A Walk on the Wild Side – Corridors of Uncertainty

There’ll no doubt be student teachers wandering around your school at the moment, or very soon,  looking terrified and lost. It’s an intimidating experience to be hurtled back to what was, for me anyway, the scene of a particularly traumatic time in one’s life. One of my teaching placements was in the school I attended and it hadn’t changed much. I felt sick going back there and that feeling didn’t go away. I wandered the corridors expecting ghosts at every turn. So I feel a little bit of sympathy for the new guys starting out on what could be a long and challenging career.

I stopped to chat and began to realise that the corridors are often excellent, but undervalued, places for informal learning in schools. During a five minute conversation I was able to introduce this particular student to four members of staff, none of whom I see as often as I’d like. Each spoke of projects in which they were involved or extra-curricular clubs they were running that week. That the student teacher was a bit overawed with all of the information he had to take in merely reminded me what an incredibly complex learning environment a school is and how the corridors are the areas which connect us.

The school staff room is a much missed phenomenon in some schools in Scotland. New buildings went up without them, instead providing us with Departmental staff bases. Conspiracy theorists might say that was deliberate as part of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy but I couldn’t possibly comment. What is clear from speaking to those in new buildings is that staff moral and ethos have never been the same. Stolen moments in the corridor are as much as I see of members of staff to whom I used to be very close. There just isn’t the time anymore, is there?

I do often take a walk around the school when I have a spare ten minutes, which isn’t as often as I’d like. It’s a great way of seeing pupils out of the classroom environment: recognising them and being recognised by them; chatting to pupils from previous years, perhaps ones I’ve never taught; developing those relationships which we count on so much when we get back to class. I see fantastic wall displays in other departments, news of extra-curricular activities. I meet the occasional member of the Senior Management Team. I feel much more a part of the school and that’s a good thing to pass on to student teachers. Informal learning is essential in finding your way in a school.

If you are a student teacher reading this them make sure you take the time, probably every day, to go for a walk through the corridors. It may surprise you how much that connection to other parts of the school informs and helps you become a teacher. As for me, well I may complain about litter and corridor indiscipline at times but taking a walk on the wild side might just mean I begin to do something about it. Perhaps we all should.

The Staffroom is the Place Where Change Will Happen

The Education Minister’s announcement that the Curriculum for Excellence would be assessed by the OECD would, on the surface, seem to be a good thing. An outsider’s view of what we’ve changed and how that change is working? What could be wrong with that? Well, it’s not so simple, is it? The bottom line is that no matter whether the outcome of the OECD report is positive or negative how will we really know whether the major curricular change of most of our careers has been a success or not?

The simple answer – and to quote Bill Hicks, that’s a judgement call and I’m making it- is that we won’t know. I’d like to make the case that our education system won’t change, whether we call it Curriculum for Excellence or anything else, until there is a radical change in culture from the staffroom outwards.

That might not be a popular point of view but, and I think we all know it deep down, there are still too many teachers who feel marginalised by this curricular change, are unconvinced by the need for curricular change and, let’s face it, are opposed to curricular change. So before we can judge whether our ‘new’ curriculum has been a good thing, a success even, there needs to be a battle for the hearts and minds of all educators involved in the process.

And the hearts and minds for curricular change won’t be won in the newspapers or on the television; they won’t be won at Parents Evening or at the Parent Teacher Council; they won’t even be won in the classroom. They will be won in the staffroom.

When the teacher who has been teaching for twenty years, still has twenty to go and feels that everything they have achieved is being dismissed – whether that’s merely their perception or not – is finally convinced that they have a contribution to make, then we will be moving in the right direction.

When we, as a profession, develop the confidence to question things which are being presented to us as good practice – why are we being asked to do this?; where is the evidence that it is effective?; what alternatives are there?; how do we analyse impact and when will we analyse that impact? – without being marginalised, passed over for promotion or even dismissed as a trouble maker, then we will be moving in the right direction.

