Research review: Cat Scutt investigates how to set a positive work culture

23 Sep 2019, 5:00

New classes. New colleagues. Maybe a new school. Teachers will have spent the past couple of weeks setting the culture in their classrooms and helping their pupils to build good habits. But setting a sustainable culture for pupils means also building the right habits and expectations for the adults who work with them, and that can be tricky. So what does research suggest might be the most useful ways to go about it?

The right expectations

First, it’s important to set the right habits from the start. If a teacher begins the school year diligently marking every piece of work, this sets expectations for pupils and parents as much as for the teacher that are neither sustainable nor beneficial to pupils’ learning. The evidence that written marking is beneficial is currently very limited. Giving verbal feedback (no stamps required!) or whole-class feedback could be just as effective, and likely to be much more manageable over time.

Less is more

When thinking about how to spend your time, it’s important not just to think about what’s effective, but also what’s efficient – or workload problems can easily arise. There is no shortage of things that help learning to some extent, but they probably can’t all be done within the limitations of the school timetable. It’s important to think about what the highest impact practices are. The Education Endowment Foundation toolkit is not only a testament to the variety of things that might help, it’s a great reference guide to which might be the most effective.

Healthy detachment

Self-regulation is as important for teachers as it is for pupils. There’s little point teachers spending hours producing beautifully designed resources or activities for their classes late at night if they are then absent or too tired to teach well the following day. Teachers who are engaged in their role, but are able to manage their work-life balance and remain healthily detached are more likely to provide high-quality instruction and more likely to have higher job satisfaction and remain in the profession.

Being specific is key. Ditch vague commitments.

The busy nature of the start of term can make it easy to forget to spend time with colleagues, but it’s important not to think of this as a luxury. Taking time to talk to, learn from and share with other teachers is associated not just with increased job satisfaction and retention in teaching (although that would be reason enough!), but also with increased effectiveness in the classroom. Contrary to expectations, James Spillane and colleagues found that teachers whose pupils make most progress relative to expectations are not those who are asked for advice the most, but those who most seek it from their colleagues.

Make time to ask questions

Of course, whether teacher or school leader, it’s not easy to change ingrained habits and make time for yourself and others. Research around implementation intentions offers guidance on how to turn that wish into reality. Being specific is key. Ditch vague commitments to “work less at home” or to “leave earlier”, and instead commit to not taking work home or to leaving work before a certain time on specific days. School leaders play a critical role in setting the culture and values of their school, so it’s important that they think about the example they’re setting.

Ditch vague commitments

In the end, research evidence can give some best bets on where to focus our efforts, but it can’t replace the professional judgment of a well-rested and well-supported practitioner with a deep knowledge of their context. While it’s always best to get the culture right from the start, it’s never too late to restart and reset expectations and habits – whether you’re one week or 20 years in the profession.

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