Some years ago the English faculty I led was subject to a week-long leadership review. Knowing that every member of the department was to be observed and that we would be expected to showcase loads of ‘student centred learning’ I made sure everyone had planned plenty of group work and taken steps to minimise whole class instruction. At the end of the week the headteacher congratulated me on the quality of all of the lessons he’d seen and how student centred they had been. Despite this, I could see he looked a bit troubled and asked whether anything was wrong. He cleared his throat, looked a bit uneasy and said, “All the lessons I’ve seen have been amazing, but … when do you actually teach them stuff?” I just stared at him. Did he really not know? I can’t remember what I said at the time but the answer was crystal clear: we actually taught them stuff when no one from the leadership team was watching.
It was at that moment that I recognised one of the fundamental dangers of school leadership; you carry your job title around with you. If you’re not very careful then whoever you speak to and what ever you do, people show you what they think you want to see and say what they think you want to hear. The only times they’re ever honestly themselves are when you’re elsewhere. As a teacher I learned to play the game. When a member of school leadership was in the vicinity I behaved as I knew they expected and performed the Monkey Dance. When they trotted off I reverted to ‘just teaching’.
I was reminded of all this several months ago. I had been asked to conduct a teaching and learning review for a school I’d been working with and spent a day visiting lessons. I could clearly see a consistent theme; most lessons were subject to routine, low level disruption. The students’ behaviour wasn’t usually awful but, taken as a whole, it painted a bleak picture of missed opportunities and wasted time. When it came time to feedback my observations to the headteacher he simply refused to accept that what I said was true. The reason he knew it wasn’t true was because he visited lessons everyday and wherever he went behaviour was always excellent!
It’s difficult to deal with this level of self-deception. I tried pointing out that the difference between his experiences and mine was that he was the figure of ultimate authority in the school and I was just some random bloke. The one thing consistent to all the lessons he visited is that the headteacher was always in the room. By mutual consent we agreed to cut short my contract, but I was still saddened to hear that the school had gone into special measures after a subsequent inspection and that the head had lost his job.
Just in the case the message of these two anecdotes isn’t clear, here it is: power can insulate you from reality. If you have power over others they will alter their behaviour to suit your preferences. If you specify exactly what you expect to see you will be shown exactly what you specify. The very best you will ever get is compliance.
If you want to break out of the leadership bubble you need people to trust you. They need to trust that you are well informed and interested in accuracy. In return, you need to allow teachers the autonomy they’ve earned. If you want teachers to be their best then you need to hold them to account for doing what they believe is in their students’ best interests. You need to trust them to do their jobs and that they know how to teach their subject to their students better than you do. You need to trust that most teachers are doing their best and that they care about their students’ welfare and success at least as much as you do. If you don’t trust that this is true then you must tell them so.
If teachers can see that you trust them to do their jobs and that you will hold them to account for doing what they believe to be the best way to teach their students, then, in return, they will allow you out of your bubble and invite you into their classrooms.