PISA Hits Snake Mountain

(Skeletor) “Beast Man, Trap Jaw, Mer-Man, Evil Lyn, get in here now you clots!”

(Evil Lyn) “Yes boss, what is it?”

(Skeletor) “How in Heaven’s name do you explain these PISA figures? We’ve fallen behind Eternia.”

(Trap Jaw) “Ugh dunno boss.”

(Skeletor) “What do you mean you don’t know? How have we performed so badly? What’s wrong with these teachers? I want a full scale Inquiry!”

(Mer-Man) “That wouldn’t do any good boss, it’s proven ineffective.”

(Skeletor) “Hey? What is it with you, can’t you follow direct instruction?”

(Beast Man) “Ah yes, sure. What do you want us to tell the rest of the teaching staff? We’re mandating instruction? Doing more testing? Pile on the guilt with the full arsenal of analyses? Blame specific parts of the realm for underperformance?”

(Skeletor) “Are you kidding me? Let the media do all the hack work building public scrutiny, apply proper pressure through performance related pay, inviting Eternian teachers in to show us how to do the job properly, and if that don’t work, get creative, no excuses!”

(Evil Lyn) “You sure that’s wise boss, you’ll make them feel uniformed and substandard.”

(Skeletor) “Just tell em!”

Later:

(Skeletor) “Beast Man, now the teachers are distracted by the media and the public fallout, start greasing the cogs and get things in place for the next two years. If we play our cards right, we can commission a massive edubusiness to tell us what we already know by making up some test for stuff that doesn’t exist, and the thinktanks can go into overdrive to promulgate research that confirms what politicians want to hear and see happen.”

(Evil Lyn) “Ok boss, so a bit of fast policy? Anything in it for us?”

(Skeletor) “Ah, just some visibility, the chance to dominate the education debate with our cleverly coordinates blogging and PR juggernaut and cut a share in some fait accompli deals and policies. Not much.”

(Evil Lyn) “Sweet. I love for-profit education.”

(Skeletor) “Yep, and we can camouflage deeper issues with quick fixes, silver bullets and tin foil for pomme de terre’s.”

(Evil Lyn) “Ha ha, there’s a book in that, genius boss.”

(Skeletor) “Already done you oaf! We wrote it last year, didn’t you get the memo?”

(Evil Lyn) “You crafty Neo-Marxist!”

Observation-Theory Tensions

My professional practice often has me thinking about the ‘observation-theory’ relationship, particularly in light of post humanism that alerts us to the language we use, and the language we reject. These reflections also bring to mind how Popper used to say ‘observation is always observation in light of theories … conventionalism is a system which is self-contained and defensible’. So on the one hand there is the rightful need for accountability within a system that is self-contained. Then on the other hand there is the justified demand for innovation and creativity that necessarily lie outside these systems. How does the practice of teacher observation reconcile these tensions?

Professional action is at the forefront of the agenda of education at the moment and professional action needs to be justified and defended. There is a case made by some that nothing should be left to chance. But many commentators are punch-drunk on myth-busting, fad-smashing and having an epiphany about the fact that were led up the garden path and were wrong. They critique the part without addressing the whole. As Ball states (2015), we need to question the ‘necessarian logic’ espoused by policy entrepreneurs, so-called ‘experts’ and those that create the murky swamp that is a business-like or medicalised view of education and ‘what counts’ and ‘what works’. It is made all the more problematic when professional associations are prone to mergers and adopt a myopic view of what teaching can and should be visible as, even what education should be.

My professional practice and work with coaching partnerships suggests Australian Professional Standards for Teachers are not able to address these tensions. There are others who feel the same.

What really grabs me is the emphasis placed on the complex business of observing for the purpose of determining the quality of teaching. All Teachers have at some point engaged with some kind of educational theory and educational research on learning. There are bog-standard positions floating around at conferences and across edutwitter about ‘proxies for learning’ and also about the problematic of observing – but this seems to be predicated on naming and noticing desired observable features of lessons as measured by some version of student action or outcome. We then tend to ascribe some performative judgement about effectiveness with a side-dish of feedback and advice about ‘how to actually do it’ – corrective action if you will. Of course, we have our gaze fixed on the learning, but correcting the professional action of teachers.

