• Wellbeing

Why teachers must feel able to talk up their strengths

Henry Hepburn
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Why teachers must feel able to talk up their strengths
Education suffers if teachers are defined by shortcomings and constantly feel under attack, so what can the profession do to turn this tide?

It is both clear from the evidence and wholly unsurprising that teacher confidence has taken a hammering over the past couple of years.

While educators have coped incredibly well with everything thrown at them during the pandemic, the strain of lockdowns and unhelpful treatment from ministers and sections of the media has taken its toll. In the UK less than 2 in 5 teachers claim to feel confident performing their role, something discussed by Tes senior editor, Simon Lock, at this year’s Bett Show.

During January’s General Teaching Council for Scotland annual lecture, Canadian academic and educator Dr Shirley Van Nuland also looked at the issue of confidence, and posed some fundamental questions for teachers:

"Why do we do what we do? Why do we teach? What is it that we value…and does that really matter?" But the upbeat and inspirational answers that she proposes are often not matched by the actual experience of being a teacher.

The ugly phenomenon of "teacher bashing" is well known - we have written before about the shortsighted and counterproductive tendency to attack a profession that is inherently altruistic (as has been shown like never before during the pandemic).

But Van Nuland - whose research encompasses ethical standards and codes of conduct, and their impact on teachers and students - is keen to address how teachers view themselves.

She cautions that "at times, we see ourselves as a deficit model", and that teachers too often focus on "what we've not done ably or skilfully".

That is then reinforced by systems that foreground teachers' shortcomings rather than their strengths. Systems for assessing teachers, for example, "tell us what's wrong and suggest or ask us what we need to do to improve".

A key point for Van Nuland is that when the agendas of others - whether they are point-scoring politicians, social media trolls or national education agencies - carry too much weight and conflict with teachers' priorities, it can warp teachers' view of themselves.

As Dr Christine Bellini, a researcher quoted by Van Nuland, puts it, all this negative outside influence "has obliterated any sense of the self in educators", who have "retreated into their profession" and approached their role as if they were a "deskilled worker". Professor Gert Biesta, another researcher cited by Van Nuland, says: "Our students lose when we convey or allow others to convey negative narratives."

This deficit model, she says, is frequently "inaccurate" and the "narrative must change".

Instead, she advocates a "strengths-oriented perspective", which research suggests creates a virtuous circle, as "being attentive to and building on strengths leads to success". When teachers focus first on their strengths - and are supported to do so - and when they have the confidence to speak up about those strengths, Van Nuland finds that they become resilient and they make connections with like-minded colleagues.

"By honouring our work and the work of other teachers, we recognise the competencies and capabilities of and in ourselves, our colleagues and our teaching community," says Van Nuland, who is researching the new teacher education programme in Ontario and new Canadian teacher induction and mentorship programmes.

What's more, when teachers have the confidence, freedom, time and support to analyse a situation and apply their own priorities, they boost students' learning and social development.

In short, when teachers know their strengths and feel able to deploy them, everyone's a winner.

In Scotland, teachers' "professionalism" and "autonomy" are regularly vaunted by policymakers and national education bodies. Yet Scotland is also a country where - as 15 years of writing about education has shown me - many teachers avoid speaking publicly about their work, (fear of reprimand or reticence in the national character are both frequently given as explanations).

And, in light of their experience of the past two years, many teachers will see a bitter irony when Van Nuland underlines how crucial it is that teachers "reclaim the voice that may have been silenced", that they should be "shaping and reshaping the policy discussion and advocating for needed policies". There has been reluctance at a national level to deviate significantly from pre-Covid approaches to exams and standardised assessment, despite teachers' many concerns; the profession could be forgiven for feeling despondent if even an era-defining crisis does not usher in what they see as much-needed change.

But what Van Nuland has already made clear is this: if teachers are encouraged to be more vocal about what they know and what they do well, the confidence within the profession will get a timely and much-needed lift.  

This article originally appeared on Tes Magazine. Henry Hepburn is Scotland editor at Tes. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

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