Be a Signpost: Keep Teaching

I am going to be talking about the positives of education, schooling and teaching. Speaking of the positives does not mean I am suggesting that our education system is perfect. We cling too readily to binary positions on contentious issues; we too easily settle into For/Against positions that oversimplify each standpoint, often glossing over the tricky parts of the debates where the real thought is needed.

In speaking of the positives, and in identifying myself as somebody who is optimistic, I am not blind to the negatives. Our system is far far far from perfect.

As Professor John Goldthorpe will be outlining this week in the British Academy Sociology Lecture, the education system has done remarkably little to address social mobility, despite it rarely being off the agenda. There are injustices in the system along the lines of class, gender, ethnicity and religion, at the levels of staff and pupils. We are caught amidst multiple crises; of morale, of recruitment, of training, of funding and of mental health. Teachers are leaving the profession, unable to cope with what they perceive to be the excessive workload. Schools have become so besotted with second-guessing the theoretical judgements of theoretical Ofsted inspectors that risk-taking and professional judgement are often frowned upon, with playing-it-safe being more controllable, measurable and thus favourable.

I could carry on. We all could. We all could record a litany of gripes, and every single one could be authentic and justified. It is cathartic to vent, but the benefits of this catharsis are limited only to the one venting. It is sad to read confessional pieces like the one that went viral this week written by a Haringey DHT and this one from last year from a young teacher hanging up his lanyard after three years. It is sad for multiple reasons.

These are not written by slackers. Leaving the profession is not an admission of failure so much as an admission of fatigue; emotional, physical and professional fatigue. We are losing expertise and experience of older staff at the same time as we lose the next generation, who are leaving not long after qualifying.

Taking the decision to leave the profession is not admirable. But then again, nor is staying. Quitting is as valid a personal decision as the decision many of you reading this has made each year to carry on slogging it out.

What comes through so clearly in the testimonials of those leaving the profession and in the talk of teachers who are on the edge of the precipice -many of whom I have met in the last couple of weeks – is that they have lost sight of the ‘big vision’ that brought them into the profession. Loic Menzies’ LKMCo ‘Why Teach‘ study has shed a light on the optimism that brings many people into the profession, motivated by a desire to work with children and young people and to make a difference.

So so often, people’s ‘final word’ as they leave the profession highlights the disjuncture between the moral purpose of education – the driving force that saw them choose teaching as the way they wanted to make a difference – and the pragmatic reality of being a teacher, which manifests as an overwhelming bombardment of accountability measures, unsustainable work demands and stress.

We get bogged down by the small stuff, and then small stuff seems to be the big stuff. When  I ask a colleague ‘What are you doing?’ at 17:30, they are likely to say ‘Laminating all these documents’ or ‘Planning RE’, rather than ‘Making a difference to children’s lives’ or ‘Setting their imagination alight through this hook I have devised for Literacy tomorrow.’

Now obviously, these would be weird responses but the message I am clumsily trying to make is that we can become so set into the routines and activities that are meant to enable high quality inspiring teaching, that we begin focusing solely on the tasks themselves rather than the thing they are meant to achieve.

This is difficult for everyone, but especially so for trainee teachers. I had the good fortune today to work with a group of around 25 first and second year trainees/NQTS to deliver a session about Time Management and Wellbeing, which focused on recognising our energy levels, learning to prioritise and forward plan, and crucially, we left time to talk about why we are doing this. It was remarkable that despite being so fresh from their idealistic entry into the profession, so many mentioned that they hadn’t really thought about questions like “Why am I doing this?” for months.

In the maelstrom of the day-to-day, we ask How and When questions far more often than Why questions.

In my opinion, and I qualify it clearly as such, I think that a major reason why so many new teachers are exiting the profession so soon after they enter is because of a disconnection between the things they are doing, and their sense of ‘why’ these things should be done.