When that word ‘impact’ and the discussion of it becomes a prerequisite for changing anything in Education: perhaps a new approach to learning and teaching; a Local Authority mandated strategy; a change in exam; a dictat from above; even anything we change in our own classrooms. When we can ask about or comment constructively on the impact of such changes – and, in turn, when we can be questioned about the impact of what we do as professionals – without recrimination, then, perhaps, we will be moving in the right direction.

I’ve written before about the mess we are making of what began as an Eight Word curriculum, an eight word manifesto, if you like. However, amongst the rancour and confusion, the poorly communicated assessment processes, the delayed issue of assessment documents, we still have young people waiting eagerly to be educated. There are amazing educators in all of your staffrooms. Whether we agree or not some of them feel that their voices are not being heard. Let’s start listening to each other. Other people can make up their own minds. Otherwise it’s just a lot of words.

The Tortoise Always Wins

I recently bumped into a former colleague, one whom I hadn’t seen in years. In fact, I had mentored this colleague as a Student Teacher and was delighted to discover that they were now in charge of their own English Department: from student teacher to Principal in six years. Unfortunately, they didn’t share

slowmy excitement and pride in their progress. The reality and pressure of the job was taking its toll and they were already looking for an exit strategy. The next question they asked of me: ‘Why haven’t you gone down the management road?’ didn’t really require an answer. It was standing in front of me.

Reading Thomas Newkirk’s ‘The Art of Slow Reading’ got me thinking about the speed of change and how we view learning. He argues that in an age of distraction, to slow down and be ‘present in our own lives’ is unusual.’We are rarely there.’ While the book deals primarily with reading it does discuss the way a constant rush for what’s next means we miss the important things and the value of others. The expectation that if we are not constantly moving forward then we are in some way failing becomes part of the culture. ‘Lazy’, ‘Unambitious’ become labels as much as insults.

I look back at the times when I could have moved on and up. There was definitely external pressure to do so. Many people I admired passed me by ‘in the blink of an eye’ but I stayed in the classroom, happy to learn along the way. There was no discernible choice to do so, I just seemed happier that way. Not for me the ladder, I’d leave that to others. And while I teach many of the same texts, tell many of the same jokes – I recently met a student from about ten years ago who reminded me of this – and work just as hard, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I’m happier now. For years now I’ve reflected on and criticised my own practice. I’ve developed the ability to step away and look in on my classroom and my approaches and act accordingly. I’ve read widely – and slowly – and gleaned ideas from some of the great minds in education. Every year I am a far better teacher than I was. I am a better colleague, a better mentor, a better person. And, while maybe I would have been all of those things if I’d ‘moved up’, I may also be exhausted and burnt out, just like the colleague I met. I knew it wasn’t for me, even as I sat by the side of the road and watched the hare race by.

tortoise

I suppose there is a point to this post in that my short encounter with a colleague served to make me appreciate the choices I haven’t made. I do hope that colleague gets over the bad times and continues to be an excellent Principal Teacher (he was mentored so well, you know). However, maybe when we’re quick to dismiss those in the staffroom who haven’t made any big career moves – the ones who’ve always sat in the same seat, drinking from the same mug; the ones who are so easily dismissed as behind the times and not worth bothering about – we should embrace them as the staffroom tortoise. They’ve watched, learned and, let’s face it, will win in the end. Just a thought.

A Light That Never Goes Out

This may or may not have happened.

He handed me his first piece of writing homework and, of course, it was illegible. ‘I’m not good at writing’, he’d told me. We’d been working on lists: Things I lost by the time I was ten or Things I’d been given by the time I was ten. He wanted to tell me about his hamster. He’d stayed behind to tell me all about it: how he lost it in his garden and feels sad about it; how he’d look after it more if he still had it. I told him to write it all down at home.

imageBeing ‘not good at writing’ wasn’t a surprise. The notes I’d been passed from the ASN team told me that. He would feel better if he was given a laptop to write his work, something his previous teacher echoed. He had great ideas but there’s no point in him writing it in his class book as you won’t be able to read it. Better to type it up. He’ll feel better about it and you won’t need to struggle to decipher his handwriting. And I thought to myself, ‘No. It’s time to stop this nonsense.’

