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Checking IN Versus Checking UP: Approaches to Leadership

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Catherine Carden and Virginia Bower

Two words - just two tiny words can change the experience of teachers so profoundly.

How do you feel as a teacher? Do you feel checked IN on or checked UP on?

With regards to checking IN or checking UP, there is a significant difference between how these play out within a school culture, and the results can see teachers feeling supported and developed or judged and monitored.

Let’s think about it…

If you check IN on your staff, as a leader, you imply that they are of value and that you care. If you check UP on your staff you are seen, as a leader, to be judgemental; constantly monitoring performance against a dialogue and discourse of measures, performativity and outcomes.

It cannot be denied that leaders in schools are held accountable for all aspects of school life - pupil progress, staff performance, parental satisfaction, the budget, health and safety… the list goes on. This puts extraordinary pressure on the senior leadership team and in particular the headteacher and we are in no way suggesting anything different. Because of this, schools can become consumed and driven by the fear of accountability; always being expected to show immediate impact and constant improvement year on year. The pressures of SATs, phonics screening, the multiplication test, league tables and the Ofsted inspection regime can lead to a culture of surveillance, monitoring and checking UP on staff. This is often undertaken with the best intentions and justification from senior leaders thinking that they have no choice but to undertake activities such as regular observations of teaching, learning walks (observation by another name), book scrutiny and regular data and progress checks.

In the minds of many educational leaders, born out of an implicit message from external agencies, checking UP on staff is the best, and only way, to gauge the quality of teaching and learning, progress and outcomes in order to inform self evaluation and feed into predictions and target setting. Yet, this in turn projects fear, anxiety and constant stress onto the shoulders of the classroom teachers - the very people we rely on to have the space to create and innovate in order to inspire the children they teach.

We would argue that checking UP leads to:

  • Time wasted

  • Teacher attrition

  • No proven impact on children’s learning

  • A negative culture of distrust

Conversely, a culture attuned to checking IN - regularly and authentically is more likely to lead to:

  • An embedding of positive, shared values

  • A happier and more productive workforce

  • A commitment to professional development and learning specific to each individual

  • Happier, more academically successful pupils

As leaders - whether this be teachers as leaders of their classes/subjects/Key Stages or members of the SLT - checking IN on colleagues can enable a move beyond compliance towards empowerment. Here are two brief examples of what this might look like:

1. Taking time in staff meetings for teachers to discuss what seems to be going well with their planning/teaching/assessment currently and challenges they are addressing with their pupils. From this would need to emerge shared ideas and suggestions for professional development and learning, moving forward (going beyond the traditional ‘let’s send you on a course’ methodology)

2. Senior leaders engaging in authentic discussions with their staff, focusing on learning and development opportunities, hopes and dreams for the future, and ongoing conversations relating to how the school might be a more supportive, productive environment for both staff and pupils.

In recent years, our profession has seen significant challenges which have resulted in a public ‘image’ issue and teaching being perceived as a far from attractive career. In recent times, teachers have been making the difficult choice to leave the profession that they entered with such promise and passion. The numbers leaving are seemingly increasing, especially during the first 5 years of their careers with DfE statistics stating that just 67.4% of those joining the profession in 2014 remained in teaching in 2019 and the National Education Union (2020) stating this significant attrition rate. Many teachers cite workload and stress as a key reason influencing their decision to leave.

Does the future lay in the hands, in part, of our leaders? Could life, as a teacher, be different if our school leaders focussed on checking in rather than checking up?

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