The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Maverick teachers wanted

Teaching is made up of all types and that's a good thing. We need diversity and difference. But do we have enough adventurers and mavericks?

Just what type of teacher are you?

There are some teachers who do things differently and can be trusted to ruffle feathers. These teachers I like. The pupils like them too because they make life and lessons interesting. Senior managers can be nervous of them unless they are mavericks themselves but that is rare.

Schools don't recruit mavericks because they fear them. You won't ever see a school vacancy asking for them because they don't wan't people sticking compasses into plug sockets.

So what are you? I'm hoping that you are going to say one of the crazy ones, a maverick, a rebel, a trouble-maker and mischief-maker. If you are a square peg in a round hole then great, teaching needs more punk teachers and dissident creatives like you to shake the snowglobe.

Edgy educators

Sir John Jones says that it is the crazy ones who change stuff and create progress. They might not be popular but they are genius teachers who do extraordinary things. They are what ex-headeacher and ex-Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw called 'the awkward squad' who are 'flamboyant, colourful and yes, downright strange.'

These are the teachers that are unpredictable, inspire creative tension and weave magic. They don't necessarily go out their way to do it either because that hint of menace comes naturally to them. I'm referring of course to the Mr Keats types that prod and poke the system until the system bites back and tries to spit them out. These are the intellectually homeless people that reject beige in their lives and as Phil Beadle (2017) says, 'kick over statues'.

Edgy types adopt a maverick curriculum and couldn't give a stuff about data and accountability. They do their own thing, push boundaries and get students to actually think. They encourage confrontation and are happiest ripping pages out of stultifying books and saying, 'Be gone, J. Evans Pritchard PhD.'

Wilshaw was right when he said , 'Not all teachers are professional, not all teachers are committed, not all teachers do their best,' because that's the reality. Unfortunately, there are plenty who are bankrupt of spirit who fail to connect either physically, cognitively and/or emotionally. The system has made them fragile and they are worn out by the effort of survival.

But there are those that do connect and it is these teachers who burn with what Jones (2009) calls 'passion, wisdom and righteous indignation' and help others to see 'beyond the sometimes ugly reality of their drab little cage.'

Threshold adventure

Maverick magic-weavers might be a threat to the status quo but their spirit of adventure is a must for any school.

Yes, they might be seen as a little bit odd, a tad unusual and full of friction but this is friendly friction. These are teachers who make a difference, teach with impact and happy to be an outcast.

Jones (2009) calls these teachers 'threshold adventurers' and identifies some of their characteristics:

  • A strong sense of purpose
  • Full of passion
  • Dream-makers not dream-breakers
  • Habitual risk-takers
  • Live with doubt and ambiguity
  • Push boundaries and step beyond comfort zones
  • Are always hopeful and optimistic
  • Welcome questions and challenge as much as answers
  • Feel fear but don't cower to it
  • Are comfortable travelling without a map
  • Ask 'Why not?'

How many schools employ teachers with these 'essential criteria'? I suspect not many interviews focus on these areas.

Threshold adventurers do what's right for children, sniff out any injustice and unfairness and fight their corner. This righteous indignation is key to the maverick mindset and they create synchronicity between their beliefs, values, words and actions.

Stuck

Maverick, magic weavers and threshold adventurers aren't 'stuck' human beings happy to be cloistered and comfortable. They like to upset the apple cart because there is plenty to upset and change for the better. Mavericks bend and break rules with smiling eyes.

They don't do PowerPoint, they don't do lesson objectives and actually, they like to keep it simple and be lazy. They set fire to lesson plans and make their mark by shunning myths, legends and fads.

They nudge what needs to be nudged but the system has to give. As Jones (2009) says, 'If the crazy ones are to emerge and the bold, the daring, the different, are to overcome the influence of the play-it-safers, the slaves of the ordinary, the creatures of the commonplace, then the shackles have to be loosened.'

The awkward teachers are creative, flexible and ingenious and they want their colleagues to join them as leaders of learning. They know their identity, have fun and build dreams not steal them.

We need the awkward adventurers because education needs thought leaders and agents of change. They aren't out to ruin the whole education system, just improve it as they see it and they see it from the students perspective not the data manager's narrow focus. They are heroes not monsters.

One day education will come knocking on the doors of maverick teachers and ask them for help. They won't answer though, they'll probably be on the roof looking at the world from a different angle. You'll have to climb up to join them and meet them on their territory.

A licence to dare 

You might be thinking that mavericks can’t thrive in schools drowning in data demands from accountability obsessed senior leaders who sweat over Ofsted. 

And you’d be right - to a point that is but the focus is definitely shifting. Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman has recently warned that schools that create 'unsustainable' data workload for teachers could be downgraded. Speaking at the summer conference of the National Governance Association, she is backing teachers to make data work in the interests of children and in the interests of workload.   

Although this isn’t an open invitation to ditch data and stand on desks wearing a tie around your forehead, this is saying teachers shouldn’t be creating spreadsheets the size of circus tents to bedazzle and bamboozle. This is permission to teach. 

Data is still important and still needs gathering but Ofsted aren’t going to be fooled by the number crunching bells and whistles. They want to know who the data helps and what value it adds beyond actually speaking to a teacher.  

This is good news for every teacher, maverick and non-maverick, because there is absolutely no need to spending hours inputting data – two or three data collection points a year is enough.

Ms Spielman said, 'If we find that a school’s system for data collection is disproportionate, or inefficient or unsustainable for staff, we’ll reflect this in our inspection report, and it could affect the grade that is given. But we are certainly not prohibiting the use of data.'

Dancing with data is out, teaching like a maverick is there for the taking. The data demons are losing their power. It’s time to kick a few tables and be in a league of your own without fear of splinters.

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