For me this is problematic and lays bare gaps in the observation-theory relationship. If we are consumed by the essential need to use scientific approaches to teaching and student learning, how then do we control for the invariant element, the students? This might bother those who lean ostensibly on science and evidence to design out inconsistencies or the possible problems with not seeing what was intended. The language we use to describe anything that cannot be qualified or quantified seems to be rejected. Do we really want the privilege of observing colleagues to be reduced to a process of technocratic solutions and one-off judgements over a mosaic of practice over several episodes and dialogue about reflection leading to growth? There is a risk of an unacknowledged shift from ‘input legitimacy’ (values and purposes) to ‘output legitimacy’ (standards and performance) (Ball, 2015) at the expense of professional agency because of the educational ‘impatience’ to get results (Biesta, 2015).

I have a problem with a direct ‘just tell them’ approach to feedback on teaching, especially when it is either discipline or professional knowledge that is the subject in question. Teaching is an object of study that is complex and multi-faceted. Criteria of validity seems insufficient but also pre-ordained, thus stultifying the right of a teacher to research and professionally form iteratively. If observing teaching is about studying the phenomena of learning, then technical control of the process is surely the focus of observation. However, if we lean ostensibly on cognitive science to help us understand and plan for successful predictions of learning, do we have complete certainty? I am not uncertain.

So there might be an empiricist relation between the language of observation and theoretical language of practice, but there needs to be a reflexive relation between the two in order to explore the potential of practice. Conventionalism eschews uncertainty, but teaching is not that simple and neither is categorising teachers according to how conventional they are. That is also not right. Professional action operates in the domain of the variable not the eternal. That’s because we are working with people, not inanimate objects which can be manipulated to suit a desired outcome.

A Classroom Career – Something to be Proud of

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a career in the classroom.

There shouldn’t be the pressure to fall into a leadership slipstream or feel inadequate as colleagues overtake you in the outside lane to responsibility and accountability. Slow and steady, thoughtful and reflective teaching is a great path in and of itself and can make a significant difference to children and builds a fulfilling career that we can be proud of. The perceived determinacy of a clear route through ‘standards’ followed perhaps by a ‘path to leadership’ shouldn’t be foisted on everyone as it can marginalise some with alternate aspirations. Pressure is performative as Taubman (2009) notes;

‘the rhetoric of blame and fear and the promulgation of heroic narratives of exemplary teachers, which, coupled with the wide-spread use of tests, render teachers and teacher educators susceptible to the language of policy and the lure of business practices …”

There should be no requirement for a PR juggernaut of self-promotion, timed tweets talking things into existence or coordinated blogs or social-media espousals with colleagues to extol the virtues of what you do. Loving your craft, loving your subject, supporting your students and exploring practice needs no huge fanfare. After all, not everyone wants or needs a pedistal to be seen, heard and appreciated.

We shouldn’t need the backing of politicians or bloggers, support of research pumped out by thinktanks or have written a book to be doing a good job. Nor do we need to be flying drones, rolling some ball-like device around the floor, behave like a pirate, ascribe digital badges for behaviour or jump into some chat to be connected, have original thoughts or a view that isn’t going to be picked up by others and crush us into submission and change our mind with some epiphany.

We don’t need to be fully conversant in a particular field of research or evidence to be informed, at least by some popular definitions in educational discussions. BUT, do engage with research and keep an open mind about your assumptions regarding practice. Just because we don’t hit the taxonomic heights of some edujargon or scream passion, it doesn’t render us or our views meaningless.

Teaching is very complex. The multiple functions, forms and facets of our practice shouldn’t be redacted into narrow judgements or inspectorial slights. Being empathetic, humble, attentive to student needs and building purposeful working relationships cannot be measured. In a time of impatience and rush to justify every action and reaction in our classrooms and schools, taking time to appreciate the immense privilege is important. The stories and experiences that walk into our classrooms each and every day (yours included) can’t be retrofitted into some equation or formula. It’s more complex than that. That’s why staying in the classroom, being patient, watching, listening, supporting others, continually learning and developing a craft is absolutely fine.

