Monday, 30 May 2016

The Teacher With A Thousand Faces

"Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us."
 Joseph Campbell - The Power of Myth

"I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity." 
Friedrich Nietzsche - Twilight of the Idols

I - The Beginning

In the beginning was the word, and the word needed teaching, and the teacher was made flesh. In the beginning the classroom was empty and bounteous, like a secret garden. The word adorned the wall displays. The cupboards were stocked. All things obeyed a natural order and ever would. In the beginning the world was flat, and East was East. In the beginning, there was time, too. Kronos reigned, and the titanic ringing of the bell had not yet been heard. In the beginning Zarathustra stood before the sun to address it. The teacher rehearsed her plan, in her element.

II - The Call to Adventure

In that wait so like every other wait, a shadow is cast. A serpent enters. A message is received. Perhaps she sees an unknown face walking purposefully up the corridor, and presupposes an unannounced inspection, or an intruder. Perhaps a child walks in, in excitement, in tears, in silence. Perhaps a colleague walks by and smiles incongruously, or fails to conspicuously. The computer crashes or the projector is extinguished. She realises an error or an omission and falters. Her plan, juncture of past and future, seems now as if written by the rules of another language, a foreign philosophy.

III - Crossing the Threshhold

The last minute before the bell stretches indefinitely towards an uncertain fate. The teacher stands on the threshold but daren't enter. She can only dwell. For a moment, she is Edith, looking back upon the wreckage of the past. For another Orpheus, looking for some certainty about the future. But her destiny is neither to become a pillar of salt, nor a lyre-player to an indifferent world. The world teems with giants upon whose shoulders to stand, and the word must be taught.

IV - The Supreme Ordeal

In that interminable minute, she must reclaim her power, her place, her present. In every corner of the room stand ghosts: the observer, the inspector, the mentor, the parent, the colleague, the trainee, the journalist, the Secretary of State herself. Each inspires fear, but the time of her navel-gazing is over. She is Appollo, entering the temple of the oracle to slay Pytho, coiled upon the omphalos. She is The Boy Who Lived plotting the death of Nagini. She crushes the serpent's head, and the serpent bruises her heel. As the spectres fade, she learns that she has no worse critic than herself.

V - The Road Back

The ticking of the clock urges her on now. Twenty seconds are left, or twenty years. After blinding the Cyclops, Odysseus sets sail. She adapts her plan, checks, changes course and returns in ever-decreasing circles, pushed on by the winds of East, North and South. She ties herself to the mast to resist the siren songs. Nothing will tempt her from her path. No alien pedagogies will alter her practice. No management culture will undermine her professionalism.

VI - The Transformation

And so, by way of the West she returns from the East. The world is no longer flat, and her time is now hers. A thousand faces she has worn on her journey to find herself, to discover that she is no hero. A thousand more will she wear to help her students on their separate paths. She lives no longer in myth. Myth lives in her, and each child will find their struggle reflected in her eyes.

VII - The (Eternal) Return

The bell rings. She opens the door to her class of heroes - each, like her, on their way to learning and re-learning their humanity. It is circle time.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Atlas Mugged

“If you don't know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.” 

Atlas's classroom had no doors. Its roof was the dome of the sky, which he held aloft, that his students may be free of the whims of capricious gods. This burden he bore without complaint, but men too can be capricious.

When Atlas taught, shadows held no fear. Children wondered at the light, and the shapes and meanings of the world outside and the one inside were revealed to them by and by. Stories were often told that never ended, though truths and questions were sometimes arrived at. Some of these the children forgot. Some they recalled. Some they couldn't recall, yet had not forgotten.

Whether the earth beneath him grew smaller, or whether men grew larger cannot now be ascertained. I suspect we only grew more numerous, but my conjectures are not to be trusted. Others apocryphally suggest that in his twilight hour, Zeus played one final trick upon the world and Atlas

Holding court at his ankles, some men began to tell stories with endings. Others, to ask questions they already knew the answers to. Had they attended more closely to their role as teachers, they may have made better students, but teaching and learning were not their preoccupation. Their eyes fixed upon an empty empyrean, they had begun to sense power.

