Friday, 23 December 2016

It's still a wonderful job

It’s still a wonderful job

I usually have a Christmas ritual: I republish a post I wrote a few years ago called ‘It’s a wonderful job.’ It was a Winter rumination about why teaching was still one of the best jobs you could do, despite the aggro and the paperwork and rats carrying lasers*. It was a sentimental meditation, me on my rocking chair smoking a pipe and chuckling as I read Christmas cards from cherubic children.

Love, Actually says at Christmas you have to tell the truth. This year it would feel insincere to regurgitate so straightforward a love letter to the profession- mainly because since September, and for the first time in 13 years I’m not teaching. Three years ago I started researchED as a kitchen table project, and I ran it on top of full time teaching for 18 months until the banjo string of my psyche threatened to snap. So I went part time. researchED grew and grew, more and more conferences in more and more countries and continents, but my kitchen table stayed the same size and once again my head started to feel like the Jumanji box. Nikki Morgan asked me to lead a behaviour review. The day stubbornly refused to expand past 24 hours.

I knew something had to give when I returned from running researchED Melbourne, stepped off the plane at Heathrow and cabbed it to school for my period one class in Dagenham like Act Three of a Richard Curtis caper. I’m amazed by how much you can achieve when you really boot it, but there comes a point when you’re spreading your jam too thin and all you can taste is toast (which is what I was rapidly becoming- this year, after 3 years of researchEDing, I hit a wall, and a virus robbed me of the use of my hands for a few days- exacerbated, I was told by a specialist, by overwork. Who knew?)

So I made a decision to reign in the breadth and focus on doing less things better. It was undoubtedly the right thing to do, the sensible thing and already I’ve been able to bring in another behaviour report, and rebuild researchED from the core in ways I’ll reveal next year when we relaunch with…well, when we relaunch.

So why do I still miss it? Why is there this phantom limb of a job that I have to remind myself I no longer do? That’s easy to answer.

Teaching saved me. I don’t exaggerate. I changed careers late- from running night clubs to student whispering at 30. I had lost my way so comprehensively in my 20s that I no longer even conceived of a straight path through the crooked places in which I worked. Never underestimate the damnably slow dissolution by attrition that desperation and lack of purpose can have on a busy mind. Waking up every day with the feeling that there was something I was supposed to be doing, but undone.

As Henry David Thoreau is often misquoted, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.’ That echoes. So does Chandler with his ‘Somebody get me off this frozen star.’ Through no one’s fault but my own, and squandering my launch pad of good schooling and family, I meandered for so long I ended up barely managing; existing, not living. I do not believe this to be uncommon.

Now I have a purpose HO HO HO

And then came teaching. It was as if, undeserved, Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket had landed on my mat. Suddenly, meaning, purpose, challenge and the chance to serve an end greater than oneself. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lit up for me like a fairground try-your-strength hit by a giant’s mallet. The job was maddening at first, and so hard it nearly broke me. But giving up was inconceivable, because I was home, doing the thing I knew I should have been doing. The universe is indifferent to our petty melodrama, but if it wasn’t I would say that I was where the universe needed me to be- and when. I claim no expertise or proficiency, just the intuitive certainty of being in the right place at the right time, like John McClane’s luckier cousin.

And I’ve never doubted that. Life’s aim isn’t to be happy- heroin will serve just as well- but to flourish, as the Greeks would put it; to be usefully engaged with integrity, and fulfil your own conception of destiny in a community. Teaching frequently made me unhappy, with its turbulence and drudgery and melodrama, but it fed a hunger that could be sated in no other way.

And it is a hard job. Too many teachers still steer with difficulty past the gnashing, clashing Scylla and Charybdises of difficult behaviour and the Sisyphean problem of workload. Policy churn, syllabuses that strobe past in succession, gimmick-learning, illiteracy…the list of bear traps and pitfalls to the perfect classroom can be summoned in an instant.

But it is still a wonderful job. There are few other roles where you can intersect so meaningfully with another’s life; where you can be a small but significant link in a chain that leads to the benefit of others. Where you can give them a gift that really does go on forever, that never runs out, never needs new batteries, and can’t be returned: an education. To some children it can seem like finding a tangerine in their stocking, but it’s not: it’s stardust. Where else can you help children become adults, and students become scholars?  

I said this in my previous blog post:

‘…. It isn't a job where you punch out at five o'clock; this is a vocation, like the priesthood or the circus. You have to love your subject, love working with kids, and love teaching them. If you don't, you won't ever be truly happy doing it. But if you do, then diamonds and rubies.