Calling Time

In a room of excitable 4 or 5 year olds and their expectant parents sits a man who is on the verge of something monumental.

Our youngest daughters Pre-Prep (Kindergarten) teacher is preparing to retire in a few weeks after 42 years of service to education, particularly in early childhood. I cannot begin to fathom the process he must have endured to finally reconcile with himself that it was time to ‘call time’.

Misty eyed parents and carers stood transfixed while a video of the year in review was shown. Glancing around me I noticed folk smile, laugh and some wipe away tears as photos of their child appear before them. Snapshots of Japanese lessons, Art projects, reading, writing, play, special events and community engagement reminded all who were in attendance what an enriching and fulfilling year these little people have had. It was also emotional for some of us as we come to the realisation that our children’s first year in an educational setting is drawing to a close.

Following the video our children’s teacher spoke with us collectively. For just a few precious minutes we were invited (through words and sentiments) into the heart and mind of a man who articulated his sincere gratitude that we have allowed him to have such a formative and influential role in (for some) the first educational and socialising experience for their child. It is humbling to witness.

He spoke of the ‘terrifying responsibility’ and ‘immeasurable privilege’ it has been to watch them grow, learn languages, play instruments, explore ideas and concepts, make and play, write and draw, develop relationships and build a culture of thinking and responsibility. While this is the end for him, it is one more beginning for a cohort of young people with whom he has worked. In his own words his work has always been about developing ‘roots before branches’.

Both of our daughters have been fortunate to have had this man as their first experience of a teacher. His gentleness and patience, empathy and attention to the individual needs of our children have been deeply appreciated. He has created in our girls a sense of wonder about the world and love of school and learning.

I am not capable of mustering the words to fully describe what ‘calling time’ on a life in education must be like. It is ridiculous to think that I could. Crass categorisations of teacher effectiveness or quality fall woefully short in the face of a life in the service of our youngest students. As I write this brief reflection and consider the impact this deeply committed, informed and graceful teacher has had on our children, I am reminded of the following observation by Jennifer Nias (1996)

“Teachers have hearts and bodies, as well as heads and hands, though the deep and unruly nature of their hearts is governed by their heads, by the sense of moral responsibility for students and the integrity of their subject matter which are at the core of their professional identity…Teachers are emotionally committed to many different aspects of their jobs.”

 Thank you my good man. Thank you for giving our girls roots before branches.

Unforgivingly Complex

I have been fortunate to be part of an international forum of educators and students in Japan this week. The teachers have enjoyed talking and sharing examples of professional practice that are making a difference in their setting but also making observations of larger scale processes and policies at work in their countries. Recurring themes have included school alignment and accountability, the use of evidence in education and teachers engaging with research. I am reminded of Deb Netolicky’s recent post about ‘Personal and Organisational Vision in Schools’. The piece drives at the heart of an interesting challenge. If what a system or organisation expects in the way of thinking and working is strictly evidence-based, limited to narrow fields of research but set true towards well-intentioned goals, what scope (or need) is there for teachers to exercise their own professional judgement about practice and research directions?

Schools and even systems seem to be driven to articulate goals or benchmarks and justify them by espousing their research and evidence-base. I can understand why some can be reticent to squander precious time, resources and expertise in pursuit of impacts which are incalculable, add little value or where progress is hard to detect. It is not surprising then that many in education are keen to see professional action as ‘treatment’ (they intervene in a particular situation) in order to bring about certain desirable ‘effects’. So why do anything if there is not a secure relationship between the intervention (as cause) and its outcome (the effect)?

I dare say that the reason why politicians and others in the field are getting punch-drunk on ‘what works’ is the seduction of rapid fixes translated into concrete means with measurable outcomes. However, professional action operates in the domain of the variable, not the eternal. So surely research provides technical possibilities, not certainties.

