The “Professionals”

I have a feeling of foreboding that this may be a somewhat unpopular blog. I risk the wrath of the teaching community. The ones who brandish the “we are professionals” rallying cry. We are professionals so we know best. Just leave us to do our jobs. We do not need interference from the outside. Inspections are unneccessary and harmful. SLT are out of touch with the classroom and can’t tell me what is best for my students. Required CPD is time consuming and a waste of my time. Why do I have to fill in this paperwork? Just trust me to do my job! And on it goes.

Now, in no way am I trying to imply that teaching is not a profession. Nor am I implying that teachers aren’t professional. What I am saying is that I have worked with many over the years that are not. I am going to be bold an assume that this is case for everyone. New curriculums, new assessment approaches, access to resources etc are important facets of education that can help to improve chances and bring about more positive outcomes for young people but nothing, NOTHING, can compensate for incompetent teachers.

When the inegrity of the profession is so important and quality education for our young people as crucial as we profess it to be, then why is it so hard to sack incompetent teachers? Yes, I am going there. I think it needs to be easier to sack teachers.

This statement is based on the belief that it is difficult, if not near impossible to remove a teacher from their post. I am a staunch defender of Trade Unions and carry a photograph Keir Hardie around in my wallet. Well, not quite, but you get my point. Trade Unions and their members have fought long and hard to secure protection for workers and I would never seek to undermine or undervalue this. Workers rights are unquestionable, but I do question protecting ineptitude at the expense of student wellbeing and access to the levels of education they deserve.

This is a difficut blog to compose as I find myself second guessing word choice and hearing the voices in my head of those who take the stance of providing support and it being the fault of the system. I agree for some this is the case but I wholeheartedly stand by my opinion that there are a significant numbers of teachers in the profession who work the system for their own gain. Can I quantify significant number? No. I am making that statement based on the fact that in every school I have worked in there have been a few who fall into that category. And everyone in the staff knew it. The SLT knew it. The Authority knew it. Heck, even the parents and the students knew it. Some longstanding inept teachers having almost a cult status. That this is allowed quite simply boils my blood. These staff are the reason, ok probably part of the reason, why the paper trail is so important. We do need to defend, justify, and be held accountable. The problem is, these process burn out the true professionals whilst the very teachers these process are intended to weed out go unchecked. Let’s be honest here. If you don’t care about the students, have no conscience or a deluded sense of self, teaching can be the easiest job in the world.

The damage that these teachers do in the classroom is irreparable. Not to mention the damage in the staffroom and to the profession. Often these teachers are given the lower set classes; to minimise their impact. Oh ok, because we don’t think these students are capable of achieving much anyway so let’s throw them to the weakest teacher. The poor results can then blamed on the students rather than having to deal with the teacher. Now I can sympathise with Head Teachers on this because the process of trying to remove from school is complex and built in favour of the teacher. With so much else going on, disciplinary procedures take up so much time that it can be easier to ignore and ride out the storm. I do partly blame the Unions for this.

The onus is very much on the school to gather evidence. This involves logging everything. Putting together timelines, gathering emails, documenting conversations, being so, so careful with words and actions lest the school is accused of bullying. I can hear the other side already shouting at the computer screen – yes I know that bullying does take place and teachers need to be protected from this but we need to do more to get the balance right. The scales are far too much on the side of protecting that teacher that simply cannot or will not do their job. The hoop jumping is excessive and one slip up will send you right back to the beginning to start all over again. I almost forgot to mention the CPD – send them on some trainign courses, that’ll fix it. We all know it won’t but the school can log that it has tried to help. Tragic waste of funds.

I worked in one school with a teacher who exemplifies exactly what I am speaking about. He was the blatant, in your face, incompetent teacher who liked to brag about what he could get away with. This teacher had taught for over 20 years. 20 YEARS!!!! He was well known for his misconduct across numerous authorities. His subject had the lowest uptake, lowest results, and the complaints from students and parents plentiful. The cherry on the cake? This guy was the Union Rep. And even the Union knew the concerns were painfully real. After an inordinate amount of time, resources, meetings, hearings and appeals he was moved from school to school within the same authority before finally being removed from the teaching register. He will still get to claim his pension though. What compensation do those students get?

