Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Deserters will be shot!

It's pretty clear that teaching is a toxic profession right now. The combination of botched curriculum reforms that are unfit for the needs of the students, a performance management system that forces us to take responsibility for things we can't control, pay freezes, creeping private sector involvement, workload, Kafkaesque data systems and a pathetic amount of reflection time in comparison to more enlightened countries make working in teaching a pretty joyless experience at the moment.

I want to write a short piece starting with a reflection about the prevalence of the TES and Guardian 'That's it, I can't go on' articles which seem to be particularly en vogue at the moment.

There is a common theme to them. Summarised they tend to go like:

I wasn't a 'struggling teacher'
I did everything I was asked and did my best
I pushed myself to the limit for the sake of my students
I found myself in a terrible place mentally
I battled on and tried really hard.
A straw broke the camel's back
I quit.

There is no doubt about the validity of the personal experiences these articles cite. There is no doubt that there are some monstrous management regimes in education (as in most walks of life) and little doubt that teacher burnout is a major problem. I have nowt but sympathy for the people who have actually broken under the weight of what is a pretty impossible job to actually do all of.

I think the prevalence of these articles on 'teacher social media' (I want to kill myself acknowledging I know that is a thing) is symptomatic of a misunderstanding about what brings about change - Essentially it's a collective naivety, it's like we keep expecting someone to change it for us. For someone to sweep in and make a magical decree on behalf of everyone and click their fingers and suddenly teaching is a great happy place.

The only people who can change this system meaningfully are teachers and if we keep celebrating the fact teachers quit by enthusiastically sharing, publishing and recommending the stories of their breakdowns we are really only serving to further our own misery. We are perpetuating the idea of ourselves as victims of a cruel system we can do nothing about.

What we need is a clear understanding of the key problems facing schools and a broad agreement around what we want. 

We need a common framework that the majority of teachers agree would improve both their conditions and the experience of learners. Year after year after year we swing from political regime to political regime and like a pendulum move back and forth adapting to ideological changes and political career making. It's time to say - no more! Yes, it's satisfying to fantasise about walking away from a job but it doesn't achieve anything beyond throwing another NQT on the bonfire, rinse and repeat.

I'm not going to quit. You shouldn't either. At least not if you enjoy at least some of your job on some level. You should start seriously thinking though. What I think is important is the following:

1: Schools should be controlled by LEAs. It is more efficient. Maybe the LEA model needs reform, I don't know, but academies are fundamentally damaging to employment rights and inefficient.

2: Schools should co-operate not compete. Funding must be a longer term arrangement, not simply based on x number of pupils = x amount of money. This forces schools into competing for learners which is a significant expense of time and money, and can result in forcing learners to complete courses  which don't suit their needs because they dare not 'lose' or 'fail' a learner who might be better suited to a different environment or course.

3: In order to achieve 2 we really need to consider the impact of league tables on standards. Has there *actually been a positive impact?* (I'm interested in any evidence if anyone has any - it's always struck me that 'competition improves outcomes' is a truism that in 15 years teaching I've never seen any actual evidence of that isn't either statistically questionable given the shifting nature of exams and 'standards' or just a basic re-framing of an essentially ideological belief - clearly in sport, footballers try harder in competitive situations but they also get lots of rest, can see their opponent and are playing a simple game - lets not just accept the situation 'as is' as true.)

4: We also possibly need to really consider carefully whether outcomes tell us the real story of education. There's a fascinating study which suggests the real impact of education is not how children perform NOW but how they perform much later in schooling. It suggests that teachers who focus on real skills and underlying concepts and attitudes as opposed to cramming for the test are punished for not cramming for the test, but actually add much value to their learners on a longer term basis. In other words, feed the pig junk food and it'll get fat. Feed it health food and it'll live much longer or produce much better meat. We reward the junk food feeding. If I was actually writing a book I'd link to it. You'll just have to believe me because I haven't had any dinner yet and this is a bizarre cathartic ritual for me to try and clear my mind because it's full of thoughts and I seriously need to switch off. If anyone wants to send me a few thousand quid then I'll take my academic duties more seriously and start adding footnotes and all that jazz.

5: Teachers need to focus on teaching, assessment and reflection. Nothing more beyond an open day and a parents evening. The clue is in the name.

6: To do this effectively on a 23-25 hour timetable is already an almighty challenge. We know that genuine AFL and other effective strategies are built around reflection, preparation and thoughtfully constructed lessons. We know parents and learners want a system where staff have time to actually engage with kids and know them on some level. Not possible in the current system.

7: So therefore the priorities for us must be to a) reduce teaching hours per week by a significant amount. b) to guard against any reduction in teaching being filled with admin/marketing/data generation. c) to ensure this time is given to creativity and development of teaching d) because only this will improve the outcomes (both measurable and not) whatever model of pedagogy we subscribe to.

8: The money this would cost could in part be clawed back from the funding not being spent on competing and more efficient use of LEA services. I also think we could vastly simplify the exam system and save money there. The point being, that yes, we do need funding increases, but these increases must not be simply spent on making a broken engine run faster. Plug the leaks in the exhaust.

9: We must stop working 60 hour weeks. In simple terms, by doing so you are cheapening your labour and the labour of everyone around you. You tell yourself 'it's for the kids' but you are modelling a world in which the adults around them don't value themselves, don't value their rights and opportunities, don't stand up for themselves. In an increasingly volatile labour market and faced with stagnant growth, automation, gig economy bullshit, these learners are going to HAVE to stand their ground and demand a world that affords them dignity and humanity.

10: If you spend your time running miserably from job to job, doffing your cap to authority all the time how is that 'modelling' anything positive? 'Hey kidz, work hard, stay in school then you can get a good job and be miserable as fuck' - Teacher mental health and student mental health are entwined. Live with someone who is constantly unhappy (hello partner, I'm sorry, I love you more than I can say) and it'll grind you down (again, I'm sorry! I WILL be happier!) Don't give me some 'I don't let the kidz see' bullshit. They aren't stupid. They see exhausted, tired, drained adults trying desperately to communicate stuff they don't really see the importance of and understand absolutely the game being played. It's not a nice one.

Neo-liberal education isn't a pleasant bedtime story.

"Once upon a time there were some grown-ups, they were sad because they had to make some children try and do some things when they'd really rather have asked the children to do some different stuff. They didn't really understand why the children had to do the things but they did their best because it was what is called a 'target'. So, the grown ups all did it even though it took ages and seemed pointless and it made them even sadder because they felt rubbish doing it and the children were sad because they didn't like it or know why they were doing it and that made the grown ups sadder and it all just carried on because that's the way it is and next year the grown ups had to do it better to beat another school down the road because that matters more than happiness or sunshine or anything and that's all anyone can imagine because 'targets' are a bit like God" 

I'd MUCH rather read a child Nietzsche. Less scary.

11: We MUST support direct action. There are no excuses. None what so ever. Ask yourself seriously, genuinely, honestly, even if you want to work the hours, even if you want to climb the ladder, even if you love the job from bottom to top, from every intervention to every single column of data in every spreadsheet; can you look around your school and not worry about the staff? Can you look at your learners and honestly think 'this current incarnation of British education is working really well for them!'

I'm having my dinner now. It's over. Revolution begins and ends with you*.

*I don't really know if that's true, in fact, I suspect it isn't, but it's a nice way to end. What does truth matter anyway?

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