Recognising the obviously incapable

Performance related pay was back in the news recently and the chief inspector for schools has recently indicated he intends to improve quality and standards by singling out weaker teachers – it was “pretty straightforward” to identify teachers who were “obviously incapable” he said.

Is it?

I was a head teacher in east London facing an Ofsted inspection. I knew I had a problem. It was a teacher who had been at the school for years. His classroom always looked like the aftermath of an explosion in a paper mill. His style of delivery was so chaotic that you couldn’t always tell what subject he was teaching. Planning? He couldn’t do it – at least not if it involved writing up schemes of work. Preparation? He ‘winged-it’ like an eagle rising effortlessly on a thermal. Classroom organisation? Not a hope. He couldn’t organise a three-part lesson with pace or progression any more than he could stop the kids excitedly dancing round him vying for his attention to mark their work.

Spending half an hour in his classroom most would conclude “pretty straightforwardly” that this was an “obviously incapable” teacher.

But the other side of his capability was this.

Not only was he charismatic but he passionately loved his subjects – maths, art, design and technology – which he taught with verve and originality. Children loved him and enjoyed being in his class. Parents loved him too, not least because he ran all the after-school sports teams and athletic clubs for both boys and girls and organised umpteen residential school journeys that gave inner-city kids their first sight of a new horizon.

He was a wonderful story-teller who could spell-bind an assembly of 300 kids at a moment’s notice. In five years of working with him, I don’t remember him taking a day off sick.  And he had a wonderful sense of humour, creating gales of laughter in a staff room that sorely needed a safety valve for the day’s steam to be let off.

In short, he helped bind the school together. And schools, unlike businesses, are communities where binding people matters.

Of course, I could have got rid of him on a ‘competence procedure’ in no time, but I knew that if I did, I would lose the loyalty of the staff. Not because they weren’t aware of his weaknesses, but because they compensated for them as much as he did himself. They would have felt undermined, insecure and felt their own vulnerabilities under pressure. The team spirit on which schools and the profession must depend would have been destroyed. Parents and pupils would not have understood and certainly not sympathised. And it would be a long time, if ever, before anyone else did as much with the disaffected and disengaged Year 6 boys who proudly pulled on the school’s football shirt every week – more for him than anyone.

As it turned out, the Ofsted inspectors – to their credit – recognised his contribution to the school. They didn’t make an (impossible) issue out of his chronic inability to plan, prepare, organise and assess.

He died a couple of years ago.  His funeral was attended by a score of parents and former pupils from across his thirty-year career. His ‘legacy’ in teaching, if one can call it that, included three ex-pupils who went on to become Premiership footballers (one an England international) and a fourth who became a Commonwealth athletics champion and went on to compete at two Olympic Games.

Would that have constituted ‘capability’ for the new school’s inspector? I don’t know.

I’m not defending lousy teachers – if that’s what the new schools inspector means – then I agree they are easy to identify (though we’ve all taught lousy lessons occasionally). Neither am I saying that well-intentioned buffoonery should be tolerated, especially in this profession. Teaching is a professional job that requires high standards of knowledge, skill and technique underpinning huge quantities of energy, dedication and passion.

But as for ‘performance related-pay’ or it being ‘pretty straightforward’ to recognise the ’obviously incapable’… I’m not so sure.

Could you do it?

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16 thoughts on “Recognising the obviously incapable

  1. Thanks Krista – that’s a valuable comment, and you are right, in a profession like teaching collaboration and reflectiveness is very important if not essential.

    In the case of this particular colleague, he was very collaborative and often reflective and had been offered (and taken) many (years of) opportunities for professional development in a range of areas. His view was that it was ‘his style’ and he was entitled to it and while he may have not achieved the ‘measurable results’ that other teachers could, his argued that they didn’t get the ‘results’ he achieved in other areas of school life – which again he argued were just as important in developing ‘the whole child’.

    So my reason for writing this blog was to raise the issue of ‘professional style’ and how, as a profession, we deal with that.

    But I hope you are right, and people – especially new teachers – will use the blog as a forum to network, collaborate, reflect and offer advice to each other… and I think you have started us off brilliantly…! so thanks very much..!

  2. I think that there are teachers in a lot of schools that are as you have described. What we must remember is that our priority is to the children that we teach and not staffroom banter. I have worked with colleagues that have been infuriated with always having to pick up and carry a weak teacher as the headteacher has done very little about it.