You might never transform every child's life, but that's not the benchmark of good teaching. You do your best, and you give them the best damn education you can. You provide them with safety, support, and discipline and tough love. You do your best. And mark this: your best will not always be enough and you will fail, and children will pass through your care and fall off the map, seemingly no better for having encountered you. But many of them will be helped, and some of them will be helped a lot. We play the odds. We play a long game.

…As supporting characters in the melodramas of the lives of others, we are required to ask one simple question: do we want to help, or harm? Everything else follows from that. Like George Bailey after his illumination, I am grateful every day for the chance to play the smallest part in the lives of other humans. That, dear friends, is why… I feel like running down the High Street of Anytown, America, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and laughing in the face of Mr Potter.’

Come in, and know me better

I don’t know if I’m on a sabbatical or a one way night flight to Venus, never to know staff party and dinner queues again. But education gets in your blood; that’s why you see so many families with three generations or more of teachers. Scientists in the future will probably discover a gene. Right now I think I’m where the Universe needs me to be.

And the universe needs a lot more teachers far better than I to fill the gap and more besides. Recruitment is in a mess, and it won’t get any better if the only message people hear is how difficult it is. I mean, it is, and these things need to be said. But these violent delights have violent ends. It has become dangerously fashionable to forget that, amongst the struggle and the strife in the classroom, it really, really is a wonderful job too.  

Merry Christmas, actually.


(*Is that just me?)











Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Give me liberty: why teachers need free speech more than ever

'You're live'

I love social media. This will surprise no one with the misfortune to follow me. If they ever taxed it, I'd be pawning my kidneys on the Dark Web for screen time. I also love free speech, debate, and the potential for teaching to re-energise itself from within, from the ground up by international and powerful conversations you can have online. I like being able to criticise things. I also like suggestions about what to do next. I like dragon slaying and myth busting, even if I’m the dragon. It might be painful, but like going to the gym, you never regret it afterwards.

Is Twitter the last great salon of free speech? I sometimes wonder. Open to anyone with access to the internet, free, instant and international, it smashes borders and levels access in ways unimaginable just fifteen years ago. From nothing, I used it to make connections with minds great and grand and groovy around the world. Without it, researchED would have been nearly impossible. Tweets can girdle the earth far faster than Ariel’s forty minutes

But for every force, there is another equal and opposite; some don't embrace this new paradigm; who resent change, or its harbinger, discussion.

You can say anything you like as long as we agree with you

It's important to remember how far we've come at least in the UK. When I first started howling into the void, many things were dogma. It was practically inconceivable to write openly in dispute of the public wisdom of, among other things, universal group work, 21st century skills, learning styles, skills-based curriculums and so on. I’ve heard people speak forlornly about how lovely it was then, and how it were all handshakes and cheeky winks when social media were t’lad.

I had a very different experience. It was lovely if you jogged along with the orthodoxy, but very intimidating if you disagreed. Happily what we see now is the creation of a space where dispute is a dependable part of the conversation. Tribes form in these digital spaces, just like they do in real life, and multiple viewpoints are presented, pilloried, paraded and prodded, just as they should be.

Your mileage will vary about what you consider acceptable or unacceptable criticism. When I started teaching I was told to accept school paradigms because 'back to work, rookie'. When I wrote Teacher Proof I received emails from academics who told me I was quite wrong and didn’t really understand the science anyway. When I started researchEd I was told that teachers should be the recipients of the divine wisdom of Mosaic Tablets of academia, and our role was to deliver the exciting and yet strangely unworkable projects of novelty and vanity I often encountered in classrooms. As a writer I have seen people who should know better write that the current crop of online teacher authors should ‘be very careful because they were being watched,’ and that we were ‘wielding too much power. This, about people sitting at their kitchen tables blogging in their sweat pants and tweeting.

That just makes me want to screw my eyes up and imagine these aristo gatekeepers naked, playing a trombone. In any pluralist society we enjoy and endure a magazine of belief systems. Crucial to the success of that system is that we permit the expression of those views. 'I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' remains as true now as when-people first misattributed it to Voltaire.

Twitter yesterday
The irony of course is that education institutions are created to be furious furnaces for molten minds, hot and fluid, but in times of turbulence they often seem the most thin skinned and resistant to challenge. The double irony is that many in education who would call themselves disrupters and game changers and crusaders are the ones who enjoy being disrupted least, or having their own games changed, their own cheese moved an inch.