Then there is constantly sick teacher. Now again, let me state quite explicitly that I am not talking about genuinely ill staff. Staff with serious health issues. This is not a teacher bashing post, I am about protecting and upholding the integrity of this profession. I am talking about the teacher who is more often that not absent. Every school I have been has at least one so I am sure I can’t be alone in this. This teacher tends to know the policy on attendance and absence inside out. They know exaclty how many days the are entitled too in full pay. And how many days they need to be back in school for to qualify for that full pay stats again and then yup, off they go again. They are the untouchables. I will mention here that in a number of schools I worked at the teachers who fall into this category usually became ‘ill’ at the same time in the acdemic calendar year, after year, after year (reports, parents evenings, exam marking). And the main focus? What is the school doing to help and support this teacher? Besides from paying them of course.

Stress is often the go to excuse because a Teacher going to the doctor to complain of stress and get signed off is a pretty easy thing to do. And we are scared to question it. Unpopular statement number 2; at what point should it be said that perhaps teaching just isn’t for you? If it stresses you so much to the point that it is severely impacting upon your mental health, then surely the best thing to do is to get out. This is what those with genuine cases will likely to do and is no doubt partly the reason behind the issues of staff retention. But this is not what the incompetent teacher will do. The one who is milking the system. Who would walk away from that? Being signed off on full pay? It’s a dream come true.

If you do a quick Google search of how many teachers have been sacked, say in the past three years, in your country I guarantee the numbers will be low in relation to the numbers of teachers. Can I quantify that? No. I am not doing academic research here guys, I am bloggin my little heart on about an issue that irks me. Although I think this topic would be an excellent study for a thesis if there are any takers out there. Next, look at the reasons why these teachers have been sacked. Try and find one, just one, who was sacked because they couldn’t teach.

In order to preserve the integrity of the profession and ensure that teachers can truly be treated as professionals, it has to be made easier to hold the incompetent accountable and remove them post.

Now, let the backlash begin…

The Life of Teachers

An ecosystem is “the set of species in a given area that interact among themselves, through processes such as predation, parasitism, competition and symbiosis, and with their abiotic environment to disintegrate and become part of cycles of energy and nutrients. The species of the ecosystem, including bacteria, fungi, plants and animals, are dependent on each other. The relationships between species and their environment facilitate the flow of matter and energy within the ecosystem.” Those of us that work in schools are well aware of the intricate, fragile and complex nature of the ecosystems that exisit within them. Ecosystems in which us teachers either flourish or wither and die. I have been pondering for some time the specifics of environments that would give rise to each scenario. When I say some time, I mean since I started working in my current school. An envorinment that contaminates and destroys the organisms within it rather than providing a fertile and nourishing sustenance.

Let’s go back to that definition; predation, parasitisim and competition. This. This is what I have witnessed first hand. Worthy of an Attenborough documentary, my current school provides the setting for a study of teachers in their natural habitat at their worst.

Competition can be a good thing. It can be healthy. I can lead to growth. It can foster innovation. It can raise the bar. This is when the competition involves celebrating the success of others. When it involves learnng from one another. Being inspired. Being stirred out of our comfort zone. Oh, how I wish I was an organism in that type of ecosystem. Instead, my current lot is where people see each other as a threat. More like crabs in a bucket trying to pull each other down instead of lifting each other up.

I wonder why teachers often see each other as a threat? I know this characteristic is by no means unique to teachers, but looking back I can identify too many teachers that I have worked with that exhibit this mindset. This burning desire to talk as an authority on all matters. The tactic of presenting opinion as an obvious fact. Always knowing what’s best and the subtle undermining. The whispering in the ears of others, planting seeds of discord with the persona of being an expert. Often to be observed ‘looking’ busy but of course not being too busy to tell everyone just how busy they are. Feigning interest in others with sincere congratulations for their achievements and progress. All the while waiting for the right conditions to pounce.

This type of competition is commonly bred in a climate of insecurity. Where we see the success of others as an indication of our own failings. Why them and not me? Why wasn’ I asked? Why wasn’t I included? Do they not value what I have to say? Do they not think I could do that? We internalise and make it all about ourselves instead. In short, our inner ego comes to the fore. That natural instinct to conquer. Survival of the fittest. Pushing others down to get where we want to go, or even just to stop them leaving us behind, is the unhealthy side of competition.

Predation is an offshoot from this side of competition and is prevalant in my current ecosystem.  A noun meaning;

  1. The preying of one animal on others. “an effective defence against predation.”

2. The action of attacking or plundering. “the old story of male predation and female vulnerability.”

This can be seen daily. Sometimes blatant. More often clandestine. Thus for the ardent zoologist patience and perseverance is obligatory.

