Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Reflective teachers, researchers and subversion

I was chatting with @debrakidd about her PhD and she posted this humdinger of a blog about reflective teaching. My post is basically hopping on her ideas bandwagon and shouting a hearty 'I agree'.

Debra had this galvanising nugget in her first paragraph

It is time, there has never been a more important time, to use all the small acts of subversion we can muster in order to ensure that we, as a profession, reclaim the reflective responsibility to act on behalf of the children we teach.

I feel quite sure that to most people outside of teaching- and perhaps to many in it! - these words seem over-the-top or melodramatic. Dramatic they might well be though, and they are necessary when faced with the epic  tragedy that is the slow dismantling of the agency of teachers. Our whimpers aren't heard, our shouts are silenced so Debra is right to be writing with such an urgent tone.

The traditional avenues of teacher dissent don't seem to work. Gove, despite being so aurally endowed, doesn't want to listen. The trade unions can put together national strikes but their impact is felt mostly on the slightly lighter pay-packets many of us are picking up this week. We can't often go to our school management, because the ethos of accountability weighs them down like a succubus; their need for self-preservation all too often leads to them siding with the suits rather than their teachers.

Research, as a form of subversion, affords great great possibility.

The research endeavour fosters a level of reflectivity, and it nurtures a standpoint that is distinct from that of the teacher. So when researching ourselves, as teachers, we learn to put ourselves outside of ourselves. In this way, it becomes much easier to temporarily see past the menial drudgery of hoop-jumping, box-ticking, arbitrary levelling ... instead, we see things are they are from the perspective of a hidden observer.

We see relationships between pupils and teachers dissolve into negativity, as teachers feel the pressure to reap more work from their pupils, at the cost of dialogue, care and other seemingly superfluous phenomena.  Having a discussion with your children is great, but the internet meme of 'pics or it didn't happen' applies: that which is of worth becomes that which is evidenced.

From the standpoint of teacher-researcher, we begin to see our own actions and the actions of those around us with a more joined up and critical eye.

Like Debra, I am currently engaged in further study alongside my teaching and I truly feel that the greatest benefit of the course - an MA in Sociology of Education  - is in my reflective capacity, and on the impact this has on my teaching. Now, I frame the ridiculous workload in the context of global shift towards a neoliberal 'performativity' culture in education - its KPMGisation. 

My studies constantly reaffirm for me that the children I teach are not 'HA/MA/LA' or 'Booster Children' or '2as'. They are complex living changing characters in their own stories, of which I happen to be a small, potentially influential part. They toy with, challenge and negotiate gender. They navigate through ethnicities and perceptions. In tangible ways, they learn to question the injustices and mistruths of authority. They experience themselves as sexual beings. They are caught between childhood, adolescence and adulthood, flitting between these desired identities.

Research not only empowers teachers to look analytically at their own social spaces, and only does it promote reflective practice; research encourages you to swim against the strong torrents that often drag us down into the murky depths of pessimism, cynicism and powerlessness. 

Research, and the act of researching, reminds us of the potential for good that can come about when children and teachers can work together. Despite spending so much time with eachother, this can happen remarkably infrequently.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

I'm a Primary Teacher... a white one.

Alongside my noble duties as an educator of 8 year olds, I am also studying for a Masters and tonight was our much anticipated lecture on Race and Education.

It had the same galvanising effect of generating excitement that Sex Ed lessons or 'Puberty Talks' once did - it was mentioned in the weeks preceding it, there was a certain expectation that in the process of vocalising that which is not to be discussed, we were going to be tiptoeing towards a deeper level of self-knowledge. This wasn't to be a lecture about how black kids compare academically to white kids; instead, it was pitched at explorning the essence of what race and ethnicity meant for us/

Yesterday I was talking about the upcoming lecture with two other (white) students on the course - one was mentioning how he was feeling apprehensive and slightly combative, as he felt he had no authority to discuss the issues at hand. He spoke of the overpowering need for 'political correctness' acting like a bit of a gag - out of his awareness that a misplaced word could lead to him being shot down or misjudged, he felt a pressure on himself to say nothing.

As this was going on, I felt very different to him. I felt that I was kind of an ally - a good white - since I spend so much time working in a 'non-white' community. I have studied about race and about whiteness, and I am living in an area in which there are next to no white British people.

But as soon as I entered the room today, I felt this suffocating feeling, as the discussions continued around me. I am never a shrinking violet, but I ended up devoting my energies to avoiding eye contact, trying desperately not to be seen or invited to contribute.

This is good and necessary, and by talking about how unpleasant it felt, I am not saying it wasn't worth it or that I didn't need it.

My mind wandered not off-topic but deeper into the topic, and as I was listening to my colleagues discussing their own varied experiences across the world and as the lecturer presented a range of provocative, sad and insightful videos, I found myself remembering the first time I visited my school.

I am from a white-working class family in a white working class town, and I stayed there from birth to 18. For university, I then moved to a bastion of white privilege rather than one of white deprivation, but it was very white, nonetheless.

