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John Pearce asks why the notion of teacher growth is exciting a new generation of school leaders. He looks beyond the feel-good factor to explain how it works and how leaders can implement it – if they haven’t already.

Search #teachergrowth or #growthmindset on Twitter or LinkedIn and you’ll find animated, positive debate alongside supportive, professional sharing.

There are good reasons why these phrases are exciting a new generation of school leaders. Teacher growth is the notion that teachers have the capacity to build their own professionalism. It’s about self-discovery, self-evaluation and home grown CPD – pun intended.

It’s also about professional well-being. Thousands of teachers and leaders are finding support, well-being and fulfilment in teacher growth activity. There is something about pride in teaching here and it leads to school improvement.

Teacher growth is an approach to professional development and school improvement based on a belief that individuals and teams can become self-motivating and self-evaluating learners and improvers.

The benefits of a teacher growth model

The main benefit is in building the capacity of colleagues by strengthening their self-reliance as individuals and teams.

Many will know the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime.”

It’s the same for teachers. Give them a judgement and a list of key issues and they’ll know what you want them to do today. Teach them self-evaluation and planning for improvement and they’ll know how to do it for the rest of their lives.

For many, teacher growth indicates an antidote to inspection, testing and scrutiny – but is this wise?

The current generation of school leaders, and their teacher colleagues who are now embracing teacher growth, lived their school days through the early inspection and testing decades.

Back then, a common cry from their teachers was, “You don’t help plants grow by pulling them up and looking at their roots!”

This exemplified a frustrated and often angry profession who felt objectified and diminished as professionals within a system that was becoming more prescriptive and punitive.

Many will never forget the tabloid headlines “15,000 incompetent teachers” courtesy of the then-chief inspector in England, Chris Woodhead, which was based erroneously on Ofsted lesson observation statistics.

Early inspection regimes were riven with a fear of negativity – for many they were nowhere near a growth model that accentuates the work of teachers achieving their best.

How teacher growth fits with appraisal and inspection

The argument lingers today that teacher growth cannot or should not coexist alongside inspection and appraisal.

Perhaps this is a hang over from many teachers’ experience with inspection over the last decade. Some trade unions advised colleagues against getting involved in preparation for inspection, appraisal and self-evaluation. It was teacher growth v inspection; another false dichotomy, alongside traditional v progressive; active v rote learning; teacher assessment v SATs.

However convincing research, and experience, indicates that educational success is most likely when teacher growth is linked to the appraisal and inspection process.

This unified approach is heavily influenced by the work of school improvement facilitators and global research from writers like Michael Fullen and John Hattie.

In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie argues that student achievement is best influenced by an emotionally intelligent mix of methodologies.

However, the best foundation is when school leaders “create school, staff-room and classroom environments where error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, where discarding incorrect knowledge and understanding is welcomed, and where participants can feel safe to learn, re-learn and explore…” 

Changing the culture

A teacher growth approach is more about a school’s culture than its systems and procedures. Teacher growth gestates first in the mind of leaders.

There are always going to be judgements about performance, achievement and success. The question is, who is making the judgement and on what basis are they coming to their conclusions?

School leaders must first believe their colleagues have the professional capacity to improve and achieve success, if they want to implement a sustainable teacher growth model.

When leaders become convinced of these possibilities, they can prepare the ground by explaining what change, or development, to plant a growth mindset means.

As leaders will know, an effective approach is to start in the most fertile areas and spread out from there. A few keen early adopters are worth far more than a dozen press-ganged heavies.

It’s then about modelling professional respect, whenever appropriate, by asking enabling questions of colleagues. Investing in opportunities to seek answers by working with and alongside receptive colleagues is time well spent.

This doesn’t remove a right to be clear and decisive when needed, but it does mean leaders challenging themselves to consider whether involving the thoughts and approaches of colleagues might strengthen their initial ideas. It will take time but effort will bear fruit.