    1. Thanks Suzanne. I agree that the reason we are in the job is to provide the best education possible and that the interests of the children are at the heart and the forefront of that. I have also been in schools were I have worked alongside ‘lousy’ teachers who were not managed effectively. I will leave others to judge whether I, as a headteacher, was an effective manager, but my point in writing the blog post was that this guy was not a lousy teacher – far from it – he was a very good and committed teacher with his own ‘style’ and his own set of values about the purposes of education, which were not in tune with the current educational and political ethos and agenda of the times.

      My question (and my challenge) for us all to consider is how we, as a profession, ‘manage’ people with an ‘eccentric style’ and/or strong views about ‘the aims of education’ which don’t necessarily cohere with the dominant philosophy of the day.

      What do you think?

  3. Inspirational and thought-provoking post…

    I’ve been teaching for a relatively short period of time, but I’ve noticed increasing pressures for teachers to fit a mould that is becoming increasingly inflexible. Even new teachers come into the profession with rigid ideas as to what a ;good’ teacher is (usually based on systems and performance in front of kids), when the reality is that a good teacher can be any number of things for any number of reasons.

    We all have different strengths (and weaknesses). In my opinion, it’s vital for departments to recognise this and recognise (if not encourage) the former and support the latter. This is becoming less feasible though, with the micro-management that is becoming the norm and the threat of being labelled failing.

    And I can see this getting worse as we move further into a free market – teachers will be too busy justifying their existences and proving their worth to worry about little things like, oh I don’t know, having fun and being an individual.

    I don’t want to be too political about it but a big problem is the corporatification (not a word, I know) of teaching. Schools are forgetting that they are pastoral community hubs that are supposed to serve local families, instead trying to ‘deliver’ results and manufacture graduates of the future, In that climate, it’s impossible to breathe as a person; a frustration that many teachers feel.

  4. A couple of points: Firstly, what gets measured gets managed is a maxim for a fairly low level of management these days. It works fine in manufacturing since the days of Ohno (Toyota) and Deming but is very limited in a service organisation such a school. Consequently, as in your experience with the enlightened OFSTED inspector, one relies on an intelligent view of the big picture. The results speak for themselves in the case of your late teacher despite his methods. The thing he recognised and did was teach according to the materials in front of him with, it sounds, great results.

    Secondly, although I think this is off the main point of your post, as a trainee teacher coming from the corporate world, I can categorically tell you that a company is a community. Even divisions are – it is usually connected with geography: Those in a similar function/building bind together. If you are in any doubts look up research on teams and team development.

    1. Hi Mark – really good post, thanks. You raise issues of leadership and management that are of course intrinsic to professional behaviours and what you say is very enlightening – thanks. I guess the reason for my post was that I am also raising issues about style, technique and content that don’t survive changes to ‘orthodoxy’ so I guess I’m asking questions about how much we can tolerate ‘eccentricity’ in professionalism.

      As for your comparison to the corporate world, point taken. But are ‘teams’ the same as ‘communities’?

      What’s your take?

      1. Hi Alan – Thank you for your reply. My view would be that teams are not the same as communities. More that teams are or can be subsets of communities. It’s not unlike a series of onion rings where you are in the middle: Moving outwards in layers, you could work in a small team of, say six people, in a division or company of any number and so on. I’d count my team and other teams I have to work with along with others as a part of my community. I may lunch with people I don’t work with but have shared interests as well as the same employer, I’d still say they’re part of my community. Of course the world doesn’t revolve around “me”(!) but plenty of people would feel the same way. Does that make sense? In my experience one notices the community aspect when redundancies happen or a department closes down – you have to adjust what your sense of community is in response to the loss(es).

        Ooh – tolerating eccentricity in professionalism? That’s a fairly loaded statement! The answer is that it depends, not least, upon definitions. My guess is that it certainly applies to commercial organisations and that, sadly, conformity is what usually gets you to the top. However, I am an optimist and teaching is by it’s very nature a creative process and if in such creative environments eccentrics can’t be given space then we’re really in a mess. I think your question is does eccentric mean ‘obviously incapable’? And my answer is no.

        Could inspectors confuse eccentric with obviously incapable? Er, quite possibly but I don’t know enough inspectors or about the level of box ticking vs judgement that they can exercise. Certainly, to go back to my earlier point about service organisations, standardisation in the manufacturing sense of the word is a disaster – flexibility is far more important and that is, hopefully, how ofsted inspectors look at their role in spotting quality eccentric or not.

