Hypocritical kiss

Tristram Hunt

To be fair to Tristram, teaching really is a profession where we could do with a little more commitment. You only have to look at school staff car parks at 3:30pm up and down the land, empty and deserted, to know that. Walk into any staff room during lunch time and, as you listen to every adult within judging distance, giggling with glee at the prospect of being home in time for ‘Pointless’ whilst they book their seventh holiday of the year, it’s clear that any ‘moral calling’ to join a ‘noble profession’ is falling on deaf ears. Teachers are well known procrastinators, deliberately wasting their time and underperforming. If I had a free school meal for every time a teacher said to me during performance management ‘but I became a teacher for the holidays’ I’d be able to feed the juniors for free as well as the infants.

Governments have tried to address this before. Knowing full well that teaching encourages even the hardest working individual to become an opportunistic slothful slouch (the sort of person who avoids ‘professionalism’ like they would the wet footprints left behind by a child wearing a verruca sock), they tried to increase the teacher’s workload. But it doesn’t seem to matter how many initiatives you throw at them, teachers just keep on hiding in the shadows and getting away with it. You would have thought performance related pay, league tables, testing nonsense words, pupil premium, sports premium, SPAG tests, removing assessment systems and having to invent your own, constantly changing inspection frameworks, new curriculums…all these, you would have thought, would have had some impact. But no: teaching remains a sullied profession and Tristram has, quite rightly, had enough.

I mean what makes it worse is that it’s not just ‘those in the know’ who have noticed. Parents are beginning to wise up to the fact that teachers don’t know what they’re talking about. Luckily they can now do something about it. Due to the canniest political move since Blair told Brown ‘of course you can take over after five years’ and then mouthed ‘NOT’ whilst poor Gordon was distracted trying to add the 10% service charge to the bill, parents can have even more control over their children’s education by building free schools. There may only be a few of them, but they are the only schools where the right people are in charge with the right people in the classrooms – the more unqualified the better I say, as it makes it easier to do what the parents want if you haven’t got to view their requests through a lens of ‘knowledge’, ‘experience’ or ‘being an actual educator’. Spare a thought then for all the other parents, who have to live with the fact that their local authority school or academy chain is being run by people who consider weekends as some kind of entitlement.

Luckily, Tristram has a two point plan to change all of this. He will first make teachers take a ‘Hippocratic oath’ and he will then give them an actual compass. I could go into details here about why these two things are brilliant ideas, but I wouldn’t want to patronise you. It is a brilliant plan; anyone can see it: the oath will mean that teachers finally see that they are expected to work hard ‘educating’ and the compass will help them navigate their way to the toilets in a new build. There really is nothing more to add. Bravo.

It is so nice to be able to get behind someone who ‘gets us’ and sees the wood despite all the trees. Like a laser beam zoning in on James Bond’s balls, Hunt has teaching in his sights and knows how to sort it all out. He knows that the profession must elevate itself from the bargain basement expectations we currently have and soar like Icarus towards the light – and his two point plan will make sure we never get anywhere near the sun. Clever Tristram.

What better way to make us better than giving us an oath and a compass? I mean, you could argue that dismantling free schools, redefining assessment procedures so they are meaningful, cutting back on nonsense policies that distract us from teaching and learning, not dumping social issues onto our laps and expecting us to fix them/eradicate them with no more cash or time, creating an inspection system that isn’t driven through fear and inconsistency, respecting schools to make decisions that benefit the whole community rather than pandering to lone, loud voices, and generally valuing teachers for doing an incredibly complex job in an increasingly complex world, would also help restore teaching to its stature as a noble profession, but, like most of us teachers out there, maybe he’s afraid of hard work. Never mind, I’m sure the compass will work just as well.

Hook, line and stinker?

ImageAs it’s half term and I am simultaneously getting away from work but trying to get on with it I have spent an unprecedented amount of time on Twitter and reading a mass of blogs. It’s been brilliant and in many cases extremely insightful. I have been immensely impressed and stirred by the very ‘giving’ nature of all the professionals who contribute high quality resources, ideas and thoughts to what is, in my mind, a very special online network of educators. 

