Sunday mornings in the Andrews household start early. The alarm goes off at 5:45am and shortly after 6:15am Miss 7 wakes in order to get ready for a forty-five minute drive to a climbing gym and her weekly lesson. Last week was different however. It was the annual state climbing finals which saw competitors from far-and-wide descend on an unfamiliar venue to battle for limited qualification spaces at the national finals.
On this occasion, Miss 7 was successful in two out of three climbs and finished second in her category. While very gracious about her placing and keen to congratulate the winner, it was obvious to us how disappointed she was with herself. From speaking to her it was evident that Miss 7 was not satisfied with the judgement of others, she wanted to define her own success and sought control and power over the measure someone else foisted on her to qualify her degree of success. In her mind someone else’s application of a category ranking or digit to define accomplishment couldn’t possibly reflect the amount of planning, adaption to controlled conditions and the effort she had employed.
On Wednesday we received an email to confirm that Miss 7 had qualified to be part of the Under 10’s climbing squad to represent the state at the National Finals in Melbourne in May. We were elated for her and couldn’t wait to break the news after school. It would be fair to say we didn’t get the reaction we anticipated. Miss 7 was adamant she wouldn’t compete unless she returned to the competition venue and finished off what she started and left incomplete. Then, only then would she feel that she was worthy of her selection. Feeling very proud of her stance and craftsman like attitude on the matter, we committed to taking her back.
This whole episode has had me reflecting on the many ways in which determinations of success, effectiveness, failure, right or wrong in educational thinking and practice are articulated and sometimes mischaracterised. The swamp of international comparisons translated at national level takes on a vernacular of its own through crisis-tendency finger-pointing at teachers by politicians. National standardised testing and associated online rankings posted annually compound the feeling of education as the perpetual unfulfilled promise. What will the next fast-policy be to remind us of what is purportedly being unattended to? I have heard friends who teach here in Australia and back in the UK talk of their personal concern about employing strategies with ‘strong padlock ratings or long-term intervention impact’ despite knowledge of the contextual inappropriateness. It is one thing to say use of strategies should be informed and discerning, another to consider which voices are casting their shadow over the sense of expectation. Others have expressed worry about being seen to read wider literature, research or blogs that deviate away from a doctrine they have been told is beyond reasonable doubt or evidence.
On this note, I am intrigued by particular groups who espouse the potentiating role of evidencing ‘impact’ in our teaching while only loosely defining it. Look out for #myteachimpact next week. I am concerned that processes such as certification here in Australia for being ‘highly accomplished’ or a ‘lead teacher’ divert efforts towards a subjective array of practices that help achieve accreditation and aims of education that don’t necessarily take account of contextual challenge and variance when we feel pressured to accept what research suggests ‘works’. It may give the appearance of sorting and ranking teachers within a guise of celebrating greatness. What and who is ‘the best’ and who decides? Outpourings like this are unlikely to make me and perhaps others feel heroic about our work when we know there are thousands of others unmotivated by accolades and rewards and who aren’t on social media, who work relentlessly hard, with effect and with tremendous personal responsibility day-in and day-out.
I have recently been immersed in reading Lawrence Stenhouse’s astonishing contribution to educational research. He has provoked me to think hard about the importance of personal and professional judgment. It is something to be treasured and something to be defended. As he points out, remaining open to others people’s ideas and alert to research is important, but perhaps it is we, practicing teachers, who are well/best positioned to know what works and how to channel our efforts to make a difference. For me a key question is how do teachers reach a point of ‘not being told what to do’?
“Good teachers are necessarily autonomous in professional judgement… 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 … for teachers are in the position to create good teaching”.
What I learnt from Miss 7 is that knowledge of my circumstances (whether familiar or not), control over my strategies, regular practice and reflection are key to success. But what I learnt most, is that by taking control over my measures and my craft, I can achieve a sense of worth off my own back and through my own effort. That is reward enough. I think Miss 7 and Stenhouse are on the same page there.