Edutwitter is a bubble, and like all social bubbles, it can be jarring when it is popped by an outsider. That’s what happened to me this week when I spoke to a friend of mine, a teacher coming to the end of his third year. Twelve months ago, he became a mathematics subject leader at a nearby primary school. He is an avid reader of fiction, and we occasionally chat about books, so he asked me what I was currently reading. When I replied that I was reading a book about mathematics pedagogy, he looked astonished. “I can’t think of anything more boring than reading about maths teaching,” he said. As delicately as I could, I probed a little further and found that he hadn’t read a single book about the teaching of mathematics since being given the role of mathematics subject leader. In fact, he claimed to have not read a single book, research paper or education blog since leaving university. From other conversations with fellow teachers, this experience of teaching is not as rare as I think we in the Edutwitter bubble might realise.
It would be very easy to become judgmental about my friend. “How could someone who is paid to be a primary school’s mathematics expert have done zero reading or research into mathematics pedagogy?” I imagine you asking, conveniently. I think the explanation has two components: time and outlook.
It would be easy to write off my friend as lazy or feckless. He is not. Most weeks, he works 50+ hours, and – as far as I can tell – he is a good teacher who wants the best for his pupils. He is organised, caring and enthusiastic about his day-to-day teaching. I suspect that if I asked his headteacher to describe him in one word, ‘conscientious’ would be it: his marking is detailed, his curriculum tracking grids are evidenced and dated assiduously and his displays are pristine. Nevertheless, he is also the designated mathematics expert at a school with a bought-in ‘mastery’ curriculum who, when asked, didn’t know what ‘mastery’ meant. (When I explained mastery as, essentially, an approach where whole classes learn rapidly together with the teacher not moving on until the vast majority has understood a concept, he deemed the very idea utterly impracticable.) He understands his job as doing what he is asked to do by SLT and doing it to the letter, something that sees him working very long hours. To suggest to him under these circumstances that he ought to start reading about mathematics pedagogy – or anything related to education – seems a little short-sighted. (I did it anyway. What are friends for, eh?)
My friend appears to lack curiosity regarding the accumulated wisdom and expertise of generations of maths teachers and researchers. It would be easy to rely on the ‘teacher as martyr’ trope as explanation for this. After all, he is busy, undeniably so. However, this is really only part of the issue. The truth is that he just doesn’t see this kind of professional development as part of his responsibilities as a teacher and mathematics subject leader. He finds the idea of reading about teaching and learning to be boring, and thus he doesn’t do it in the little free time that he gets away from school work. But here’s the crux: he doesn’t seem to think he’s missing out on anything.** Why? Probably because his school doesn’t seem to think he’s missing out on anything either. His work as mathematics subject leader – as defined by his SLT – mainly consists of undertaking book and planning scrutinies and writing half-termly reports about what he finds. His role is to ensure that teachers are following the marking policy in maths, not help them to better understand maths pedagogy. While he and his school may be an extreme case, I wonder how many core subject leaders in primary schools around the country see their role – or at least the majority of it – in these terms.
If you’re anything like me, you probably agree that this situation is pretty disheartening. There’s no point in sugar-coating it: a teacher is being paid to not teach his class for two hours leadership time per week, during which time his class is taught by someone significantly less qualified than he. This, naturally, requires significant justification, but instead this time is used to implement strategies that probably have little impact on the learning of the children across his school. So, what can be done? In my view, both aspects of the problem need to be tackled at the same time. I estimate that many primary school teachers do around 8-10 hours of work per week that has little to no impact on children’s learning (e.g. personalised marking, perfect displays, planning for the endless ‘special’ days that take place, massive documents detailing in minute detail what is done for SEND children, gathering evidence for summative assessments that still ends up relying on a vague ‘gut’ judgement, etc). Where has this pointless work come from? The answer is longer than I care to go into here, but the short version is that it appears to always lead back to our dysfunctional system of accountability and the fear of not keeping up with what other, apparently Ofsted-pleasing, schools are doing. Until this unnecessary work is stripped away, little can be done to get teachers like my friend to read about the knowledge that others have to offer.
Education isn’t my friend’s hobby; it’s his job, and if we want him to engage with the “boring” work of reading about teaching, then we need to ensure that this becomes a reasonable expectation of his working week, something that is impossible when he’s already working 50+ hours. The conditions needed for this engagement are long overdue. It’s not about a change in outlook alone; in every sense, it’s about time too.
*Before I get any understandable push-back for my willingness to criticise a fellow teacher, I should probably mention that the ‘friend’ described in this blog is a fictional construction, 90% based around a younger version of me, one who found teaching and learning to be less fascinating than I do now. I somewhat ‘fell’ into the job and only realised how much I loved it when I began to do some reading a few years ago. Funny that.
**Then again, maybe my ‘friend’ isn’t missing out on anything. Naturally, reading about pedagogy (or listening to people speak about it) isn’t the only way to show intellectual curiosity or to become a useful mathematics subject leader. Perhaps I am blinded by my bias towards reading as a form of professional self-development. Perhaps the entire premise of this blog-post is false, and it is perfectly possible for an inexperienced teacher to be a really useful subject leader without reading or listening to a damn thing. I’ve given this side of the argument some consideration, but I’m not convinced. What do you think? Answers on a postcard.