Sometimes I can’t tell what is more engaging: the ideas or the follow-on arguments that occur between followers. It’s all highly dramatic but I have yet to dip my tweet (urgh that sounds horribly euphemistic, sorry) into the choppy waters of a twitter argument. Not for fear of losing both the argument and followers (although I am highly precious and needy) but often because I can see both sides and the last thing I want is for both parties to gang up on me, accuse me of fence sitting and un-follow me (like I said, I am very precious and needy).

The reason why I often agree with both sides is probably partly due to the limitations of twitter’s 140 characters and that a good debate should contain a strong argument. What you get from this is a world of blacks and whites. Now although I like this as it challenges me to reflect on my own beliefs it occasionally feels, from the outside looking in, that it creates a sense of polarisation that could be dangerous.

I worry that as some of us can come across a little too dismissive of ideas and thoughts about how to teach, it may stop others giving such ideas a go. Teaching evolves constantly-not just the system and the fads but individuals. No one is teaching today the way they were two years/ten years/twenty years ago because along the way you picked up ideas and experiences and you learnt how to weave them in and out of what you do on a daily basis. You are probably not committed to one fixed approach that will last you for the rest of your career. Your principles and philosophy may not change but the nuts and bolts of what you actually do to have an impact on the lives of the people in your charge have to.

With that in mind here is the problem with the black and white approach to Twitter. As we are all on our own different paths at different stages what is totally useless to you may be of immense value to someone else. To therefore dismiss it as rubbish ‘for all’ is rather blinkered…even if you are saying so out of your experience.

As a good (outstanding…you might well think that but I couldn’t possibly comment) teacher, there are many things that I don’t have to do anymore. I haven’t, for example, got to sit and think about the success criteria in order to teach a Year 4 class about report writing. I’ve done it loads of times and really well and I have certain tricks up my sleeve that engages children and I know the success criteria like the back of my hand. I also know how to make sure they effectively use ‘Level 4’ elements of writing and how to place it all in the real world to make it purposeful and fun-I even wear a hat and everything.

The same cannot be said for lots of teachers around the country right now for lots of reasons: they’re just starting out, they’ve never taught Year 4, they’re not yet brilliant, Literacy is their weak point, their partner teacher always planned the literacy, etc. So, they will need to look at success criteria, marking ladders, planning documents, a range of resources, pick learning styles appropriate for those lessons, create targets…buy a hat. These are the hooks that are out there in the world of education that allow you to grab onto something tangible in order to teach a sequence of lessons effectively.

When you have been successful you throw the hooks that helped back into the water as you take on your next challenge to see if you get any future bites out of them.  After a while they may not be as successful so you will find other hooks to use. Every now and then you’ll pick up a hook that you discarded long ago and find that it now works. And so it goes.

Any hook or process that allows an individual teacher to make sense of how to do the very difficult job of getting children to learn and gets them to be successful is fine by me. Use an approach, assess the impact, judge if it’s worth using again. Therefore when on Twitter these ideas get slammed, because they are being treated as if they are being touted as the only idea out there as opposed to something to try, I worry that it will put some people off from giving them a go.

Levelling ladders may be crude, Ken Robinson may be nothing but aspirational air, average point scores may detract from real teaching, kinaesthetic learning styles may be ineffective, planning may be a waste of time….for you. But for some they are the little hooks that will support them to get better in the setting they’re in.

So I don’t want to curb people’s passion for or against any ideas out there and I certainly don’t want to not read those interesting, thought provoking and often very funny black and white comments. But I hope that no one ever reads a 140 character long barbed comment and swallows it Hook, Line and Sinker.


I may not be a lady but sometimes I wish I was more woman

ImageTo kick things off: I am a man. To add some more background: I am a man in education. Finally:as a man in education, I know how irritating some men in education can be. 