One of the participants today was very open and reflective and when asked what are the most important things in his life, he replied ‘Marking’. We spoke about what he means, and he emphasised the sheer amount of time he spends on it, the importance of it to his professional success and within his school’s priorities. We probed the thinking. We are not saying that marking is not important, but that it is not important in and of itself; it is important because of what it can lead to in the pupils’ learning. As such, the most important things – the ‘Big Rocks’ in the Covey metaphor  – shouldn’t be means to an end; they should be the things that drive you, motivate you, galvanise you and inspire you.

I think there is a profound difference between the person who spends 6 hours on a Sunday planning a history lesson because they promised a colleague that they would or because it is demanded of them on their PGCE , and between the person who spends 6 hours on a Sunday planning a history lesson because they passionately believe that pupils have a right to know their selves through knowing their history. The workload may be the same, in terms of time and effort, but both the inputs and the outputs would be different.

And whose lessons would be better? I know where my money would go. The first person, however well-intentioned is doing the plan as a means to be in possession of a completed lesson plan. Planning lessons is the labour of a jobsworth until it becomes – as with the second person – an endeavour that is tied to a wider vision of education, tied to aspirations and tied to the expertise of the teacher.

I direct you to the brilliant History work of Stephen Davy ( @_MrDavy_ ) at Dame Alison Peacock’s Wroxham School, where the Year 4 class he taught conducted a full reenactment of the Battle of Bosworth…at the actual site of the battle.

<p><a href=”″>Year 4 – The Battle of Bosworth</a> from <a href=””>The Wroxham School</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Schools and teachers with a clear and deeply-felt vision and sense of purpose can achieve remarkable things. Not only do these schools retain a clear sense of their values, but they use these values as a lens through which everything else takes place. Assessment – whilst still necessarily time-consuming – becomes something galvanising and empowering when it is taken as part of a schools dogged commitment to academic excellence, creativity or whatever it favours.

I have been fortunate enough to have experienced a really divergent few weeks – this really suits me. I have taken my pupils up to visit an incredible little school in Lincolnshire, where their commitment to the well-rounded development of the kids was overpoweringly evident from the second you walk through the door. We rode on the back of a tractor through the fields and the children from Lincolnshire shared with my kids about what it is like to live in a rural area. I have taken two of my pupils to The Wolseley for a celebration breakfast with DebateMate, watching them debate with dignitaries and giving them the experience of mingling and schmoozing in Mayfair with the rich and famous. I have seen pupils I have worked with for years, who face profound financial barriers, gain places in selective schools, and have tried to support parents through the difficult decisions that need to be made. I have spent time working in other local schools, less than half a mile away, and they engender wholly different school cultures.Schools are fascinating places, teaching is intrinsically interesting and education is (or can be) truly empowering.

The reason I think we should all feel optimistic is this: by thinking big, being clear about exactly what we want to achieve for our pupils and by harnessing the fervour and passion of enthusiastic teachers, there is absolutely nothing that we cannot achieve. When we have clarity about our motivating principles, and about what we want to provide for our children, it becomes far less onerous to complete some of the the hundreds of tasks that fall to teachers every day.

The difference is in the fact that we know why we are doing it. It is so so easy to sleepwalk through our careers; to sleepwalk through our lives. It is so easy to greet the kids, register them, deliver a scheme of work at them, sift through some test prep and then send them on their way. It won’t necessarily harm them, either, and many schools and teachers justify it as being ‘just the way it is’.

But if we are bold enough to hold onto the optimism with which so many of us enter the profession, if we not only hold on to it but lather that optimism over everything we do – over our lesson plans, our school visits, our classroom teaching, our wall displays, over every conversation we have with colleagues, parents and children – not only are we less likely to burn out, but we are more likely to actively enjoy the work we do.

We need to stick firmly to our sense of what education should be, and what our pupils deserve. To use Tony Benn’s metaphor below, we need to be the signposts that point clearly through the storms, mists and sleet; there are enough cocks in the education system without you becoming one too.

Resignation gives way to the drive for transformation and inquiry, over which we feel ourselves to be in control… Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to charge them into objects. – Paul Freire

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