It was only when I got my first - and so far only - teaching job in London that I encountered different ethnic groups. On my introduction day, I got off of the tube, walked onto a high street full of hijabs, saris, shalwar kameez and Halal butchers and felt a wave of shocked excitement.

This, I now see, was the similar shocked excitement that any old white 18 year old feels when they go to work in an African orphanage, or volunteer home-building in some other destitute far-flung place. There were different races around me, different ethnic groups, but there was only one in my head - white.

For a long time, my whiteness was the only lens through which I saw my school community and, for the first term, probably even saw my children. They were my 'Asian children'.

I have not fallen into that trap of 'colourblindness' but rather, as my knowledge of the values, beliefs and practices of my local school community have changed, I have a more multi-dimensional view of what constitutes the 'Asian communities'.

The realisation I had though, that struck me into silence in the lecture, was the way that I see myself in the community with a certain self-celebratory reverence. On some level, I had begun to convince myself that I was an ethnic minority, as White British. In that community, in terms of population statistics, I certainly am.

But my realisation was that I will never ever be an ethnic minority, no matter where I go, because as tonight's lecture edged me towards realising, I have the privilege of never having had to view myself as 'raced'. The difference-in-mind between me walking through the Muslim community in which I work and between a Muslim man walking through my white working class hometown is huge, and the bridge between these two experiences is uncrossable.

On some level tonight, the realisation struck home that I have a normative understanding of the world which insulates me because it serves, first and foremost, to present white perspectives and practices as taken-for-granted.

Now, as I am starting to consider, the processes of my school as a 'whitening institution' seems overpowering - the children leave their home languages at the gate, neutralise their religious dress, receive an instruction into what constitutes the 'correct books to read', and the 'correct way to treat people' and the 'correct way to succeed'.

It is the 'correctness' that is troubling me, because I am starting to see the extent to which 'correctness' aligns itself to 'whiteness'.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Primary elephants? Policy is dull, we are not thick.

Like many primary bloggers, I am unable to engage in grown-up discussions about education because my brain is full of glitter, toy bears and gingerbread. Obvs.

I'm responding to the call to action set out in @michaelt1969 's 'Elephants in the Primary Blogosphere' post, and I am responding with my view on why our voices are not heard.

The present Education Twitterati slightly gets on my titterati, in the way that it is around 10 'famous names' having a conversation. We have an 'Education Group' on Twitter in the way that my school has 'Year Group Assemblies' in which the 'Year Group' that is performing involves the 10 popular vocal kids doing all the acting and singing, while the other 100 kids sit holding triangles or guiros, which they strike only when instructed. In this point, I am defiantly bashing my guiro in the collective face of the Education Twitterati. Right in it.

At risk of sounding like the kid with the weird smell - sitting alone by the football pitch when the big boys play - I feel quite excluded and I think many whose blogs are similar to mine feel the same way.
For all the illusions of Twitter being a level playing field, it is as likely to close down debate as it is to spark it. Those who have many followers tweet to those who have many followers, and those who have no followers write endlessly and post their views into a readerless void. Only the most self-flagellating of time-pressed teachers would continue to post, leaving a harrowing Guernica of shattered and aborted primary-education blogs all over the internet, terminated after three unseen posts.

The upsurge of interest in primary bloggers is necessary, but it needs to become a part of the main debate on education. There is an obvious danger that we become our own echo chamber - we who appreciate the experiences, politics and quirks unique to primary education - and if this happens, we remain excluded from the main debate.

Again with the metaphors, at the Feast of Education, the primary bloggersshould not be the 'Children's Table' beside the Grown Ups table; we are free to talk about crayons, while they talk about policy. Sure, it's good that we have a table, but it shouldn't be perceived as separate from the adult discussions.

In the spirit of gripes, I found it dull as shit to read through Michael Tidd's Issues that could become blog topics, which included
  • Will ‘scaled scores’ provide useful information at end-of-key-stage tests?
  • How will we assess English and Maths once levels are scrapped?
  • Is primary schooling becoming all core and no breadth?
  • Does the new National Curriculum necessarily more rote teaching & learning?
  • Will the new grammar requirements in the National Curriculum raise standards of reading/writing?
  • Do primary teachers have the subject knowledge needed for the new National Curriculum?
  • What does it mean to be “secondary ready”, as the DfE suggests we should be aiming for?
  • Is the current level 4b a viable expectation for 85% of students?

and so on.

Snoozaroonie, as I might say when a child uses the word 'nice'. I am studying for a Masters in Sociology of Education, a key part of which is to look at policy paradigms and how the neoliberal performativity agenda is reshaping the educational landscape.

I don't not blog much about these things because they are too deep for my tiny primary-teacher brain, but it's because questions like Michael Tidd's are so boring for a teacher who values primary education as a holistic phase of character development, nurture and intellectual exploration. Remember that old nostalgic meme - 'the caring teacher'?

Our experiences and priorities are perhaps different to yours, and our struggles and questions are not just a simplified version of your own. Would it be too much to ask for us to set our own agenda?

