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

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