Getting it right: recruiting excellent teachers

01/04/2019

Teachers are the backbone of Westbourne House.  Martin Barker, Headmaster, looks at how we ensure we get the best person for the job, and maintains that empathy is an essential skill.

I start with the very good news that current Deputy Head, Jonathon Anderson, has been promoted to the role of headmaster of Clayesmore Prep School in Dorset with effect from January 2020. We will wish Jonathon and Hester the very best of luck when they leave at Christmas. We will be recruiting for a replacement next term.

The first prep school head that I worked for described his school as a ‘breeding ground for headteachers'. There is quite a positive ring to that statement in my view – it speaks of aspiration, and that the school was able to attract the quality of people that will go on to the top job. Both of my deputy heads in eight years as headmaster at Westbourne House have gone on to be heads, which makes me proud that we are able to develop our staff to be so attractive to other schools. The best teachers will mostly be ambitious and keen to push themselves, and while we can often develop teaching careers using internal promotion, the time will inevitably come when they seek a move elsewhere to further their career. This is not something that we should be frightened of – I would rather have a brilliant five years from a teacher than a mediocre fifteen!

There is no greater truism than ‘a school is only as good as its teachers’, and teacher recruitment is something that receives the highest priority at Westbourne House. It is a fairly obvious statement, but I suppose quite difficult to make a judgement about when you first visit a school. If you can imagine a school with amazing facilities and a poor teaching staff, against one that has amazing teachers and poor facilities, which one would you choose?! Ideally you would hope for both amazing facilities and teachers, and luckily that is what you get at Westbourne House.

A great advantage for us is that we are a school that goes to 13 years old, which means that we are able to attract secondary specialist teachers who have great passion for their subject. No doubt, our amazing scholarship record comes from the fact that we have such a strong teaching body, who are able to make the most of every child’s potential in a wide variety of activities.

That said, teacher recruitment is becoming more and more difficult, much like the recruitment issues in the NHS – sadly there are fewer and fewer people coming into the profession for various reasons. At a conference that I attended last year, which was a mix of speakers from the independent and state sector, I heard the staggering statistic that, in the state sector, approaching 40% of teachers are not actually qualified to teach the subject that they actually teach. Many are using textbooks and other resources to deliver their material, which is obviously quite a worry.

So, what am I looking for when we recruit a teacher? Obviously excellent subject knowledge, but equally important is to find people who like being with young people and enjoy helping them to succeed. Children instantly appreciate teachers who they consider to be on their side and keen for them to do well, and the children will move mountains to please them.

Empathy is also a significant factor in my view. Overbearing government intervention made a great deal of the teaching in state schools too data driven – everything has to be measurable - and really took the vocation out of teaching, perhaps turning teachers into ‘curriculum deliverers’. The danger here is the mentality, which is all too prevalent, that if you have delivered what is on your lesson plan, you have done your job. Nothing could be further from the truth; all teachers will have experienced delivering the same lesson to two different classes, with one going brilliantly, the other less well. Why? A different time of day? Different children? The orbit of the moon?! Sometimes there is no good explanation as to why a lesson isn’t working, but the best teachers will realise this and adapt accordingly. These are the teachers who will teach consistently successful lessons and gain the best outcomes.

I well remember asking an interviewee a few years ago who they thought were the stronger children in the set that they were teaching as part of their interview, as opposed to the weaker. They highlighted two or three children who they considered to be struggling, the reasoning being that they had their hands up the whole time during the explanation. Completely the opposite was in fact true – those with their hands up were actually the most engaged with the lesson and asking insightful questions, while those struggling were keeping quiet! Safe to say they were not offered the job!

Recruiting talented and passionate staff is crucial to the success of the children at Westbourne House, and will remain a high priority in the years to come, with hopefully a few more going on to be headteachers.

 

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