Those who trust us educate us. – George Eliot

Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear. – Bertrand Russell

The car seems to be a flashpoint. If my wife and I are going to argue about anything the likelihood is that the argument will take place in the car. And it will be, as often as not, about my driving. You see, opinion is divided about my driving skills; I maintain I’m a pretty good driver, while my wife insists I’m a menace. In my favour I have the experience of many years of enjoying driving, and in hers she has a catalogue of fines, insurance claims and endorsements. You can prove anything with evidence!

Objectively, I’m forced to consider the possibility that I might not be as good a driver as I think I am.

But, when she points out a failing – let’s say I’ve failed to indicate or something along those lines – she’ll get cross with me. Sometimes she’ll shout. She says this is because she’s scared at being in the car with me, and of course I understand how our brains kick into the fight or flight reflex when we’re fearful. The problem is, I respond badly to this. Sometimes I shout back and the argument escalates to cover every atrocity ever committed over the course of our marriage. The bigger problem is that I fall to pieces as a driver when I’m criticised. Where I am normally confident, I become diffident and dithering. I become so aware that I am under scrutiny that my performance deteriorates until my terrible driving skills are only too evident to everyone on the road. Usually we have to pull over and continue our row in the relative safety of a lay-by.

When this happened most recently I started thinking that my predicament might be analogous to that of many teachers. Most teachers, I assume, believe they’re doing a reasonable job. (I further imagine that if for some reason you perceive yourself as struggling, you’ll keep quiet about it as this type of admission is unlikely to lead to a compassionate and supportive response.) If we then run afoul of a book trawl, or are ‘learned walked’ by a critical senior colleague who feels students maybe aren’t making sufficient progress in the 4 minutes they were present we might, if we’re unlucky, be on the receiving end of some ‘support’.

My experience is that many teachers thus supported tend to resign. Perhaps this might be because they and everyone else recognise they’re not up the job and that young people’s precious life chances are in jeopardy. Perhaps. But there also exists the possibility that scrutiny and criticism can have an undermining effect of teachers’ ability to teach well. There are a plethora of observer biases that suggest that our behaviour changes when we’re observed. If we feel our judgement isn’t trusted and that someone is breathing down our necks just waiting to point out every little error or failing then we’re unlikely to perform at our peak. Likewise, if other believe us to be trustworthy it seems reasonable that we’re likely to feel more confidence in our abilities and turn out a bravura performance.

In my case, it would be to the benefit of all road users if my driving improved. My wife’s objective, therefore, is that I become a safer driver. Criticising me has the opposite effect, and her entirely laudable intention is undermined. In the case of a teacher who may or may not be under-performing, the objective should be that they improve and become a better teacher. If ‘support’ has the opposite effect then surely we would be better off if we stopped doing it?

Teachers thrive when they are trusted, and wither when they’re scrutinised. If you want them to improve, let them know you have confidence in them to take the action they deem appropriate and let them get on with it. If they’re not sure what might be done, then you could offer some suggestions. If they fail to undertake the actions they’ve committed to then maybe there needs to be a more robust conversation about professional responsibility.

I’ve written before about my theories on how to help teachers to improve, but briefly my three principles are:

  1. Find out what they are good at and get them to be even better at that.
  2. Give them opportunities to observe others
  3. Give them really challenging, long-term targets that can’t be checked off as ‘done’ during an annual appraisal.

In my case I have agreed to taking an advance driving skills test. My argument is that my wife should trust that I am committed to improving as a driver and that I should only be ‘supported’ if I fail to fulfil my promises.