This article appeared in the Guardian this morning. There’s much in it I agree with.
School leaders  have been informed that this country’s teachers are failing, and that they must take charge of a lazy and unprofessional teaching staff, leading to suspicion within our schools.  I often found that by 9:30am (by which point I had been at school for two hours) I felt I had been reprimanded five or six times in emails to all staff, or in departmental meetings, or staff briefings – all a direct result of current education policies.
This had me nodding along as it chimes with what I’ve read repeatedly, and at some point in the future I’ll probably have a full spleen vent about the adoption of Cult of The Leader enforcement nonsense by rather too many SLTs. However, this is only a quick piece, and I want to focus on this :
I am an outstanding teacher.
With the best will in the world, Ms Palmer, I disagree. Not because I think you’re rubbish. I’m sure that you’re dedicated, hard-working and engaging. I disagree because I think that the classification of teachers into categories of “outstanding, good, requires improvement, and inadequate” is one of the most corrosive aspects of education policy over the last five years. I understand why the author labels herself so, in order to avoid the “well, she’s just moaning because she failed” criticism from the trolls who lurk below the line on any Guardian education story. However, by accepting and wearing that label, you are giving credence and succour to an incredibly damaging development in education : the labelling of people.
Let me be clear : I am not an outstanding teacher. Nor am I good or inadequate or requiring of improvement. Sometimes my lessons are great and I leave the classroom feeling like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. Sometimes they’re awful and I leave giving thanks that no adult witnessed my contemptible failure. A lot of the time they’re fine. Interestingly, what I think of the lessons, and what any observer thinks, does not always chime with what the students think, on those rare occasions when they deign to provide such fulsome feedback as “thanks, sir”.
I don’t mind the concept of considering whether a lesson was good or not. I might quibble with you over what Ofsted consider to be good, as opposed to what is good in the real world. I might also argue the toss over whether a four-level labelling process is a useful tool as opposed to a professional discussion about what went well and what might be improved upon in any given lesson, (interesting that for students’ work we are increasingly demanding formative constructive feedback rather than grades/levels, even as we stick rigidly to grades and levels for teachers’ work). However, I accept the fundamental premise that one can legitimately reach a conclusion about a lesson.
What I absolutely reject is that one can sift teachers into four categories. But this is where we are. I’ve heard teachers talking about other teachers – not lessons – being “outstanding” or “box 3”. I’ve seen training courses advertised, called “How to be an outstanding teacher“, as opposed to “How to teach an outstanding lesson“. I’ve heard some colleagues refer to themselves as “I’m an outstanding teacher” before offering an opinion on something, as if that label means their opinion should somehow carry more weight than the rabble (possible future Ofsted inspector there, perhaps?).
This is sick. Something has gone terribly wrong. No teacher teaches only “outstanding” lessons. Anyone who tells you they do is delusional. All teachers teach a mix of lessons of varying quality, and all of us generally try to teach more good ones than bad ones. But life doesn’t always go according to plan. We can have really good weeks, and we can have really bad weeks. We can go on a real run of great times with class X, but be put through the weekly mincer with class Y. In other words, we are human.
Yet without any announcement, discussion or resistance, we seem to have slid from a world in which people’s work is judged on its merits, to people themselves being judged. This is cancerous. As a professional adult, I absolutely accept that you could watch one of my lessons and tell me afterwards that you thought this was not so good, this could use improvement and so on. That’s a constructive and useful process which helps me. An effective teacher is a reflective one, who analyses their own work and seeks to improve it. But tell me that I, personally, am “inadequate” and that’s not a critique of my work which can be addressed next time, but a personal attack on my qualities and ability.
In addition, these words have now been bastardised beyond belief. This is how these labels are now used :
- “Outstanding” : passable – everyone should be this
- “Good” : not good enough, you need to improve to be outstanding
- “Requires improvement” : terrible
- “Inadequate” : really terrible, resign now, you loser.
We have a four point system in which three points are now undesirable outcomes ! So when we start labelling teachers as “outstanding” or otherwise, we’re really saying to all of our colleagues not accorded the “outstanding” accolade that they are sub-standard. Not their work, not their occasional lesson, but them, personally. They are sub-standard. They are failures. They are Bad Teachers ™.
Is there any other profession anywhere which labels individuals along these lines, as opposed to assessing work on its merits? Are lawyers, doctors, civil servants categorized in such a way that they themselves are awarded numbers, as opposed to their performance over a given period ? It’s as if our students were to open their envelopes this summer and find, not a list of grades for their work, but a single grade for them: You Are A B-Grade Human Being. If someone labelled my children as such, I’d be heading off to the exam board with a baseball bat. Why would I accept that for myself and my colleagues ?
In an education system which seeks to weigh everything, classify everything and measure everything, it is hard to keep sight of that reality that not just our students, but our colleagues, are human. In a system where nothing has value unless it can be recorded on a spreadsheet, it is tempting to surrender to the process and start slapping labels on ourselves too. But please, stop, think, don’t. We don’t have to do this. None of us are numbers, we’re human beings, and God help us if the gradgrindians, managerialists and bean-counters ever succeed in driving that wonderful humanity out of our classrooms.