Before long, some stood upon the god's bent knee and proclaimed their privilege. "Children should learn their place," rained down their words. Atlas did not shrug.

Emboldened, others outdid the first and stood upon his arched back, declaiming mankind's freedom. "Children should learn their power," they announced mellifluously and without discernible irony. Atlas yet did not shrug.

Arrogantly, yet more overtook them. They perched upon his straining shoulders and laid claim to the horizon. "Children should learn their facts," was their military mantra. Still, Atlas did not shrug.

Then came the day that one man climbed into Atlas's ear. History records his name as John Galt. He spoke, and his voice echoed out like a clarion call from that titanic cave, which had once reverberated with the sound of Zeus's own thunder.

"Long have you carried the celestial sphere aloft, for Gods who abandoned you here between Heaven and Earth. Now it is time to set your burden down, for we are the masters of our destiny."

Atlas obeyed.

What abyss we fell into then, or fell upon us, no one can say, for no map of it exists and we have lost the art of storytelling. Evidence cannot completely discount the theory that Atlas lifted us out of it, and still to this day has not shrugged.

In my sleep I see him there, holding up the world and trampling the heavens underfoot, with all-too-human grit but no fire left to teach.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Defining Teacher Professionalism

A talk to the College of Teaching conference 
Sheffield Hallam University Institute of Education
May 4th, 2016

I’m a teacher. A bog standard, run-of-the-mill, common variety teacher.  So why on Earth am I here? I’ve been invited to talk today about defining teacher professionalism, but who am I to do that?

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you about how I came to be on this stage, and how I think we can all put our profession onto a surer footing. It’s a story in 3 acts.  It has a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution. Without further ado then, I give you... 

Act I: The Setup

I’ve been in the classroom for 12 years and my career hasn’t been a straightforward one. Whose is? Sparing you the details, two years ago I hit a wall. My health left me and I was left contemplating never seeing the inside of a classroom again, and it horrified me. Teaching’s perhaps unique in this: that a day off sick is wracked with guilt, and a week feels like fighting withdrawal. Imagine three months.

How did it come about? Six of the eight years I worked at my previous school were spent in special measures. (It wasn’t all my doing, I promise!) In that time, I saw three different headteachers come and go, each with their own version of ‘What Ofsted wants’, and their own regime for achieving it. Sometimes more than one regime! Simultaneously! All stratagems and no strategy.  All motto and no ethos.

I can’t do justice in the time I’ve got to the instability of working in that climate. I saw colleagues made redundant and others pushed out; I saw many leave the school, and some leave the profession altogether. Most were outstanding. All were capable of being. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up with it all. I still can’t shake the feeling that we were all set up to fail.

If I can draw a parallel, it seems to me the teaching profession is itself at that stage, with a recruitment and retention ‘challenge’, incidence of mental health problems said to be on the rise among teachers and students, and a constantly shifting framework of policy and accountability.
Like I was, I think the teaching profession is down, but not out. I knew I didn’t want to be anything less than a teacher. And it was that belief that got me back on my feet and back in the classroom.  As teachers, we know we don’t want to be anything less than trusted professionals, and it is this belief that will get us back into the policy making circle. Let’s face it: Right now, we are nowhere near it.

We need to believe policies have our interests and those of our students at heart, and we need to believe in ourselves and our ability to implement those policies. Without that, nothing in education can ever truly succeed, because teaching is an ethical profession.

I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be ethical professionals.  Through it, we should look to decide for ourselves what standards we will be held to, and what training we want and need. In other words, what is valuable to us, what makes us valuable, and what our values are. Without that, we have no professional identity. We are left with nothing but the labels others pin on us to define us.

Anyway, enough about the college. Let’s talk about me.

