The Elephant in the Room

My school is part of a local project looking at how we can improve outcomes for black Caribbean pupils. Although this is not a specific issue at my school, I wanted us to be part of the discussion.  It is an issue internationally and there are solutions.  Just today, published an opinion piece from the Director of the Toronto District School Board, Dr John Malloy, addressing the systemic racism that has played a key role in exclusions in Canada’s largest school board.

As I sat through the latest meeting of the schools involved in the local project, I became frustrated very quickly at the level of conversation and lack of understanding of the key issue impacting everything.  If I am honest, the presentations sounded a lot like the solutions implemented by the TDSB addressed by Dr Malloy. Restorative practice.  Examinations of bias, privilege and power and their relationship to exclusions.  Encouraging human rights. Championing anti-racism and anti-oppression.  This is serious stuff.  And truly the cornerstones of any successful approach. These solutions take the deep investment of time, support, development, finance.

But there’s something we must examine before all of that great work. Something that every single one of those solutions sits upon.

We must address the elephant in the room: the criminally high level of unnatural teacher attrition in England.

Restorative practices
Calling out the inherent racism in our systems
Creating a multi-ethnic, global and inclusive curriculum
Challenging our own privilege, bias and power
Championing anti-racism and oppression
Mentoring & Coaching for staff and pupils

All of this (and more) is only ever successful and sustainable if we can satisfy a pretty basic tenet in education: the only type of teacher that can affect change in classrooms and schools is one that stays in classrooms and schools.

Its not really that complicated.

If a school is hemorrhaging 30, 40 or 50%+ of its teachers every year, there is no point in talking about underachieving groups, no point in talking about behaviour in schools, no point in talking about curriculum, pedagogy, or anything to do with systemic racism or oppression.  We cannot talk about complexity when the workforce is constantly in its infancy.  The collateral damage to high teacher turnover always rests with our most vulnerable.

Why do approaches like ‘0 tolerance’ take off – because they are simple to train, simple to enact. They don’t take much nuance. And when system maturity is shaky, attrition sky high, we need something that works today.  Right now. And will work tomorrow with new people and little time. If we have to endure the same conversation and training, year in year out, it needs to be short, sweet and seen to work.  Except now we know when we do this, our most disadvantaged – our most vulnerable – pay the price.

Any solutions that do not address teacher recruitment and retention – truly found within the way we lead our schools – will only ever be short-lived, unsustainable, and tokenistic.

This constant turnover is fueled by the high stakes managerialism, the performativity, the deliverology, the onslaught of low trust, high threat activities that have infected our  schools.  Ofsted. Health Checks. The unrelenting observation, monitoring, scrutiny.  The stupidity of mindless marking and the lack of challenge, support, development and trust in our teachers.  The lack of teacher led learning. No enquiry. No research. The only progression is promotion. The ‘do as I say, not as I do’ behaviour. ‘We want your class to be collaborative, dialogic, enquiry driven – but we’ll tell you what to do, how to do it and what to improve.’

That was my frustration – not that the solutions being examined as part of the project are bad.  But they’re wrong.  They’re secondary to a really basic, but really important view: We cannot talk about how to improve the experience for pupil groups until we talk about how we improve the experience for teachers.

Full Stop.













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