When I was in primary school, the teacher was trying to explain about extreme weather to us, and how it might be influenced by our actions and pollution. We weren’t quite getting it – we couldn’t quite grasp how the process worked. The teacher decided a different approach.
“OK look out of the window. Now, imagine a huge wave – a tsunami – rising 50 feet high and smashing through all the houses.”
I did imagine it and it absolutely terrified me. The thought stayed with me when I was quiet. When I had my head on my pillow, my mind would return to this idea. When I picture the bit of grass at the end of the road, I can see that once-imagined wave casting us all into shadow just as clearly as I can picture the road signs, the overgrown bush and the kicked-down fence.
Knowledge, in and of itself, is not empowering. Knowledge aligned to power, to reflection and to social action can be.
Some would argue that knowledge does not need to be empowering – that it is an a priori good – but for me, if knowledge can be constructed and shared in a way that inspires understanding without generating doom, that is preferable. Surely there is a way to teach about the realities of reality, the good and the bad, in a way that empowers pupils to seek to build a better world, rather than causing them to feel utterly powerless in the face of it.
Education ought to be hopeful, and for this to happen, teachers need to be hopemongers.
Education that operates in a void of hope, in a vacuum of optimism, castrates its own potential. We want children to be knowledgeable; whilst there may be debate about what is taught, it is fair enough to say that we want children to know more once they have been to school than they did before arriving at our gates.
Some of us want them to be empowered by their education. When I spoke at the UKLA conference today, I suggested we all want this, but perhaps I was too hasty. Some actively don’t want this, and many might say they want it, but would not endorse the changes that would need to take place in order to engender it. Some feel children are not responsible enough to make decision for themselves, and whilst there is truth in this in some contexts – you wouldn’t hand control over the school budget exclusively to kids in Year 1 – teachers are perhaps too willing to deny children opportunities to take more ownership over their own decisionmaking.
Empowerment of pupils does not necessarily gel well within the current education system, which can promote control-rituals to the point of absurdity. Empowered students don’t sit placidly through meandering lessons which may be worth knowing or which may just be crap lessons. Empowered students question why they need to walk in a perfect line from the classroom to assembly. Empowered students cast their critical eye over the arbitrary nature of so much of what passes as sacrosanct; over the need to put their fingers on their lips when told to do so and on the need for adults to be allowed to cut in front of them in the lunch queue, for example. Empowered kids want to know why, and not all teachers are willing to engage in answering.
And because of all of this, empowered students have the potential to help teachers unpick their own practice, and to become more powerful educator – to force us to recognise what is and is not important in our teaching, to sort the wheat from the chaff, and to streamline our work so we don’t need to spend time on things that don’t matter, that don’t help pupils, don’t contribute to learning, and don’t deploy our talents as educators.
Empowering pupils and empowering teachers is not a zero sum choice. To desire that pupils are empowered does not mean teachers necessarily become disempowered; and in any case, some of the teachers who consider themselves monarchs of their classroom-kingdoms are the least empowered I know, because behind their authority there is a lack of self-driven purpose, a lack of spirit and a lack of hope.
Some are empowered as much as a microwave is empowered, they have several predetermined functions, and have been designed to fulfil them, and as soon as they don’t, they are redundant. In both senses of the word, often. And also like a microwave, they become more dangerous the longer they are allowed to decay and break up from within.
Some teachers like control for the sake of an easy life; teaching for the sake of routine; mechanised doing in place of specialised thinking. We can blame punitive systems of accountability, but we shouldn’t use these to justify our complicity with them. Passsive complicity is the lifeblood of dysfunctional systems – inertia, whether through indifference, protest or even agreement, keeps the whole system afloat. The edicts of Ofsted, the DfE, Pearson and so on may be a valid target, but without legions of hardworking teachers begrudgingly teaching in ways they disagree with, none of the BS would ooze its way down from the realm of a policy wonk’s imagination into our classrooms.
