Some years ago, Readers’ Digest magazine undertook a survey of people’s deepest fears. What, it asked, are we most frightened of?
Predictably, dying came fairly close to the top of the list. People in general don’t like the thought of dying. But it wasn’t number one in the countdown of fears.
That spot was reserved for public speaking.
Lots of us, it seems, don’t like speaking in public, and we especially don’t like speaking when the public contains people we know – friends, family and colleagues. If we have to speak to a crowd at all, we would prefer it to be a crows of strangers.
You sometimes see this trait of shyness in teachers. One of the privileges of my job is that I see lots of great teachers weaving a kind of magic in their classrooms. I am sometimes asked what the secret of their success is – a top class degree, expert subject knowledge, a natural authority that makes young people listen in awed silence?
Experience tells me that the best teachers know how to take complicated stuff – a scientific concept, a mathematical principle, a knotty bit of history – and to make it simple, but not too simple. Great teachers render the obscure clear. They make the world more understandable, but without spoon-feeding us, without boring us, without patronising us, and without misleading us into thinking that life has no mysteries.
The strangest thing of all is that great teachers I watch are often performers in their classrooms, but quietly unassuming outside. Ask them to talk to a group of staff, to address an assembly, to move beyond their comfort zone and many will lose sleep at the prospect.
I mention this because last week we saw the long-awaited report resulting from Ofsted’s recent blitz on Suffolk. Back in September, inspectors swarmed like locusts across 33 schools. They wanted, it seemed to some, to prove that we are all complacent and riddled by low aspiration.
The letter from regional Ofsted director Sean Harford said: ‘I am very concerned that there was no increase in the county’s stock of good or outstanding schools and that nearly a fifth of the schools inspected were judged inadequate.’
The letter made bleak reading – and didn’t have much to say about the many good features of Suffolk’s schools.
Some outside education may wonder why we take Ofsted quite so seriously. After all, most inspectors fled the classroom many years ago. A friend of mine running a Suffolk school was recently inspected by someone who had last taught some 35 years ago.
A former colleague reports that his school was judged to be unsatisfactory because inspectors arrived on a day when a big Citizenship conference was being held. Lessons were given over to a range of outside speakers – such as charity shop helpers, community workers and members of the clergy.
Inspectors insisted on using their clipboard of criteria to judge these volunteers as if they were trained teachers and the school was duly punished for lack of pace in lessons.
Too often Ofsted seems to be trying to catch us out, rather than helping us to improve our schools.
So we do need to keep inspection in perspective. The best judges of teaching are usually the pupils. The best judges of schools are usually the parents.
And as that Reader’s Digest survey showed us, the way you get the best out of teachers isn’t by making them do audience-pleasing party pieces like performing sea-lions in front of scowling strangers.
Creating more great teachers – which Suffolk desperately needs to do - entails trusting them, giving them feedback, encouraging them to try new approaches. In short, it’s about coaching, not criticising.