reflective and ask ourselves how have we failed and allowed this to happen before fingers are pointed. The issue is that no matter what system is in place, if it is bankrupt of kindness, understanding, empathy and a touch of humanity then it will never succeed in its ultimate aim – that of teacher improvement.

How do you change a professional development culture that has been turned toxic, by the very system that was put in place to promote it?

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9 thoughts on “Tongue in Groove

  1. So many important issues here. And if teaching is a 40+ year career, different colleagues are going to be inspired by different types of event, conversation, and so on at different points. Current teaching staff have come in to teaching from lots of different routes – maybe even more than have now in ITT. In years to come, we might find PD runs more smoothly, especially if trainees have had good developmental discussions and provision.
    And you listened. That’s always important.

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  2. This is a really interesting question. I have seen the same thing happen in post-secondary education (not at my institution, but elsewhere). Programs that are set up to help all instructors end up being distrusted, because the main users of the programs are instructors who are “recommended” to use them.

    I see the problem as stemming from institutional under-resourcing. Administrators hear that instructors are under-performing (from e.g. student complaints, peer evaluations/observations) and they genuinely want to help the instructor improve. And usually the instructor wants to improve too. But the teaching improvement program is usually the only form of support available, because there are no other resources to provide the sort of one-on-one personalized support that would probably help the instructor the most. And then instructors who genuinely are good at teaching and would like to be better can’t or won’t use that program, because they don’t see it as being appropriate for their needs.

    I don’t know that I have a solution for this, other than better/more resources for instructor development, but I think you are quite right in identifying this as a cultural problem.

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  3. Hi there, this is a common story. Disgruntled staff rarely asked what CPD they would really like or want to opt in to. As an older member of the profession my teaching methods were laughed at sometimes by younger staff who were under the mistaken impression that their ideas were new and not just old ideas wrapped up in shiny new paper. I don’t blame them; they were badly served by leaders who hadn’t got the courage of their own convictions and slavishly tried to please the emperor and his new clothes. Thankfully you have realised early that experienced staff have much to offer and resent being told things they knew years ago. You seem the kind of person who can make any changes you feel necessary.

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    1. Hi John. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I feel confident enough in my abilities to seek out issues, by speaking to staff, and trying to implement changes to rectify them. What I struggle with is when it isn’t a tweak in provision, but a complete overhaul of culture. How do you go about undoing years, if not decades, of what is paramount to professional development neglect? If a teacher has reached a point where they are no longer engaging in PD, aren’t we thinking what is wrong with our provision rather than what is necessarily wrong with the individual teacher. There are some fabulous experienced teachers in my school that have a huge amount to offer, but they no longer want to engage and frankly I don’t blame them. They want to be left alone, see out the end of their career in peace, and that is a real shame. It isn’t till I’ve been given some responsibility of provision that I can begin to see the issues lie much deeper than what we offer.

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  4. Interesting post. Changing a culture can take years. When I arrived at my school, very few trusted my new way of doing things because of past negative experiences. Two years in, things are very different. I always share openly in a public forum the disgruntled views of some colleagues – obviously I don’t use names! So I’ll say to the staff, here are 6 concerns that have been raised about this new way of doing CPD. Then I get staff to vote for different initiatives and we only continue with them if there is enough staff buy in. In 2013, I proposed 9 things we could try out. We had buy in for 4. Once these four were seen as helpful, non threatening and endorsed by key players in the staff room and not just SLT, then we could start to think bigger. Now in 2015, we have a whole school coaching model with nearly a third of the staff being coaches. Coaches are also coached. SLT are coached. However, I still had a member of staff tell me he thought it was a pointless process last week. Those comments can sting but I used to get 20 of those and now only a couple. I’d saythe best thing you can do is take small steps, genuinely listen to any negative comments to see what you can learn to make it better but realise that you can’t win round everyone. If you believe that what you’re doing is the right thing for students and your decisions are informed by research/wider reading and not just plucked out of thin air,then keep going! Good luck!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to offer your advice, wisdom and experience. It seems this post has resonated with teachers and they have been very kind in sharing their thoughts and ideas. A forum is something I want to try, but these have been shut down in the past, as they have been too negative. My response to this was if you never allow teachers to express their concerns then the first time you open it up of course you are going to have a barrage of negativity. You have to try and get passed that. Once the vitriol has died down, you might be able to find out the underlying problems and look to rectify them. However my line managers are worried that the initial phase will lead to further unrest and negativity. I want to help deliver a programme that supports our staff and isn’t considered pointless, but to do that I need to talk to them, especially those who are vocally opposed or do not interact. Perhaps I seek them out individually, accept that I will have to be the brunt of their frustration and then see if I can find out what has really caused that?

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  5. […] Just like a marble statue though, that goodwill can erode over time. Instead of being open to the environment. the wind and rain, we are open to a school’s culture and to the words and actions of others. Colleagues belittling your time spent on the school field in comparison to what they do. Line managers highlighting your lack of marking in passing, as if workload is a competition and a stick to beat colleagues with. School Leadership talking about cup wins but not really understanding the value of what you do and how it can have a positive impact on a child’s development. Saying school sport is a priority, but constantly having it come second when something else ‘more important’ appears in the form of a box to tick. These moments day in and day out don’t break goodwill. From my perspective I don’t see how it can. It is too strong for that. Over the years, day in a day out, it can chip away though. It can begin to warp and disfigure what was at the beginning something pure and perfect. In some cases the goodwill continues, but begrudgingly so. In some cases it becomes a warped and grotesque version and can eat away at the individual, only causing more harm than good. In my experience this can be a contributing factor in a teacher that has ‘lost their way’. […]

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