Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Teacher In Babylon

Pieter Bruegel The Elder: The Tower of Babel (1563)

What fear can be left in a man who has been both Secretary of State and Learning Support Assistant, who has experienced the pride of being made special advisor and the ignominy of stress-related illness, I feel it now, as I set out to recount the part of my life spent as an educator in Babylon, in the knowledge that no audience can exist for such an account, neither here nor in Babylon itself. Here, Swift's work casts a pall over the endeavour from the start. A search for meaning will ignore the facts of the tale. A sifting for facts will lose its meanings. The rarefying atmosphere of debate will reduce any outcome to that emptiest of denominations: satire.  In Babylon, there can be no dichotomies. Satire is unimaginable, and an audience unconscionable.

Borges has described Babylon's arcane laws (they are all arcane) and heretical philosophies (they are all heretical)*. Less understood is Babylon's influence on all his writings. Bulgakov never confessed to visiting the place, though the world sensed its presence in his words, and warned him that "to publish [his] novel would cause terrible things."** I stand at the foot of these giants and will attempt only to avail myself of a description of the education system in that other place. Perhaps nothing will be learned from it.

As with all decisions in Babylon, a lottery draw determined that my fate would be to serve in education, and many more decided my promotions, demotions and periods of stability, my students, my colleagues and the subjects to be taught and learned. A career, in that other place, can not be conceived as a linear progression. Neither can learning. All is subject to the whims of chance, to the vicissitudes of fate. A lottery draw decreed when it was time for me to leave.

In Babylon, I have worked under the admonishing gaze of inspectors and laboured under the oppressive openness of professional freedom. Both filled me with terror, both with untold joy. In both I have failed, and in both succeeded.  Once tasked with re-writing the inspection framework, I failed to make a single edit. I was rewarded, or punished, with paid sabbatical leave. I have read inspection frameworks, before and since, that have been at turns liberatingly unfathomable, interestingly cryptic, and dizzyingly simple. I am uncertain how inspection has played any part in mine or anyone else's learning in Babylon. I know only that I can see no purpose in it here. I see value in it, but the idea of purpose fills me with dread.

In Babylon too, I have taught the sons and daughters of  poor communities, and those of powerful dynasties. What I taught was not always what was learned and what I learned was not always what I taught. My methods have been praised and pilloried by progressive pedagogues. Traditionalists have payed tribute to them and treated them with contempt in equal measures. No commentary on my teaching ever caused in me any emotion, nor any deliberate change in my practice. How could they, when the lottery determined my teaching as well as the judgements? No targets for improvement could be inferred from either. Some wisdom, perhaps, was to be gained by both.

How to communicate a Babylonian education? There, there is no education system. There is the lottery, of which education is an element of indeterminate size and value. There is education, of which teaching is an equally immeasurable aspect. Learning happens in accordance with the luck of a draw. Some have tried to find correlation between lesson plans and eventual outcomes. Others have proven that prayer and complete abandon, horoscopes and school improvement plans are equally ineffective predictors of the future. Yet, the lottery determines that all of these rituals continue to be observed, and that research into their effectiveness continue to be carried out.

Since coming home, I have been unable to return to the ways of my upbringing. I will make no secret of the fact that I have missed the mysteries and manifold destinies of each moment there, that part of me resents the monotony of life's manifest fate here. I had hoped that writing this would help me to make sense of my experience, to close the door once and for all on Babylon, but as the dread sense of loss leaves me, it is replaced with a new and more troubling thought, a creeping apprehension that Babylon has followed me home.

* Jorge Luis Borges. Collected Fictions. Tr. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin 1998
**Elena Bulgakova's diary, May 14th, 1939.

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Measure of Success

In response to this.

I came back from my grandmother's funeral in Scotland, rather earlier than I wanted. Before I even got on the plane to go, I got a phone call.

"JL, I'm sorry to disturb you, but we've had the call from Ofsted and they're coming Monday and Tuesday. I've been asked to call you to find out if there's any chance you can come back early."

I travelled back Monday night, feeling like a traitor to my family, especially my grandad.

Tuesday morning, period 1, and the most challenging class of children the school had to offer: The inspector walks in. I had the lesson plan, the 'learning file' with all the data, the objectives on the board. He stayed 30 minutes. He went. If there's a set number of times your heart's going to beat in your lifetime, that half hour will have knocked two or three hours off at the other end.


"How do you think it went?"

"Well, I know Rhys wasn't engaged. You'll have seen from the learning file that I've tried everything and I'm still struggling with him. At least he wasn't disruptive today, and he actually seemed attentive. Joe called out a couple of times, but it was relevant to the lesson and ..."

He stopped me. He proceeded to read his notes to me. Four pages of them. It wasn't until the fourth page that it dawned on me what he was saying. He told me he thought the lesson was outstanding, that it was the best evidence of language acquisition he'd seen in 41 school inspections he'd carried out. That he ...

He stopped again. I was crying. (How proud my gran would've been.) He asked why. I explained. He was appalled. He told me he'd been directed to my lesson by SLT, when evidently they ought to have done the opposite to protect me. I didn't care at that point. I was walking on air.