Act II: The Confrontation

It was very odd approaching teaching again after time out, after leaving a school whose community, as leader of parental engagement, I had worked so hard with, and whose families had worked their way into my heart. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. So I was wary of investing myself emotionally again. Of course, you can’t teach like that. You can’t play it safe. At least I can’t – not very well. As teachers we confront so many problems, our own and others’.

What I realised after a while was that I was actually in a position of some strength. Until that point, I felt schools were shopping for us, for me, with their job specifications and person specifications, essential and desirable skills, and I had to dress myself up on paper to meet their requirements. It also meant I had to be competitive. I had to beat you to the job.

That protectionism that came, for me, as a result of my illness, led me to a new position: I was shopping for an employer who wouldn’t treat me like that again. And you know what? It had nothing to do with Ofsted ratings or league table rankings, and everything to do with ethos. (Remember ethos? That was Act I.)  I was shopping for a school as much as a school was shopping for a teacher, and it made every conversation about a job a confrontation on equal terms.

But no confrontation is easy.  And perhaps that’s why teaching isn’t. Daily we are confronted with choices to make, students to prioritise, and a workload that keeps on growing.

What keeps me going is knowing that I’m supported. When I got back on my feet, I had support from so many that I can’t list them all here. Chief among them my union, ex-colleagues, teacher friends, and even an Ofsted inspector who’d once walked into my classroom and made me cry. (Long story. Great guy.) I started tweeting, and found I’d wandered into the largest staffroom in the world.

We need to be supported as teachers. When we make our tough choices on a daily basis, we need to be trusted to make them. We need to be autonomous, but not alone, in making those choices. And we need to know that when we make mistakes, we are no less professional, because we learn from them. Building on that, we need to be partners in the development of education policy, be it in our schools, our multi-academy trusts, our regions or nationally, because teaching is a collaborative profession.

I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be collaborative professionals. With it, we should look to build networks of support for every aspect of our practice so that we never confront a new situation alone. Without that, we have no professional society. We are each walking a tightrope, which I’m sure you’re alright with, but as for me...

it’s a beautiful risk too far without a safety net.

Act III – A Resolution

As part of my fightback to fitness, I made a resolution. I’ve never stuck to one before, but this one has stuck to me. I decided to take charge of my own CPD and to look beyond my classroom walls. I started tweeting, as I mentioned before, but I also started attending conferences, going to the places where decisions about my profession were being made, but where very few teachers are ever to be seen, and events where I’d always wanted to go but had never had the energy or never made the time for.

I went to ResearchEd and my eyes opened to a whole new world of professional learning. I went back a year later, and walked out to write a book. I’d met Rene Kneyber after his presentation on a book called Flip The System, and it sang to me. I went off and read the book and was determined we needed a UK version, so with two colleagues, one of whom teaches in York and whom I’d never met until that day, the other of whom was one of those outstanding teachers I mentioned had left my last school, we put together a proposal for Routledge, and we’ve just recently signed the contract.

I’ll never again be the teacher I was before my illness. For what seemed like an age, that felt like a loss. Now, I’m not so sure it is.

By engaging with my profession at every level, from classroom practice to political philosophies of education, I know more about teaching and my place in it than I ever have. That’s enriched my teaching, and it’s made me more resilient.

We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.

So I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be informed professionals. By it, we should look to engage with the best that has been thought and said about teaching so that we too can stand on the shoulders of giants and share the view with our students. Without that, we have no professional capital. We are left with myths parading as facts and our resolve worn away by accountability procedures that do nothing to improve educational outcomes.

That brings me to the end of this story, and you’ll have noticed it’s a bit of a cliffhanger. Will they? Won’t they? What happens next?  That is the story we have yet to write together: the story of how teachers became true professionals. I hope the College Of Teaching will be instrumental in that. I hope Flip The System UK will be too. I know for a fact that if it doesn’t come from each of us, it won’t come at all, and so I leave you to ponder what we have… 

What could have been… 

And what might be…

Thank you.