There is certainly an appetite for research engagement and evidence use in schools. I wonder though how much attraction there is towards abstract technocratic models where it is assumed that the only relevant research questions are those regarding effectiveness or to which the answers have already been obtained through some ‘gold-standard’ methodology or trial. Acceptance of ‘what works’ at any level limits the opportunities for educational practitioners to make judgements about research which is relevant and sensitive to their context. Dylan Wiliam reminds us of some important caveats such as ‘research can only tell us what was, not what might be’ and ‘in education ‘what works?’ is rarely the right question. The right question is ‘under what conditions does this work?’ In the same vein David Berliner (2002) suggests that it is important for schools to pose questions of and for themselves as opposed to transplanting and applying thinking and action that is removed from their context.

Some schools prefer to consume and apply pre-packaged research with ready-to-roll out methodologies with costs/benefits clearly articulated. This may well address immediate or long-standing needs and provide the validating evidence to justify engagement with the intervention. However, are they carefully considering the fidelity of the accessed research or the scope for interchangeability of contexts? Biesta (2007) echoes the need for critical discussion around evidence in education and notes;

“One positive outcome of these ongoing discussions is that some proponents of an evidence-based approach in education have begun to talk in a more nuanced way about the link between research, policy, and practice, using notions such as ‘‘evidence-informed,’’ ‘‘evidence-influenced,’’ and ‘‘evidence-aware’’ practice … but there is a real need to widen the scope of our thinking about the relationship between research, policy, and practice, so as to make sure that the discussion is no longer restricted to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends but also addresses questions about the desirability of the ends themselves.”

It is clear that other schools rupture the afore-mentioned ‘secure relationship’ by generating their own questions about practice and process and are keen to see growth and improvement in outcomes beyond those for which ‘what works’ has already been worked out. This, I would argue, doesn’t make them professionally negligent and ignorant or irresponsible mavericks, they could simply be choosing a field of research and evidence and a set of practices which is suited for their contexts.

Abstaining from embracing someone else’s evidence doesn’t mean that you are necessarily wading through a morass of reheated strategies for improvement or the room 101 of interventions/innovations that lack research integrity or evidence. Schools and individuals shouldn’t have to genuflect and sidle up to someone else’s research or evidence imprimatur because it is what everyone else is doing or because it is an organisational or system expectation. Being able to access research and conduct research itself, shouldn’t be a fight or reduce what we are and do to narrow metrics. When teaching practice and teachers at any scale is reduced to ‘evidence tells us’ or ‘you should be doing’, we should remind ourselves of this gem from Cochrane-Smith (2003);

“Teaching is unforgivingly complex. It is simply not good or bad, right or wrong, working or failing. Although absolutes and dichotomies such as these are popular in the headlines … they are limited in their usefulness … They ignore almost completely the nuances of ‘good’ (or bad) teaching of real students collected in actual classrooms in the context of particular times and places. They mistake reductionism for clarity, myopia for insight”.

Edubusiness Partnerships – La Bocca della Verita?

Bocca della Verita. Heard of it? Translated it means the Mouth of Truth and is an iconic piece of Rome’s ancient history. It is a carving of a frightening face with an open mouth that is hewn from Pavonazzo marble and can be found in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. Legend has it that anyone who places their hand in the mouth who has told a lie or has questionable intentions, will have it bitten off. It was immortalised in the 1953 film Roman Holiday staring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. There is a scene in the film that see’s Peck placing his right hand inside the mouth. Peck and Hepburn are not initially truthful with one another about their respective identities (princess and a down-on-his-luck expatriate American journalist) but go on to milk the chance meeting to mutually benefit a situation; she wishes to break from her royal duties and live a little of a normal life and he (going undercover) is keen for an interview (the big scoop) with the royal which will land him a $5000 pay check.

Romantic as this all seems, the motives soon become apparent and all manner of folk on both sides are given the run-around and the film ends with normality sadly being restored, with Peck left to ponder what might have been.

Relationships between the profession, edubusinesses and representative bodies are fascinating. They become increasingly murky and opaque when what is at stake is policy formation, an ideology pushed or the same players, straplines and products trotted out to ‘enhance’ our work, inform us more ‘accurately’ or saturate our valuable professional learning time with ‘we have done the thinking for you’.

