Reading and Navel Gazing

There was a time when I’d quite happily pack up old books and take them to the charity shop. I’d spend a short time deciding which ones were not important to me or which ones I’d never read again; which ones I couldn’t quite remember reading and which ones I disliked or never quite got round to. But not any more. I’ve come to realise that the books on my bookshelves are, more often than not, a little part of my life story. And, while I may never even open some of them again, I couldn’t bear to see them go.

The books on my shelves are my story: the greatest books I have ever read, side to side with some of the not so good ones. No matter. They all add up to a life of reading. The books we read made us who we are, almost literally, and every one is as important as the other. Every Enid Blyton book you read helps form you as a reader, even though they might be unreadable now. And, by God, they are unreadable now. Every time you go to your bookshelves they are there: a comforting reminder of your past self.

I keep one shelf free for my ‘to read next’ list. Books I pick up in second-hand shops, books recommended to me through Backlisted podcast, or anything I read about on Twitter. Of course it’s a never-ending list but that’s okay too. I’ll get to them eventually, mostly. Those books say more about my changing taste than any others. If the younger me who read Gabriel Garcia Marquez quite comfortably could chat with the older me reading the Patrick Melrose novels, I wonder how that conversation would go. It seems strange that, while arguing that our reading brains develop over time, I still convince myself that ‘Crime and Punishment’ might be a bit of a slog twenty years after reading it for the first time.

And, to the ghosts of books future: I’m waiting for you. I’ll keep you a space. I’ve no idea in what direction I’ll wander but there are more years behind me than in front of me. Time is limited and my current reading could take me off in a number of directions. I know what I’d like to read but I knew what I wanted to read six weeks again and that didn’t quite work out. You have to make space for things that come along and tempt you. Otherwise the reasons for reading them in the first place get lost.

I’ve spent much of the last few years of my teaching career encouraging young people to read and be readers. So often it’s not about the books though: it’s about the experience of reading those books and what we, as individuals, bring to them or take from them. Otherwise they are merely lumps of paper. But to talk about reading and what it means to be a reader is really important some times. A bit of navel gazing is fine. And that’s all this blog is about.

A research- aware profession? It’s not so easy.

I think one of the greatest problems we’ve seen in teaching has been the apparent disconnect between research being undertaken in the University sector and the reality of what is happening in our schools. If we’re ever to truly consider ourselves a profession then we need to face up to that. I would doubt that there is anyone out there who would question the the importance of research but wonder exactly how many of us access the latest findings, and what do we do with it when we do? There is a huge issue here and I don’t think we need look too far to see the difficulty.

Beyond the world of Twitter, it’s pretty clear that teachers are not in need of any addition to their workload. The preparation, the admin, the feedback provided: we tend to find ways to fill up out working day. And while that doesn’t negate the fact that research-based improvement is essential, it still begs the question of what needs to change to reach that point where our profession is research-informed and comfortable with that. So the next time I see a teacher crying in their car, either before entering school or as they prepare to drive home, asking them to do some further research isn’t on my mind.

We teachers are forever sponges. We meekly accept that other thing we have to do. It’s the nature of it at times, isn’t it? But sponges get full too. We end up doing lots of things adequately rather than a few excellently. So we must inevitably reach the point where any new initiative needs to come at the expense of something else we’ve been told is vital. And that’s not a healthy situation for anyone. For those of us twenty or more years into a forty year career, change is not always as easy as it seems to others. In order to prepare a research-aware profession, support needs to come for above.

Many things happen in schools but I’m more and more convinced that if we sway too far away from a focus on Teaching and Learning then we are in trouble. So, if we are to agree that what happens in class must be the best we can offer then we need to create the conditions for that to happen. Asking teachers to ‘stop doing good things in order to do better ones’, as Dylan William argues, is not an easy task. We can be creatures of habit. But leadership teams must help to develop an environment where we have the space to work together on the best things: that doesn’t exist right now, not enough anyway.

The question we need to ask ourselves as a profession is about what we can afford to drop in order to do these ‘better’ things. We can’t just jump to research because it’s a thing. It needs to be embedded in the everyday routines that we have; it needs to underpin any professional development we undertake. And that ain’t easy. It’s one of the greatest challenges we face in school. Having created an unsustainable workload for our teachers, how do we pull back to ensure there they can be the best they can be, for every kid, in every classroom?

Win , or lose, do it with dignity

Okay. So this is is not so much about education but it’s definitely about my own learning.

With England about to play in a World Cup semi-final and with a realistic chance of winning the whole thing, there something slightly unsettling about the experience. Not that I wish the team ill will but, and I know this will be controversial, my experience of sporting success for England is that it comes, unavoidably, with a certain amount of jingoistic destruction and celebratory chaos which renders the event slightly tainted. I do hope that can be avoided this time. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want them to lose. It’s just that I’m wary of the aftermath – as are so many countries around Europe.

That form of Nationalistic braying, sneering at others is no stranger to Scotland. As one who voted ‘Yes’ to Scottish Independence and would again in a heartbeat, I am very much aware of my ‘No’ voting friends who were harangued and called ‘Traitors’ by those who campaigned for a ‘new beginning to a new country’. No thanks, if it’s going to be led by you, my friend. We should be very aware of the ‘See You Jimmy’ wig-wearing nutballs before we start to point the finger at others. If we’re ever to become an Independent country again, let us step off the moral high ground.

However, there is something different about England’s progress to the semi-final. In the past, the arrogance and sense of entitlement displayed by commentators and media pundits has made it very easy to mock their eventual defeat on penalties. Especially when that attitude was displayed by the players and managers. This time, they have a manager who is extremely likeable, displays respect and dignity for others and a team which, more or less, mirrors his image. I really like them: despite the perceived lack of challenge they have done what they needed to do and done it well. I just wish all of the supporters – and most of them do – can reflect that if or when they win.

So why do the other nations in the UK, and Europe, often want England to fail? Yes, it is easy to dismiss the comments of a Scot as ‘small-nation syndrome ‘ or jealousy or bitterness. If you do then you’re missing the point. It’s probably because for a lifetime we’ve seen England, when they win, braying and sneering in our faces. It’s not enough to win: like Trump, it has to be seen as others have lost to the great power. The entitlement of an Empire now fading. There’s the Union Jack waving, National anthem thumping, mocking of foreigners in the press. The glee at Germany’s exit, and France for that matter, is evidence that it still exists. And England fans have to own that.

If England play well then I genuinely hope they win. The best team always should do. But support them? No thanks. Asking me to do so is to fundamentally misunderstand what football is all about. Rivalry is part of the game. If my team loses then we brush ourselves off and start all over again. But you don’t choose who you support; your team chooses you. If England win then they’ll have done fantastically well to be World Champions. It doesn’t means Brexit goes away. England have had a remarkable tournament with a manager who oozes dignity and respect. Let’s hope, win or lose, everyone follows his lead.