This is the second post in a series; if you haven’t yet, read the first post:
Head teachers may spend less face-to-face time with students than regular teachers, but they actually have a much broader effect because they make decisions that don’t just affect their class; they make decisions that affect all teachers in their faculty, and hence all classes for that subject. In some ways, classroom teachers are like builders but head teachers can be like architects: the latter design things according to their convictions about what works best in their context and the former are responsible for implementing these designs in concrete ways. (The analogy isn’t perfect – the line is not nearly as clear cut as that, but you still get the idea.) I can illustrate this idea anecdotally.
I knew a head teacher who was the first to enforce an exam-setting system from year 7 to year 12 that involved all assessments being set by teachers who did not teach the course (i.e. the year 7 exam must be set by someone who does not teach year 7 that year). Obviously, this is not the only way to do it; the opposite approach is far more popular (where the year 7 exam is set by one or several of the year 7 teachers). I won’t go into length on the pros or cons of each, but I will say that this specific head teacher firmly believed that exams should not be set by those who taught that year (or that course). His decision had a massive impact on the faculty and on students as a result; it led to higher standards for classroom teachers (they had to be very diligent in teaching every single aspect of the course, because they had no idea what might be assessed in the exam) and became a crucial part of students’ preparation for the HSC.
Let me tell another story. In my recent years of teaching, I’ve noticed a few alarming trends. One was increased stress levels (particularly in the senior years); another was a higher prevalence of distractedness (which manifested in many students’ inability to focus on a single task and do it well, both in academic and extra-curricular contexts). But the thing that irritated me most was the increasing frequency of this kind of conversation:
Me: So that’s why this kind of question is so interesting and challenging.
Class: Do we need to include that line to get full marks in an exam?
M: Ummm, well, it would probably be a good idea – but more importantly, do you understand this concept and see how it makes sense of so many other things you have learned about over the past few years?
C: Yeah, but we want to know how to do the correct setting out. Will we lose half a mark if we forget to mention the plus minus?
M: I’m not sure, maybe, but the point is that the plus minus actually tells you something significant about the kind of equation you are solving…
C: But can you find out whether we’ll lose marks or not?
M: Fine, I’ll go and ask…
I despise having this kind of discussion. It embodies everything that I think is wrong with maths education in school (particularly high school): all the emphasis is on getting the right answer and being able to perform well on an exam, rather than on actually understanding an idea and seeing how that reveals interesting and sometimes surprising patterns and relationships.
The thing is, I know it’s not the students’ fault. They aren’t asking me these questions because they have thought about the philosophy of maths education and come to the conclusion that it is all about exam performance. They are just responding naturally to a simple reward/punishment stimulus: working that doesn’t have every single required element gets marks deducted, which leads to a lower overall mark, which leads to a lower ranking, which leads to being put into a lower class, which leads to the parents being disappointed and being really strict. (I’m exaggerating a little… but not that much.) So they learn very quickly: learn what hoops the maths teachers want us to jump through (whether it’s writing “or” instead of a comma, or including restrictions, or drawing things to scale, or add in some seemingly arbitrary lines of additional working), and then jump through them regardless of whether you understand the concept or not. It’s the hoops that matter.
How did things get this way? The short answer is: one head teacher’s incredible attention to detail and unrelenting desire to maintain high standards of mathematical working and setting out. In the staffroom, the head teacher makes the final decision on what receives marks and what does not, and he was a firm believer in the “half mark”! Since he held that kind of belief about how maths should be taught and assessed, it trickled down to all the staff and then through to every student until it led to those kinds of conversations that I described earlier.
So, what’s my point? In both cases (and I could name dozens of others), a head teacher’s conviction led to certain decisions that had an enormous impact on the learning environment of the day-to-day classroom. This is part of the head teacher’s role as an “architect”: to lead the faculty and hence direct student learning – and that’s a level where I want to have a positive impact, not just in my own classroom.