VOICE: Five Questions with Dr C

There are very few roles in teaching that Dr C has not fulfilled in a career that has spanned over thirty-five years. Qualified to teach at both primary and secondary level and specialising in teaching SEND children in English, Dr C has been a classroom teacher, SENCo, second in department and a member of SLT. After completing her EdD where she assessed the comparative experiences of teacher reactions to inspections in state and independent schools, Dr C now teaches on a SENCo distance learning course, is a sessional lecturer at a university in the South-West and is a consultant. Dr C holds a B.ED in English, a MA in Leadership and Management in Learning, an EdD in Education and is a senior red belt in Taekwondo, the latter being one of her most proudest achievements. Dr C – I was inspired by your project and what you found to be true. I think that we covered some extremely important points that many people will also benefit from. Thank you for your recommendations and insights for my own PhD and being a true voice of reason.

TRIGGER WARNING: some of the content in this interview includes comments on suicide. Please exercise caution before proceeding.

1. I don’t want to impose in any way so can you tell me a little more about your research project, what you looked at and the findings that you made?

I went into the project because I wanted to learn what the state system could learn from the independent sector and I looked at inspection because it seemed to dominate the whole field of education at the time. I decided to compare the two processes in state and independent schools, looking at how they were led and how schools were responding to them, and also at how teachers, particularly emotionally and mentally, responded to the inspection. I interviewed people from both areas, headteachers and classroom teachers alike, to have more of an informed insight. One thing that was most clear in the independent sector was that the inspectors were teachers and that had a significant impact on the responses. For example, in the state sector, teachers had a fear of judgement and suffered a loss of moral purpose in their roles and a disconnection, whereas the opposite was true in the independent sector. There was a very clear negative effect on teachers in state schools.

A long time ago I read an ‘An Inspector Calls’ by Cunningham, a brilliant book, and he found that some teachers and leaders related inspection to being equivalent to the death of a parent or divorce when it came to the stress associated with inspections. When I was interviewing one of my teachers from the state sector, the teacher turned around and said, “I have to say that when my mother died, that was less stressful than the inspection we’ve just had”, and I was absolutely shocked to find that example by Cunningham being given 20 years later. It was absolutely shocking.

There were no tears when I interviewed the independent sector teachers and no hesitation to ask inspectors questions whereas with state teachers, there were tears in virtually every interview, and if they didn’t, they had reported someone else who had. I had one interviewee who cried throughout the whole interview because she had been inspected the day before. The timing was unfortunate and couldn’t be foreseen but to see the impact of inspections on state teachers was really something.

2. As an educational professional who has held significant leadership roles and responsibilities, what pressures do you think leaders in education face? I was lucky because I was working in the independent sector and the pressures came from parents rather from anyone else. It was all about trying to please parents and so perhaps that was the biggest pressure. It’s very different for people in the state sector; we didn’t have SATs, we chose to do them internally for formative assessment but we didn’t have the fear of results being published whereas colleagues from state schools were constantly looking at SATs results. Where they had to answer to Ofsted, we had to answer to parents and the parents were more focused on an well-rounded education and not just academia, and so we could do more because the parents wanted that for their child, and I think that’s the difference, but you did have to be performing for the parents because you were accountable. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a leader in the state sector. I came out of the secondary state sector because I once travelled through a corridor to my classroom, and on the way there I heard the term “5 A-Cs” seven times, and it was in that moment that I realised that the children were not being taught and looked after in ways that they needed. I think the leaders put pressure on teachers because they want the high grades and it takes a really strong leader to say no, I believe in the whole child approach and I don’t care what Ofsted say. Ironically, those leaders get a better grade from Ofsted because of this but it is that business of fear; headteachers get removed and it’s the fear of failing an Ofsted inspection and therefore they feel like they have to rule with an iron rod. A lot of Ofsted is now about leadership; the difference between Special Measures and Requires Improvement is about leadership. The support is there but it only comes in when you fail, but nobody wants to fail. We live in a culture where we expect everyone to succeed. Senior leaders are frightened to show fragility. Making mistakes and admitting them is important and so it’s about being open to learning. It’s about having that confidence in yourself but if you lack that confidence then you put on a bravado and that bravado shuts people out, and that’s when it becomes very lonely. It’s that fear of asking for help. I think what would be really interesting to see is what is going to happen after the pandemic because parents now understand what it means to be a teacher. I wonder if they [leaders] will have more autonomy afterwards. I have seen headteachers come out of teaching and have breakdowns as soon as they’ve come out because their whole self worth was wrapped up in their job. They were non-conformists and the county they were working for didn’t like that and were therefore hounded out of teaching through Ofsted. This one head in particular was amazing; he had one of the best special education needs provisions I have ever seen and I helped him through his breakdown. That was awful. He told me that he has known of headteachers who have committed suicide because of the pressures of Ofsted because they feel that if their school gets a bad report, that’s the end of their career. It’s awful. The framework is not about damning people but the fear has been there for so long that they are terrified of diverging from it. How does one change perceptions? That is the question, isn’t it?

