Top down leadership or the TeachMeet?

image of people at Teach Meet Bolton
Friday night 7pm; teachers give up their own time, unpaid for professional development

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 (  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 ( 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’ ( 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.

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

16 thoughts on “Top down leadership or the TeachMeet?”

  1. Thanks for these interesting thoughts. The trouble is that at the moment the ‘extra curricular’ nature of TeachMeet means that only those ultra committed teachers, and those with the luxury of being able to carve out chunks of their personal life, are engaging with this kind of development.

    Imagine the impact if inspirational heads were able to not just lead from the front, but harness the power of TeachMeet-like ground up CPD in a way that everyone in school could become part of.

    1. Thanks for posting a comment Oliver, and it’s true that only the most committed teachers will be able to take advantage of teachmeets. I suppose the challenge for head teachers who want to make the teachmeet paradigm open to more on their staff by providing time, cover and/or payment for events is how they manage to do this and not kill the collaborative spirit of the teachmeet in the process.

  2. TeachMeets are fantastic forums for sharing practice! This type of bottom up, peer led and teacher empowering professional development is highly effective. We ran a TeachMeet in Brighton at the end of September (videos all on our blog, which was a huge success. It’s great that the TeachMeet movement seems to be gaining more and more momentum. A strong head will do a huge amount for a school, but it’s really important to remember that to improve teaching standards, teacher’s need to feel that they own their CPD, not that it is being done to them!

  3. I think this is a really interesting article and polarisation. I see these two as complementary parts of a bigger process. I totally agree about the inappropriacy of superheads/hero worship, but there are clearly issues that a HT and team of advisers/experts need to address. At the same time there are other issues such as sharing good practice which is most effectively delivered in the TeachMeet arena, I agree. Sharing something enthusiastically because it works for me is not good enough per se – it must be subjected to objective criteria too. QA is important and just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it works for you.
    So I would not polarise but urge for both roles; I’d also be less dismissive of commercial programmes too as most publishers strive to deliver resources to meet teachers’ needs and should be embraced.

    1. Thanks for commenting Gill. I wanted to keep the article short and simply contrast the two styles of educational change, and I really didn’t want to denigrate the role of school management and others advisors, quite clearly unless a school is well run, then the efforts of the teachers within their classrooms will largely be wasted. I take your point about measuring innovations against objective criteria and in an ideal world we would do rigorous research on all educational interventions to prove they make a difference. The reality is that the time and money is not available for this, and education research itself often struggles to reach conclusive results because of the inherent complexity of teaching and learning. So the intuition of the practitioner, their feel for what works and what is right in the classroom, largely something which teachmeet taps into, needs acknowledging too. If we wait for every innovation to be approved using objective criteria and subject everything to QA processes then change in the classroom may be a long time coming.
      I wasn’t really being dismissive of commercial programmes, they do have a part to play where a company has created something of relevance to teachers and a systematic programme of training is needed. Some commercial courses are of course excellent, but not all of them, but I’ve not yet been to a teachmeet which has not delivered some excellent professional development, it was that point I was trying to make in the article.

      1. Thanks Oliver – I think we are agreeing; there are scenarios where formal training and research is still necessary, scenarios where teachmeets are definitely the most effective way to share good practice and scenarios where published resources could save you heaps of time to enable you to experiment more with your personalised approach to teaching and learning.
        I agree that teachmeet warrants more recognition – but does it then ironically lose some of its appeal?
        Good to chat!

  4. Balance, as ever balance! Micahael Fullon’s words echo …. “The research has been clear for over 30 years – collaborative cultures in which teachers focus on improving their teaching practice, learn from each other, are well led and supported by school principles result in better learning for students” (2011 – unpublished)
    For me, the key is around ‘locational management’ – moving from telling staff to selling to collaborating to delegating. IE moving from comand and control to developing professionalism at the front line (some good comments on this in OECD paper Developing a High Quality Teaching Profession) . Whilst at early stages command and control may be the only way if you want to progress to a genuinely high quality teaching force, then a function of leadership must be to develop those skills of collaboration between staff.

  5. Dichotomies are tricky. They often make me think of Prospero’s response to Miranda in the Tempest – “Both, both my girl” – though in this case, I am more inclined to say “neither, neither”. It depends exactly what the question was.

    I think it is hard to underrate the importance of leadership in any organisation and I think the current government is right to focus on getting really good Heads (who I am sure will do all the sorts of things that Graham Newell approves of). At the same time, I think that anything which allows teachers to share practice must be a good thing – one of the problems of being a teacher has always been professional isolation – this was the theme of a very good Head running a couple of academies down in Kent, who spoke at Naace’s annual conference a couple of years ago – I forget his name.

    But I don’t think either of these things are going to crack the educational technology nut. I agree with Oliver that we have a problem with educational technology being the province of a small group of enthusiasts, almost never doing anything that the other 99% of the profession is going to pick up and run with.

    Teachmeets pursue Becta’s model of teacher-led innovation that reminds me of the Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines: all string and sellotape. If educational technology is ever going to have a dramatic effect on our education system, the missing piece is durable, transferable, industry-led innovation. The reason why we have not seen seriously disruptive innovation from the industry is that the market has been consistently wrecked by Becta’s procurement frameworks – any company that wants to make money has developed to government-written specifications, which, even if they are occasionally coherent, will never be innovative.

    While there might be an impression, given Michael Gove’s current shake-up, that the “politicisation [of education] has intensified”, I think that when the dust has cleared, you will find much *less* political interference in ed tech. You will have autonomous schools, spending their own money, on products and services that they think deliver the goods.

    I reckon that people with bright ideas for educational technology should beat a path to the market, not so much to their local Teachmeet.

    Personally, I think that teachers will look for a broadly “instructionalist” type of technology (formative assessment, competency profiling, automated differentiation) rather than the constructivist approach that has been advocated by the likes of Becta and Stephen Heppell. But it will be a level playing field with all sorts of different niches and all that will ultimately matter is that the stuff should work. Pedagogically speaking, that is.

  6. I personally believe that there needs to be a combination of both the “dirty Harry” metaphor mentioned here and the teacher advocacy base. Frequently it is the same group of dedicated educators that are carrying the school. They are keen to learn and build their craft because teaching is a craft. Others are quite happy to do the bare minimum, the 5 step teachers. (5 steps from the door I work out what I’m doing) An authoritative leader, who actual knows what is going on in the school and is not sitting in their office having their principal illusion zone feed by a small group, is sometimes needed. However at the same time there needs to be a group of dedicated, respected teachers who are advocating for the same things as the principal. James Cox, author of “The Story behind the numbers” talks about this. if change is to be sustainable beyond the influence of the main drivers there must be buy-in at all levels. The concern attached to these ‘superheads’ is what happens when they go, if they are moving staff out of their schools because they can’t or won’t buy-in to the changes, where are they going and are they just moving the problem else where to become someone else problem.

  7. Nearly all research pertaining to charismatic heads shows that any inroads they make in the short term are lost once they leave office. On the other hand the TeachMeet model s multi-channel learning as opposed to delivering success within a narrow set of metrics. The media conspires in this sort of smoke and mirrors without any true data to show otherwise. Ofsted is completely outmoded and inefficient organisation with no worth other than to summate what has gone wrong in its own set of parameters and to appoint someone who appears to be confrontational about how and when people learn to deliver this set of metrics just shows how bankrupt the current education system is. Where are the formative collaborative models? Where is the diversity – doesn’t anyone question why we do this any more – I do despair at times but I take heart in TeachMeet.

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