As such, and in the spirit of muscular banter, I raise my own list of Issues that could become blog topics for primary teachers.

  • Literally where the fuck do all the children stash the red felt tip pens? Is this a national issue? If so, how ought we intervene?
  • Which facial cues alert you to the fact that a child is about to projectile vomit all over their workbooks? Should this be covered in INSET?
  • Is it morally acceptable to confess to your children that you find Michael Morpurgo's work to be anachronistic and dull?
  • How can we educate to equip children to challenge the rampant inequalities that face them?
  • Do any other teachers feel nauseous when they see Comic Sans? How can we cull this abhorrent typographical terrorist?
  • How can we expose children to texts that they can relate to, but which also challenges them/
  • At what age should teachers be able to begin problematising topics such as gender and sexuality? How?
  • Do all young men teachers get rapidly promoted out of the classroom, or just most? For those who stay - like tiny me - what makes them stay?
  • To what extent are we implicitly encouraging our children to stake their pre-pubescent self-worth on their ability to jump through hoops in the arbitrary Gradgrindian SPAG? Do children who are repeatedly admonished for their STUPID inability to get enthused about spotting 'fronted adverbials', end up as illiterate, morally-dead wrong-'uns?
  • How can you teach climate change to 6 year olds in a way that scares them enough to care and empowers them enough to act?
  • How can we encourage our children to become healthy and active, when we - their PE teachers - are rotund and medically-addicted to Battenburg, and get a stitch during their warm up?
  • Is bombarding our 4 year olds with traditional fairy stories an act of gender violence?


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Child, your emotional needs can wait.

I’ve returned today from a parents evening and all was going fairly swimmingly. Good bit of feedback here. Sharing of praise there. I was becoming aware – not that this is a surprise – that the parents only really seemed to give a genuine emotional response when I was describing their children’s character – she is hardworking and the other kids love her, he has really started to care about his actions, he has the world’s cheekiest smile, and so on. They cared what set their child was in, yes, but all feedback only seemed to hit at an emotive level when we moved away from talk of how their children are surpassing or failing to meet attainment targets (following the Parent Meeting Proforma...).

Funny I thought, given how parental pressure is used to justify the bureaucratisation and neoliberalisation of education. Perhaps when parents’ ‘high standards’ are discussed, it ought not necessarily mean  they want ‘a school with high results’ but a school in which teachers nurture and care for their children as children.

It was the last meeting of the night, with a child I’ve not really gotten to know that much. We had jovial chats about how his sentence structure has improved, and his recall of his x6 table is much more snappy. Having thusly summarised the merit of her child as an educational product, I asked the boy’s sister if there was anything the family wanted to ask.

“Just that on Monday...”

The boy freezes up and looks at his sister.

“On Monday he was very upset and asked for your help, but I don’t know if you were busy or something?...”

I couldn't remember him even coming up to me, but I knew what she was saying was true because of the boy’s face.

“He tried to talk to you but you just told him to sit down.”

It turns out that over the weekend, this boy’s family had been victim to an awful criminal trauma in which he and his siblings had been threatened with weapons by some lowlifes. He was and is still traumatised. He came to tell me at some point and I can imagine what I said.

“We are not supposed to leave our seats.”

“This is our reading time.”

“We are about to start Maths, please sit down.”

“Oh dear. 1, 2, 3.”

I feel dirty about this whole thing because the teacher i wanted to be – the teacher I thought I was still just about managing to be – would never ever have silenced a child who needed to share something. I feel sick when I think about him having plucked up the courage to come and share this with me, only for me to shooting him down with such an immediate level of dismissal, I don’t even recall doing it.
I feel awful, and I take some credit for this failing because I am sure that some teachers manage – no matter what – to put the children before everything else.

But the blame for this must rest with the way schools are run – including mine – in the current performative climate. Every single minute of the school day is accounted for – every action has the spontaneity removed. Every movement has a system. They line up in silence in the morning. They move silently through the school. They enter the classroom and begin silent reading. Then lessons start and they are encouraged to talk a lot, but only about converting mixed to improper fractions, or the correct use of a semicolon, or whether metal can melt. Then they line up sensibly, walk out silently, and go home.

Individuals might not have the dictatorial mindset, but if their school wants it, and they are accountable to the school, they do it or they pack their bags.

There is NO point in the day in which children can freely come up and talk to me. They aren’t allowed in the building at lunchtimes. In fact, I invite kids to come up and eat with me and that is one of the only times for discussion but that can only ever be a few kids, and it requires both the kids and the teachers to surrender their only real break of the day.

I resent myself for not listening to the boy in my class who desperately needed to talk, but whilst appreciating schools are guided by moves in education policy, I resent my school more for becoming this mechanical institution in which children easily become merely ‘things that need to write neatly’ in order that teachers look like good teachers.

When the child wanting your help becomes seen as ‘a child interrupting the lesson’, which is the attitude the current climate promotes in which a successful lesson is one in which every  child has a lot of work in their book, then the moral heart of teaching has been made to disappear.