This is a short post in defence of the following claim:
“It is entirely reasonable that one of a history teacher’s performance management targets should be about reading history.”
Before we start, let’s be clear about what we mean. I don’t mean that a PM target should be: “Read some history and then plan a sequence of lessons around it.” The target shouldn’t be: “Read some history and then evaluate our Key Stage 3 provision.” I think that it is reasonable to have a PM target that says: “Read some history.”
It might be helpful for the teacher and Line Manager to agree that the reading should be around a topic that is taught, or likely to be taught, in a school. It may even be reasonable for the target to include something about a discussion with or presentation to the rest of the department about what has been read but I would argue that requiring evidence ‘impact’ is unhelpful and unnecessary.
A good teacher will be a better teacher if they know more about their subject
This seems axiomatic to me. Reading more history is not going to (likely to?) make a terrible teacher a better one. Knowing more about you subject is unlikely to help you if you are ill-mannered, scared, disorganised or unable to ‘see things from the other side of the desk’. Reading more history is not going to help you deal with any of those fundamental problems.
But, if you are a reasonable pedagogue, if you can plan a sequence of lesson and can stand on your hind legs and work a room, then knowing more about your subject can only help you. Whether that is because you know more about the specific topic you are teaching, because you are better able to contextualise your own knowledge and understanding or because you have seen historical problems broken down in different ways and ideas communicated in different language.
Planning should come from reading not the other way around
The trouble with a PM target that asks a teacher to read something and then show evidence of that work having informed planning is that this misunderstands the planning process.
If your department knows that what you want to teach your children then you should ask yourself whether you need the academic reading to support its planning. “Plan and resource a significance enquiry on King John” is not an unreasonable PM target. So, why not just make that the target? I hope that any history teacher worth her salt will read around a subject before, during and after planning but if the department needs a scheme of work, then don’t dress this up as something different.
Because at the heart of the problem is the fact that, if you are reading a history book, you probably don’t know what it says. So how do you know it is going to help you?2 What if you read, say, Marc Morris’s book on John, rated it highly, enjoyed it and learned a lot but it didn’t help you with a significance enquiry? What if it were little help in setting up lessons that would allow students to make judgements of significance in the () Rob Phillips-Christine Counsell-Kate Hammond sense of the word? Will you fail your PMR? Will you therefore lose your job? Will you therefore fail to keep up with the mortgage? Will the bitter, unspoken, recriminations of your loving-but-stressed-out partner lead you to develop an all-encompassing self-loathing that will leave you unable ever to experience real happiness?
If your PM target requires evidence of having done something with reading, take the reading out of the target and make the thing you actually want the thing you actually measure.
It is really, really, really, really, really hard to measure the impact of your CPD activities
I realise that this sounds like a contradiction of the first point I made but bear with me while I use a tortuous metaphor to explain.
When you are learning a musical instrument, particularly if you are learning jazz, rock or folk styles, it is advantageous to be able to improvise. There are very human beings who have such an intuitive musicality that they can improvise well without knowing what they are doing. If you want to get better at improvisation then doing more improvisation is a good thing. However, practising scales, arpeggios and learning some music theory is better. Building up an arsenal of tricks and licks that you can deploy at the drop of a hat will make you sound better than you are. But it requires you to have learned them in the first place. But how will you know which technique you will need until the first bar of the solo?
Historical knowledge is like this. (I suspect that it might be true in other subjects but I don’t have the knowledge to make this claim.)
If you read more history, particularly about the topics you are teaching, it gives you a toolbox of illustrations and examples to elucidate the points you are making. You might use these in the planning of your lessons but you will use more in the delivery of your planning. For example, I am never going to teach a lesson on the summer holidays of Gustav Stresemann but, if you want a vignette to illustrate the instability of the Weimar Republic, how about the fact that, when he went on holiday, Stresemann bought black, white and red flags for his children’s sand castles? The hero of the ‘Golden Years’, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the architect of Locarno still hankered, at least on some level, for a return to the days of the Kaiser.3 In my experience, teaching the Holocaust is time when having a number of these illustrative vignettes is most important. This is largely because it is a topic that, partly because of the way it is taught at my school, that generates the most debate and the largest number of questions. Very often I find myself trying to explain the concentration camp system and relying on Primo Levi’s summation of the insanity of the system: “Hier ist kein warum.”4
If you don’t measure what you value, you end up valuing what you measure
Let’s be honest. Do we think that reading history is important? We tell kids it is but we also tell them that it matters if their shirts are tucked in.
Do we really value the study of the past?
The subtitle of this section is a cliché but it is true. If we do value reading history, then can we not find space for making this part of our jobs? Certainly because it will help us do those jobs better but also because it makes us better people. Also, because, although students should never see a teacher’s PM targets, if our institutions cannot model the valuing of things that are important then the I worry for the kids in our care.
Enthusiasm is well-being
There is a lot of noise about well-being in teaching and most of it is tosh of the first order. But, let’s be honest, we all know plenty of teachers who are deeply unhappy and many who deal with the stress of their jobs in deeply unhealthy ways.
Yet, at least in secondary schools, we all chose to teach a subject. We are, most of us, graduates in a subject we once loved (or at least could stick for three years at university). If your school wants to make its staff feel better, tell them that something they enjoy and are good at is good for the school. Do this because it will make them feel better. Do it because it is true. So what if it is something would have done anyway? If they were doing good stuff of their own volition, it’s still good stuff. We shouldn’t make them do (possibly less useful stuff) just because they want to do good things.
So, how many history teachers reading this are going to ask for a PM target like this? How many LMs are going to suggest it or ask their LM to let their staff have it? How refreshing would it be if a process that can feel like a trial could be turned, at least in part, into something that makes a positive contribution to enjoyment and well-being at the same time as building professional knowledge?
1. DISCLAIMER: The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of my school, my MAT or any person living or dead including myself. Any resemblance to, or deviation from, any policies of these organisations mentioned (or not) are entirely accidental and should be regarded as the workings of a deluded mind.
2. If you are reading a history book and you do know what it says before you have read it, might I suggest reading something else?
3. Jonathan Wright, Gustav Stresemann: Weimar’s Greatest Statesman (ISBN-13: 978-0199273294) p.126
4. Primo Levi, If This Is A Man / The Truce (ISBN-13: 978-0349100135) p.35