There was a time my life when I longed to make a difference. I still do but, with the passing of time, I have tempered my approach. As a young twenty-one year old full of optimism I embarked on a Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) at Leeds University.
My overt enthusiasm foundered on the harsh rocks of apathy and reality. Poor leadership is a catalyst for apathy; inaction breeds contempt. Critically, schools require strong purposeful leaders; head teachers (‘heads’), or in North American parlance principals, must project a compelling vision of their school which aligns with their teachers’ needs. Crucially, heads must support their teachers, administering procedural justice. They are the wellsprings of a school’s culture. This individual must ‘lead by deed’. In many instances, it is a Herculean task.
The school where I was sent on my first, and as it would happen last, placement had recently being rebuilt. The impressive new buildings, which were constructed but a stone’s throw from the old school, were meant to herald a bright new dawn acting as a springboard for renewed educational attainment. The head and the bulk of the teaching staff provided continuity from the old to the new. The school, a comprehensive since the early 1970s, was aiming high.
Teaching training is tough. In the UK, there are a myriad of competing things – some of which are time and energy sapping jumping through paper hoop exercises – that fill trainee teachers’ time. Time in school is spent under the instruction of a mentor, an experienced teacher who, in theory, is there to help trainee teachers hone their skills. My mentor was a lovely amiable man and a good teacher with a holistic inclusive approach. His eye for detail, in terms of schemes of work and the like was lacking from my young trainee’s point of view.
Students can see trainee teachers as ‘fair game’ ripe to be teased and tested. My approach was to try and be a disciplinarian: firm but fair. In most instances, the approach worked. Once I had earned my charges’ respect I would allow loosen the reins somewhat. One class, a year ten class, proved a real challenge; two or three individuals turned out to be thorns in my side. One afternoon I asked my miscreant-in-chief to step outside the classroom so I could advise him of the error of his ways. In a misguided attempt to make him take pride in his appearance. I said:
“Do up your top button”.
“Why should I? [Pause]. Nobody else does”
His response went straight to the heart of the school’s problems. There was a school uniform but the adherence to it was not policed. Talking back to staff, even experienced well-respected teachers, was all too common.
“Wearing the school uniform properly and neatly is an important part of learning about appropriate dress in later life . . . Wearing of part only of the uniform shows a lack of pride in oneself and in one’s school” [Meadmore, D. and Symes, C., 1997. ‘Keeping up appearances: uniform policy for school diversity?’. British Journal of Educational Studies, 45(2), p.179]
The above view of the importance of having a school uniform that pupils wear appropriately is, perhaps, outdated. Generally speaking, school uniforms can be a good way of instilling a sense of corporate identity in pupils. Moreover, uniforms can reduce playground envy about what is deemed cool and what is not.
This response hinted at far wider more serious problems. Morale among many of the teachers, not just us trainees, was low in large part because the head was regarded to have failed to have excluded troublesome pupils and back up teachers.
The facilities were fantastic, the envy of many a school state or otherwise, but from that moment onwards I saw it as a hollow edifice. My health began to suffer; my sleep deteriorated and my ability to ‘switch off’ from my workload and school diminished.
My final day at the school was painful. The walk back into the city centre with tears in my eyes was a long and lonely one; with my dreams shattered and my head trying to make sense of where it had all gone wrong.
Looking back and seeking to analyse our own shortcomings can be challenging. My four biggest lessons from my time as a trainee teacher are as follows:
- No individual, however enthusiastic and well-intended, can change a culture alone if the prevailing culture is different.
- Leaders must ‘lead by deed’ if their subordinates are to believe in them and their mission. Seeking to align goals with employees’ aspirations, particularly in something like teaching, is not always possible but is highly desirable.
- Health is more important than any job.
- Basic plans and procedures are necessary even if they are subject to change.