The reach and market share of organisations such as Corwin, Pearson, Visible Learning etc. is considerable. Their ability to mobilise their brand through individuals, professional bodies and conferences is something to behold. As Hogan, Lingard and Sellar (2013) state;

“Their enhanced significance is linked to the emergence of what Urry (2007, p. 197) defines network capital as “the capacity to engender and sustain social relations with those people who are not necessarily proximate and which generates emotional, financial and practical benefit (although this will often entail various objects and technologies or the means of networking)”. The ability to network is not evenly distributed and requires specific resources. Position in a network, and ultimately power, is dependent on mobilities of different kinds. Mobilities are not necessarily about travel, but rather the movement of people, ideas, objects and information, what Appadurai (1996) referred to as “flows.”

Marten Koomen brilliantly points out that some key figures transcend organisations and mobilise ideas to multiple audiences or camouflage products and philosophy through rhetoric. They have access to the most prominent platforms and opportunities. “Networks across senior educators are of course a lot broader, deeper and opaque operating not only at the board level but also through conference attendance, keynote addresses and participation in consultative groups and workshops”. Such people include Tony Mackay, Tony Cook and John Hattie. You can see the boards across which they traverse in Marten’s post.

What bothers me is that these deeply influential people who possess and mobilise extensive network influence and penetrate huge educational conversations and decisions, may be going unchallenged by the profession at large. Why is this? Are we satisfied with being told what works, what to use, when to do what, what to read, whose research to consume and believe, how to professionally develop and what to think? I sense some brooding resistance on social media, but to what extent are these kernels of pushback being heard and engaged with? How can alternate views of what education can and should be achieve the aim of influencing at the upper echelons of educational narrative in mainstream media? How can we achieve equitable access to opportunities to speak into the educational debate on a large scale without being festooned with life-size posters of edu-guru’s flanking us?

Educational goals which use vernacular such as ‘one years learning from every years teaching’, could lead us to think that those who make such bold proclamations are in the market for systemic support and resources. Why wouldn’t departments sniff out solutions which are all-in-one; a raft of best-selling texts, off-the-shelf research, data management systems, teaching resources, accreditation/certification or leadership modules. Why wouldn’t a department be magnetised to those providers who vigorously market their brand at conferences, across social-media and have the backing or lead from prominent educators? It could also be advantageous if the purchased partnership aligned you with other key players in the markets and gave the impression of systemic provision for improvement and performance and a relatively uncontested field of evidence to justify ones position.

I’m all for professional bodies amalgamating their work as long as the profession is fully involved rather than the recipients of ‘best-in-class’ pre-packaged training that is considered or assumed to be precise, transplantable and contextually neutral. Could ACEL’s newly announced partnership with Corwin be an example of this?

No-one is likely to have their hand bitten off in a metaphorical Bocca della Verita for trying to advance education, but let’s at least be clear about intentions, who is involved and desirable outcomes, outcomes that professionalise us rather than beholden to a business model.

 

 

A Profession NOT an Unthinking Line-Dance

I remember almost every second of the evening of December 12th 1996. I had the incredible fortune to be at The Manic Street Preachers homecoming gig at Cardiff International Arena to celebrate the launch of their 4th studio album Everything Must Go. It was the band’s first release since the mysterious disappearance of guitarist and insanely talented lyricist Richey Edwards. Die-hard fans were delirious with joy at the chance to witness this historic event but simultaneously felt sadness as three took to the stage rather than four. James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire made the whole evening a conversation (in amongst songs) and an intentional tribute to Edwards.

An abiding memory was that the whole event was handled with empathy by the band. There was deep appreciation articulated for the messages of support during the difficult last year, thanks to the crowd for turning up and spending time/money and gratitude for the album purchases which enabled the band to do what it is they love doing; writing, recording and performing for people. I remember feeling really connected to the band and enjoying their sincerity, awareness of where they have come from and eagerness to continue producing high quality work for all to access and enjoy.