Later it dawned on me that the very same managers who consistently rated me 'poor' or 'satisfactory' were directing Ofsted inspectors to my lessons. Not just once, but every single time. If you don't know what Special Measures is like, you get HMI monitoring inspections at least once per term. We were in Special Measures four years. Every inspection, it was my lesson period 1 on the first day, no matter what subject I taught.

A week later in our team meeting, the Head of Department congratulates everyone and gives me a special mention for the excellent feedback SLT received about my teaching. All of the school's 'Coaching Team' are in my department, the very same who repeatedly tell me how poor I am.

"So JL, it would be really good to see your lesson plan for that lesson."

"Ummm... Well, you can, but you won't find what made it good on the lesson plan."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it wasn't about the learning activities, really. It was about the rapport."

"You mean the differentiation?"

"No. I did that. There's support and challenge for each activity on the plan, but that's not what he was interested in. It was about more than the lesson. It was about... Rapport, y'know"

"You mean the way you got the lesson started and linked to prior learning?"

"No. He missed the starter, but the kids were referring to prior learning in the lesson. As I say, I don't think it was about that, though. I think it was about... Rapport."

"Maybe you can explain to us what you mean by rapport?"

"Well, I care about them, and they care back. Most of the time they have me ripping my hair out, but they know I care, and when they know I'm being judged, they rally round. I was amazed at how much they remembered and had taken on, to be honest."

"So how do you measure that care, JL? Do you use student surveys? Questionnaires?"

"Measure? No. I give it out and I don't count it back in. I call home. I speak to them in the corridors and in the playground. I ask them about their lives and their families. I remember stuff, and I'm always there when they need me. There was no expectation it would ever come back to me, and they knew that."

"You give stuff out? Like resources? Rewards?"

"Only when they really need it or have really deserved it, but that's not what I meant."

"Maybe we haven't got time for it in this meeting, JL, but it would be great if you could still email us the lesson plan for that lesson."


I can't help but think that given the time, they'd have got together a research project to fire me and another teacher hurtling in opposite directions through the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in the hope that by fragmenting the matter of the thing, they might find the God Particle, The Higgs Boson of teaching, what gives teaching mass and makes it matter.

They never got the time. And they never did fire me, down a tunnel or otherwise.

I left.

It's taken all the willpower I have to fight back from that and to stay in the profession. I've long since stopped looking for the Boson. That way lie only black holes and 'spooky action at a distance'. I get that it's important to measure and to parcel out and to make sense of things out there in the world, but it's also important to remember that we have an inner world without which the outer world can make no sense.

That doesn't make for great politics, but it does make for great teaching.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Your Education Will Not Be Improvised

After Gil Scott-Heron
(Original here. Lyrics here)

You will not be able stay home, brother.
You will not be able to turn off, tune out or drop maths.
You will not be able to lose yourself in dreams or skip out for play during lunchtimes because
Your education will not be improvised.

Your education will not be improvised.
Your education will not be brought to you by Minecraft on iPads 
without teacher interruptions.
Your education will not live up to adverts with teachers blowing bugles
or leading the charge like a Coach Carter, Iris Stevenson
or Samuel Pickering, Jr.
to eat haute cuisine concocted in Jamie Oliver’s ‘The Fifteen’.
Your education will not be improvised.

Your education will not be brought to you by or with any theatre.
It will not star Harper Lee, John Steinbeck or anyone not British.
Your education will not give you more self-esteem.
Your education will not get rid of your stress.
Your education will probably make you a whole lot thinner because
Your education will not be improvised, brother.

There will be no pictures of you and your best mate
pushing an Iceland trolley into a canal on YouTube
or trying to take the interactive whiteboard off the classroom wall.
The BBC will not be allowed to publish leaked reports of exam failures
or academy take-overs.
Your education will not be improvised.

There will be no pictures of Ministers shutting down schools with their deliberate policies.
There will be no pictures of Ministers shutting down schools with their deliberate policies.
There will be no pictures of Ken Robinson being run out of England on a rail 
for his brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of cool kids walking down the corridor
with their hands in their pockets and chatting.
They can save that for some other occasion.
Bad Education, Waterloo Road, and Educating Essex will no longer seem so damned relevant,
and parents will not care if teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented droves
because their kids will be in classrooms 
working for a brighter day.
Your education will not be improvised.

There will be no criticisms in the local or national news
and no pictures of scary-faced anti-Academy liberationists 
or Nicky Morgan holding her nose.
The theme song will not be produced by Daft Punk or Will.I.Am,
nor sung by Adele, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran or anyone who won the X Factor.
Your education will not be improvised.

Your education will not stray off task, all thanks to messages
contained in white papers, from Whitehall, written by white people.
You will not have to worry about group work in your classroom,
ever being asked to think, 
or if your education is whole.
Your education will not go better with Google.
Your education will not fight the GERM and may cause bad debt.
Your education will put you in the passenger seat.

Your education will not be improvised, will not be improvised,
will not be improvised, will not be improvised.
Your education won’t have no re-sits brother.

Your education will be scripted.