We Can Have Both

Some time ago when at a teacher training recruitment event a chap interested in teaching maths asked me if we’d figured out how to do it yet. We’d been at it for a while now so surely we must have it sorted and teaching made significantly straightforward and easy by following the logical slot ‘a’ into tab ‘b’ procedure that leads to learning.

Obviously, being a more rounded and wider thinking literature graduate and English teacher, I extended sympathy towards the poor fellow and his simplistic view of life shaped by years of certain answers and equations with clear patterns and formulae. Of course there is no ‘way’ to do it. That’s what makes the job so interesting, diverse and stimulating. The human agency of teacher and student and the almost endless possibilities created by the various computations of adult and child and combinations of children in different groups for different subjects, the excitement of a subject that enthralls them, the persistence in the face of those that provide more of a challenge are what gives the variety and reward. Although thinking about it the chap at the event could perhaps have generated an algorithm to work these things out.

And yet I read more and more about different attempts to generate checklists, scripts and models that would seemingly reduce the need to take this human agency into account. I can see the appeal of these. Life would be more straightforward, no need to worry about the differing needs of different groups, no need for planning, assessment could almost run itself and a simple behavioural system generated and administered centrally would remove the need to worry about building relationships with any children.

I’m not suggesting that these materials, curricula and lessons won’t be of high quality. That descends into an either/or debate which is reductive and unhelpful. There are without doubt a range of people with huge levels of expertise in creation of subject materials or assessment (some of whom don’t even have twitter accounts – I know!) and building curriculum models who will and should be sharing this expertise and providing ideas and resources for us all. It would be petulant to not see the value in this and want to make something of it but I wonder in this era of polarization and seeking of ‘the answer’ whether this is fast becoming all we look for and value and what gets left behind in the process.

Imagine yourself at the finest restaurant, designed with architecture as classical or as modern as your heart desires with food prepared from the finest (probably locally sourced if TV chefs are to be believed) ingredients and blended into the most wonderful culinary creations you could ever contemplate. Then picture your waiter/waitress. What do you have in mind?

I’d imagine it’s someone who knows the menu inside and out, can make recommendations, wine suggestions. Someone that can answer your questions and make you feel like they are interested in you and want to make sure that you get everything possible from the meal. A full experience that goes further than the simple filling of a belly with fuel to get you through.

Someone who can do that does more than just serve food and no matter how well prepared that food is and how fantastic the ingredients simply won’t take anything from the meal – or want to return – if it’s missing.

As I’ve said already I’m not saying we shouldn’t want subject specific excellence or work to build teacher experience and expertise in whatever field it is they’ve decided to teach but let’s not leave out the more complex relational work that is essential if we want this curriculum work to have the impact that we want and need it to. Your well prepared ingredients left on the very expensive and stylish plates and dishes they were dumped on the table on.

Someone posted question on Twitter in the week asking if scripted lessons and policies could lead to a deskilling of the profession and when you combine this with funding cuts meaning schools may start to look at people other than teachers to deliver a scripted curriculum (if it’s all written for them why do you need the qualifications?) then there is a definite possibility that a certain skillset interns of relational work could well be lost and I think we and our schools will be poorer for it.

As a form teacher I can remember getting home from school and turning round to drive back to discuss with (for discuss read go ballistic at) another teacher what they’d said to a member of my form. I used to walk my form to assembly and take them for fire drills and feel they were an extension of me. I made the calls home, wanted to know where they were, why they were late etc. I felt responsibility for them and their actions and shared their hurt and their successes. As more support roles were introduced the distance between form teacher and home seemed to grow, or at least could if you let it, and while this meant greater efficiencies (they could make the calls home there and then etc) and certainly reduced workload I fear that in a number of cases it reduced the relationship and lessened the support. I remember opposing vehemently the suggestion that heads of subject shouldn’t have tutor groups – what a way to signify that pastoral roles are less valuable! When we allocate roles and jobs in school to people other than teachers we have to be vigilant for any signs that these jobs don’t lose their status and their work starts to be seen as less important as a result. If we genuinely want to educate our students and enable them to make a better world we have to look at more rounded ways to shape this future than replacing Harry Potter with Homer and thinking that will do the job. Children need help working out the world and how to be part of it and that needs to be more than being told “I know better” as this doesn’t really deliver without an understanding of why.

So let’s keep developing the subject expertise, building the curriculum and assessment models. Let’s continue to look at the range of roles we need in schools and make sure that the people with the capacity and the expertise to best support our students and ensure they are able to learn and make the most of every opportunity afforded them – I work with one of the best behaviour support mentors you could wish for. But let’s not do so at the expense of recognising the importance of, and rewards that come from, the relational work that we as classroom teachers do. To do a terrible disservice to a great work in search of a snappy finish the human agency in our classrooms might be harder to unpick and understand than criteria, and riskier to work with, but when it’s realised it can be bloody beautiful.