I wonder sometimes whether those who trot the educational speaking circuit (and broker (no doubt) huge appearance fees) realise the extent to which they can hold audiences in the palm of their hands and influence thinking that will eventually meander its way back into schools and infiltrate discussion and decision-making. In dimly-lit halls, spotlights are cast on lone figures of repute trudging laps of a stage (or pretty disappointingly live by video link such as John Hattie at this week’s ACEL conference) as fingers are poised to tweet out this ‘nugget’ and that, photograph this graphic and that. I would despair if all anecdotes and ‘research’ is uncritically consumed as gospel in a pseudo-evangelical atmosphere.

Teaching is, and should be treated as an intellectual activity. It tends to attract people who love teaching and relish the autonomy they have to think, act and be. Teaching is also an activity which should value sharing, explore new and exciting frontiers and actively listen to one another’s ideas and work. While I accept that sometimes it is helpful to hear from those who have the ear of key upper-echelon educational players, it is miserable to hear the same hermetic tropes about ideology, evidence, comparability, quality and effect.

 There is a significant distance between conferences and classrooms, headlines and the day-to-day reality of working in schools. It is my belief that those who have the extraordinary privilege to speak to and work with large numbers of attentive professionals should remain closely connected to us, watching unobtrusively, listening undistractedly and communicating affirmatively and respectfully about our efforts and struggles. Like the Manic Street Preachers of December 12th 1996, converse WITH us, don’t talk AT us. We are a profession and we wont get mugged off with wordsmithery, political gamesmanship, fancy slides or reputation. It doesn’t mean ‘guru’s’ or educelebs will be dismissed out-of-hand, but his we know …

“Good teachers are necessarily autonomous in professional judgement. They do not need to be told what to do. They are not professionally the dependents of researchers or superintendents, of innovators or supervisors. This does not mean that they do not welcome access to ideas created by other people at other places or in other times. Nor do they reject advice, consultancy or support. But they do know that ideas and people are not much real use until they are digested to the point where they are subject to the teacher’s own judgement. In short, it is the task of all educationalists outside the classroom to serve the teachers; for teachers are in the position to create good teaching”.

(Stenhouse, 1988)

Trouble Me

“Trouble me, disturb me with all your cares and worries, trouble me, on the days when you feel spent”. 

Trouble Me – 10,000 Maniacs (1989)

How do we show a deep level of care and regard for our colleagues within our schools? How do we do it without appearing nosey, intrusive or insincere and respect our colleague’s right to privacy and sensitivity?

How do we KNOW that care is needed? What are the signs? What kinds of care might be required? Time, space, listening and seeking to understand? A knowing glance, a handshake, a chat over a coffee? A phone call? A text? A ‘how are you?’ It can be a job to know.

Care, I would suggest is linked to trust. Browning (2014) reminds us that trust has to be worked at and invited. Trust is a very personal thing and it can surface feelings of vulnerability and trepidation if someone is let into your life. In busy, emotionally-charged places like schools, this can be compounded because a core currency is relationships. I have no doubt that there are many places of work, maybe your place of work, where trust is engendered and flourishes. In trust-depleted environments, what we bring to the job and what happens to us in our lives can remain camouflaged.

Colleagues, I believe are not in the business of suturing relationships and actually want to show care and regard through professional issues and sometime personal ones. The problem is knowing how to.

Being trusted, being consistent, being confidential and being ‘present’ is very important. It is not always easy to be these things or to do them. Believing in trust and the benefits it can bring is a start. We have to commit to trust and hope that people ‘trouble us’ and develop levels of care and regard that make us feel a sense of worth and support.

 

28 Years Later

I’ve read some interesting materials about the role of personal narrative/personality in forming professional-identity. I often reflect on this and find myself grappling with the fact that our profession is forever under the microscope and people, both within and beyond it, make assumptions about us. I personally recoil at the thought of typecasting teachers, categorising and rating them in accordance to the outputs they generate (scores/value-add etc.), their ability to ‘prove’ or periodically hoop-jump or justify the strategies or interventions they employ, which may or may not be deemed ‘effective’ by some professional body.

