What would make science teaching a top choice for every STEM graduate? David Weston outlines his ideas
Great Britain has some of the world’s best science teaching, but the pressures of the job keep growing. We need to get a grip on the demands of the job, creating a better environment for success in which workload, development and collaboration are better balanced.
I’ve recently given presentations as part of the Department for Education’s series of events on teacher workload. In researching my content, it became clear that we’re too simplistic about analysing the challenges in teaching. It’s not just pay, workload or accountability that’s stressing teachers – though these are certainly factors – but it’s the way schools are led in relation to these issues.
We’re too simplistic about analysing the challenges in teaching
If we’re going to make the job of chemistry teachers manageable, we need to look at more than their quantity of work. We also need to focus on the quality and relevance of teachers’ tasks; the culture of their organisations; and the relationships between teachers, line managers and senior leaders.
There’s some interesting research on the factors that cause or reduce stress and factors that make people more likely to stay in a job. We can apply the same ideas to teaching.
One factor is agency – the level of control you feel over your job and how freely you can adjust practice to achieve aspirations or mitigate challenges. Teachers are tightly constrained by timetables, deadlines and tests. We need to ensure colleagues feel there is some space to apply their ingenuity to situations.
A second is support. People need to feel they can draw upon help, ideas and valuable feedback from others; and they need to know mistakes will lead to assistance and understanding rather than humiliation. We are all aware of the value these cultural factors hold in classrooms and staffrooms.
Thirdly, people need recognition. Their effort needs to be appreciated and noticed and praise should be fair and consistent based on performance and not favouritism. In teaching, we need to cultivate greater transparency and ensure everyone can make their efforts visible and be appreciated for them.
Finally, certainty is key. Having clarity about how things work, knowing what is going to happen, and experiencing controlled and understandable change processes help. Too many teachers feel the only certainty is that policies and priorities will keep changing. This removes any incentive to pursue any one approach or policy with enthusiasm.
Cracking these areas could transform teachers’ work. That said, the number of hours is still key. I believe we won’t get a grip on our profession’s retention issues until we ensure teachers’ working hours can fit into a normal working week.
Priorities for change
We should look in particular at six key areas of a teacher’s working life.
How can we make meetings relevant and helpful opportunities to collaborate, discuss and solve problems, rather than one-way transmissions of administrative information? I believe that anyone who regularly runs meetings should have training in effective chairing and should email any briefing items whenever possible.
2. Professional development
How do we make sure this feels relevant to all participants? We need to work harder to help teachers make links from development sessions to the challenges they and their students face. It can help to regularly survey teachers’ development needs and ensure that school programmes and resources can address these. Professional development sessions should examine effects of a change and then plan improved teaching approaches. Ideally, participants should discuss student work, student feedback and lesson video clips.
3. Lesson planning
How can we ensure teachers focus their efforts on the most relevant aspects of lessons? There’s a welcome move away from long, tick-box lesson planning sheets. Successful schools invest lots of resource and time into creating comprehensive, shared schemes of teaching and learning. A team regularly reviews and updates schemes, which act as toolkits, not straightjackets.
4. Lessons observations
Great observations support development, rather than judge. They should focus on how students are learning rather than how teachers appear to be performing. Teachers should feel the observer is an ally in gathering information about learning and a supportive coach. The observer should separate developmental work clearly from summative, judgemental feedback.
How do we ensure small amounts of teacher effort leverage significant amounts of student thinking and learning? Long, written comments should be the exception, not the rule. Shift the focus to verbal, in-class feedback and stop using marking as a form of evidence of teacher action.
Too many data systems are designed for the convenience of middle and senior leaders, but the purpose of collecting data should be to empower teachers to adapt and improve. Aggregating data on spreadsheets always loses contextual information. Balance potential gains from seeing wider patterns against potential loss of nuance.
All of these are much easier said than done, but I’ve seen examples of schools successfully pursuing all of these improvements. Imagine the huge impact on our system if the science teaching community throws our weight behind these changes. The prize could be huge – a truly manageable, engaging job that becomes a top choice for every graduate of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
David Weston is CEO of the Teacher Development Trust and former chair of the Department for Education CPD Expert Group. He has been a science and maths teacher, a school governor and also campaigns around LGBT issues and organ donation. Follow him on Twitter at @informed_edu
- DfE teacher workload events: bit.ly/2qjnKSR
- Factors that cause staff turnover from Science for Work: bit.ly/2GJQOtH