Many a party or social occasion has been entertained by personal anecdotes of amazing teachers who brought learning to life:
- The science teacher who buzzed into the classroom wearing a bee costume and re-arranged the furniture, placing the students into key roles and positions to teach the details of pollination.
- The teacher who annoyed the premises officer by transforming the classroom into a space control centre and then confounded the school’s curriculum plans by setting every lesson in every subject for 6 weeks within the context of space studies.
- The history teacher who turned the local streets into her classroom to give the students a more authentic experience of escape, evasion and subterfuge in a conflict zone.
- The maths lessons taken out to meet the workers on the local building site to introduce ratio and scaling.
- Those teachers whose characters and integrity command full respect from otherwise belligerent and reluctant adolescents who suspend normal hostilities to exceed expectations, working to attain a vegetable prize from Sir’s allotment harvest or to complete their collection from Miss’s sticker folder! Extrinsic rewards understood by all parties as light-hearted tokens of a seriously impressive classroom relationship.
These are the teachers who change lives, not only by being bloody good professionals, but by so overwhelmingly understanding their students’ situation. Seeing the world through their eyes, walking a few steps in their shoes, and understanding that their primary function in the education process is not simply to teach stuff but to ignite sparks, tend flames and set young minds and imaginations ablaze and inspired to learn more.
And yet my observation over 20 years is that our education system does not do well in creating these life-changers. If anything, somewhat perversely, the thrust of recent national policies and reforms has made teachers and schools more risk averse, encouraging them to play safe and in-so-doing, limit the opportunities for the amazing.
In an attempt to improve national standards, education policy has sequentially introduced curricula, quality descriptors for acceptable practice, prescriptive or preferred methods, and even comprehensive schemes for the delivery of lessons, courses and subjects. Consequently there can no longer be any place for the inadequate teacher as a script is available for every pathway and so, rightly it would seem, the weakest teachers and schools have improved and no young life should be damaged by educational incompetence.
Thus the machinery, processes and instruments of current education policy cause the worst teachers to improve or leave, but at the same time they have a disproportionate impact on the whole system. As these weak teachers and schools are measured, found wanting and issued with a call to shape up or ship out, so the rest of the profession watches warily from the tenuous safety of marginally higher ground. Whether intended or unintentional, a perverse impact of these reforms over time has been a convergence to the relative safety of the middle ground, where good becomes ‘good enough’, especially as the inspector calls to check up on policy implementation as much as to stand independently as the guardian of excellence. This, combined with the over-publication of socially-ignorant performance data, creates a context where only the most confident school leaders seem to avoid themselves becoming lieutenants of the retreat to the safety of the middle ground.
And so a generation of new foot soldiers join the profession, seeing greatest value placed on compliance with a standardised approach and median expectations. The balance and emphasis of the system seems to rest fundamentally upon the adequacy of teaching and the coverage of content to not expose the school to reputational harm. Training and development are often reduced largely to the practical implementation of the prescribed processes, regardless of any under-pinning philosophies. And so we subject our young people to ordinary classrooms where it becomes acceptable for the teacher to formulaically go through the motions, ticking boxes to keep the watchdog at bay, fearful of rebuke for stepping out of line and numbed to any alternative possibilities. But good enough nevertheless.
I recently watched sadly the impact of such mediocrity on the development of a young potential linguist. Year 7 French had opened doors to a new world of possibilities. A life-changing teacher skilfully and imperceptibly crafted the necessary learning of vocabulary and grammar as keys to unlock access to new cultures, foods, geography, politics, sport and an exciting realisation that the pursuit of human excellence transcends time and place. The youngster became alive to future possibilities way beyond the sphere of his current experience. The following Year 8 French then killed this dead! Sure, classroom observations and results judged it to be good enough but this teacher brought with them to the classroom a treadmill rather than an elevator. They were putting themselves and their students through the motions with little regard for the lived experience of this young Y8 inquisitor. French was subsequently dropped in Year 9. Teaching had been good enough, but learning had been closed down.
As the next phase of educational reform introduces greater fragmentation, autonomy and an opportunity for excellence in learning to again shine out through the administrative fog, so we need courageous system leaders to emerge who will celebrate the bees and the space missions.
- Who will stand shoulder to shoulder with our young learners and demand that their excitement in their learning becomes the yardstick by which we measure teacher effectiveness.
- Who look for the buzz of learning in every classroom and especially beyond the classroom, giving the tools, permission and rewards for all teachers to become life-changers.
- Who recognise that we do more to prepare for unknown futures by igniting the desire to learn in each young mind than we do by ticking boxes to record how our safe teaching adequately addresses our current understanding of yesterday’s knowledge.
- Who understand that the impact of just a few lessons with an inspirational teacher can last for a lifetime and that teaching, when seen as the choreography of learning, truly is the best job in the world.
by Peter Chilvers, SDSA