Rogue is a brilliant word for all of its multiple meanings. When I am speaking here of rogue teachers, I am thinking primarily of rogue as ‘working outside the normal and desirable controls’ – teachers who will nod along during a training session, only to return to their classrooms and do it their own way. ‘Rogue teachers’ can have other meanings though; it could mean mischievous, non-compliant, solitary and destructive.
At Doug Lemov’s inaugural Annual Education Lecture, delivered at King Solomon Academy and backed by TeachFirst and Policy Exchange, the idea of these ‘outlier’ teachers was one that struck me. Lemov illustrated how in Los Angeles and New York, where the attainment of pupils was tracked teacher-by-teacher to create the potential for teacher league tables, it was possible to identify outlier teachers who managed to consistently see their pupils attain at the highest levels, despite working in areas of high poverty and deprivation.
What Lemov found (and apologies to Doug if I have misinterpreted him) was that these teachers were the ones who didn’t do things by the book. They were entrepreneurs, Lemov argued, and often do the opposite of what is directed to them. The best teachers, he argues, socialise children to recognise that error is fine, and that not understanding something is a step on the path to understanding something.
Lemov spoke of how in any other industry, these obscenely successful outliers of productivity would be victims of ‘industrial espionage’ – everybody would be clamouring to know their secret. But teaching is not really like that. Exceptionally successful teachers are most likely working below the radar.
This idea of the successes of rogue teachers left me with lots of thoughts. In areas of high deprivation, it seems that those teachers who are willing to deviate from expectation can be found among the highest attaining. What does this mean for school leaders, and for those teachers who are committed to improving their practice?
My first thought was what exactly is it that is making them successful; is it their practice alone, or does the very fact that they are ‘rogueish’ contribute to their renegade identity. Do they need the broadly conformist environment of their school colleagues to deviate from? Does the fact that they are thought of differently by the pupils, for being so ‘abnormal’, contribute to their grip over their classrooms?
Next came thoughts about the ‘potential for rogueishness’. Could any individual teachers ‘go rogue’, or would only some teachers be permitted to ‘go rogue’? The dividing line between a teacher who is a highly-esteemed maverick and a teacher who is failing to follow procedure is a very thin line indeed. If the success of a rogue teacher can only be measured after the tests, then which school leaders would gamble their children’s attainment of the chance that perhaps their rogue is a good rogue, rather than a militant rogue, or a self-indulgent rogue, or a deluded rogue?
It’s as though we need a Rogues Diagnostic (perhaps Doug wants to stick it in as an Appendix to the next edition!), in order to qualify the traits which would distinguish an effective rogue from an ineffective rogue. I may think I am one of these highly successful rogue teachers and take it upon myself to deviate the children from the prescribed activities to focus on what I think they need to know and need to do; depending on the accuracy of my self-assessment, I am either teaching my pupils how to soar, or if I am wrong, I am clipping their wings.
To be in the classroom with a rogue teacher must be exciting. Get a good one and it is like being mentored by a guru; life-affirming, challenging, rewarding, galvanising. Get a bad rogue, and it is like being taken hostage.
This leads to the last thought on this matter. On which criteria ought a teacher be judged? Obviously this is a far more complex question than my ‘rushed-quickly-before-the-kids-get-in’ final paragraph could ever answer. If we are to tolerate the effectiveness of rogues, this is generally predicated on the idea that ‘whatever gets the grades’ is good. Undeniably, it is a positive thing for teachers to get the top grades for their pupils, but are all routes to this end goal equally meretricious? Is an ‘at all costs’ approach always going to be good for the kids?
The very best teachers, to my mind at least, would be those incredible outliers who not only manage to secure the highest grades, but they do so in a classroom culture of mutual respect and security, and they also are trusted by the pupils for their good character. A ‘go-to’ person for their intellectual, academic, social and emotional worries; someone who can guide them. Few would argue that this is not positive.
What about the teachers who can get obscenely high grades out of their pupils, despite backgrounds of high deprivation, but they do so through intimidation or coercion? Should these teachers exist, is theirs an approach to which we should also aspire?
Rogue teachers, holders of secrets, are phenomenally interesting to consider. For me, the next step ought to be to search for the core of rogueishness – what exactly is it? – and to qualify which strains of rogueishness are good for the children, so that we can sift and sort, categorising our good rogues from our bad rogues.