With Abigail Williams and her partner in crime (aka her hurband) having left, it will be interesting to see the shift in dynamic when we return after these holidays. I predict that the Underwoods will now claim the throne and a new reign of terror will begin (please see old posts for more on Abigail and The Underwoods.)

The third element; parasitism. In evolutionary biology, parasitism is a relationship between species, where one organism, the parasite, lives on or in another organism, the host, causing it some harm, and is adapted structurally to this way of life. An infecious agent. The relationships at my school spread toxic negativity. The parasite saps energy, enthusiasm and passion. Replacing it with apathy, mistrust and antagonism. A destructive element, it will be the downfall of the ecosystem. The motivation? Well, no one has put it better than Alfred;

The school staffroom, corridors and classrooms are viable locations for the next Attenborough documentary series; The Life of Teachers. It would no doubt be a BBC BAFTA award winning hit. I can hear him already narrating the daily goings on at my school. It would be his most challenging assignment to date. It is certainly proving to be mine.

Rats From a Sinking Ship

So, it has been a about two weeks I think since I last managed to post. It has been a long two weeks. And true to form at my place of work, two weeks of drama. So, where to start with my updates?!

Well, Abigail Williams and her husband (see previous posts) have quit. They have quit with four weeks notice and are heading back to land of Oz. Now, I won’t lie. One, because as I blog anonymously I have no reason too. And two, if you have read my previous posts you can probably already ascertain how I really feel. I am doing cartwheels of joy.

I can’t actually do a cartwheel, but trust me if I could I would be all over that.

Their particular brand of poison will not be missed and I hope to see a marked improvement in regards to the ethos amongst the staff and our wellbeing. I should add here that they have exploited an ill parent in order to get out of their contract with ridiculously short notice and no penalties. They take great joy in gloating about this incase you are wondering how I know this. As I type that I wonder how I have managed to survive working over a year with these people.

And that folks is not the highlight of the last two weeks. Drum roll please…

The Principal quit. Yup, he too has had enough and handed in his three months notice. I predict he will be gone in less. Like rats from a sinking ship.

The company is most defintely on a money saving kick. It is now the end of March and we still do not have our resources that we ordered in November of last year. We are still being asked to write justifications as to why we need them. Why do we need a textbook? Oh how I wish I was making some of this up for dramatic effect but alas, this is my actual working life. I have to write a justification for the Board as to why I need textbooks. Along with this, they have taken to not replacing staff, or if they do replacing with local teachers. We are now four members of staff down and soon to be without a Principal. We are at a point where classes cannot physically be covered beyond collapising them and having one teacher with 40 students. This is not what parents have paid for and not what the rest of us signed up for.

I can see this going one of two ways. Things get better. A few bad apples have gone and maybe a new Principal (if they appoint one) can help pull the fragments of our disillusioned team together. Or, it is going to worse. A lot, lot worse. As I cling on with every last bit of strength to try and see the funny side in all this and keep my sense of humour, I can’t deny to rising anxiety that I am feeling. There are some days I struggle to get out of my car when I arrive at work. I know this is not a healthy environment to be in but am at a loss right now for what to do, Expat life can be very lonely at times and whilst I know not many read my blogs (understatement, I think four people have), the very act of writing them is a sort of therapy for me. And I am very grateful for those four readers 🙂

So, I have five days. Five days to survive and then the holidays are upon us. Some respite. A small glimmering light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.

And then, well who knows. It could be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire or the first day back marks the first step to things turning out for the better – cue D:ream.

Wish me luck blogging world!

We Need To Talk About Kevin

There are a number of challenges one has to face and adjustment one has to make when working in an International school. The nature of many of these will be dictated by the context. In other words, the country that you are in. You very quickly come to realise that, well, you are quite simply not in Kansas anymore.

What we accept as normal and standard practice in our home lands, may have people looking at you like have you two heads in your newly adopted country. And that works both ways! I remember in my first overseas teaching post, throwing myself stunt man styleee in front of the board in a bid to stop students copying every little piece of information down. I would be poised to write something and the students would be causing themselves an injury straining to see so they could add it to their note books. My pleading cries of ‘STOP COPYING’ could be heard all down the corridor. I still wake up through the night screaming these words.

It took 6 months before my students would engage with me. Before they volunteer to answer questions, have a discussion, answer a question in their bookwithout first checking if it was the right answer. This fear of being wrong, writing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, it permeated everything. Growth Mind set? Yeh that’s back there in Kanasas.