I struggle sometimes to reconcile the judgements I hear made about lessons, teachers or schools when something as intangible as culture and personality are likely to play a critical role to success or otherwise. It is for reasons like this that I am wary about myself making assumptions or others making assumptions. I have thought long and hard about why I feel so strongly about this and find myself returning to the summer of 1987 … Indulge me please …

I pulled back the curtain slowly and peeked out of my bedroom window. The sun was coming up and that signalled it was time to escape. I tip-toed across the landing and snuck into my brother’s room which faced out onto our street. I checked his alarm clock. It showed 5:30am. I was late! I scanned the street and in the distance spotted my three mates perched on their bikes, backpacks on looking up at my brother’s window gesturing energetically for me to hurry up.

I returned to my room, retrieved the backpack from under my bed which I had hidden there the night before, and, in military fashion, slipped downstairs, desperate to not be heard or wake anyone up. I had rehearsed the route to the back door to avoid the creaky floorboards countless times and had it down to an art now. I clenched my fist and silently punched the air – I was outside and there was no sign of anyone being disturbed. I slung my bag on my back, grabbed my battered bike and sped round to the meeting point at the end of the street.

The four of us simultaneously slid our hoods over our heads, looked at each other knowingly and set off. We had our first argument by the end of the street, no less than 200m away from where we started. Gavin had forgotten to take his pegged Corn Flake packet wheel clickers off and had set the massive Rottweiler off at Mr Beech’s house. The painfully loud barking sparked a few bedroom lights to come on and curtains to be twitched. It was time to bolt across the fields and down to the river via the farm.

As we rode 4-abreast down the old lane through the avenue of trees, Gavin piped up. “Do you reckon we’ll get there in time? My brother said he’s there every day at 6:15am without fail. Do you reckon he’ll kick off if he sees us?” “Yes to all of those” I replied. We were all excited and curious. A few weeks earlier on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Gavin’s older brother had been to the local video store and got out Stand By Me, The Goonies and Karate Kid and we had a movie marathon in their family attic. By the end we were pumped and wanted to go on all manner of adventures. Gavin’s brother told us of this old farmer who lived near the river and every morning at 6:15am he would be out at the end of his garden practicing some slow, weird looking moves like Mr Miyagi. None of us believed it because we all knew him as the grumpy old man who would shout at us and tell us to ‘get off his land’.

As we neared the river we deposited our bikes against a fence and crawled up the bankside to take up a position to see this creaky old farmer do his thing. We looked at our watches and sure enough at 6:15am, the farmer emerged from the back door of his house and trudged wearily to the end of his garden. He reached for some tarpaulin and slid it off what we thought must have been a folded-up washing line, but was in fact a strange looking tree object with pieces of wood poking out at different heights and angles. The farmer started staring at what we learnt later was a Muk Yan Jong (wooden dummy). From being completely motionless, within seconds his hands, elbows and forearms were flailing at lightning speed and ferocity. We crouched, absolutely transfixed, as this doddery old man demonstrated such dexterity and fluidity, the likes of which none of us had expected. We had made assumptions about his old frame and ability without any knowledge of him.

When the old man had finished, he grabbed the tarpaulin and covered the wooden dummy again and trudged the same track back to his house. I glanced at my watch and noticed that he has been at it uninterrupted for 45 minutes. Without saying a word, we stood up, walked back to our bikes and set off home. We were no longer interested in having our packed breakfast by the river. We had just seen the coolest thing ever and wanted to go and practice what we saw in Gavin’s garage to ‘The Eye of the Tiger’. Sad, very sad.

That was 1987. Twenty eight years later I spoke to Gavin via Skype and he told me that the farmer has passed on at the grand old age of 91. The village had congregated to celebrate his life in the local hall. Gavin had never left the local area and had been invited to the wake. While there he discovered that the old farmer had been practicing on the wooden dummy for nearly 40 years. A local Kung Fu teacher described his routines as remarkable, text-book and effortless, the result of dedication and a love-affair with his craft.