Go well

Don’t you know? Don’t you care? Don’t you know – about Love?

Oh Christ, he's using Freire..abandon hope all who enter here...

Oh Christ, he’s using Freire..abandon hope all who enter here…

 

I remember a poster appearing in the kitchen of my halls of residence some time between the warm bottle of free Labatt’s Ice we were given during fresher’s week and the point we realised that we might have to hide our U2 tapes and pretend to like Jeff Buckley if were to hope to maintain any of the mystique of cool we might have arrived with. Either that or get a telly. The poster in question was, I think, put up by the student arm of the Socialist Worker and celebrated the fact that a student at another university had been chased off the campus and been forced to leave for holding extreme right wing views. His views did seem abhorrent to my way of thinking and my approach to life but all the same it seemed to me that forcing him out of education and institutions where we should champion freedom of speech and expression was a case of using the tactics of those that were supposed to disgust his opponents to get rid of him.

This kind of extremism is always something that I’ve had trouble with and while I’ve held very firm convictions myself – and still do – I’ve tried to always be willing to listen to some of the ideas being expressed in opposition and see if there’s some way to find something in the other person’s argument that was worth taking on board. I’ve not always been very good at it I’ll admit but it’s a starting point. I’ve written and spoken before about the concept of I’m Ok, You’re Ok and always working hard to see everyone else in a positive light, somewhere, possibly deeply hidden, but somewhere. Like I say I’m not always that successful in maintaining that viewpoint but I think some of that comes from my mum who always inserts a “try to” when saying the line in The Lord’s Prayer about forgiving others for their trespasses.

It’s the apparent disappearance of this willingness to see any value whatsoever in the views or opinions of others that led me to duck out of Twitter for a bit. I’ve recently been reading James Hoggan’s book on the state of public discourse, “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot” and this with the backdrop of a Trump electoral campaign, itself coming hot on the heels of a referendum result that seemed to embolden a wide range of extreme views and groups, was enough to make me start to get quite agitated. Hoggan makes a quite simple point that there is no validity in describing what you do as dialogue or debate if all you are interested in doing is battering the other person until they concede that your idea or stance is the only one and abandon their own. And on twitter of late this seems to be brought about to a greater extent but calling up a group of friends (pack of wolves?!) through quoted retweet or similar. This is why I think a number of debates are stale or lame. Not because there is no merit in discussion but parties only want to carry on the debate to prove they are the ones in the right or and to satiate ego not further exploration and discovery. As Freire (and that’ll be enough to enrage some!) put it,

How can I enter into a dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never see my own? How can I enter into dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men – mere ‘its’ in whom I cannot recognise other ‘I’s? How can I enter into dialogue if I consider myself to be part of the in-group of ‘pure’ men, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ‘these people’ or ‘the great unwashed’? 

The other way this extremism has manifested is in extreme standpoints on a range of issues, all of which again remove the chances for any true dialogue and progress. I am happy to concede that there are behavioural issues that need to be addressed in almost all schools and that it is a key part of what we do to to develop better, positive behaviours in the young people we work with if they aren’t there already but I distance myself from the suggestion that schools are war zones. I am sure that there are leaders who are so focused on results and data for fear of their own vulnerable positions that they find it hard to protect staff from this leading to extra burden and workload that others have found strategies to fend off and the confidence and support to resist but I can’t subscribe to the view that senior leaders automatically transform into bastards at the moment of appointment. I am equally sure that in a number of schools there are teachers who struggle to cope with the classes they have and are disillusioned with the profession and need support and energy to enable them to see what they joined the profession for but I find it just as difficult to condemn these teachers to the scrapheap or ‘put a bomb under them’ as I do to swallow the ‘blame SLT’ mantra.

So dear reader (and I use the singular advisedly) I began to tire. I have also opened a new school and taken the lead on pastoral matters which is guaranteed to emotionally impact on you, and this coupled with the loss of my dad in the first week of term left me a little open to being scarred and as I’ve got quite an impulsive nature and can respond based on this with little recourse to thought and consideration at the best of times I decided to take a little time out to refresh and refocus.

But I’m back now…

I started my rebirth with a tweet about how everyone seems to have started to hate kids and part of my reason to return (hopefully in a reasonable state of mind) is the worry caused by lots of what I’ve read recently and what it seems to suggest about the way people are considering children. I hope I’m not right and have been overly sensitive but something makes me think I’m not when I see responses to these views being challenged.

