Qualified = quality?

Of all the observations I’ve made on Twitter in recent months, my suggestion that it may be worth allowing unqualified teachers into the class room has been (by some distance) the least popular. It’s the turd in the swimming pool; the plate of pork scratchings at the bar mitzvah.

This was not an observation made purely to provoke. I taught in the UK for just over 18 years, in three independent Schools. There is no requirement for teachers to be qualified in the UK independent sector, and we were interested only in appointing the best people for each job advertised. The best Schools are always those with the best teachers, and nothing makes one’s job easier as a manager than having really good people around you, effectively making you look good.

We wanted to cast our net far and wide, and so as well as advertising through the standard channels, we used to contact the top dozen or so universities, enquiring whether they had any particularly impressive final year undergraduates or postgraduates who might be interested in a career in teaching, or even just or year or two’s teaching experience. We used all contacts available (through recent teaching appointments, ex-pupils etc) to ensure that any person who might be worth an interview ended up applying for any post advertised.

By contacting the universities direct, we could ensure at the very least we would be getting a genuine expert in that subject, recommended by those at the university who knew them well. We would be under no compulsion to appoint them, nor even to interview, but we did appoint teachers (maybe one in ten) over a number of years via this route. None of those teachers ended up being what one might term a poor appointment, and some were amongst the best teachers I have worked with. What we all seek in teachers are those people who really know and enjoy their subject; someone who is able to communicate their expertise; someone who can build strong connections with those they teach; someone hard-working, with an appropriate amount of gravitas. You don’t need a qualification in teaching to possess those attributes. You certainly need a good degree in the relevant subject from a good university as a minimum, but the other characteristics are related to the individual, and can probably be developed more than ‘taught’.

Comparisons are often made between teachers and other professions when it comes to qualifications, or lack of them. Pilots and brain surgeons are the most common examples used to scoff at the possibility that any teacher might be able to succeed without a teaching qualification. No-one would suggest picking someone at random to operate on a patient, but the training for such a role occurs as part of a medical degree, just as one could argue that the training to be a maths teacher comes as part of a degree in maths. One does not need a qualification from catering College apparently to be a world-renowned chef (Heston Blumenthal is self-taught), and though he may be an exceptional case, there are also exceptional teachers who have not been formally trained, other than in their subject. Teaching is perhaps more like driving. There are some drivers who despite managing to pass their test in the dim and distant past, should probably not be behind the wheel of a car today.

Teaching is a more natural act than some people think. Flying a plane is certainly not something that should be attempted without having been taught how to do it, but every single one of us acts as a teacher at some point. Whether it’s as parents helping our children to read or simply explaining to a friend the rules of an unfamiliar sport, we all teach, just as we all learn. We don’t need a piece of paper endorsing us for these skills, just as it’s not always necessary for a teacher to know about the 1944 Education Act, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development or Bloom’s taxonomy.

I have known and worked with some excellent teachers and some lousy teachers. The quality has probably been better amongst the unqualified, but that’s because we tend to see these appointments as carrying greater risk and therefore only made an appointment when we felt sure of success. I share the concerns of many about the status of the teaching profession, especially the worryingly low academic threshold required to be accepted onto a degree in teacher education, but I also believe that despite its counter-intuitive nature, opening up the profession to a wider candidacy may just help to raise the bar. 

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Connections over relationships

Good afternoon. The final day of Term 2 is always a good occasion – we have a holiday to look forward to, the days are getting longer, summer is coming and there is much to reflect on that is positive in terms of enjoyment and achievement over the past 9 weeks.

One phrase I have heard repeated recently is that ‘teaching is all about relationships’. It’s a decent soundbite, but an over-simplification. Teaching is not all about anything. Very little of any substance or value is all about one thing, and even if you believed this was true, you should not be able to reduce the complexities of human interaction into one simple stock phrase. Generally, when you tug at things, you will find the whole world attached to them.

A friend of mine wrote an article last year trying to make this relationship point, and he used the example of Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester City team, winning the Premier League against all odds in 2016. His point was that the strength of relationships between player and coach allowed the team to perform at a far higher level than should have been possible. Leicester City became greater than the sum of its parts due to strong relationships.

The next season, and a few months after he penned that article, Leicester – with the same players and manager – was out of title contention, battling relegation instead, and Ranieri was sacked amidst rumours of a player revolt. It seemed that the relationships were great when the going was good and turned sour when the results dipped.

