Monday, 12 September 2016

Greener Grass (or 'Finding A Better School')

Reading Keziah Fetherstone's piece in the New Teachers supplement from the TES (Friday 9th September) reminded me of this interview I did with a teacher who left one school for another and found that actually the grass is sometimes greener on the other side.

Having qualified in 2011 our interviewee is in their 6th year teaching. They have taught across Key Stage 2 in two schools: the one they left, and the one where they work currently. The interview explores the differences between the two schools and provides an insight into the experience of someone who has made the leap because they were unhappy in their school:

How did you feel working at your old school?

In the beginning of working at my old school I loved it! It was the only place I had applied for because it was the one I felt was closest to my own views of teaching. University gave us a great chance to form our own beliefs, and I really feel like I stuck to them when searching for a school to start my career.

Towards the end however, it simply wasn't the school I joined. So much had changed. I was trying to stick to the methods that I knew worked, methods I had been praised and commended for, yet somehow they were no longer allowed and I was suddenly seen as a poor teacher; not because the children weren't learning anymore, but because of how it looked. It became very superficial. I tried to follow the strategies I was being criticised for not using, but because I didn't believe in them, that came through my teaching and progress decreased from the high rate I was used to. The children were 'doing' lots (which therefore, superficially, looked great on the surface. But I could see they weren't learning anything; any independence I tried to give them was wasted, because they didn't have the skills to apply to anything (although their sparkling book looked like they could!) Those who had been there longer than me were a lot smarter at 'playing the game' but I was unwilling to join because it felt wrong. I thought 'these little people need to leave here capable of achieving a job, or we have failed them'. In order to do that, they needed to be equipped through good teaching and ample opportunity to learn; not listen and copy because their page is more important for the moderation coming up.

Anything I was doing in class was based on everything we'd be told at our rousing annual first INSET day of the year. Every year there was a big presentation, the school's aims and such, and I left wanting to try these ideas in my classroom. That's what started it all. I think, once they saw these ideas in practice, they got scared because it was something they'd never seen before; all the ideas were from Shirley Clarke's 'Outstanding Formative Assessment'.

Did you ever think of leaving the teaching profession as a result?

As a result of how I was treated, and the awful feedback I was getting, I fully expected to receive a terrible reference. For this reason only, I did consider other careers, although I did only apply to teaching jobs eventually. All applications I sent were successful, and I turned down all offers other than for post I am now in - I still wanted to stick to my values. My reference was great although I was, to my surprise, asked to stay. This made me feel like anything I had been told wasn't really true; as if my time as "the teacher to support" was over and they'd move on to "upskilling" someone else. It made a lot of what had happened seem worthless. A tick box exercise for "Staff Discipline" or someone else's chance to boast at Performance Management about their generous input into my seeming improvement, thus evidencing their own contributions as a Leader.

Has moving school changed your perspective?

My new school hasn't changed my perspective in the sense that I enjoy my job; I mostly always have. But it has motivated me again.

What is it about your new school that is different?

My school is different because teachers have so much freedom, but still with the expectation to do a good job! I think the fear for SLT is that freedom makes lazy teachers who don't work. My school is full of hard workers, making sensible sequences of lessons that their class benefit from. Although the pressures and the workload are still exactly the same, the atmosphere is totally different, making for happier staff able to deliver better lessons. I know personally, that if I have put my heart and soul into a plan, or sequence, or strongly believe something will work, it will come across. In the same way that not believing in what I was asked to do previously came across.

What are the characteristics of a school that you should leave? How can you tell that you need to leave a school?

For me, it was once I was receiving conflicting feedback that I realised it was time to go. I couldn't perform when the criteria for a lesson was the complete opposite of the pointers I had been given previously. I was being judged on that - the school's leaders were forming opinions of me based on that. If you're in a situation like that then, depending on the ethos of your school, the impact that opinion has on you, and those around you, can have a big negative effect.

The feedback I was getting wasn't really based on anything. I guess the easiest feedback to give, is to advise you to do the opposite of what you're doing. And giving feedback makes people feel important, "I told them to do that" - but ultimately, the effects of you acting on what they say (managing the change, teaching and learning implications and associated data trends), aren't seen as their problem.

What were the tell-tale signs (when you went to look round and when you went for interview) that your new school was going to be a better place to work? What was the initial impression compared to your old school?

Firstly, after a few years of full time teaching, the 'walk round' is so totally different to when you're an NQT. I could feel myself asking different questions and looking for different things.

That said, I asked every single school I looked at about their approaches to classroom layout and lesson design. From my experiences, I wanted to make sure that my new school was a place that valued differences among the children, and were encouraging teachers to act on those differences in order to make the best learning.

The Head, (my new boss) showed me round and he had such a good sense of humour; I'd never known anything like it! It really is a great place to be. I spoke to children, looked through books and got a feel of their expectations of me should I be successful.

However, I also looked for things that I could make an impact on and change. I think one of the things about my previous school is that I was always seen as the new boy, so a position of responsibility was almost laughable; an awful prediction that I had nothing to offer. Yet here I saw and heard things that I knew I could do something about in time, and I made that known.

The tour, interview and interview lesson, were enjoyable. Although it's important to say, when I started at my new school, I went through this strange transition in the first few weeks of trying to teach in the way I had been forced to, as if I had forgotten the methods I used best. Of course, I carried some strategies over but I needed to return to the core of what I used to do, the methods that were successful before someone quite simply changed their mind, based on what was "fashionable", and I was no longer good enough.

As a person, I needed a short period of reinvention; I felt very worn down by my experiences. Being told you're not good enough, yet seeing so much misconduct being swept under the carpet was almost humiliating. It made no sense to me and I found it difficult to brush off. Being asked to stay was even more confusing as I didn't understand why! Why would you want me here if I've been doing such a bad job?

A change of scene was very much needed and a fresh outlook on what my primary objectives are; to teach children the skills to apply to various challenges independently. Yes, they will be assessed. But their life goes on after that stupid week in May, and we need to do our bit in preparing them for that life.

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