Your may or may not be old enough to remember Billy Dane but his story is one which needs to be told. A child of the mid-twentieth century, Billy came to possess great powers when he wore the football boots of a past England hero. It is a tale of subterfuge and deception, a tale which, while on the surface inspiring, is sobering for all of us. You see, Billy fell for the oldest trick in the book. He adopted a strategy which, while allowing him to excel at his job, became the story of his life. He forgot that it was only a strategy and allowed it define him as a player. Without it he was nothing, he thought. It was the boots wot done it.
I was reminded of the deluded Billy the other day during a conversation with ‘another teacher’. This ‘other teacher’ claimed that a particular strategy had completely changed her classroom practice and they couldn’t recommend it enough. Having attempted to adopt the same strategy in my own classroom some time ago, I was, to say the least, sceptical. I tried to make the point that the strategy worked for ‘this teacher’ because ‘this teacher’ was an excellent teacher and, perhaps, not everyone could do what they did but, no, the strategy was the key. It saddened me to think that this teacher was disguising their true ability behind their very own ‘Billy’s Boots’.
I suppose the point I’m making is that if any of these strategies were so wonderful then we’d all be doing them hugely successfully. But they’re not and we’re not. Great teachers are great teachers because they do great things in classrooms. They may well adapt new fangled strategies better than most but they do that because they are excellent practitioners. It’s not the other way around. When we hang all of our successes around someone else’s ‘great invention’ then we begin to forget our own hard work and abilities in the classroom. It is no wonder our teaching profession becomes demoralised and demotivated when we can’t even recognise our own strengths without passing credit to some greater hidden power.
The constant search for the Holy Grail of answers in teaching might be laudable but there is a danger here. Co-operative learning, or Accelerated Reader or Class Dojo may sell themselves as being super duper effective ways of engaging children but, in my experience, they are merely tools to cover over supposed cracks. Excellent classroom teachers can enable high quality group work no matter what you call it. Ditto, classroom management which shouldn’t need or even expect rewards. As for Accelerated Reader, don’t start me. I refer my esteemed reader to so many previous posts on reading.
There comes a time when we have to change the dialogue to one where the Teacher is central to pupils achieving outcomes and that we recognise our skills and abilities in the classroom. After all, when Billy Dane misplaced his boots he was generally useless. Stripping your classroom of the fancy strategy surely can’t mean the same thing, can it?
In all of my fourteen years of teaching I’ve never known a time when workload was such an issue for me. Perhaps it’s an age thing; perhaps I just don’t have the energy to cope with what I used to be able to do. More than likely though it is the increased expectations of a new curriculum, with new courses to adapt, when nothing else appears to be slipping from the table. So at no other time has Professional Development been more important for a workforce which, at times, seems to be approaching breaking point. But, what exactly makes effective CPD?
It is not often the expert who schools buy in at considerable expense to speak to whole staff gatherings. I have listened to some wonderful speakers on Education over the years – and some not so wonderful – who have both entertained and moved me with stories of effective strategies and wonderfully inspiring classroom experiences. But, though I often leave feeling much better about myself, I am no further forward in implementing whatever they we’re supposed to be talking about in the first place. Transference is a hugely difficult thing to achieve. There are so many factors to contemplate when we adapt change in the classroom.
It is not often the Local Authority ‘official’, chosen to attend an In-service Day to impart the latest wisdom on LA target setting. Sitting on uncomfortable chairs for an hour, watching someone talk me through every word of a Powerpoint Presentation rarely teaches me what they want me to learn. I generally become more understanding of the way we expect our pupils to learn, though, and can comprehend exactly why we can bore them with uninspiring delivery. Perhaps if they convinced us why it is important rather than simply telling us that it is, we may reap more benefits from days like these.
I would even go as far as to say that it is not often the ‘course from the catalogue’ which we decide might interest and inspire us when we get back to class. We can all remember the time when we’ve sat in a seminar on something incredibly inspiring, determined to go home that night and construct a series of lessons around it immediately. More often than not the reality of our day-to-day business results in that folder going on a pile of folders we may never get to. In time, that great feeling is forgotten and you can’t remember what you were thinking about in the first place. So what might work then?
It seems to me that the way we ensure our development has impact – and surely that much mean better learning for the pupils in our classrooms – then we need to be convinced that it will have impact. We need to recognise the shortfalls in the abilities of our pupils and, as a result, recognise the deficiencies in our own teaching. Then, perhaps, Professional Development will achieve the sort of outcomes we’ve been missing. I can look back on countless hours of wasted development time and would weep if I wasn’t so busy. We need to remember that Development Days are not merely a day out of the classroom. They are Development Days. What exactly are they developing?