There seems to be a pervading view that children don’t have that much to offer and bring little to the table. That they are ignorant vessels with little idea how to behave who are unworthy of interaction and dialogue. Who need to obey and bow down to the greatness of the teacher simply because we are the teacher and accept our greatness whether we demonstrate any worthiness of it or not.

At this point in most posts I’d dropping something about exaggerating for effect but this time I’m not and while I’m not quoting word for word what’s been written and have amalgamated some phrases this isn’t far off what’s been said.

Now before I wander into hypocrisy and looking like I don’t swallow my own calpol (nostalgic reference to get you back on side) raising my concerns here doesn’t mean I don’t think that students should behave (duh), or that we don’t have things to teach them. That they can all get it through Google or be left alone in a classroom to explore their way to exam success or personal development. But I certainly question that they have nothing to offer, that they have no idea how to behave or moral framework unless we impose one on them or that they need to unquestioningly obey. What concerns me (or let’s be honest starts to anger me) is that these ideas seem to be applied most readily to students in disadvantaged communities as if we have made decision as a profession that the wealthier kids will automatically behave while the poor ones need it drummed in to them and can only be saved by some sort of modern day missionary taking civilisation to the savages – very much an I’m Ok, You’re Not mentality.

I’ve spent my life and my career in disadvantaged communities and schools and my current role means I spend time with the students who are some of the most complex in times of emotional and educational need, display the most challenging behaviours and, when I work with some families in my capacity as safeguarding lead, have been involved and exposed to some of the darkest parts of human nature. Do I want them to improve behaviour? Yes. Do I want them to make greater progress academically? Yes Do I view them as lesser people because they aren’t doing these things yet? No.

Every student in my school has shown me that they can do what is asked of them and what is required for them to make a success of their time with us. There’s not one who doesn’t know what good behaviour is and hasn’t felt the glow when they get it right either in terms of actions or classroom tasks. Who hasn’t held a door, or said good morning, or please or thank you, who doesn’t stand up when an adult enters the room. And yet these would be exactly the sort of students that seem to be in the minds of those espousing this form of obedience. Self esteem and self efficacy are they keys to ensuring these students are able to demonstrate these things each and every day and, most importantly, want to do them as they see the intrinsic value and impact of their actions as something more than avoiding being told off. I know these students will respond to negative reinforcement – they get it everywhere – but I don’t think we are really offering educational excellence if we use the same methods.

I also worry about other impacts of this approach and the detrimental effect it could have on students’ feelings of safety and community, of being part of something. If we consider our students to be of lower status with views that are less valid and as someone who shouldn’t be taught to challenge and question in the safe environment of a school, with teachers comfortable enough in themselves to allow the development of true discussion and argument ,will they have the skills to question those around them with less noble motives? Think back through safeguarding training and your Prevent agenda work and consider what you went through when identifying what made students vulnerable. If we don’t develop self esteem and we look at any group of students as ‘these people’ or the ‘great unwashed’ of Freire in our classrooms then they can be in danger of starting to look elsewhere for this affirmation.

The thing is I can see the appeal of this mindset. It takes time to develop self esteem in a young person, it’s very quick to put them in their place and tell them to obey. The same can be said for enabling children to understand number, or metaphor, or to be able to analyse a source. It’s much easier and quicker to just tell them the answers and have them repeat them back. But none of these are long term approaches and all provide false comfort for a struggling or inexperienced teacher looking to gain some success and confidence, or equally to the headteacher expecting a visit from a luminary and wanting to give an appearance of order and educational advancement. Yes, the kids all stood and recited Shakespeare and were neat and tidy while you glowered and drilled it into them for the local MP or Secretary of State but how many understood the words they were saying, could remember it a month later or gave a damn about what they’d read and said afterwards? I once asked Hirsch if we were in danger of cultural reproduction but sometimes I feel we’re in danger of not even achieving that as we look for quick wins and only really manage cultural imitation. We’re not even giving these students the knowledge to join the club, we’re kidding them (and ourselves?) that we are while the doors stay firmly shut and those inside relax in their leather chairs.

I’ve documented how I came to work with The Inspiration Trust and to be in my job before but when I think back the starting point was my umbrage at the thought of someone coming along and seeming to suggest they had all of the answers to offer to us poor little Norfolk people muddling along in our confused little ways without any recognition of what he had to offer. I was wrong two years ago and am prepared to be wrong now. I hope I’m wrong now, because while I’m prepared to listen and take on board ideas and suggestions I can’t comprehend or countenance an approach to teaching huge numbers young people seemingly based around seeing them as of lesser value and a belief that they are lacking any civility.

Bet you’ve missed me…

Lots of Love

Colin