I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about what it feels like when you are criticised about your remote teaching.
We don’t mine coal. We don’t perform lifesaving surgery. We don’t walk the London underground tunnels litter-picking in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, teaching is a challenging job. This quotation by Lee Shulman captures the complexity of teaching 30 students of different socio-economic backgrounds, experiences, and parents, all at the same time in a single room in a state comprehensive school:
“After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.”
So, changing our mode of practice, pretty much overnight, from face-to-face in the classroom to teaching remotely online, has proven difficult for many, even traumatic for some.
And teaching is intensely personal. In no other profession are personality and practice so inextricably interwoven as they are in teaching. So that criticism of you as a teacher feels like criticism of you as a person.
Throughout my career I have always taught. And I have always shared my classroom trials and tribulations. My desire to show such reciprocal vulnerability comes from never wanting to ask people I lead to do something I would not do myself. Beyond that personal resolution, three people’s writing and research evidence explain clearly why reciprocal vulnerability is a good thing:
Viviane Robinson: Direct involvement in professional learning “enables leaders to learn in detail about the challenges the teacher-learners face and the conditions teachers require to succeed”. According to Robinson, this enables the school leader to ensure that any obstacles to creating those conditions for learning can be removed more readily.
Philippa Cordingley: “[a core characteristic of effective professional learning is] the enabling of sustained peer support and reciprocal vulnerability which increases ownership, commitment and a willingness to take risks and to unlearn established assumptions and habits and to develop new understandings and practices.”
Serafin Dillon: “[Colleagues] will trust you if you can demonstrate you can share with them moments of vulnerability, moments of humanity. They will see you as a human first and a leader second. If you can achieve this harmonious way of being with your team, you have a greater chance of staff coming to you when they have a problem.”
To teach you need to feel worthy. Too many of us can lose our sense of self-worth when it comes to doing that incredibly complex thing called teaching.
So, five weeks into a cold, wet and seemingly never-ending lockdown, I wanted to reassure my teaching colleagues that I know what it feels like, just a little bit, when you are teaching remotely and you get criticised.
I sent them this email on Friday afternoon. I soon received many expressions of relief and thanks. Moreover, there were replies from teachers in one department who had encountered genuine problems with our remote learning feedback policy. We were able to change the policy swiftly to support the teachers, but also to help the parents and students who are also finding things hard during this lockdown.
Such are the rewards when school leaders teach and they demonstrate reciprocal vulnerability.
I hope it has been quiet for you these past seven days, and that TEAMS has worked swimmingly well (?!).
It has been a weird week for me, and I just want to recount for you a short tale…
I taught my Year 8 English class on Thursday afternoon. I have no need to tell you about how relatively rubbish it is to teach into the void that is TEAMS. We will look back on TEAMS the same way we (people of a certain age…) look back on BBC computers – that is, appalled/amazed at how basic and clunky they were.
Anyway, I eventually convinced a couple of students to speak (speaking students are gold dust, aren’t they?); one of them had not done her homework and I joshed – as I would do if we were in a classroom – about how, as a punishment, she was going to have to answer every question for the next hour.
Halfway through the lesson, I did actually go to that student to answer a question and one of the other speakers in the group said that she had left the virtual lesson (I hadn’t damned well seen that because I was showing slides). I thought no more of it until I was sent a message by the office explaining that her mum had rung to say that she had taken her out of the lesson because I was picking on her, and she wanted to speak to me.
I rang mum but it rang out. I rang again and the mobile was off. I had work to do but was worried. I started to wonder what on earth I did say. And I had, predictably, forgotten to record the lesson. I couldn’t settle. I tried mum again. I started to imagine my final months at Huntington overshadowed by a complaint about me to the governors.
It wasn’t until 20 sweaty, workless minutes later that mum rang back and we had an amicable chat. She was just worried about her daughter who had been struggling and to whom I apologised. I have since sorted her out with a Chromebook and headphones because she had been using her mobile and could not access the homework.
The tale is such a great lesson learned for me. The news that the student’s mum had rung to complain gnawed away at me, the head teacher. The experience made me appreciate even more sharply what you are doing, sometimes for five lessons a day.
I am not sure that people appreciate quite how well we have completely changed our way of working overnight. I am in awe of what all of you are doing – at home, in school – teachers and support staff alike.
Thanks for doing such a great job. I miss being amongst colleagues and students. I hope you are getting out and about for walks and keeping healthy. If you need a chat or a moan or anything, please do not hesitate to contact me. If I can help, I will.
Thank you so much for all you do.
Take good care –