One big change I have noticed since I qualified as a teacher 20 years ago .. is the crazy levels of micromanagement in education, which now affect teachers in almost every aspect of our work.
This is reflected in conversations I have with teachers across the world:
- "My principal told me to replicate my team in all aspects. I’m not allowed to do anything different in my classroom"
- "We are not allowed to have alternative alphabet cards with different pictures than the curriculum provided, because they want all the classrooms in the whole city to be the same"
- "I was given an 'unsatisfactory' on a lesson because I wasn’t at the same place at the same time with the same resource - as my year group colleague"
In many schools today, educational leadership appears more concerned with ensuring consistency of delivery and the generation of measurable outcomes, than providing a rich learning experience for its students.
Let's recognise for a moment just how plain crazy micromanagement in education has become, by examining the 7 levels of control educational leaders obsess over ..
1. Our Classrooms Are Now 'Controlled Environments'
In many schools, gone are the days where each part of the building would be infused with the personality of those teaching in it.
Instead, managers are often more concerned that the students get a 'consistent message and expectation' in each lesson.
In practice this affects everything in our classrooms - from where the chairs / desks are placed and what we are allowed to put on the walls, to where we sit - and how often we are allowed to sit there.
We are regularly policed by school leadership to ensure compliance ..
.. and teachers can expect to receive an official reprimand if their classroom does not conform to the rigid standards dictated to us - even if we can explain why a different layout, display, or learning resource gets better educational results.
Managers' expectations often appear to be designed for the benefit of those observing lessons - or to please external stakeholders .. rather than to meet the interests of the children we teach.
With little control over our classroom set up, many teachers miss a big opportunity to inspire students - and encourage them to own the space they learn in.
It is unsurprising that many of them respond by withdrawing from an education system that no longer appears to put their interests first.
2. What We Teach (and are NOT Allowed to Teach)
What we are allowed to teach - and what we are NOT allowed to teach - is heavily prescribed in many schools ..
.. and the list of knowledge we have to help children memorise and recall on demand, grows every year.
In the information age where students carry around the sum of the worlds' knowledge - easily searchable - in their pockets .. the fact that education is still so focused on memorising facts, is madness.
What we are required to teach often runs counter to what students actually need in many schools - and results in serving learners up an entirely inappropriate diet of knowledge and skills.
Every school serves a specific community with its own unique history and needs - but what we are required to teach students is often prescribed, regardless of this fact.
The mismatch between what students need and the educational diet fed to them, is even worse for learners whose need for help with emotional and family issues precedes their learning of curriculum content.
In the past, teachers were tasked with squaring the circle - and adapting what we taught to suit the needs of the students in front of us.
Today, managements' obsession with 'controlling' what we teach, results in students whose motivation to learn wanes quickly, when it becomes obvious that what they are being taught bears little relation to their lives.
As a result, many teachers work in chaotic classrooms, managing challenging behaviour - which in many cases exists as a direct result of the 'consistent and measurable' experience students are being forced through.
3. The Structure of Our Lessons
In many schools the structure of the lessons we are allowed to deliver is heavily prescribed too.
It is not unusual to receive a 'non-negotiable' list of the specific segments each lesson must contain - each timed and detailed with the language we are expected to use when delivering them.
Any deviation from the prescribed standard is seen by our micromanagers as a sign that a teacher 'needs additional focus' - rather than a recognition that we don't all teach the same way.
(.. or that, heaven forbid, a teacher is using their experience or knowledge of the students to adapt what they teach!)
I am not against the sharing of best practise - quite the opposite - but this isn't what is happening in many schools. Instead managers take the negative political climate around education as permission to exert obsessive control over the learning process.
What worries me most about the standard lesson structure, is that my students arrive in each lesson and KNOW what is about to happen next.
Teachers have lost the element of surprise - and with it a key opportunity to make learning interesting and memorable.
4. What We Are Allowed to Say
The obsessive micromanagement of teachers in many schools now extends to what we say too - and for anyone not currently working in the classroom, prepare yourself for a shock .. because it is not unusual to be provided with lesson scripts by controlling educational leaders.
I regularly speak to teachers who work in schools where they are expected to deliver these scripts word for word - during their lessons.
I'm not sure what misguided micromanagers expect to achieve through this level of control - as the consequence risks robbing teachers of their classroom personalities.
This matters, because learners often don't love their subjects, instead they love the teachers that teach them. Most often it is US who they connect with - not the content or skills they learn.
It appears that in the tightly controlled 'educational systems' we work in, the prospect of two teachers delivering learning slightly differently is unacceptable to those in charge.
5. Where We Are Allowed to Stand and Sit
Managing our classroom space is a skill teachers develop over time ..
.. and where we are in the classroom matters, particularly in lessons when students need 'encouragement' to engage with learning!
