This much I know…about John Tomsett’s book on teaching

I am 28 years old, I have been teaching for five years and this much I know about John Tomsett’s book on teaching.

John Tomsett is the headteacher of a large comprehensive school in York. He has been blogging about his experiences on teaching and school leadership for a number of years, leading to him drawing together his thoughts in this book This Much I Know about Love Over Fear: Creating a culture of truly great teaching. Tomsett states his intended audience to be school leaders, but as a classroom teacher myself (albeit with possible leadership aspirations) I found the book truly remarkable and inspiring.

Tomsett stresses the importance of cultures and values. He points out that the single most important factor to all teachers improving their practice is the school culture (p29). This struck a chord with me personally as I have always believed that if you put the correct cultures in place, the rest will follow. Previously I had perhaps looked at the need for a strong culture from a pupil perspective, but it is of course equally important to teachers. We must feel that we can improve, that we will be critically but constructively guided and, most importantly, that we want to improve.

In emphasising a focus on school culture, Tomsett is not naive and readily identifies the potential risks. Two risks in particular stand out: firstly, the risk that you don’t appear to be following the Ofsted model, which many would see as a precarious approach in the current political climate and secondly, that such an approach takes time and therefore the patience of stakeholders, neither of which seem to be abundant in said political climate.

To create a culture for truly great teaching, Tomsett talks about getting the conditions for growth right. This is something he has borrowed from Ken Robinson, who talks about taking an ‘agricultural model of education’ rather than a factory model (p90 and 188). Tomsett discusses the prevalence of fear in many aspects of the educational community at the moment, but recognises that fear destroys workplace culture like nothing else (p89). A key part of a positive school culture is about teachers’ relationships with students and that by improving those relationships, you improve teaching and learning (p97).

Instead of a climate of fear, Tomsett has tried to create a culture of reflective practice. To do this he explains that in his school, they make the subtle but incredibly powerful distinction that the emphasis needs to be on teaching and not on teachers – it is not about the person, but what they are doing (p12). This depersonalises all conversations about improvement and avoids people taking offence. In another point which perhaps goes against the prevailing wind in education at the moment, Tomsett discusses how comment-only feedback is recognised as a powerful tool for students and goes on to question why this is not the case for teachers.

Tomsett recognises that a school’s greatest resource is teachers and that teachers greatest resource is time. Therefore he makes sure that professional development is a part of all of his staff’s routine, but that it is worthwhile and not onerous. All of his school’s CPD is in-house, co-ordinated by one of his leadership team whose title is ‘Head of Research’. Tomsett sees the value of research but realises that it must be tailored to his school and staff, so established a role focused on doing just that. He also says that staff must come first, before students, as a well motivated staff is better for students.

Tomsett is clearly a very driven individual and the autobiographical elements of the book give you an appreciation of why. Thanks to his own working class background which Tomsett describes in the book, he is clearly morally driven as a teacher and school leader, with a full appreciation of the role of schools in social mobility. I think my favourite, mantra-like quote in the whole book is ‘a good education allows you to choose your path in life, and I don’t want one single student of mine to ever wonder what they’ve missed because they haven’t had a choice’ (p4). He goes on to say that to be any good at teaching it has to matter to you ‘in your chest’ (p36). This reminded me of the leaving speech of a colleague a few years ago who said that when you realise that your heart is no longer in the classroom, with the kids, then it is time to go because to stay would be unfair to the children.

John Tomsett has written a wonderful book in which he also discusses Dweck’s growth mindset, lesson planning and literacy. It is a wonderful read for anybody involved in education, far beyond current school leaders. Once I had read the book on a transatlantic flight, I leant it to a colleague in America who has worked as a school counsellor for over two decades. She found it an enlightened read, which had so much in common with the very best practice that she had heard about from the best school systems in the USA.

It is one of my favourite books on education. It will have a place on my bookshelf for the rest of my career, except when I am lending it to more colleagues!

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