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How balanced is your school teaching staff?

By Alan Peters,

24 Jan 2020

Search online for information about a balanced economy, or a balanced diet, and page after page is listed.  Look for a balanced teaching staff, and the options are somewhat more limited.  Because, like everything that is best, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. What constitutes a balanced teaching staff?  Perhaps the best definition has two parts.  Quality and sustainability. It was hard to understand why the local authority had put the little village primary into special measures.  Equally, why didn’t parents from the nearby town fight to get their children in – after all, there were plenty of spaces available?  And the school was Church of England; surely an added attraction? Driving up to the splendid Victorian brick hall, protected by wrought iron railings, I expected to see Timmy the dog, chased by George and Anne et al, off on an adventure to entrap some trench coated, trilby hatted blackguard.  Meanwhile, Jemima Puddleduck was teaching her ducklings to swim in the village pond. Entering the school one was hit by the calmness and quiet.  In fact, considerable calm and exceptional quiet.  The problem started to become clear.  Wandering down the plain white corridors, facing closed classroom door after door, peering in to see slightly tatty displays full of commercially produced material – the sort that comes free online - and the clues were there.  Added to that in nearly every room the teacher was either talking, or marking while the students chatted quietly, leaning back in their seats.

It was pretty clear what would be needed to move the school forward. In Evelyn Waugh’s delicious novel, Decline and Fall, the anti-hero Paul Pennyfeather ends up teaching in a distinctly dodgy Welsh school.  Pedagogy is not an interest, and he devises a way to cope.  Bribery.  Whoever can write the most, it matters not what, gets ten shillings.  Pennyfeather senses he has made it in education. The teachers here were not like that.  Each in their own way was good, but the balance among the staff was wrong.  Motivation was absent; the children presented no problems but neither was there inducement to challenge them.  So let’s use this school as an example of what we might consider when we seek to get a balanced teaching staff. The Head Here was the first problem.  The school didn’t have one.  Well, it did, just that nobody had seen her for five months.  If the head is not there to drive, motivate and monitor, then however good the teachers might be, problems will emerge. The Governors There are good governors.  Honestly.  Just like there are people who like Parma Violets.  The Governors here were certainly committed.  They tried to run the school – they took the children’s data, they assessed the teachers.  If only they had known what they were doing, it might not have mattered. Of course, Heads cannot choose their Governing body, something to be endured like Brussel Sprouts at Christmas lunch.  But a clever head will identify weaknesses on the body, and make practical and constructive suggestions.  Beware, though.  Many chairs are sensitive; praise works better than criticism - like with recalcitrant two year olds. Senior Team The school in question had a good senior team.  They were not allowed to do anything, and all taught full timetables, but could have stopped the school falling into special measures.  Both ended up as heads themselves. Many say appointing a deputy is the most important job a Head will ever do.  They may well be correct.  The best Heads want someone who will be loyal but challenging; someone who will take initiative, bring their own passions but work within the school plan.  The worst ones want a yes man (less often, yes woman) even though they would deny it with their grandmother’s life.  Getting a good senior team is essential to a properly balanced staff. Support Staff Good schools have a strong support team.  Weaker schools scrimp here – our charming but underperforming primary had few additional staff; OFSTED might not assess the quality of a caretaker, but somebody who can keep the school warm, the toilets clean and the frontage smart casts an invaluable spell.  The same applies to classroom assistants, helpers and, if your school has them, grounds and kitchen staff.  Neglect at our peril. Teachers Arguably most important of all.  Many people reason that a good school has a gender, age and cultural teacher balance.

Our village school did have good staff; and seemed to offer a fair age balance; but the older teachers were tired – fed up with changes and pressure; the younger ones were frustrated and turned off by a negative staff room.  Nobody was able to offer quality art, sport or drama.  As a result, the curriculum was dull.  Music time, for example, always managed to be needed for something else. This is only an opinion, but maybe we over-complicate ‘balance’.  Isn’t it about finding the best teachers?  A good school has balanced teaching staff. Now recruitment becomes easier, because our field is wider.  We can seek to find someone who, as well as being a top practitioner, wants to run clubs, play the piano… a teacher who will enjoy taking a football team – addressing our school’s shortfalls. And the best schools are self-perpetuating.  They attract more students, so have bigger budgets enabling them to pay for more staff or resources; they attract the best teachers when vacancies arise, so that the head can tinker to keep that balance she or he wants; they get good results which means less outside interference (whoops – ‘support’). Having good balanced teaching staff is crucial to becoming the best; it takes time to achieve, but a head who considers the needs of their school in every appointment, from cleaner to deputy, gets there in the end.  If we prioritise appointments based on needs  rather than preconceptions around age, experience, gender or culture, we get there more quickly.  And more inclusively.

Isn’t that a sign of balance? However, convincing pupils that failure is the secret to success can be a tough ask… It’s not a ground-breaking statement or anything new at all to suggest that people need to fail to succeed.

It’s the stuff of motivational quotes and speeches - a staple ingredient, in fact. The notion that to be successful at something you first need to have tasted failure is heard consistently in the world of business and sport.

And, it applies to education equally as well. Children are averse to failing and making mistakes It can often seems that pupils see failure as one of their biggest fears.

Indeed, some seem to be scared of even making a mistake – Hands up if you’ve ever seen a pupil try to rip a page out of a book because they have made a simple mistake in their work? Where the blame lies for this – the education system, continual testing, pressure from parents, teachers, peers… the truth is, in all honesty, it’s probably a combination of all of these factors.

And, apportioning blame isn’t the point of this piece. The point is: How do we help our pupils appreciate the part failure can play in achieving success at school? Allowing pupils to fail is vital to future success Allowing pupils to make mistakes and to feel what failure is like is an important part of any future success.

Of course, you should never set pupils up to fail, but giving them coping strategies and the mental strength (as well as the academic knowledge) to make improvements when they fail to reach the standard, level or grade that was expected, is vital. Fixed and growth mindsets ‘Failure’ is a word that is avoided at all costs in the vocabulary of schools today.

It is impossible to ‘fail’ exams –‘Unclassified’ is the lowest ‘grade’ that can be awarded.

However, failure is certainly something that pupils feel.

Dealing with disappointment can be difficult, yes, but often how a person respond comes down to the mindset that an individual has. If your mindset is fixed, failure is fixed and it will become a permanent fixture.

However, if you have a growth mindset and believe you can take steps to get better at something, you really can. Creating a positive mindset in the classroom is vital if pupils are to realise that failure can be a strength.

After all, nobody ever got better at something by getting things right all the time. A growth mindset allows a person to see ‘intelligence’ or academic ability as something that is fluid and not fixed.

A growth mindsetter believes they can control and change how successful they can be.

Pupils with a growth mindset see failure as a temporary setback and as an opportunity to take stock, learn and become stronger as a result.