I've seen many in the traditional priest class  grimace and rail against this new model army of volunteers and expendables, unable to endure the mildest of criticism. But those who have status rarely willingly vote for the redistribution of their capital.

School bullies: How schools can suppress professional conversations

I've written, tweeted, blogged for around a decade and been lucky enough to escape nearly any heat from the institutions within which I taught. I think this was a combination of two things: broad minded management who rightly saw my opinions as personal, and a careful policy of never speaking about my children, my classes, my school, unless it was uncritical and supportive. I write about policies, strategies, ideas, not 'Man, that observation I just had blew and sucked simultaneously.' Others appear not to be so fortunate. I know of many schools who have a 'no social media' policy in their school policies, and few are the teachers so unencumbered by financial demands that they can bite their thumb at a salary for the sake of tweeting a few dank memes about Minecraft.

There is a class system, a caste system of who is and who isn't allowed to have an opinion in any hierarchy.  Now, I’ve rarely been a victim of anyone trying to close me down, but I've been complained about twice to my schools for blogs I've written. I've been reported to the DfE, the TES, for holding opinions the complainants found objectionable. Since I started writing a couple of reports on behaviour for the DfE I’ve started to get sniffy comments along the lines of ‘Should someone in your position be making such statements?’ None of this concerns me. I am happy to be inappropriate, if being appropriate means being so anodyne that no offence could possibly be taken, The Hell with that.

You're paid to teach, not think 

Worse, when talking to teachers both here and abroad I’ve found out some are told explicitly that any form of social media presence that discusses teaching will result in disciplinary action. Where is this grisly and anti-intellectual cowardice coming from? What are they scared of? By doing so they close down a profession's ability to self critique, argue, grow and learn from itself. Joining Twitter is like Chewie punching it from the co-pilot’s seat. The ideas just keep coming, faster and faster.

Crucially, what is being lost is more valuable than the perceived gain. I follow a lot of teachers, and in my experience the vast, vast majority of those who tweet and blog and engage are massive, massive nerds for their jobs, love teaching, love working with children, and want to swap ideas, research, stories and experiences. It certainly isn't a prerequisite to be a good teacher but by God it's a healthy quality for one to have, I'd say. The voices I follow teach me, enrich my understanding, and, yes, challenge me to reconsider my biases. Twitter is an enormous source of fresh ideas; it's also a beautiful ally of empowerment if you're on the margins of authority. Here, if someone reads you, you matter as much as any minister or magistrate. No wonder some people don't want you on it.

Confident, mature minds welcome criticism. Those who believe they hold strong positions are comfortable to argue them. Famously if you want to know who really holds power in society, ask what you aren't permitted to talk about. Who tries to shut down your conversations, rather than tackle what you said with counter argument? Who tries to get you sacked, and who tries to tell your employer you're a terrible person? Who goes low when you go high? Who doesn't have an argument?

I hope I've been able to be a small part of a conversation over the last decade that has helped normalise a more open discourse about what may or may not be discussed. And I hope social media never loses its power to surprise, agitate and animate.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The light and the dark: Ofsted, Michaela, hope and inspiration

'Are you on Twitter again? Tom. We've spoken about this.'
Before me, on my writing desk, are three things: a plaster bust of Socrates, one of Lincoln, and a small pewter Stonehenge. Unremarkable choices- the salariat equivalent of a lava lamp maybe, or the moulded plastic Buddhas beloved of garden centre grottos- but they are mine. It became a shrine by accident. I didn’t plan their purchase or position deliberately. The subliminal architecture of my world threw them together, and they are currently employed as mandalas, or muses, or mementos by default.

Socrates pursued truth beyond all else, for its own sake and, according to Plato, drank Hemlock rather than betray his philosophy. Lincoln is an equally easy inspiration: the great orator, thinker, writer and wrangler for social justice. And I regard Stonehenge with a childish awe, hypnotised by its ancient enigma, a time machine from another planet, speaking of transience and permanence and industry in one brutal monument. It invokes mystery and mysticism and the marvel at the work of human hands.

These physical objects are trivial compared to the mental objects they represent- the ideal form of our aspirations, however far we fall from them, or ridicule ourselves in their pursuit. In Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, the poet writes ‘Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's a heaven for?’

If it wasn't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all

In a year that has already acquired a reputation for withering hope faster than we can gather it, we need all the inspiration we can get. Geopolitical earthquakes send tsunamis of uncertainty around the world in dark and uncharted currents and we are reminded that periods of stability and peace are probably the exception to a violent and less perfect norm. For most of us, these forces rage at a height so high that they may as well be wars in Heaven, and we wait for what chance and the tides wash up.