I reminded Gavin of how guilty we had felt making an assumption about the old farmer all those years ago. He asked me if I still held true to this view, to which I replied ‘yes’. As I reflect on that Skype call nearly one year later I remind myself of never doing this in my job. The extrovert, the confident teacher, the classroom-bound teacher, the part-timer, the 30-year service teacher, the graduate, the leader, the researcher … there is so much I don’t know, so much invisible, unquantifiable personal narrative they bring to their role and do day after day. I need to remember this. Do you?

 

 

Nostalgia – It Aint What It Used To Be. Or is it?

Have you ever bought a new car and from that moment on started spotting similar ones everywhere you go with seemingly improbable regularity?

I’ve been wondering if the same principle applies to things we hear. I have started noticing (and have been reflecting on) what seems to be a number of folk using particular phrases in settings where education is discussed; schools, conferences, on social-media. The phrases I hear often include ‘at my last school’, ‘in my last role’ and ‘in a former life’.

I admit I am guilty of having used them. All of them. I am now really conscious of the fact that I have and may still do. These phrases have really made me wonder about the value of our past professional narratives in the contexts or activity in which we find ourselves now; decision-making, opinion-forming, passing comment on something, comparing and contrasting approaches etc. I am curious about our motivations for recalling past exploits or experiences and how we feel when hearing other people’s recitations.  I feel that reconciling the differences between our former and current contexts is important to us but is certainly experientially located.

There have been situations when I have spotted a situation when ‘I knew’ person ‘X’ was about to unload a military-grade salvo of stories about ‘X’ and scrambled for the ‘evac-chopper’. I have also been privy to discussions amongst colleagues who have assembled in anticipation of a new staff member joining the school or a team and talked into existence the worry that new ideas or expectations would have the potential for organisational or team entropy. By the same token, I have enjoyed hearing people share stories or past experiences that have shed new light on a problem, helped inform a decision, present new perspectives or allow lessons to be learnt about how to achieve success or pitfalls to avoid.

I believe that drawing on the reservoir of a staff’s past experience, knowledge, skills and contributions are vital to a schools healthy functioning and there is much to be gained from our professional experiences, but I am also wary of ‘frequency fatigue’. When does it become too much and invert to become something that is counter-productive? I am not suggesting that we put clamps or gags on these phrases, but merely posing a few questions;

  • Have we any way of knowing whether our use of past experience (school, role, philosophy) in our current context elicits a positive response or frustration, sense of threat or some other emotion in those around us?
  • Which experiences do we tend to draw upon and what does that tell us about our attitude to our current context?
  • What do we stand to gain from the use of past experience? Acceptance, a sense of worth, to be heard or the feeling of making a sincere contribution?
  • Do we observe new staff at our schools comparing and contrasting more than existing or long-standing staff?
  • How do we REALLY know if those around us value what we have to say?
  • Do newer staff to a school compare and contrast more than those who have been around long enough to be enculturated and institutionalised?

From ‘my experience’ (here I go … :) …) we tend to use comparison or contrast quite frequently, especially when it comes to taking a position on something or striving to progress things. I have heard the usage between teachers who have hopped from one system to another, such as from a state to private school or vice-versa. I have heard these phrases when a teacher has migrated from one international system to another. I have heard them when teachers feel a philosophical misalignment between a past experience and current context. I have also heard usage when a colleague needed to feel a sense of self-worth by articulating what they actually think.

In my last post I wrote about how we can be susceptible to ‘fabrication’ as a result of internal school cultures, expectations and compliance with policy. We are also clearly influenced by the school cultures we have experienced. Some teachers are progenitors of culture, others a product of it. Experience (good or bad) can profoundly affect how we work, think and transmit what we value. How we move those beliefs around between jobs and contexts is fascinating. Is it actually possible to abandon a previous context and culture and start anew somewhere without re-articulation at some point?

I am left pondering something Ron Berger wrote in his book Ethic of Excellence; ‘How do you share a culture? An ethic?’ How can experience be shared productively and helpfully without feeling the sensation of having to suppress people’s mumbles of ‘oh no, here they go again!’