We sit students in specific seats and plan our circulation around the classroom to suit the students in front of us, their level of engagement in previous lessons, the time of day, the weather outside .. and SO many other factors.
And yet teachers are now often told exactly where to stand at certain points of each lesson - or in specific lesson phases.
Even the way we stand is scrutinised, are we giving students the right impression? Is our movement around the classroom being optimised? Are students getting the same experience in each classroom?
In one school I worked in, teachers chairs were taken away for a term, apparently to encourage us to circulate in a prescribed way during each lesson. It honestly needed to be pointed out to our blinkered micromanagers that we needed chairs to do paperwork when we weren't teaching a lesson!
It is moments like these which makes me question the intelligence and motives of those in charge of many of our schools.
What I do in my classroom is not an accident, it is the product of 20 years experience teaching and motivating thousands of children.
It is sad that I now need to explain everything I do - just because managers have decided not to trust my training and experience.
6. The Resources We Use in Our Teaching
One of the biggest reasons I became a teacher was the opportunity to use my creativity to solve classroom problems.
- How might I make content or skills the children perceived as boring, relevant to their lives?
- How could I reimagine what I taught, as society and the families I served changed over time?
- How was I going to reach students with special needs?
Central to solving these problems are the resources and activities we use to help students reach the 'ah ha' moments we aim them towards.
Curriculum and lesson design are the most important skills of an effective teacher. They require that I translate what students need to know into a language which motivates and engages them.
Key to achieving this, is the choice of learning resources we use in our lessons. And yet in many schools, resources for each individual lesson are heavily prescribed - as are the ways in which teachers are required to use them.
I know teachers with incredible ability (and whose students love them), who have recently failed observations in school because they decided to create their own resource to teach something, rather than use inappropriate examples in a prescribed text book.
Micromanagement like this is currently causing a brain drain in the teaching profession, as teachers with creative skills leave, in response to being told they can't use them ..
.. and new teachers are trained to follow orders rather than develop a sense of what their learners need.
It's almost as if the profession is being drained of its brains on purpose.
7. How We Spend Our Lives Outside the Classroom
Even much of what teachers do in our time outside the classroom, is now dictated by our micromanagers.
Workload expectations in the majority of teaching jobs have increased massively since I qualified in 2001. In a typical week many teachers take hours (or days) of additional school work home to complete at evenings and weekends.
It is now typical to hear teachers complain that they have no time to parent their own children, due to the workload expectations of their classroom jobs.
Educational managers want you to believe that this is because teachers were previously ineffective - or that we need to 'work smarter' - but these claims simply aren't true.
While students today do leave with a wider range of academic abilities than they used to, this has been achieved at the cost of teaching them many less creative skills.
And whilst more data is now available to prove increased levels of progress .. this is because students are judged and tested more than ever before - not because they are making greater progress than they used to.
In fact there is ample evidence to suggest that the current over-testing of young people results in less happy, less confident young adults.
And don't even get me started on the over-played suggestion that teachers should work smarter. Micromanagers are often guilty of using this as a catch all justification for enforcing unrealistic expectations.
Workload has increased because teachers are not trusted to measure and report pupil progress any more - pure and simple.
The result of this, is that many teachers now have a second full-time job .. justifying their management of the first.
When teachers say the job has changed - this is what they mean.
To blame the problems a data obsessed system has created on teachers - by saying we must work smarter - is insulting.
What is Our Current System Creating?
Our current system doesn't work for educators, but it also fails the learners which it exists to serve.
Too many of my students leave school thinking they can't learn, precisely because of the the judgemental system which is supposed to help them.
The narrow academic definition of success inappropriately forced upon many learners, convinces them they are failures ..
.. and because there is little time left in our curriculum for alternative approaches, too many of our students go out into the world believing they can't learn.
This is the real impact of our modern education system on many young lives today.
Sadly, the Albert Einstein quote about judging a fish on its' ability to climb a tree gets truer every year.
Micromanagers in schools and the politicians that encourage them, are guilty of creating a system in which educators and their students are less important than the data their activity produces.
Skills like creativity, innovation, adaptability and problem solving aren't as easily measured - so they are relegated beneath academic skills in the minds of our students.
School leaders have designed a system which teaches and measures the wrong things.
How sad that the voice of teachers, who are best placed to contribute to the rethinking of our broken school systems, are listened to so little.
To do so would be to admit that the years of chasing improvements in incremental data have been unsuccessful in improving young people's lives.
Politicians don't get elected by admitting they got it wrong.
So instead we invest in new measurement strategies, and focus on different data point improvements - to solve a problem caused by measuring the wrong things in the first place.
Is it any surprise that many teachers decide that the best way to 'work smarter' in education, is to leave?
I genuinely hope your experience of school reflects none of the above .. I know schools who get things right exist, I have been lucky enough to work in a few of them.
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