Changing your mindset: why there is hope for the future of teaching | Education Support
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Changing your teaching mindset

Changing your mindset: why there is hope for the future of teaching

12th January 2021

Despite the unprecedented challenges teachers are facing, could there be opportunities to challenge the education status quo and succeed and flourish as a teacher asks Peter Radford?

Teachers and teaching are facing unprecedented challenges. The constant changes and u-turns that teachers are facing in amidst the anxiety of a pandemic make it hard, to put it mildly, to keep the motivation and passion levels high! The goalposts keep moving and often the understandable default reaction is to groan then put our heads down and just plough on with the same old. But could there be opportunities to get excited about a new dawn for education?

The philosopher Plato suggested that people everywhere live their entire lives like prisoners trapped in a cave. They are chained up, their viewpoint confined so they can only see shadows which appear on the inner wall. They believe these shadows to be real. But then one day a prisoner escapes. She makes her way out, discovering the source of the shadows, and begins to realise that the truth is very different to the artificial ‘reality’ that has been handed to her.

As teachers today, far from being the voices that challenge untruth, I fear we have fully accepted the norms, the system, the expectations and the untruths under which we have been reared. We don’t challenge the status quo. We don’t expect different. In fact, we are so wedded to how things are that we fear anything that could make things better.

This cave is all-encompassing, which makes it exceptionally difficult to find freedom and authenticity as teachers. The threat of Ofsted, inspection or the next round of public exams looms large and can thwart and stifle original thinking and innovation. But if we are going to build authentic schools that serve the best interests of our children, we have to be willing to question directives. The standards they assert, as with all standards, are made up. They have changed before and they will change again. They are a shadow.

Here are a couple of others…

The ‘impossible’ shadow

‘You can’t do that!’ We all heard those words very early on in our lives. Our instinctive reaction when we were young was to say, ‘Why not?’ But very quickly we accepted the limitations we were given and internalised them. We learned to see these supposed limitations as boundaries to confine us rather than as obstacles to be overcome. Here’s a question: what are you still believing and accepting now that keeps you from exploring new and exciting possibilities in life and work? Henry Ford is reputed to have said, ‘I cannot discover that anyone knows enough to say definitely what is and what is not possible.’ This is the kind of brave thinking that gets you out of the cave!

If your default assumption is to think ‘I can’t’, then question that thought. Question the directive, question Ofsted, question the government, question the head teacher, question your line manager. It is the beginning of your journey out. Do you feel trapped? You’re not. Do you feel that no one’s listening? They are. Do you feel like there is no point in trying? There is. Do you feel like you’ve tried everything? You haven’t. Do you feel like you’re failing? You’re not.

Question what you think you know. A different reality is possible.

The ‘outstanding’ shadow

In teaching, we are presented with examples of what an outstanding teacher should be like. We are shown videos or observations of ‘outstanding’ teachers. We are given the Teachers’ Standards and the Ofsted framework which set out how we should perform in the classroom. All of this is well intended and supposedly designed to raise standards, except that it attempts to make teaching an exact science when it isn’t. Some schools have taken a rigorously prescriptive approach to marking, lesson starters, assessment for learning (AfL), lining up,  behaviour policy and so on, all seemingly based on the notion that good teaching must look a certain way. And that good progress must look a certain way. And that good behaviour and good students will look a certain way.

None of these assumptions are true. They are shadows.

All of these expectations get projected onto the teacher, and it leads to a relentless feeling of failure that no one can live with for any period of time without serious consequences for their mental health. The truth is that every student is different. Every lesson is different. Every class is different. Teaching online is different! Every teacher is different. We will grow truly brilliant schools when we embrace this rather than fight against it. You don’t need to be or teach like anyone else. As a good friend often tells me, ‘You do you!’

Getting out of the cave

The shadows are created by puppeteers who deflect the light. The deflectors in our own lives and careers are the expectations of others: our parents, our teachers, mentors, the media, Ofsted,  and so on. They have shaped our mindset in the past and have the power to continue to control our lives, but only to the extent that we let them – and to the extent that we seek validation from them.

Where does your validity come from? Does our validity as teachers or as schools come from a judgement by Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI)? I was struck by a headteacher I met recently who placed great import on a different measure. She said:

"We didn’t get the ‘best’ results in the town, but I know for a fact that every one of our Year 11s got what they needed to access their post-16 choice, and we were the only school in the town to have no students hospitalised during exam season due to stress and mental ill health. Personally, that matters more to me than the percentage 9–4 statistic or an Ofsted judgement."

This headteacher’s purpose is the wellbeing of her students rather than validation by Ofsted, and that results in an entirely different mindset.

A Buddhist tale is told about a method some villagers had for catching monkeys. They would attach a narrow-necked jar to a tree containing some nuts. During the night a monkey would come out of the forest, smell the nuts, put its hand into the jar and grab a handful. But then, with its hand now balled into a fist (full of nuts), it couldn’t get it out of the jar. So it sat there all night, and in the morning the villagers knocked it on the head with a stick. All the monkey had to do to go free was to let go of the nuts.

Are you doing the same thing? Clinging on to the very thing that is keeping you a prisoner? If you are going to succeed and flourish as a teacher, then you need to get out of the cave. No one should spend 40 years of their life trying to be anything but themselves. You will be miserable. Either be an authentic teacher or don’t be a teacher. Question everything. Be yourself in the classroom or on your Teams lesson. Do what you believe in, the way you believe it should be done. Be open. Keep learning. Do your best. Believe in possibilities. Believe in what you do. Teach because you believe in teaching and not for any other reason. During this time of remote teaching don’t blindly follow orders, or resign yourself to ‘just getting through the next few months’ – get out of the cave and imagine new ways to engage your students and change the game at a time when they need you more than ever! And gradually try to let go of your need for validation.

You are valid. You do you.

Peter Radford is a teacher, trainer, public speaker and coach with a wealth of experience in leadership, management and personal development. He began his career in youth work before entering teaching and working in middle and senior leadership. This is an excerpt from Peter’s new book Love Teaching, Keep Teaching: The essential guide to improving wellbeing at all levels in schools (Crown House, 2020).

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