Improve Teacher Retention Through the principles of The Art of War

The principles of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War have gained notoriety for their application across many sectors including business strategy, management practices, law and sports. With a worsening teacher recruitment crisis in England, the same reasons keep coming up as to why teachers are leaving the profession. Here we have a look at 4 big areas where the people at the top should take heed of the ancient general’s lessons to improve morale, bring some purpose into the profession and improve teacher retention.

What do those at the top envisage as the Purpose of Education?

The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom (Chapter 10.24)

This gets us thinking about what education leaders and policy makers actually see as the purpose of education. Sun Tzu’s purpose was clear, the protection of sovereign and country; his message even clearer, personal ambitions and ego should not get in the way.

To optimise the life chances of every student in our schools is an honourable purpose but to define this as improving examination results through a narrow curriculum that does not cater for the natural abilities of a large proportion of the student population is a poor vision.

To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence (Chapter 4.8)

Emphasis is placed on examination results because they are easy to measure and hitherto the common herd and Ofsted will praise schools with good test scores as achieving excellence.

The truth is that good examination results may improve life chances but strength of character is the real currency for helping children and young people to kick on in life.

The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops (Chapter 8.4)

Where a school has whole cohorts of students that are not naturally academic, there must be a variation of tactics. Allowing pupils to flourish in a curriculum that suits their abilities may not be coveting fame or recognition for strong examination results but it will certainly build confidence and self-belief for those that need it the most.

Female Teacher Helping Pupil Using Computer In Classroom - Using The Art of War to improve teacher morale
Female Teacher Helping Pupil Using Computer In Classroom

Cultivating the Spirit of Enterprise

Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise; for the result is waste of time and general stagnation (Chapter 12.15)

Teachers enter the profession with high hopes of using their innovation and creativity to optimise students’ learning. Whilst some schools nurture this enterprise, more often we hear about narrow curriculums and constant examinations whittling away at teachers’ discretion.

Sun Tzu suggests that a force is strongest when you cultivate the individual abilities within the team and let each maximise their ability.

If a general show confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual (Chapter 9.45)

Confidence in the ability of teachers and teaching assistants is a far cry from what we are hearing about the reality of the situation on the front line. Moreover we hear about a lack of trust that rolls down from the top, culminating in micromanagement and stifling teachers’ ability to do what they do best.

Of course school leaders and policy makers should insist on their orders being obeyed but where is the confidence and the spirit of enterprise?

If schools are going to hold teachers responsible for outcomes then they must have confidence in their ability to reach those outcomes through their own professional skillset.

Know the Classroom Culture

Sun Tzu considers 3 ways that a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army (Chapter 3.12)

by commanding the army to advance or retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army

The teachers are the ones on the front line and they are the ones that are in contact with the pupils on a daily basis, with all the joys and tribulations that come with the profession.

One of the top grievances we hear from teachers, teaching assistants and even senior leaders, is that there is a lack of understanding from those above them about the reality of the situation in the classrooms.

The decisions are not based on pedagogical evidence, the targets are not realistic, there is an overdependence on what teachers can actually achieve and the direction is not in the best interest of the large proportion of the students.

-by attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds 

With the expansion of academies and MATs, often we hear that the schools are increasingly run like businesses. To run a school like a business is of course ignorant of the conditions which obtain in the education of children and young people. 

The foremost concern of teachers is to help the pupils reach their potential; and to think this can be achieved in the same way that executives administer a business is not going to work

KPIs are successful in measuring performance in business but using examinations as the only performance indicator in schools is a superficial way of looking at how learning works.

By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.”

It is not uncommon for us to hear of highly effective teachers being promoted into middle or senior management and becoming poor leaders. Additionally the promotion culminates in the school losing a great asset in the classroom and for what?

Often those promoted hadn’t ever shown a propensity for leading, managing staff or even helping less experienced colleagues to improve. It’s not surprising that without any training they don’t take to the new position so well.

Motivated teachers will accept the promotion, as they see this as the only way to develop their career or earn more money, when really their passion lies in the classroom. There is a lack of scope for adaptation to circumstances within the structure.

So it is not surprising that there are many teachers out there that feel hobbled, restless and lacking confidence.

Teacher overseeing class - how The Art of War can relate to the purpose of education

Teacher Morale and Well-being

He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks (Chapter 3.17)

Low staff morale is often mentioned by teachers who have become disillusioned with the profession.

Working in a profession with no discernible purpose, little trust in your skillset, and direction from above that does not match the reality on the ground are all causes for low morale.

Yet notwithstanding this perhaps a bit of gratitude from leadership, the media and the wider public may go a long way to improving morale.

A victorious army opposed to a routed one, is as a pound’s weight placed in the scale against a single grain (Chapter 4.19)

Sun Tzu envisages that to optimise morale, troops thrive on lots of mini-victories. Otherwise weapons are dulled, your ardour damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent (Chapter 2.4).

Too often we hear from teachers that their job is thankless. Expected to work outside of school hours, teachers give it their all to reach ambitious targets and the gratitude they get is to get berated by the media and the government for not doing enough.

Where there has been success, often schools look at where they can improve further rather than celebrating the victory and giving staff a pat on the back.

Of course schools should strive for improvement but too often teachers are blamed for things that are outside of their control. Where are the mini-victories to make the challenging battle more manageable?

Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust

If schools do not start to focus on staff morale then we fear that many a gifted teacher will see their talents rust away and we will continue to see teachers leaving the profession.

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