Teach First

Success in the most challenging schools: a drive to excel

Our ‘Outliers’ project sought to understand why some teachers succeed in the most challenging schools. Interviews with twenty-five participants (and two colleagues of each) highlighted the importance of an underlying vision. Three things helped them realise this vision: resilience, building relationships and a drive to excel. This post focuses on this drive to excel, which emerged in twenty-one of the twenty-five case studies, first discussing the high standards outliers held of themselves, then examining the actions they took to improve.

High expectations of themselves emerged in ten case studies. Conor “strives for the best when delivering his lessons”, while Eleanor’s tutor called her “ambitious in the right kind of way, not ruthlessly so, but [she] wants to be as good as she can be.” Some teachers established their own scale of values: Cathy described measuring herself against her own standards. These high expectations also promoted resilience among outliers, as Josh explained: “I've always been successful and done what I need to do to achieve what I wanted... like this internal motivation, this isn't going to beat me... that drives me on.”

Reflection and seeking improvement spurred change for thirteen outliers. Cathy spoke daily with two fellow participants about what they wanted to achieve, sharing successes and creating a “platform” to break down problems. Claire’s colleague described her as proactive, saying that “if she doesn’t know the answer, she’ll go and find out the answer”; she did “a lot of reading behind how to deal with challenging individuals.” Jack was described as being “fully aware of his strengths and he’s fully aware of his weaknesses.” If outliers lacked support in their schools this reflection proved particularly important; “If I hadn’t have been taught how to be reflective about my practice”, Kyra said, “I don’t think I would have ever developed.”

Fourteen case studies emphasised outliers’ embrace of support, while eleven noted how receptive they were to feedback. Sara accepted advice gratefully and critically: Alex, her TA, said she debated suggestions but was always open to change: “she just wanted to improve”, he said, and was “mindful” of “listening to people who had been there before in that situation and gained experience.” Both of Peter’s mentors noted the strong and constructive relationship they had with him, which grew from his willingness to respond to feedback. Ollie was “good at trying new techniques and open to new ideas and listened whenever someone suggested something” and made his gratitude clear by being “vocally appreciative” of feedback.

For eleven outliers, willingness to embrace hard work was important. Sara’s mentor described her as “incredibly hard-working… a perfectionist… she doesn’t mind going the extra mile… she is very thorough.” Josh was described as a “machine” and Jack talked about being “really strict with yourself. It’s almost detrimental, but if I’ve got something to do and I think I’ll just leave it till Monday then I know it’s not going to happen.” This contributed to teachers’ resilience, a link made explicit by Warner’s tutor, who noted that his ability to perform as a “consummate professional” through “perseverance and sheer hard work” marked him out from his colleagues.

Eleven outliers sourced support for themselves. They displayed confidence in asking questions when they were unsure; Josh described the power of asking for help:

“I’m really struggling with this person' and someone would say 'Oh, go and see X, Y, Z.' So it's an informal network... and I felt like I could go and ask to observe anyone, go and see anyone for help. I wouldn’t be afraid and go and ask.”

Similarly, Jack was described as:

“Having the confidence to voice and express his concerns… to come to me or anybody else in the maths department… and say, I’ve just had a lesson that was a bit of a disaster, could you come and give me some advice?... Could you come in and see me?”

If outliers received limited formal support, they made up for this themselves: Eleanor “just got that support elsewhere… she just did that for herself.” Kyra was good at identifying what was needed and was always “half way there” herself: “she made it very easy for me to support her.” For some, this reflected their overall approach: five of those who actively sought support were described as ‘team players’.

Outliers sough to improve their work constantly. They followed Diana, “going back in every day and saying if it’s not working, it’s changing it, looking forward, looking at where you can take it”. Not only did this help them improve, this may well have helped them feel they were making progress; Sara’s mentor summed up the effects of these changes: “Ultimately, then it makes you happy to see the impact that you are having, so it’s putting that effort in and seeing that change and success, then feeding from that giving you momentum to go forward and to continue in doing that.”

All names have been changed.