He’s twelve and the most important thing he has learned so far in seven years of school is, ‘I’m not good at writing.’ And that’s not good enough, is it? We might dress that fact up by giving him a nice laptop to do his work. We might constantly remind him that his ideas are great and he can express himself very well at times. Perhaps that’s fine when you are twelve. His work nicely typed up, perhaps pinned on the class notice board. His teacher might tell the other pupils to read his work because it was one of the best in the class.

But what happens when he gets to fifteen, sixteen, twenty, twenty five? Who is there to tell him that his ideas are great; when he realises that his inability to write legibly will exclude him from any number of things that others can do? So when we condemn some children to a life of illiteracy because it is difficult – not for him, although it is, but for a system which can’t find the time to help him with his problems- we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility when he enters society after he leaves us. ‘I’m not good at writing’ does not sound quite so cute from an adult who has been through twelve or thirteen of formal schooling, does it?

I spent perhaps five times as long deciphering his handwriting that night as anyone else’s in the class. I returned class books and explained the feedback process and that everyone had their own improvements to make. Then I sat down next to the boy who told me ‘I’m not good at writing’. I asked him why that was. He said it was something he’d never been able to do. I sat with him and looked him in the eye and told him that I would do everything I could for him to get better at writing. He wrote out one sentence in large rounded letters. He looked at me and smiled.

Remember, this may or may not have happened.

Catching Fire – Is Masters the way forward?

One of the more interesting aspects of the Donaldson report was the notion that new teachers – in ITT and Probationary Years – should be given the opportunity to study at Masters from the get go.

‘Masters level credit should be built into ITE qualifications, induction year activities and CPD beyond, with each NQT having a Masters Account opened for them’  p.76 Donaldson report 2010

I assume the thinking behind that is that, eventually, all teachers will be educated at Masters level and more equipped for Professional Development in the future. Seems noble enough, in theory anyway.

So it was a wee tingle of jealousy when I spoke to one of those new teachers embarking on a new career, while beginning a Masters level course at the same time. I saw the enthusiasm for teaching coupled with a fascination for learning so often missing in newer teachers in my experience; and in that moment saw a possible future of Scottish education. How might my career have differed if I had been given the same opportunity? How might I have avoided the hours and hours of meaningless development sessions which have had no impact whatsoever?

That brief meeting encouraged this blog post because it reminded me of why I do the work I do and why I engage so much in Professional Enquiry now. And on the day when the Research Ed Conference is taking place in London has there ever been a more important time to get involved in that?

I would guess that the reason I have been so involved in Pedagoo, Teachmeet, Blogging, Twitter etc is because I’m trying to claw back all of the years of Professional Development I’ve wasted. I’ve travelled to Stornaway, London, Newcastle to be in a room with great teachers in order to wipe out the memories of days sat in front of a Powerpoint listening to the latest edubabble that will change my life and my practice, only to be disappointed. I’ve changed from being passive in my acceptance of development offered to active, at times, rabid, in my pursuit of things I want learn and questions I need answered.

Donaldson’s hope that all teachers will eventually be educated at Masters level only really makes sense if there is an implicit desire for research and embedded continuing development on the part of the educational establishment. I would worry that it would be seen as a badge of honour; one which became part of a hierarchy.  Regardless of the implications of cost and time the conditions need to be created for every teacher to do this. Unless the Scottish Government is willing to support this and the profession is committed to that then I would be concerned over its long term success.

As one who recently started on a Masters programme I am only too aware of the difficulties and pressures in terms of time that that can bring. It is an intimidating thought for teachers to re-enter academia. However, if we are to see ourselves as a true profession then it will be important to grasp the opportunity to to embed research and enquiry into our practice. Donaldson seems to have suggested a way forward. Perhaps it is up to us as front line teachers to take up the challenge.