3. What does teacher wellbeing mean to you? It means having a life outside of the classroom. I have turned around to teachers and have said “go home – you don’t get any brownie points by staying here so late that you can’t do your job tomorrow”. I had the most amazing manager when I was working in SEN provision and I was staying late on evenings, and when I used to stay behind she used to ask me, “what have you achieved today?” and I would list all the things and then she would say, “then go home”. It goes back to positive leadership – it comes down to respect. If you feel like everything must be perfect and completed then you will go under as a teacher. The drains and radiators analogy comes to mind – don’t sit next to a drain who saps the energy from you but find a radiator who will give you positivity. The way we talk to each other affects our wellbeing so we ask each other things outside of work, which makes people feel cared for. My daughter-in-law is now a teacher of the deaf and she called me one day and I asked her where she was, and she said she was in the toilets crying because she said “they just criticise everything that I do”, and she is a bloody good teacher, and I just said get out of that school, and that was the head. All they told her was what she could do better.

4. Who bears the responsibility of accommodating teacher wellbeing? Line managers should be responsible, which of course comes down from head to SLT and so on. To some extent, we do ourselves but sometimes our line managers won’t allow us to. If we have supportive families then that really helps. I live by the sea and when I come home from a stressful day at work, my husband takes one look at me sand says let’s go for a walk by the sea, and the sounds of the waves are lovey and I feel better, but not everyone has someone waiting for them at home. Positive relationships. If you don’t have positive relationships, how do you know that person is going through something negative? Leaders have a responsibility to know their staff and what they need. 5. What do you think must be done to improve teacher wellbeing in England? I think you have to have trust and freedom; there must be a understanding that not everybody needs to be an academic and so the focus needs to come away from academic grades. Someone who is going to be an excellent plumber doesn’t need to have excellent commentary on literature skills. Some of us can work with academia and some of us cannot. If we look at the pandemic, the people who we have relied on, the people working on tills, the refuse collectors, the people who have kept the country open and running, schools are telling children that these jobs are not worthwhile jobs. I am dyslexic, everything takes me longer, but I was surrounded by people who cared for me and so I excelled. The pressure on teachers therefore is that everyone needs to do better on tests, and if we remove that pressure, we will get better results and happier children. If the teachers have self worth and self esteem, they become better teachers.

We need to change inspection and how it is done. In my thesis, I advocate for a rotational inspection model, with someone familiar conducting the inspections so they become less of a threat and more about support, much like the Scottish system, which unfortunately they are changing if they haven’t already done so. Peer review and critical friendship in inspection will make all the difference. If you have judgmentalism, you have fear, and if you have fear, then you have cover ups. You should want to share what’s going wrong and what’s going right.

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