In the absence of a post this week, here’s a link to my interview on Radio Edutalk this week.
An interview with me on Radio Edutalk
Since I started blogging almost three years ago there seems to have been an explosion of new blogs on Education. Surely that can only be a good thing. Really? I was drawn to blogging – and Twitter for that matter – more as an escape from the negativity of the staffroom and the relentless crushing of spirit I was often faced with. I’ve written before on how I found a new life on here, invigorated by the possibilities and free from the weight of defeatism I experienced at times. However, like the stereotypical Frankenstein’s monster, the very voices I was trying to get away from eventually caught up with me on here.
The success of Twitter as an educational force is a double-edged sword in many ways. Others have been encouraged to join in the conversation. But there has also been a shift away from blogs which offer strategies and advice to blogs which attempt to badger and harangue; blogs which lecture and criticize; blogs which offer academic theories on what we are all doing wrong. Fair enough. I think this could be the perfect place for those. I just wonder how much those blogs encourage others to do so.
Until now, academic research has, in many ways, been blocked off from teachers. From current experience, as I try to find Educational Journals even with a University pass, I am discovering a world unknown to me, one which should be open to all teachers. But I digress. My point is that I don’t think blogging about that is particularly helpful to all teachers. I started blogging because I had been reading some excellent blogs from practicing teachers who shared their every day thoughts. I’m not sure I would have done so if I came across academic critiques of thousands of words.
I try to keep my posts to five hundred words or less. Short(ish) and sweet(ish). The process of writing is a reflection on my own thoughts and that is my reward. It is a blog to focus on things and clarify things rattling around in my head. If people read them, so be it. If not, so be it. Like Woody Allen, I never go back and reread them after I’ve written them. My work has been done. I like to think that the simplicity of that is what may encourage others to blog too. You don’t have to be Professor Highbrow to write stuff. You just have to have an opinion.
I don’t disapprove of any of the blogs I read. Some I don’t bother with because I neither have the time or inclination to engage with them. I want to read the thoughts of others who are in similar situations to me. Teachers who want to share and think and just simply join in a conversation. I can get a lecture every day in school. I just believe that if we are to see a real impact, and a wide impact, then our blogs need to offer a space for teachers to believe that they can blog too. We are teachers. All of us.
I found some old university notes recently. Reading through some of the things a much younger me had written, I couldn’t help but sit back in awe at the intelligence I once had. One paper in particular stood out: a critique of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work from the 1820’s. Emerson was part of the Transcendentalist movement which, it seemed to me, attempted to remove all traces of their former colonial masters. Britain that is. Writers sought to start all again, to begin an American literature from square one, without any nod to the past. Well, that was my take, anyway.
Like Emerson, sitting naked in the middle of the forest, I often wonder what that might feel like. That attempt to wipe out everything you’ve done in the past and start again. What if everything you thought you knew about teaching and what goes on in your classroom was wrong and you had the opportunity to start again? What if you had an opportunity to erase all of the bad habits you have developed, all of the poor decisions which still cause you to wake up in a cold sweat, all of the dreadful lessons which haunt you? Would you take it?
Think about it. It could be the opportunity to really address a workload problem. Perhaps we can erase all of things which are irrelevant but we find difficult to kick because we’ve always done them. Perhaps we could focus on all of the truly effective practices we’ve developed instead of holding on to old ones like comfort blankets. Very often when I start to feel the pressure of workload – more often than not November and February are particularly bad – then it is the new strategies which slip off the table for a while. What if I concentrated solely on those instead?
In fifteen years of teaching English I’ve learned so much about reading and writing, much of it wrong, but no more so than in the last two or three years. If I could erase all that went before I may be able to work more intelligently on things that had more impact without considering it a huge shift in my practice; and it is that perception which I think deters us from change. The fear of the increased workload, the fear of trying something new, the fear of getting in too deep. It is a perceived fear which is hand-cuffing our progress.
I suppose the bottom line is that I’d like to tackle my workload issues not by working less but by working smarter. Removing the things which, ultimately, have little impact on my teaching but I convince myself are impossible to give up might be a start. I’ve waited long enough for management to help me with my workload. It isn’t going to happen. So it’s time to do it myself. Life is too short too wait for permission. As old Emerson said ‘Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.’ I’m off to sit down in the forest and find some peace.