So how do schools move to a teacher growth led model? The clear answer is by unifying two important evidence based conclusions.

  1. The best school improvement work is based on a quality assurance model.

We now know teacher growth is effective precisely because it creates the circumstances for school improvement and success. It achieves this by respecting and building individual professionalism within team self-evaluation and planning. Implemented with rigorous criteria, it ensures there is an increasing professional experience, together with associated evidence of impact. It can and does provide each professional with a solid set of evidence based arguments ready for any scrutiny.

Professional respect, grown this way, suggests colleagues, leaders and those who scrutinise schools are best adopting a “teacher talks first” approach, rather than assume they hold a supremacy of judgement over each colleague’s day to day experience.

We’ve learnt that the vast majority of teachers and leaders have an unerring nous for accurate judgements. The most effective leaders, teachers and schools are capable of working out and describing their own vision based on their own learning and what others, including theory, research and inspections indicate.

The wisest factor in the full context in which they work and know what the system requires of them – whether that be governing body, trust board, academy chain, governmental guidance or whatever.

They know it’s foolish to slavishly follow given guidance and, worse, pretend it doesn’t exist.

  1. Professional rigour is a fact of our school improvement system.

An educational system that costs 5 per cent of GDP requires both regulation and scrutiny. Of course inspection, regulation and testing will not go away. But the teacher growth movement has strengthened the way each of these work.

It is clear that successive English Ofsted inspection frameworks have moved closer to a validated self-evaluation model. Other UK approaches, such as How Good is Our School (HGIOS) in Scotland, are even further along the continuum.

Colleagues in school are becoming an inextricable part of inspection and scrutiny processes. Teacher growth is burgeoning but if we want to be even more effective it’s clear we must inject professional rigour into our search for quality and success.

A step-by-step approach to implementing teacher growth

Over the years I developed four hierarchical questions for colleagues to ask themselves in order to look at what they do with a view to doing it better. These proven self-coaching questions build teacher and leader growth and I regularly use them myself.

  1. How well am I performing now? (in relation to my vision/success criteria)
  2. What evidence justifies this judgement?
  3. What will help and hinder success?
  4. (So) What am I planning to do next?

These are reflective prompts to facilitate learning, but leaders should never underestimate the complexity they unearth. They can be asked of colleagues at the start of any number of processes: work scrutiny, lesson review, moderation, appraisal and pre-inspection.

When colleagues are required to think through these four questions, it signals their responsibility for their own work. Asking these questions requires colleagues to be self-evaluators, capable of collecting their own evidence, doing their own analysis and making their own plans.

In my experience teachers welcome this – when they are given time to do it properly. Encouraging teachers to share this kind of thinking sustains their development and growth.

They will bring their reflections and evidence of impact to meetings with colleagues, leaders and others, including inspectors. This turns those meetings into dialogues, enriched by the views of professionals in situ. It is in these respectful professional dialogues that sustained school improvement blossoms.

It really is as simple as that. schools can use these questions on paper or by creating electronic forms, or they can use the iAbacus, an online tool that guides leaders though the process.

The iAbacus, uniquely, starts with the teacher’s view, and takes them step-by-step through the four questions, records their responses, their evidence, analysis and development plans in one place. It puts teacher growth into a visual abacus and provides easy-to-digest documentation that not only forms the basis of discussions with colleagues but records improvement and growth over time.

Find out more about how iAbacus supports a teacher growth model of professional development and school improvement.

Or sign up for your FREE 30-day trial now.

John Pearce has spent 50 years in education. He worked in schools as teacher, head of department and head for 17 years, was local authority adviser/inspector for 11 years and for 20 years was freelance school improvement adviser executive head, consultant leader for NCTL and regional adviser for ASPECT/DfE. John created the iAbacus with Daniel O’Brien in 2012. He remains a consultant, is Chair of Governors at Ripley Infants School and Chairman of Kenyan Educational Trust.