The obsessive need to have a meticulous notebook. “Jia Ling, I don’t need you to keep erasing that line and re-doing it. I am not giving you feedback on how straight your line drawing skills are.” Child looks at me in horror as though my head is spinning and I have just insulted her mother.

Little quirks aside, the main challenge I have faced, and still am, is the taboo around students with specific learning needs. I have come across;

  • The parents in denial.
  • The parents who stickes their fingers in their ears and sings tra la la la la over and over again.
  • The defensive parents.
  • The agressive parents.
  • The “I’m just going to ignore you now” parents.

At first, I really tried to understand. Different country, different cultures, different mind sets. They didn’t want their child stuck with a label that would stigmatise them and close off some future options. But now, now I am just angry. So many children have crossed my path presenting with specific learning needs and challanges right across the spectrum, and so many I have been unable to get the specialist help that they need. Schools can only go so far as their resources and provisions allow. And for a number of these students, their needs go beyond our capabilities. There in lies the Catch-22. There are very few specialist educational schools here in Malaysia and for so many of these students they would drown in the government system. I have no doubt the parents are fully aware that something is ‘there’ but they would rather bury their head in the sand.

Failing students I think must be the worst feeling for a teacher. Failing as in not meeting their needs as best you can when you know you could do more. It sticks in your throat. The guilt follows you. How do you deal with it? I don’t know if I am dealing with it, more than just working through it. I would value some advice on this! I have exhausted all my diplomatic skills with a current parent and can sense she is starting to pull away and shut down.

You may find that the country you are in does not have the range of support service or the procedures in place that you may be accustomed to in the UK. Yes, I know, they are far from perfect. Waiting lists. Underfunded. Understaffed. But they ARE there. There is some sembiance of a safety net. Here, I have faced a black hole.

I don’t think this situation is unique. In the sense that as teachers we always carry that burden of not being able to enough. Not being able to solve every problem. Not being able to remove every obstacle or equip our students to overcome those obstacles. Having to wave goodbye to that student going home to a toxic environment. Am sure I am not the only one that has had to take a trip to the toilets for a good cry!

Those of feelings of guilt and frustration are just all the more incapacitating when you could get the help needed if the parents would simply talk about Kevin.

He’s Misstra Know-It-All

I am sure I am not alone in this one. I think every school has a know-it-all. That member of the staff who knows best. About everything. The know-it-all at my school though is a know-it-all on steriods. No surprise. The staffroom at my school is comprised of characters at the extreme end of all spectrums!

Over the years, I have come across know-it-alls motivated by a range of factors;

  • Arrogance.
  • Genuine belief that they truly do know better.
  • Narcissism.
  • Delusion.
  • Competitiveness.
  • Insecurity.

My current know-it-all is most definitely driven by competition. I just don’t know what we are competing for. Disguised as trying to help with plenty of platitudes; “I am only trying to help”, “please just let me know if you don’t want my in-put”, “I hope you don’t mind but I (insert undermining act here) because I thought it would help you out”. Oh, I know exactly what you were trying to do…

This main player in my school from hell perhaps gets to me the most. Perhaps because I too am a little competitive. Yes, I have admitted it. My job is important to me and I like to feel that my colleagues think of me as someone who does a good job. Someone they can come to for advice. Someone they can count on. So when know-it-all sticks their oar into my area of responsibility I take it as a personal slight. A not so subtle sign that they think I need help. That they think they could do it better. That I somehow hadn’t already thought of that or did not already have a plan/proposal in place.

It is hard for me not to come across as a know-it-all here but I have many more years experience on this person. Valid, relevant and quality experience. I did 15 years in the UK before going international. 15 years of dealing with the most challenging students at both ends of that spectrum (behaviour, academic and both combined!). A career as a teacher, Faculty Head, Depute and as a Policy Officer for the Local Authority. I don’t need an up-start with a silver spoon stuck up their #ss to advise me.

Thank you (if you are still reading) for letting me get that rant out!

In all seriousness though, I think the know-it-alls can contribute to toxic working environments. Their attempts at helping really seek to undermine and overshadow. Done with not so subtle passive aggressive overtones, they manipulate and sabotage. It is their own interests at heart. Their own ego. Their own professional persona. I am working on how best to manage this one as we have to work closely together. Short of telling them to shut the f#@k up, I have to confess to be struggling here.