  5. Great post. What seems inevitable is, perhaps, with more focus on teacher evaluation, guys like this will become a thing of the past. It concerns me that inspection – by your Ofsted and HMI up here in Scotland, is worryingly box ticking, sometimes missing the wonderful relationships we can develop with our students. But is that impportant any more? We most certainly should not put up with incapable or incompetent teachers. However, perhaps we should have a more fruitful discussion about how we define incapable or incompetent.

    1. Thanks Kenny. What you say reminds me a little of Alan Bennett’s ‘History Boys’ – now there’s the story of a teacher who would not only fail Ofsted & HMI inspections with flying colours, but would also be struck off by the GTC, barred by the Independent Safeguarding Authority and and then prosecuted by the police and sent to prison. How attitudes change..!
      Thanks again for the post and kind words.

  6. Although I’m only in my second year of teaching, I have come across a number of these types of teacher (and potentially at times skirt around the edges of being one myself-particularly the bombsite classroom!), both in my PGCE and the 2 schools I have worked at, and actually think that they play a very important role in the school.

    In my PGCE year, my second mentor was just the character you described, an elder statesman of the school who rarely had any resources/plans/3 part lessons etc. However he was the single most inspiring teacher I watched the whole year. He could captivate a class effortlessly and improvised lessons that students often enjoyed more than their well planned alternatives taught by different teachers. I watched heads of department, ASTs and deputy heads, and none of them managed to engage students in the way that my mentor did.

    I was feeling down one day due to getting a satisfactory observation, when he explained to me that having taught 30 years, the best he had ever got in a formal observation was a satisfactory mark, as his planning was virtually non existent, and his teaching relied very heavily on his personality (and terrible accents). It made me realise that while there is a place for ‘the proper stuff’, there is a lot to be said for being that zany teacher for whom kids rush to go to their lessons.

    I always say when people ask me about my PGCE that although I didnt learn how to ‘teach’ from this mentor, I did learn how to inspire, invigorate and enthuse.

    1. Thanks Chris – that’s a terrific story of what sounds like a terrific teacher. But can I ask a friendly but challenging question…

      Let’s say you have a child in the school. Would you want your child to be taught by the ones with “resources/plans/3 part lessons” or by the “zany teacher”…?

      Thanks again for posting.

      1. I currently have the luxury of not having to worry about that! But if I did (and no doubt being in the situation is very different to talking about it hypothetically) I would like to think I’d want my child educated by a person who made them love their subject. I’d rather my child was taught by a mad cap zany teacher and came home buzzing because they had enjoyed the lesson so much, than they moaned about the subject because they were always doing card sort activities and the like (a technique often seen as ‘good teaching’ and requiring a fair old bit of preparation). Particularly at KS3, I would definitely want someone who made my child interested, and enthused about the subject over someone who gave them an outstanding lesson but couldn’t inspire them.

        Last year in my NQT year, the Deputy head had the office next to my classroom and would often pop her head in to see what was going on. At various points she saw me smashing up crockery to teach about causation, year 11s throwing cups of water at each other to learn about mutually assured destruction, a tudor themed gangster rap battle and everyone sat around on the carpet eating motte and bailey shaped cakes. While to most people this would look like utter chaos (and I admit, at times it was!) these are the lessons that my pupils remembered the most and the questions they scored the highest marks on in end of year assessments. No matter how many diamond 9’s and lines of significance we had done, it was these zany madcap lessons that they remembered. So going back to your question, if my child came home and could tell me all about the battle of hastings because they had acted it out with a balmy teacher with minimal preparation, I would be quite satisfied that they were still getting a good education, and think I would actually prefer this to them being bored stiff learning it from a well prepared powerpoint.

      2. For me its the zany teacher every time. To define incapability is to fall into the trap that has been laid by the neo-liberals and managerialists. A school community knows its failing and struggling staff and they either rally round because they recognise that they are all part of the community, or they ostracise, as most communities do when faced with intractable obstacles. Schools are not factories, staff are not units of production. A good headteacher spends time finding out about about his/her staff, celebrates their differences and works with their strengths. Children also know when they are being well taught. They don’t need to be numbed by three part lessons with meaningless objectives and formulaic strategies to recognise this.

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