John Tomsett has been a teacher for 27 years and a headteacher for twelve. He is Headteacher at Huntington School, York, England. He writes a blog called "This much I know..." and is a co-founder of the Headteachers' Roundtable Think Tank. His first book is called, "This much I know about Love over Fear: creating a culture for truly great teaching." He remains resolutely wedded to teaching and helping colleagues improve their teaching.
Interview by Jack Little.
Published in The Ofi Press issue 44.
1. What first inspired you to become an educator?
I didn’t enter the teaching profession to teach. When I was close to finishing my English degree I faced up to the inevitable fact that I had to get a job. I wanted to get paid for discussing literature and the only way I could do that was to become a teacher. The motivations behind why I teach have changed over the years; I used to want to teach only sixth formers – now I think early years is probably the most important age group. I began teaching inspired by my love of literature but now I’m driven to teach by a sense of moral purpose.
2. In your experience, what is the most important role of a school in today’s society?
I think that with the diminution of the influence of the church, the school has become the centre of the community. I think it has to be a place which teaches value systems – our school’s values, for instance, are Respect, Honesty and Kindness – and to build around that value system a place of learning with the highest academic expectations.
3. In your new book This Much I Know About Love Over Fear ...: Creating a Culture for Truly Great Teaching, you highlight the extreme importance of providing life changing experiences for all. What needs to be done to make sure that educators are equipped to provide these opportunities?
We need leadership wisdom which resists the overwhelming force of working in an output driven model of education. There is no point drilling students to pass examinations if those same students have no life experience, no moral compass and lack employability skills. Students remember the extraordinary experiences – the school show, the geography field trip, the sports day, the senior citizens’ party – and grow from being part of something more than academic study. If you don't get the balance right then you only educate part of the child. That said, the best care we can provide for the most deprived children is an excellent set of examination results which gives them choice about the way they chart their lives.
4. You divide your time between your work as a head teacher and being in the classroom. Why is this so important to you and your practice?
I think it is important to experience first-hand what it is to teach in your school. You experience for yourself the barriers which prevent you from teaching as well as you possibly can and therefore you can act to remove those barriers. I think if you are going to be the head teacher you have to teach well or how can you call yourself the head teacher? So it is also about authenticity. I cannot ask my colleagues to work hard to be better teachers if I am not working hard on my own practice. There is an authenticity about being a teaching head teacher which is of great value.
5. Of course love and care have a vital importance in the creation of a superb school. Does fear have any role to play at all?
I don’t think fear is a healthy emotion. I’m not sure it has a place in a school. Fear does not help teachers get better and inducing fear in students goes against everything we stand for as a school. People fear failure, but if you can create a culture whereby failure is an integral and essential part of the learning process then colleagues and students can take risks safe in the knowledge that if they fail it will merely be a learning experience.
6. What projects are you working on now and in the future?
We are working on supporting our students’ metacognitive skills. We have to find a way to train students in how to think about their learning and their careers with conscious deliberation. We are trialling our GREAT conversation scheme, where each student has regular conversations with a tutor/mentor about: Goals; Resilience; Effort; Attitude; Tools. The tools are based on Dweck’s Growth Mindset work and give students the tools to complete their academic work with well-directed hard work.
Our other focus is about supporting the well-being of all those working and learning in our school. It’s about acknowledging the vulnerability of the human condition and sustaining everyone as the growing pressure to produce ever better examination results affects our staff and students’ mental health.
7. If you had to give one piece of advice to a young teacher just starting out in their career, what would it be?
Never ever give up trying to be better. As Dylan Wiliam says, “Every single one of you needs to accept the commitment to carry on improving your practice until you retire or die.”
Please check out John Tomsett's latest book at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1845909828/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=01DWBSVFB3AP3RE1WCZ4&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=577048787&pf_rd_i=desktop
Link to The People's Book Prize 2015 non-fiction shortlist: http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/book.php?id=1323