Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Shifting Grades of Pay (So Sexy It Hurts)

I wrote here about teachers reclaiming their classrooms, and here about reclaiming their curriculum.  The following is an exploration of how we can bring these outcomes about.  It starts with reclaiming our narrative.

The number of education stories in  the media is staggering, and the competitive nature of the news market means content producers are trying to out-do each other to stay relevant. From #EducatingCardiff to #edubill tweet-alongs, from relentless promotion of new research to equally relentless assaults on the same, from airing the baseless pronouncements of those who should know better to those of politicians who crave the public's attention, from 10 things you need to know about a newly anointed leader, to 6 bits of advice the said leader will never read, the education press is hot, and that can only mean one thing.

Education is sexy. (Sir Michael will be pleased.)

Sir Michael Wilshaw: A gentleman in public and a Master in the classroom.
I don't blame you for thinking I'm a basket case.  It's cliche by now to say that teaching has never been more demanding. We all feel the pressure of this relentless media and political onslaught.  We're all desperately trying to make sense of whether or not technology can be a good tool for learning. We're all trying to navigate our way through pedagogical approaches that one day are touted as silver bullets and the next flouted like rabid hounds. And we're all driven to distraction by targets and progress measures the formulae for which has both mathematicians and everyone else completely puzzled.  Formulae it takes a politician to invent and a culture of fear to accept unquestionably. Formulae as reflective of student progress as your average Educating Cardiff comment thread is about human progress.

I'm still trying to work out whether academies are a good idea, and look at that! I'm in one.  I was just devising the best way to deliver this course based on years of experience, and would you believe it? It no longer exists.  Levels? What levels?  An AS? What's that? At least I'm safely in a good school, right? Coasting, you say? What does that mean?

Education reform is moving on apace, and something that needs that much fixing can only be very, very bad, right? Not necessarily.  If you think education is the proverbial whipping boy for all of our social justice ailments, think again.

Tough love: Spare the rod. Spoil the teacher.
I repeat: Education is sexy, albeit it a 50 Shades kind of sexy.  Whipping is involved, to be sure, but it's carried out with mutual consent, in a contracted sort of a way, for the pleasure of both parties.  If you don't enjoy it, you know the safety words.  Depending on circumstance, they vary from "stress-related illness" to the simpler "I quit".  More and more are choosing the "I quit" option, fewer and fewer are seeing the appeal of a dominant-submissive relationship with Nicky Morgan, and the result is a recruitment and retention crisis.

False Dichotomies

This consensus in education hasn't come about by chance, but by design.  It isn't a coincidence that in the face of the crisis cited above, the Honourable Nick Gibb, MP is often heard to utter the complete opposite.  Why! There's never been a better time to be a teacher!  The education reform movement, regardless of which government has been in power, has signed  teachers up to an inevitable decline in their working conditions, their pay and, underpinning it all, their professional status.

Progs v Trads: The Eternal Return of the Same
Argue all you like about pedagogy, behaviour and learning, about personal development, values and engagement, (and they are important) but our debates are all false dichotomies served for our consumption.  They feed our belief that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems we face, that if we can find the right wording, that if we can just persuade those who disagree, that if people weren't just so plain stupid, that if the right government with the right mandate could just get into power, that if we could design and carry out the right research with the right effect size, we wouldn't face this onslaught anymore. Mr Grey would love us the way we want to be loved.

But education is not one beautiful, fragile, shackled body. Education is what each one of us does, and Mr Grey is playing us against each other for his attention, while he holds the whip hand.  Our arguments are as redundant as they are demeaning.  We are unwittingly begging for punishment by it, and then observe with fey looks on our faces as yet more decisions are made each day that, ultimately, impact on those we care for - our students as well as our families.

A Culture Of Fear

Education is messy.  There is no strategy.  There is only a toolkit.  There are no guarantees, only relatively safe bets.  No certainties, only trial and error.  We all get it wrong, and we are all dedicated to fixing it when we do.

And yet we have been sold on the myth that it is a controllable, measurable process, and that myth is what shackles us as professionals and makes us vulnerable.  It is what has allowed a market in consultancy and pre-packaged resources to arise, the ranks of supply agencies to swell with amazing teachers, and the wholesale introduction of unqualified teachers across schools.  Who better to replace us with, after all, than someone even more vulnerable?  How better to degrade us than to let us know our assets are actually an encumbrance?  How more effectively to reduce the wage bill than to introduce a free market race to the bottom for the services we provide?

The insidious thing about a culture of fear is the dependency it breeds and feeds upon.  Freedom at first seems like an unattainable ideal, and then a dreadful prospect.  What would we do if people stopped telling us what to do?  Who would protect us?  Mr Grey isn't perfect, but at least I don't have to Tinder.

Crisis? What crisis?: Mr Grey's favourite position.
The good news is that power-hungry Mr Grey has over-played his whip.  The relentless pressure he's been applying is threatening to undermine his entire edifice.  A little nudge at the right time, and he'll be caught with his trousers down, a cat o' nine tails raised and waving an unendearing semi to a half-empty room.

So, what's the nudge? And what happens after?

So Sexy It Hurts

The first rule of Flight Club seems to be that you do not talk about Flight Club.  This needs to change.

A Clean break?: Don't wash your hands of the whole profession.
The nudge, simply, is to open the doors to the red classrooms of pain, to make public what has been kept private.  Disown the stigma of mental health issues and let the world know the causes and consequences of teacher stress.  Disown the shame of under-performance and publish the stories of over-management.  Disown the fear of unemployment and embrace the opportunities of the teacher shortage. Flip the narrative. Embrace your sexiness and strike while the education press is hot.

What happens after is, as it should always have been, up to us.

Imagine schools rooted in their local communities and engaged with global issues, instead of ones rooted in global competitiveness and disjointed from their local context.

Imagine a profession that has space for traditionalists and progressives (whatever they are), for chalkboards and smartboards, for Maths and the Arts, for Science and Citizenship, for the trivium and trivia, for knowledge and skills.

Imagine an education system that has time for all these things and your well-being.

Imagine a sustainable model for education, one founded on trust in the professional judgement of its teachers.

Until then, join the refrain.

I'm too sexy for your contract, too sexy for your targets, too sexy for your INSET.
I'm too sexy for dichotomies, too sexy for league tables, too sexy for your PISA.
So sexy it hurts.

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