In 1803, James Monroe was dispatched to gain access to a port in Louisiana for the United States.  Sent to France as an Extraordinary Envoy, he instead purchased the whole of Louisiana for $15 million (twice the federal budget that year), doubling the country’s size and making Western expansion possible.  Trusting people to do a job well can work wonders.

While in York, I finished Dan Pink’s primer on motivation, Drive, deflated.  The key to motivation, he argues, is to ‘get money off the table’ by paying people well, then focus on what really drives us: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  The purpose of teaching seems clear and those improving their practice are striving for mastery; while unproductive tasks can obstruct them, in most schools there is scope for both.  But school structures conspire to make autonomy a pipe dream: so much time is spoken-for, so many tasks ordained.  Then I realised: I was in the middle of a great example of autonomy, in York on a term-time weekday, for professional development I’d chosen.

At GFS, over the first two years, staff were invited to spend a number of Inset days doing what we thought would benefit us.  I have:

  • Visited King Solomon Academy
  • Caught up with a thoughtful former teacher in Cambridge
  • Seen Alex Quigley and John Tomsett at Huntington School in York
  • Spent time with Andy Day at Withernsea High School
  • Explored London and the London Metropolitan Archives, looking at disasters in London

These days offered me ideas to improve, challenged my thinking and encouraged me to reflect.  In Cambridge, we considered how to balance challenging students and building relationships with them.  Examining other schools’ approaches to CPD provided many possible refinements to our programme.  Exploring London, I learned all sorts of things I’d never noticed, like the site of the first aerial bombing in London (Farringdon, 1917, there’s a plaque) – and this ultimately offered both the form and the content of our recent trip.  Visiting schools has helped me understand Britain’s education system better: Withernsea showed me reality in coastal towns better than a score of official papers.  And, of course, I saw good ideas everywhere:

Visiting KSA, I realise we should be offering this kind of advice too.

On our return, we would hold a feedback session – every colleague would present what they’d done and what they’d learned.  They have visited other schools: delivering training, seeing their own former schools, looking at primaries.  They have returned with fresh ideas: “maybe secondary-ready is misguided and we should change” one suggested, “the primary I went to was amazing.”  Every member of staff was included: our site manager studied maintenance at another school; our Curriculum Support Technician, who runs a gardening group, went to see another.  Alongside stealing ideas, being in contrasting educational environments provides a helpful spur to reflect on our ideas and are assumptions: here are my conclusions from my York trip:

A year’s reflections in two days

How can leaders be sure staff are using the time well?  The head invited teachers to submit their plans, but no one’s, to my knowledge, was changed.  The feedback sessions add a layer of accountability.  More importantly though, freedom must include the freedom to err: one colleague fed back that he felt he’d not spent his days well, but would choose differently next time.  And it’s worth questioning how we define ‘well’ too: sometimes radical innovation comes from examining different fields; while giving open-ended time to think can be as important and more powerful than seeking concrete, immediate results.

A much bigger danger lies in letting short-term concerns take precedence.  Staff choice CPD is a classic example of a non-urgent, important activity: the most powerful and the easiest to drop under pressure.  Last November, one staff choice day was cancelled to learn how Ofsted grade lessons: meaningless, purposeless, and it did us no good on inspection day anyway.  Likewise, if teachers spend the time on marking and administration, the day’s purpose is negated.  One key to making this work, for teachers and leaders, is treating the day as worthwhile.

Pink’s book raises broader questions about autonomy, for students, schools and teachers.  Many of the things he discusses, like choosing one’s times, team and task, are off the table in most schools.  A day or two of staff choice CPD is part of a bigger jigsaw, but it is a simple step and a powerful statement.  Didau recently invited school leaders to “Take a risk. Trust your staff:” perhaps they could start with a day’s trust.  In doing so, they could help teachers meet their CPD needs themselves: for example, the lack of provision for teachers to develop subject knowledge (very well covered by Alex Ford) can be addressed by a day off to visit a university library.  One school leader I spoke to on my days of staff choice CPD seemed taken with the idea – I hope the idea spreads further.


I believe this came from another school – I’d love to credit them.

Dan Pink on motivation: TED talk (also available as an animation); book – Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

An impeccably constructed argument on why and how to trust teachers from the Disappointed Idealist.

Thank you for making the days worthwhile for me: Alex, John, Andy, Nic and Kris.