No amount of Secret Teacher resignations will fix society. We need those with a grievance to reflect on what they disagree with, propose something different and just do it.
Our school system is prescriptive and many experience it as oppressive, but it has more than enough space for rogue practice. Michaela is a good example of this, I suppose, as is School 21. When rogue practice can demonstrate its effectiveness, it can change the narrative. Every staffroom harbours its rogues who, either quietly or loudly, rebel and ignore the directives the rest of their colleagues live by, and allow themselves to be judged against. All that is needed for things to be different is for teachers to reflect and act differently.
So when we think about something like control, we ought to look hard at what we do and the reasons we do or do not have for doing it. After all, when we attend conferences as teachers, we don’t hurl tables and chairs at each other and call each other wastemen, and that is not because the facilitators have a well-embedded traffic-lights system and a ClassDojo account.
We behave because it makes sense for us to do so. We are here because we want to learn, because there is a respect between us, and because it is in all of our interests for it to work out. Is it in all of our pupils interest to sit through our lessons? If they were not forced to do so, would they? If not, why not?
Empowerment, as the collaborative act of creating power, can equip and mobilise the strengths, skills and aspirations of children and teachers at once. Both of us learning and unlearning together. Both teaching and unteaching together.
We need children to develop criticality. Criticality should not be confused with just being a prick, as often it appears to be interpreted. Criticality is the ability to see a situation from multiple perspectives, to suspend judgement, to question the seldom questioned, to seek context and backstory, and to have your bullshit detectors locked and loaded at all times. Critical people can and do see things differently from one another, but what unites them is that they have gone through a critical process in order to reach their standpoint.
You can go all the way through the education system, from the first time you hang up your bag in nursery school to the day you throw your mortarboard in the air at graduation, without having any criticality. The exam-centred nature of our curricula and the teaching that feeds into it all reward a certain kind of diligence that requires recall over reflection. Where what counts is what can be measured, the quantifiable becomes king. Criticality really does help, and it requires a base of knowledge, but you can sail through very effectively as a pupil by playing the exam game; digesting past papers, formalising your thoughts and opinions rather than forming them. And yes, the virtuoso students succeed too, but most students are not modern day Renaissance people, with a wide base of knowledge and experience to draw upon. Most successful pupils sit down, listen and absorb and then regurgitate, ordering whatever comes out against their notion of what some unknown marker will have on their mark scheme.
Hopeful classrooms feel different to hopeless ones. I feel no remorse about calling out my absolutely dire Geography teacher at GCSE, whose approach to pedagogy was sitting in his chair, making us read bland paragraphs from a poorly-designed textbook, and making us write them out. He seemed to rejoice in our misery, as though he was a meme of himself. Few were rejoicing on results day, and I doubt he turned up. He didn’t even know our names after two years of teaching us. Nobody in that classroom had a motivation to learn that came about through an interest in the subject, through a desire to learn more or through having their interest piqued by the actions of a knowledgeable teacher. Many flunked the subject, and only the kids who were already good students who could craft an essay out of any old shit managed to pass. I include myself among this fortunate group.
Education should create happiness. Happiness can take many forms. The happiness of achievement and growth; or receiving intrinsic and extrinsic reward, is a powerful form of happiness. Classrooms should have laughter and smiles in them – school is not preparation for a happy life, it isn’t preparation for life… it is life. The life of the teacher is shared and spent with pupils. Pupils aren’t just the people of the future, they are people already, and they were people before we met them.
The people in our schools – the teachers, the students, the parents, the teaching assistants, the cleaners, the mid-day assistants, the education psychologists, the tutors and mentors, the coaches… these are all people living their lives within our walls. Happiness in the workplace is something we ought to hold in higher esteem, especially given the amount of time we spend there.
We need hope as teachers, and we need our education to be offering hope for pupils. Exactly what this means, and what it looks like needs a lot of unpicking. And that will need a blog all of its own.