What makes teachers unhappy and does it matter?

rogertitcombe's picture
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Francis Gilbert's thoughtful post and the responses hit some raw nerves and raise important issues. It seems to me that, apart from justified concerns about threats to national pay scales and pensions, job satisfaction in teaching is closely linked to the issue of school improvement. In GCSE benchmark terms, the degree of apparent school improvement has been astonishing and has become the main media currency, encouraged by recent governments, when debating education reforms. The misleading claim that Academies were improving at twice the rate of LA schools, peddled for years by the last government, was swallowed whole by the media.

Investigations of claims for school improvement, for example of Academies by PWC, have been based on headline results data that ignore how such results were obtained and any consequential perverse outcomes.

I am identifying six ways that schools can 'improve' in terms that matter to the league table driven market, the demands of Ofsted, and the job security of the head/principal.

1. Cheating.
2. Degrading the curriculum by replacing hard subjects with easy ones that generate dramatic league table gains.
3. Teaching to the test.
4. Fiddling Admissions to attract compliant high achievers in and keep troublesome low achievers out.
5. Improving admissions in a fair way through banding as in Hackney.
6. Improving approaches to teaching and learning such that the cognitive levels of students improve (they become cleverer) and they are thus able to understand harder stuff.

1. This is clearly corrupt, however it is potentially effective and the system appears to make little effort to catch cheats. See recent posts here, here and Fiona Millar's Guardian article.

2. This has been very effective. In fact it has been the compulsory recipe for survival for many schools. However, it deprives students of access to a broad and balanced education for all, regardless of ability or developmental level and misleads parents. Commonly less able students unlikely to get at least a C grade are denied access to GCSE courses in traditional academic subjects like history, geography, languages and GCSE science courses. School improvement based on such approaches was invented and encouraged by the last government. Ofsted, Gove, Cameron and the media are still acclaiming schools that use these approaches. There are negative consequences for the job satisfaction of teachers. Much less specialist teacher time is needed in KS4 resulting in less specialist teachers being appointed resulting in non-specialists being compelled to teach subjects beyond their expertise. This has knock-on effects in sixth forms with regard to student choices, again reducing opportunities for specialist teachers to ply their trade.

3. This is also very effective. It is usually practised alongside 2, and is essential in English and maths in schools that rely on easy subjects for the other three C grades needed for league tables. There is limited job satisfaction in cramming and teaching to the test, but it is better than losing your job.

4. Also effective but over a longer timescale. This is only available to schools that can write their own admission policies and includes Academies, Free Schools and faith schools. The jobs of teachers are made easier or more difficult depending on how such unfairness pans out between schools.

5. In the absence of 1 - 4 this provides the only educationally sound means of protecting and supporting schools located in deprived communities in the present league table driven system. It promotes and provides a model for the highly desirable outcome of fair admissions.

6. This also works but is much less dramatic. Gains in exam results for schools are relatively modest compared to 1 - 5. The outcomes for students, however, in terms of potentially life changing gains in wisdom and understanding are very great but hard to quantify. Nevertheless they result in great job satisfaction for their teachers.

It seems to me that teacher morale is likely to be worsened by the degree of pressure and compulsion to operate school improvement methods 1 - 3, and improved by a culture that supports the autonomy and professional freedom to pursue method 6. Unfortunately the former is now much more common than the latter.

Whenever I reflect on the worst aspects of being a teacher I think about the teaching experiences of Ursula in D H Lawrence's 'The Rainbow'.

"A great dread of her task possessed her. She saw Mr Brunt, Miss Harby, Miss Scholfield, all the schoolteachers, drudging unwillingly at the graceless task of compelling many children into one disciplined, mechanical set reducing the whole set to an automatic state of obedience and attention, and then of commanding their acceptance of various pieces of knowledge,"

The culture needed for school improvement method 6 is the complete opposite of Lawrence's fictional description. The best scenario is a head who believes in such approaches herself and does some teaching. The next best is a head that has such a person in the SMT and encourages her to promote debate in department meetings about how to get students to understand hard stuff . This assumes departments led by teachers that are enthusiasts themselves and school structures that allow such department heads status and freedom to do their work and influence the curriculum policy of the school.

Within such a culture enthusiastic young teachers would be encouraged to experiment with models and approaches. Co-operation and debate with teachers in other schools is also very valuable. LEA advisors were often good at setting up such activities. In the 70s there were 'Teacher's Centres' where this could take place. Teachers took part largely in their own time (after school and evenings) so they must have enjoyed what they were doing. Teachers had lots of autonomy and freedoms that are no longer common, including inviting in LEA advisors without having to consult the Senior Management Team first.

My conclusion therefore is that teaching can indeed be a grim job without the professional autonomy that feeds the self-respect that is essential to job satisfaction. Is this important? Of course it is.
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