But let’s come back to me. I’ve always been successful! I can be concise, amusing at just the right times and most importantly I can sound like I really know what I’m talking about and believe me, I like to talk.

So far, so nauseating. I appear to consider myself to be amazing and worst of all, I’m going on about it. However, there is a big but…and I’m not talking about the one you are probably thinking my head is currently up. I am also painfully self-aware and have the social skills to be self-effacing and come across as mostly normal. But I know men in education who can not quite manage this. I’ve met them at interviews, schools, courses, seminars and they are tedious.  You have probably met/studied/worked with them too. They make you glad that you now have excessive mobile data allowance so rather than engage/listen/be bored by these gentlemen, you can safely find a corner in the room and tweet.

But what is it that has made these men so annoying?

Gender ratios may be a place to start. When I graduated as a teacher there were certainly less men training to be teachers than women. We were also told that there was a great shortage of men in education and that it was vitally important for children to have positive male role models. This led to a feeling that a man would automatically have a natural advantage in a job interview purely because by having an Adam’s apple and a pair of testicles, he was biologically more likely to become a positive male role model than a candidate without the aforementioned biological apparatus.

What I think happened as a result of this statistical fact was that some men began to get a bit confused. They began to think that, because they were men with Adam’s apples and all the rest of it, they were automatically good teachers! Over time they evolved from bold as brass NQTs into cock-sure mavericks. Convinced that their way of teaching was not only unique but would change the world and lives of all the pupils that were lucky enough to experience their lessons.

I’m not having a pop at innovation, far from it. But some of the behaviours I have seen, particularly in a certain type of male teacher, is anything but a positive male role model:

  • Steamrolling over other professionals’ ideas based on an assumption that you are the only one in the building capable of a valid and original thought.  
  • Being unable to really listen to advice from anyone who is willing to give you the time to help you reflect.
  • Believing that your unorthodox methods earn you the right not to mark books properly or do the time intensive and boring parts of the job.
  • Talking very loudly as if everyone needs to hear about your philosophy and experiences.

The worst part about all this, is that if they don’t wake up from their own ridiculousness they start to lose perspective and being a teacher becomes more about them than the pupils they serve. Once this happens, they really may as well give up.

This doesn’t end in the staffroom either. Gather certain Alpha-Male Heads together at a conference bar and there is so much posturing and hot air it’s a miracle the night doesn’t end with actual chest beating, teeth gnashing and red bottom waving.

The other night, a friend of mine and I happened to bump into three female Head Teachers that we know so we joined them. Listening to these leaders was a totally different experience. There was no posturing or self-importance. All three, although at times scarily strong willed, peppered the conversations with questions to support or challenge each other and there was no competitive edge to their conversation. Their conversations were not based on showing off their own achievements or bragging about their leadership style. Instead they were firmly rooted in their own experiences and working on what was right for their pupils and schools. I couldn’t help but think: How can I be more like them?

Are they great because they are women? No. They’re just incredibly talented and professional people-as many men also are. But they are not prone to the hyperbole and self-importance that some men in education indulge in…they just crack on and do it. They are certainly as driven as the many over-confident men I have met but by not being distracted by themselves they are more effective.

It was, for me, a reminder that being successful in education is about focus. If you’re a Head, focus on your school, your teachers, your pupils. If you’re a teacher, focus on your pupils and their learning. I don’t know if men or women make better teachers. I doubt it matters. I do know male and female teachers and Heads who are equally wonderful and inspiring. But I’ve come across more self-important, ego-centric men than I have women in my career and considering we are meant to be in the minority, that doesn’t look good in terms of proportional representation.

If any of this is making any men feel uncomfortable then I may be talking to you (if you now feel very cross it either doesn’t apply to you or it really does but you’re too far gone to do anything about it). 

So come on boys, grow a pair! Stop believing your own hype and focus on the job in hand. Aspire to be like those female Heads, not because they can do things that we, as men, can not do; but because they don’t let arrogance get in the way of their success.

Achieve that, and you may go as far as me…cos I’m great!Image