Three types of poor teacher

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As calls are made for fixed-term contracts in the classroom, Alex Wood describes the three common types of poor teacher and why fixed contracts won't work.

Scottish schools are co-operative institutions. Management and staff work together. The term “collegial” encompasses the ethos which has improved how Scottish schools operate.

Brian McAlinden, former headteacher of Castlemilk High School, has however put the managerial cat among the educational pigeons. He has suggested that teachers should be on five-year fixed-term contracts. 

Mr McAlinden was one of five Scottish heads who served on the cabinet secretary’s advisory group on raising attainment. To his credit, he also suggested that headteachers should suffer the same fate.

One appalling consequence of his proposal was a further, proposal from a representative of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, to introduce “performance-related” pay for teachers. A similar debate is being had in England currently.

There are two implications in the five-year contract proposal. The first is that there are significant numbers of poor teachers – with a sub-plot that they are a brake on improving learners’ attainment. The second is that a culture of insecurity will improve standards.

My experience suggests different solutions to a slightly different problem. There is a small number of poor teachers. These poor teachers do lower aspirations and attainment. They fall into three categories.

Number 1: There are the under-confident, under-skilled but improvable teachers. For them to improve, schools must quickly identify such weaknesses and then to provide the necessary support and professional development which such teachers need. That happens.

Number 2: More significant, and intransigent, are the burned-out teachers who might once have been high quality but have lost their zest. Their lessons are dull rather than poor, their expectations are low, their classroom management is draconian rather than proportionate, their staffroom chat is negative and cynical.

They also must be spotted, supported and developed. That will not always be sufficient. In some cases a move to another school, another setting, can be an opportunity to revive commitment and enthusiasm. If these strategies don’t work, there is a bigger problem.

Number 3: There is a small cohort of very poor teachers. School managers know them. There are mechanisms, which can lead to dismissal, to deal with such teachers. Providing these procedures are properly implemented, my own experience is that the unions will co-operate with appropriate action, first to support, but second (where necessary), to discipline and dismiss a teacher who does not meet the professional standards.

There are two problems with both the burned-out and the downright poor teachers and ultimately, if the burned-out don’t revive, they also are poor. The first is establishing that they are poor. The consistent resistance by the teachers’ unions to any system of formal appraisal has camouflaged a very small number of incompetents but allowed a public perception of a much larger cohort. This is where our collegial and co-operative ethos has let us down. It is short on the sharp challenges necessary in a limited number of cases. Our professional review must be strengthened, for classroom teachers and for school managers, by adjusting the balance between support and challenge.

The second problem is that the process of dealing with such teachers can be endless. The year-long supportive process can be followed, as judgement is about to be passed, by a sudden, prolonged illness. For that small minority, it must become much accelerated: evidence, review, time for improvement, new evidence, new review, improve – or leave. Given the high quality of the bulk of Scottish teachers, time-limited contracts would be a hammer to crack a nut. They would set back the very trust and professionalism which we need in our schools to implement the current raft of reforms. 

Brian McAlinden is a highly respected educationalist. On this occasion Mike Russell should decline to follow his advice.

• Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his recent retirement he was head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He is an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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