Improving schools and making teachers more effective has been a constant political theme for at least the last 2 decades and during the New Labour years and into the reign of Michael Gove as Education Secretary this politicisation has intensified. Schools are very complex places, which is stating the blindingly obvious but recent political focus on education has placed heavy emphasis on the role of the head teacher. The concept of the ‘superhead’ has emerged, an individual capable of taking a poor or failing school and turning it round through decisive and inspirational leadership. This week saw the culmination of this as Michael Wilshaw the head of Mossbourne Academy was finally shoehorned into his new role as head of OfSTED (http://bbc.in/vVqAH5). WIlshaw’s achievements at Mossbourne are astonishing and there is no need to run through them again here; suffice to say he has created a school where the results challenge much of the conventional wisdom on the sociological links between socio-economics and educational achievement. He is also noted as being a tough head teacher, citing discipline as a cornerstone of the Mossbourne ethos.
During a recent appearance at the Education Committee he played this hard man image up a little more, linking the concept of a head confronted with a truly awful school as being something akin to Dirty Harry. Those of you who know your Clint Eastwood movies will know that a character in the first movie explains Eastwood’s nickname as being ‘because he always gets the shit end of the stick’. Wilshaw may not have been entirely serious drawing this link, using it as a metaphor rather than a blueprint for practice. The vision of the new HT with the head of geography pinned against the toilet wall with a gun to his temple as the head intones menacingly: ‘so you are asking yourself, did I just fire 5 bullets or 6’ is probably not going to happen, unless Tarantino gets asked to do the movie version of Waterloo Road. But truth always lurks wrapped in jokes and the idea of the valiant superhead battling an unruly school and a cohort of poorly performing and under motivated teachers is one which is reported as having currency. The concept of the superhead has been fuelled by politicians. They are eager to visit schools and talk of success stories so the head is naturally there to receive the praise and positive PR. The rather crude media reporting of education we have in the UK can then ‘erase’ the contribution of the teaching staff and create the impression that the head singlehandedly turned the school around.
Contrast the cult of headship with the concept of the TeachMeet. TeachMeets are unconferences and appear as the very antithesis of concentration of power within a single individual. No person or group of persons runs or owns the Teach Meet brand or concept, and anyone can set a teachmeet up. The site publicising them it run on a wiki basis and this very open and democratic architecture appears to be working very well and few teachmeet veterans see a reason to change this.
A teachmeet could be described as a bottom-up approach to professional development for teachers. As more or less spontaneous gatherings of teachers to share what has worked in their classrooms and practice. TeachMeet Bolton happened on Friday 5th November, hosted by Dughall McCormick (@Dughall) who has blogged about it here (http://dughall.com/?p=118) and held at Heathfield CPS where @DeputyMitchell is the acting head. Dughall and David created the ideal conditions for professional development and made everyone from veteran teachmeeters to the newbies feel both welcome and valued. Students at Plymouth University joined via a video link and many others across the world watched the event. Most astonishing was the fact that teachers gave up their Friday evening to attend, unpaid, and stayed until well after 8pm. Teachmeets are largely practical affairs, educators share resources, methods and approaches and just about everything discussed is immediately usable in the classroom. The unconference modality keeps presentations timed, there are no commercial pitches (participants who try and pitch a commercial product have a symbolic soft toy thrown at them) and subsequently no individual or organisation gets to dominate the agenda. TeachMeet Bolton was also entirely free of commercial sponsorship, participants paid £2 for pasty and peas and anyone with an internet could view the event for free. TeachMeets are high quality professional development in any climate, but they are especially effective in these cash strapped austerity years. They run on a shoestring but deliver a quality of professional development which courses costing hundreds of pounds (per teacher) would struggle to match.
Michael Gove recently berated head teachers moaning about education cuts and explained ‘you can make a little go a surprisingly long way’ (http://bit.ly/tU9EYw). Well a teachmeet is an example of very little going a very very long way as teachers come together to share experience and regenerate their teaching with fresh ideas and resources. As an added bonus just about every resource (mostly web 2.0 tools) and strategy shared at a teachmeet is free to use by teachers too.
So the democratic, share and celebrate world of the teachmeet and the world of the hard talking, ‘do you feel lucky Punk?’ cult of the head seem worlds apart. The teachmeet is a rhizome, a structure without a central locus of control and one where no individual can really impose their will upon proceedings. The cult of the head as it plays out in the UK media is one where teachers are reduced to nothing more than back office technicians of learning, doing nothing more than carrying out the wishes of their masters and therefore lacking agency and control over what they do. A teachmeet can show how false this impression is and allow us to move beyond the false dichotomy of the superhead and the pliant teacher. We need inspirational and innovative Headteachers in our schools’ but let’s not get tricked into hero worship, equally important as agents of change are the teachers in the classroom.