If you got those grades, why are you a teacher?”
Nawaal (then in Year 11)
I was asked this question many times, but answering Nawaal a horrible implication dawned on me: presumably she believed she only deserved a teacher fit for nothing better. I heard recently from a former student that Nawaal has moved back to Finland (honestly). I must email her and find out what the Finns make of her question…
In my previous post, I considered how a teaching profession might differ from the current situation, in autonomy, quality and responsibility. I know teachers who question why being seen as a profession matters: beyond impressing Nawaal (and perhaps boosting her self-worth), this post sets out why.
The greatest consequence of becoming a profession would be greater status. This is more than a vain desire for respect: most teachers see their work as a service, respected by some, not by others – losing sleep about the latter group is pointless. I believe there would be other beneficial consequences.
I first organised this post around a series of changes teacher professionalism would cause, but several examples centred on a single issue. So I have rewritten the post around the vexed question of giving students their levels, which illustrates many of the changes. Since it’s not the purpose of the post, I won’t reprise the evidence why giving students a level on their work is a bad idea, but I’ll offer three choice quotations:
As soon as students get a grade, the learning stops….
If grades stop learning, students should be given them as infrequently as possible….
Many administrators realise this but continue to mandate grades…”
Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment, p.123
I first encountered this research in my first year teaching; I began applying it immediately. Resistance came from three constituencies.
- Immediately, from students, who claimed they needed their levels. My rule that they could come back in their own time, and, on correctly telling me their target, could have their level, appeased most (few were sufficiently interested to do so, I knew those that did knew how to improve).
- Vehemently, from parents. I’m thinking of one in particular, who spent his entire time at parents’ evening complaining it was impossible for his child to improve if she didn’t know her grades.
- Powerfully, from senior leaders. I was told that, irrespective of ‘my’ ideas, Ofsted would expect students to know their levels, and if leaders visited my class, they’d expect the same.
A story of deprofessionalism
It’s interesting to trace this problem through the lens of professionalism.
Why was I so unusual?
To my knowledge, no one in the school was acting on this research. Either we didn’t know about it, or we knew but weren’t doing anything with it: the knowledge of research and how to use it was below what one would expect within a profession.
Why wouldn’t the parent accept what I said?
The parent concerned came in with a clear agenda and launched into an attack in his opening sentence, which continued until we agreed (just about) to differ. He didn’t trust me at all. (To be fair, perhaps he trusted my colleagues, who acted like proper teachers and graded everything).
To whose drum were senior leaders marching?
Senior leaders’ concerns were not of lofty ideals of professionalism, but ensuring we did what Ofsted expected, rightly or wrongly.
Where was this stuff coming from?
Great principles – students should know where they are and how to improve – were reified into ideas which were barely defensible at a national level. A teacher can explain how much more helpful it is to provide students with specific feedback than ensuring they know they are ‘on’ a level 4b and teaching them the confusing (and, in places, meaningless) criteria for a level 5. Yet the former approach became orthodoxy. (Joe Kirby covers the story of AfL well here, although I dispute some of his contentions).
A story retold
The story as though teachers, individually and en masse, were truly seen as professionals. (I have to work backwards, because solving the national-level issues would bring the story to an end).
I’m just going to try this…
Teachers, acknowledged as understanding their students’ needs and knowing the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches, are free to experiment, provided they can justify their actions. So I would be free not to tell students levels and criticism would focus on the validity of my evidence, not my fidelity to our perception of Ofsted’s demands.
Trust me, I’m a teacher.
When I deal with doctors, lawyers and architects, I expect their professional expertise to exceed my understanding of their field, attested by their training and qualifications – only an obvious mistake would lead me to question this. I’d seek their advice, expecting to explain it to me, but trusting them to know things I don’t. Therefore, I’d approach them with shared aims (my health, for example) and look to work with them to achieve them, rather than contest their knowledge of their own field. (The corollary, discussed in my previous post, is that teachers would require better training and qualification).
It’s tough at the top.
Senior leaders are busy trying to refine the professionalism and learning in their school, to keep improving (rather than looking over the shoulder) and challenging and supporting the handful of teachers who were under-performing. So they would embrace – or at least be willing to try – ‘new’ ideas which might improve students’ learning.
Who designed this?
With key decisions in the hands of national bodies, primarily composed of teachers, a group of history teachers or assessment specialists could provide guidance on best practice – they would be unlikely to advocate ensuring every student knows ‘their’ sub-level.
And the winner is…
What would this achieve? Students would learn more. Teachers would be more focused on things that mattered, and probably happier in their work. As, perhaps would leaders.
This is particularly fictitious because in a professionalised system, it would be inconceivable. Rather than negating my first story, teachers at all levels would be searching for the next improvement, designing changes with school leaders, and then helping ensure they succeed, rather than implementing or resisting ill-designed mandates.
Fringe benefits – three Rs
Sadly, some of the benefits of increased professionalisation don’t fit my story:
It would be easier to attract great candidates. I’ve resisted comparison with Finland thus far, but here’s Amanda Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World, “In Finland, all education schools were selective. Getting into a teacher-training program there was as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States (p. 85).”
Autonomy and control are psychologically beneficial; their absence causes stress. A more professional environment in which teachers have more control over key decisions would keep more of them in the classroom.
This trust is contingent on teachers maintaining professional standards (I’ll reaffirm that this trust needs to be earned). But refusing, for example, to cheat as ‘it’s not what teachers do’ is more powerful than resisting as an individual.
Assuming you follow my argument (feel free to critique), we have to identify how we move teaching further towards professionalisation.
- There’s a limit to what I’m prepared to do; actively harming my students’ improvement lies beyond it, so I never actually went back to giving students levels.
- For ‘giving students levels,’ feel free to insert any ridiculous or counter-productive initiative.
- Why do so many teachers still share grades? I’ve talked to some who’ve tried doing this and been hammered into shape by SLT. I really struggle with this!
- I should emphasise I don’t blame any of the participants in this story for anything they did or didn’t do!
- None of this discounts the need for checks and balances, outside views and critical takes on teachers and teaching – I’m arguing not for unbridled freedom, but greater autonomy.
Image: Château de Versailles, by Wally Gobetz, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0