I would rather put my energy and focus into improving the learning and teaching but to often feel my days are consumed navigating the minefield of mind games and poltical strategising. It is draining, distracting and counter-productive. Are all workplaces a little like this? Who else a know-it-all at work and how do you manage them?

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now…?

I have been in education for 19 years. Teaching is what I wanted to do since I was 14 years old. I had an amazng teacher who made me feel that I was good at something, that I was clever, that I could accomplish what I wanted to if I worked hard and persevered. He was employing the tactics of formative assessment, visible learning and growth mindset long before they were the key buzz words of today. His class was the first time I felt I was good at school! Hey, I can do this! It was that feeling that I wanted to give to others. To recognise those lacking in confidence, the quiet ones that nobody really notices, the ones that never really stand out, the ones everybody else had given up on. I went into teaching committed 100% to fighting for those students.

It sounds admirable but in reality, it made me feel good about myself. I came home everyday exhausted, drained, pushed to my limits but with a deep feeling that I had done something worthwhile. I had made a difference. And that feeling made it all worth it. 19 years and I don’t get that anymore. I can sense that I am becoming one of those staffroom members that I looked down on and judged so harshly in my first years of teaching. Those years, spurred on by my youthful arrogance, when I thought I knew best. Nobody cared as much as I did. Look at those coasters, they don’t deserve to be here! Taking the money and the holidays at the expense of these helpless children. Looking back now I cringe. At my naivety and holier than thou attitude. Although I am hoping we are all a little like that in the beginning? I hope it wasn’t just me!

I made a promise to myself that when I couldn’t give 100% anymore; when I didn’t get that sense of fulfilment anymore; when I could feel the cynicism creeping in; the complacency bubbling up; my patience diminishing; the fighting spirit dying out; that I would do the honourable thing. I would walk. Well, I think I might be there. I think I might have reached that point. This current school has probably sped up the process ten fold. My days are consumed by dramas caused by staff that have little to do with the learning and teaching. The negativity is so overwhelming that all my mindfulness practice barely makes a dent in it. The Principal and Governing Board are driven by profit and measures to save money at the expense of staff and sudent wellbeing. I feel like I am surviving, not making a difference. I am counting hours to the end of the day. Counting days to the weekend. Counting weeks to the next holiday. Counting months to the end of my contract. My passion has well and truly been sucked right out.

So what do I do? What is the answer? I am ploughing through the self help books;

  • Girl, Wash your Face.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**ck.
  • Shine.
  • The 5 Second Rule.
  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

They aren’t helping.

I need some help and inspiration blogging and Twitter world! Is there life after teaching? Where can I go? What can I do?

Yours sincerely

A Teacher on the Edge

The Pay Gap

One of the most uncomfortable realities of working in an International school is the pay gap. The gap between ex-pat staff and local staff. I say gap, perhaps gulf would be a more accurate term.

There are various reasons for the inflated ex-pat salary. Most will need to send money back home thus exchange rates are a factor. Depending where you are, ex-pats are often charged more for certain things i.e. you are likely to find landlords will up the rent. Then obviously qualifications and experience come in play and the fact schools need to attract the best people. This all seems logical and justifiable.

Imagine it from the other side though. In Malaysia a local teacher is likely to be on around RM3000. An ex-pat teacher will likely be on around RM16,000. In my current school we have some teachers who think it is amusing and acceptable to make jokes about this to the local staff. Counting up teaching minutes, cover and duty and then making quips about having less minutes but more than 5x the salary. And laughing about it. Marmite being one the main culprits here, with Abigail Williams in the background stirring this up as usual (see previous posts on these characters!).

So, here is my question. Do you think it would be fair to make certain concessions? To look at how this huge inbalance could be addressed in some way? Fiancially it wouldn’t be possible, that’s a given. But what about in terms of workload? Say;

  • No cover
  • No duty
  • Not having to do open days
  • Not having to do International Fairs

Does this create a two-tier system or attempt to make ammends for the reality that there already is one?

As an ex-pat, I can only imaging how would I feel if the shoe was on the other foot. I think I would feel pretty insulted that my qualifications and experience were being looked down upon and viewed as inferior. I would probably feel aggreived that for doing the same job I am being paid considerably less. And I would be very likely be enraged at some ex-pat making jokes about it. Colonialism for the 21st century.

Does your International school make any such concessions? If so, please comment. Am very much interested to hear about how this situation is approached around the world.