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Head Of Leading Yorkshire School Reflects On Teaching Challenges


Nina Gunson is Head of Sheffield Girls’ GDST and here she discusses the challenges of recruitment and retention affecting the teaching profession in the post-pandemic world and asks, ‘what does outstanding teaching look like?’

I have recently been evaluating our approach to teacher recruitment at school. Recent data from the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) suggests that teacher supply challenges are returning in England after a brief surge during the pandemic and I have been considering what motivates our teachers, what to look for in an outstanding teacher and the responsibilities of school leaders to provide our staff with the best professional development and opportunities to grow.

One of the questions I always ask in interviews is: “What, in your opinion, are the characteristics of an outstanding teacher?” I think that the way a candidate responds to this question can be very telling. It says a lot about how they define success as a teacher, and perhaps about the priorities of their current school. For me, the success of a teacher isn’t just measured by the grades that their students achieve, it’s about their enthusiasm for their subject and their ability to instil that same passion in their pupils.  

When I visit lessons in my own school, I’m not looking for examples of teachers ‘teaching to the test’. I’m looking for: discussion and debate; critical thinking; cross curricular links; and connections to the real world. Most importantly, I’m looking to see pupils engaged, enthusiastic and enjoying their learning. 

Nina Gunson Head Sheffield Girls Headshot
Nina Gunson

Supporting Early Career Teachers

With so many new teachers now leaving the profession within the first five years, it is vital to provide a solid foundation of support and training at the start of a teacher’s career. There are many facets to a teacher’s role – academic, pastoral and beyond. New teachers need to develop the necessary subject and professional knowledge and skills for success, to allow them to feel confident and relaxed enough in their role to recognise the huge satisfaction that the profession can bring. This requires a structured programme of mentoring, reflection and access to excellent training in whole-school issues as well as in their subject area. 

As a Newly Qualified Teacher, I was lucky to have an excellent subject mentor and was immersed in a science department where peer observations, action research and sharing best practice were commonplace. I believe combining this level of mentorship with immersive early career subject-specific training is imperative in helping a new teacher reach their potential. For example, if I appointed an Early Career Teacher (ECT) in science today and offered them access to the early career, secondary science professional development pathway offered by STEM Learning, I know I would be providing them with the very best platform for success. 

Heather Agar Teaching Biology Seniors Sheffield Girls
Heather Agar teaching biology at Sheffield Girls’

Sourcing and supporting great teachers throughout their careers

At Sheffield Girls’ our students are confident in their learning, largely because they have confidence in their teachers. This relies on the teacher’s own confidence in their subject knowledge. We cannot and should not take this for granted or expect even the most experienced teacher to swot up in their own time on a new or additional subject and assume that they will deliver it in the classroom with passion, credibility and relevance. We need to equip teachers with more than a PGCE level of understanding of teaching approaches, subject knowledge and a scheme of work. We need to provide access to high quality, ongoing professional development that supports and enriches them at every stage of their careers.

In teacher interviews, I ask applicants to tell me about professional development they have engaged in recently and how it has positively impacted their practice. One teacher used Trauma Informed training to implement strategies to acknowledge students’ emotions, allowing them to move into a state where they were able to learn. Another completed online courses during lockdown looking at inclusive practice and, as a result, had written a new KS3 scheme of work to bring more diversity into the curriculum.

Some of the teachers who have struggled to answer this question are experienced teachers who, dare I say, might come across as having nothing further to learn, but I believe all teachers have room for development in the constantly evolving landscape of education. Discussions with some of our most experienced science teachers at Sheffield Girls’ has shown the value they place on opportunities to network and share ideas with other science teachers through Teachmeets and visiting other schools, something sorely missed during the pandemic. They also appreciate resources that help them find ways to make cross-curricular links with other subjects.

Simon Mosely Teaching Maths Seniors Sheffield Girls
Simon Mosely teaching maths

Retaining great teachers

A recent survey of teachers by YouGov shows that 40% of teachers would not go back into the profession if they had the chance to start their career over. All school leaders should be asking themselves what they can do to ensure our teachers not only remain in the profession, but champion teaching. This is even more pertinent for subject areas like STEM where we typically see girls under-represented, and where it is crucial to have a broad spectrum of experienced and passionate teachers, both male and female, to advocate for their subjects and encourage young women to pursue them at higher levels. 

Teaching is a tough job. There are limitations on how much we can do to reduce the workload demands: lesson preparation, assessing pupil work, providing feedback to pupils and parents, supporting pupils pastorally and providing pupils with opportunities beyond the curriculum. That said, teacher workload and teacher wellbeing are different things, and an individual’s wellbeing depends on their confidence and enjoyment in their role. 

Teaching is an incredibly rewarding job, but only if teachers feel engaged, enabled and empowered. Providing teachers at all stages of their careers with the time to engage in continued study, promoting lifelong learning, networking opportunities and encouraging teachers to create their own networks or lead professional development for others are some of the ways we can demonstrate that we value the teachers in our schools and, hopefully, contribute to their positive wellbeing as confident, invigorated professionals.

Our aim as educators is to inspire our students and prepare them to be successful in all facets of their lives when they leave us, but we can only hope to inspire our students and equip them with a set of skills for success if we do the same for our teachers.
Sheffield Girls’ GDST is the leading all-girls school in Yorkshire, providing unrivalled education opportunities for girls aged 4-18

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Mark Kebble

Mark's career in journalism started in 2001 when he landed a role on a small lifestyle magazine in Angel, North London. Soon enough, the magazine was purchased by a larger organisation and Mark found himself promoted to editor at the tender age of 23. He later became group editor, working on magazines for Angel, Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate. He was also involved in a launch in Hadley Wood and a major new group website, later becoming Group Hub Editor. In 2021, Mark joined Zest Media Group and oversaw the launch of many Absolutely titles across the UK. To date, Mark has launched in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Essex, Yorkshire and Cheshire. When he does have some free time, Mark is also the Chairman of an amateur football club in Surrey and is also a fully qualified FA football coach.
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