Modern schools expect teachers to achieve ‘perfection’ consistently in the work we do.
I have experienced this myself - and it is a regular theme amongst teachers I talk to in my work at NotWaitingForSuperman.
I want to examine 3 ways this search for perfection is experienced by teachers in classrooms today .. and reveal the biggest victim of this broken system.
But what do I mean by ‘perfection’ and how might teachers experience this?
Let’s start with the way we are now expected to perform our biggest responsibility - the way we teach:
1. We are Expected to be Perfect in the Application of Our Craft
In modern schools, the base standard which all teachers have to consistently achieve, looks something like this ..
Every lesson has to show measurable progress for every child, be immaculately differentiated - and often be taught with a perfect application of an approved lesson structure (recommended by leadership).
In many schools there has been a marked increase in top down ‘non-negotiables’ expected of staff in each lesson.
This is often accompanied by much lower tolerance for taking risks or teaching creatively (a key reason many teachers join the profession in the first place).
When teachers miss these often impossible standards, we hear about little else.
A great teacher I speak to regularly, recently failed an observation because she didn’t use mini whiteboards in her lesson.
It didn’t matter that she could explain exactly why she didn’t think them appropriate - or that she could point to a number of other lessons where she did use them .. the top-down nature of management in her school required their use in every lesson.
She is now on an ‘informal improvement plan’ which could lead to capability proceedings against her - because of the way she decided to teach a particular lesson.
What comprises the ‘perfect standard' expected of teachers in each school, is defined by those at the top of the organisation - and then often imposed on staff across the board.
Professional experience, knowledge of individual students, or the creativity of the teacher leading the class - is secondary to the opinions of those in leadership positions ..
(… whose whims change regularly in their search for ‘perfection’)
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2. Perfection is Expected in our use of Data and the Achievement of Targets
All professions should have a method through which they improve what they do.
Teachers have always been keenly aware of this - and are often totally committed to improving outcomes for the students they teach.
However, modern schools take the use of data to improve results to another level in their search for perfection ..
Our children are set targets which we have zero input into (and in many cases bare no relation to what is realistically achievable) .. and our teaching should fill every gap that this data identifies.
In every lesson we are expected to justify our use of data in the teaching of every child.
At any point we should be able to quote data point examples, to explain the strategies we are using in each lesson phase - and for each individual we teach.
Doing this adds a huge administrative burden on top of the job of teaching the class.
Often data is hidden away and teachers have to spend time finding and understanding it (often with inadequate training to do so) - and then use it to plan and assess.
This increases by many times the time it takes to do even an ‘acceptable’ job .. and sets an expectation which many staff find impossible to achieve.
When discussing a particular student, whose reading and writing levels were extremely low due to non-attendance at primary school .. a teacher I know well, was told that her students' high targets at GCSE simply meant that she had "a larger gap in progress to fill”.
When remarking that teaching her English as well as her subject content was beyond her, the response was akin to the attitude a sergeant major might have to an army deserter ..
A firing squad was unavailable at the time - so instead she had to endure ‘additional focus’ as she wasn't conforming to the standard of perfection expected of her.
Constructive discussion about the best way forward is viewed as a sign that the staff member concerned is not toeing the line .. rather than a chance to share strategies which might result in improved outcomes.
As a result, most teachers I know just stay quiet - and hope the focus lands on someone else .. rather than speak up against a system they no longer believe in.
The failure to achieve unrealistic targets, results in many teachers failing yearly appraisals - which costs them financially, regardless of how hard they worked during the year.
Levels of student motivation to pay attention in lessons, revise for exams outside of school - or attend revision classes, are largely out of the control of the classroom teacher .. and yet we are judged for their lack of motivation.
This system is like a policeman being judged by the levels of crime on their patrol route, or a bus driver being judged by their ability to arrive on time regardless of a major traffic incident.
3. Perfection is the Only Standard which Matters to Leadership & Management
You might imagine that in a profession where we encourage and motivate our students, to help them reach greater levels of performance ..
.. that the management of teachers would mirror this approach.
In reality this could not be further from the truth in many schools.
Professionally there seems little room for ‘a good effort’ - or ‘an interesting approach to solving a problem’.
Quite the opposite in fact - in many schools there is so much focus on the ways we are lacking in our performance - that there is little time (or inclination) to recognise what we do well.
Our ability to create meaningful relationships with challenging students, or the work we might do supporting extra curricular activities to substitute for an overly academic curriculum - are not valued by the system which measures our effectiveness.
The learning process we manage in our classrooms requires creativity and new ways of thinking .. the students which we work with are highly changeable and unpredictable in their nature. What works one day (or at one time of day) will not work at another.
And yet we are often observed for absurdly short lengths of time, and then judged by this measure - by people with little knowledge of the class or subject matter we deliver.
The combination of this ‘stick-lead’ approach to staff management - and the enforced silence teachers now have to show while they work an impossible job .. produces serious mental health issues in many teaching staff.
These 'damaged' teachers are quickly encouraged to leave the profession - to make space for others who have yet to be so affected.
The system - and the job of a teacher in many schools - is fundamentally broken.
If you're worried about the impact the job is having on your health, use my Teacher Burnout Assessment Tool below:
Who pays the Ultimate Price for this Broken System?
I wonder how the children our modern system produces will cope with the inflexibility of their future employers - or find the adaptability required of them in a fast changing world.
- By obsessing over measuring as much as we can, have we missed the fact that the most important skills and qualities a child needs in the modern world are not so easily measurable?
- In the search for improvement to our education system have we created a system which will hamper, rather than aid their progress?
- And are we creating a generation of students who will be actively disadvantaged by the system which is supposed to help them?
I know many parents and teachers who believe so.
Solution to the problems in our education system seem further away than ever, in our modern school system ..
.. and requires a fundamental reimagining of what school should be.
Politicians, parents and the media, need to let go of the current narrow range of easily quantifiable performance data - and start to ask what sort of students we want to emerge from the system we are creating.
As a parent of a 4 year old girl with fierce independence and opinions of her own - I fear the current system will do little else than teach her all the things they believe she lacks.
Too many students leave school believing they can’t learn new things, because of the narrow academic standards which the system teaches them define ‘success’.
Whether Josie succeeds in this system or not, I guarantee that her success in life will not be defined by it. Instead she will need qualities like confidence in herself, creative problem solving abilities and a love of learning which will enable her to learn new things independently in the future.
Sadly our current system will teach her little of these things.
It is not surprising that a growing number of parents choose not to send their children to school at all.
Will This 'Broken System' Ever Change?
When enough parents vote on the basis of improving the education system, rather than withdrawing their children to protect them from it - real change might be achievable.
Until that time the system will continue it’s search for ‘perfection’ - making victims of teachers and their students, who can’t manage to succeed in an increasingly rigid and judgmental system.
For teachers growing tired of working in a traditional ‘school’, I encourage you to investigate different ways to use your teaching skills ..
.. because the connected world we live in gives you the opportunity to use your teaching skills - without the compromises required from working in a school.
The workshop I am delivering soon will help you investigate this possibility further - sign up to get access to this training below:
And for teachers still attempting to change the system from within - or happy with the compromises they make to teach the children they care about - thank you ..
.. my Josie needs teachers like you.