That’s why we need, more than ever, reasons to believe that things can get better as well as worse. Hope, as someone said, can never be false. If you were to ask most people what century they would like to live in, had they but a time machine, many people’s first answers- Rome at its height, La Belle Époque, the Renaissance, Jane Austen’s 19th century theme park- are usually followed by the qualifier ‘and rich, of course’, because being poor has throughout history been a universal shitstorm. Even then these fantasies are usually discarded after a moment’s consideration, for the less glamorous but more pragmatic ‘Now’ with its medicine and comforts and social progress. Mileage varies internationally, but progress is irrefutable, however non-linear it appears up close.

In education, my own small pond, the news is often wearying, as we read of illiteracy, incompetence, venality and lack every time we open our phones. You do not have to work with children for long to realise that in every room, students carry bruises under their uniforms, physical, emotional, and historical. That for some, progress is measured on a metronome, skipping along, and for others you need a microscope and holy water to see it. Workload buries many teachers; the lash of the inspection and the goad of high-stakes, irrelevant performance management makes many in schools wonder what it was they loved about the job in the first place.

And yet. We all find our own wells of hope. There is good news with the bad. Like the recent clarification from Ofsted that clarifies- at last- that schools need not display extraordinary levels of deep or arcane marking:



Unless of course schools choose to have marking policies that decimate their staff. And why would they want to do that? This page should be nailed to the front door of every school like the Luther's 95 theses. Marking levels has become abusive in many schools, as they panic to show progress once lesson observations were binned as a metric. This one announcement could, should, be an earthquake in schools practice. I wonder how long it will take to reach every governor and leader in England and Wales?

The Passion of Amanda Spielman

Then there was the mellifluous sound of the Chief Inspector-elect, Amanda Spielman publicly acknowledging that schools in poorer areas were more likely to receive lower grading because of their circumstances, and therefore the assessment of a head teacher’s performance in that context was less likely to be a fair reflection of their competency or efforts.

‘Ofsted's incoming chief inspector has said that the watchdog's overall judgements on schools are not a "fair way" of assessing headteachers' performance. Speaking today, Amanda Spielman said that this was because schools in poorer areas were less likely to get top inspection ratings because they were "harder to run". She said that recent research suggesting schools with disadvantaged intakes are less likely to be rated “outstanding” than those with more privileged pupils, was in part probably a reflection of “reality, whether we like that or not”.’


This is a fantastic sign that Spielman understands the impact Ofsted has, and more importantly will think deeply about how to turn the institution from a sword into a ploughshare. If anyone can, I hope she will. 

Michaela School Choir Practice
What have the Michaeleans done for us?

Finally few educators on social media could have failed to notice that the Michaela Community School/ Factory For Turning Children Into Glue and Tears (delete as your ideology dictates) ran a book launch that doubled as a rally for their unconventional blend of traditional teaching and 21st century learning- ultra trads, if you will. Live streamed, tweeted in real time, and punching so far above its weight that David and Goliath look like a fair fight, it represents a new model for how schools face the world. Scorned by people who have never visited, and often admired by those who have, I have yet to see an institution that, in the face of such antipathy, exposes itself so candidly to scrutiny, challenge and frontal attack. It’s almost as if they knew they were doing something extraordinary. Twitter sizzled with their battle cries, and it was inspiring to see so much positivity for a school that has worked hard to earn it. All credit to their head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh, who has two settings, as far as I can see: combine harvester, and dead.

Green shoots, and good news. Maybe even ideas that will bear fruit in the future. Who knows? When all the troubles of the world escaped from Pandora’s box, the last thing left there was Hope. I’ll finish by referring to the beautiful close to the recent masterpiece series True Detective (in an idea possibly borrowed from Alan Moore). The two heroes, Rust and Marty, are discussing good and evil (Spoiler Alert, incidentally):

‘After describing his near-death experience, Rust tells Marty he's been thinking about the stars and how they've reminded him that there's an eternal battle going on between light and darkness. Marty's pessimistic about light's chances:
 RUST: It's just one story, the oldest.
MARTY: What's that?
RUST: Light versus dark.
MARTY: I know we ain't in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.
 After Rust convinces Marty to haul him out of the hospital, Rust presents a counterargument, offering the final dialogue of the season:
 RUST: Y'know, you're looking at it wrong, the sky thing.
MARTY: How's that?
RUST: Once, there was only dark. You ask me, the light's winning.