One of the reasons I think it’s simplistic to talk of relationships being key is that it is easy to confuse easy acquaintance for genuine relationships – when things turn tough, does your relationship with an individual get stronger, or does it fade into the background? When you need help, who are your rocks, and who is like sand disappearing through your fingers?

I am interested in connections – connections made on multiple levels; connections made through deep, life-affirming, fundamental human experiences. We have a relationship of sorts with everyone we interact with, but we don’t necessarily make connections. E M Forster wrote in Chapter 22 of the 1910 novel Howard’s End, the following two words: Only Connect.

These two words are part of a longer quote, but it is the phrase Only Connect that is often quoted. It is connection to people that we must continue to work on, and that includes people to whom we have little natural affinity. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that ‘the main problem with the working classes is that they smell’, and though he clearly felt a sense of revulsion when confronted with the miners of northern Britain in the 1930s, he also felt a sense of nobility in their willingness to graft against oppressive conditions both at work and in the home. He overcome his natural lack of connection with these people. You too will find people that are tough to connect with on occasions, but we all must make the effort to do so. It is far harder to display genuine care for those people you do not connect with.

16 days ago, a tower block burned down in West London. The Grenfell Tower was an oasis of poverty in a desert of wealth. The area of West London, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is one of the most affluent parts, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Grenfell Tower was an ugly eyesore, completed in 1974 and built high into the sky like a gangrenous finger, designed to house large numbers of what remained throughout its existence some of society’s poorest people. There were 227 bedrooms in this single tower block, and the death toll from the fire currently stands at 80. Due to the ferocity of the fire and the extent of the destruction, it is unlikely the final number will be known until 2018.

The Grenfell tower stands right on the edge of the patch where my brother works as an officer in the Metropolitan police, and perhaps it is for this reason that I feel a sense of connection to the residents of the Grenfell Tower, even though I didn’t know any of them personally and hence had no relationship with anyone. A compassion for people is an essential part of basic human decency, and it should run deeper than a cursory sadness which is felt for a second and then lost.

Stefan Zweig expressed this perfectly, in his novel Beware of Pity, and he said:

There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak minded, sentimental sort, is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against someone else’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond.

On a more positive note, it is often the case that out of great tragedy comes examples of fortitude, generosity and the indomitable human spirit. One simple example was that of Rory Walsh, aged 18, who lived in a house opposite the Tower, and was due to sit the equivalent of his Year 12 English examination the next day. He worked from 2am until 8am that morning at the Maxilla Social Club, helping to organise donations and with the re-housing of newly homeless people, before heading off to sit his examination at 9am.

This is in stark contrast to the involvement of certain people employed by news channels, who took to helicopters to circle the building, capturing pictures for a gawping public. For people in the burning tower, to think you might be about to be rescued and instead to face a dawning realisation that you were merely being filmed – to move from hope to despair – is unimaginable. For those people in the helicopters, to be able to detach oneself from intense human suffering, and not only not to assist, but to fan the flames with whirring blades and to offer a semblance of hope only to dash it, is something those people need to live with.

The truth is that we can never know how we will react in a purely hypothetical circumstance until that circumstance is made real. Character reveals itself in moments like these, and I would like to think we would all do the right thing, even if it happens to inconvenience us. It is important to spend time cultivating relationships, but also developing deep connections with people, day in day out, such that your desire to help and do the right thing when need demands is natural and never forced. Maybe if Ranieri’s connection to his players had gone deeper, they would have battled through the tough times together.

But, to quote Helen Keller: although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of suffering. Suffering is inevitable at certain points – I see it in the eyes of those I teach every day – but it is through a strong and improving sense of community that we will overcome. I am a great believer in the power of a strong, respectful and reinforcing community – it is one of the reasons I loved the School musical Oliver! last week. Quite apart from the quality of the production – it was the community – the music, the acting, the set design; the Prep and the Secondary, the boys and their teachers, the audience and the players. It was a coming together of people to produce a genuine community activity.

This is part of the reason I tend to favour whole class teaching and communal learning. I favour all boys following a broadly common curriculum. Whenever I hear of differentiated instruction, personal learning and modifications to curriculum, I think we lose out on that powerful sense of community, and though necessary at times, in its worst form it can lead to fracturing, fragmentation and incoherence in the curriculum and can even promote a sense of selfishness and entitlement. We are all individuals, but we operate better as part of a wider and powerful community.

E M Forster’s full quote is this: Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

This College is your and my community. It should not be fractured and fragmented. This College is what connects all of us. We can deepen those connections by what we say and what we do and the care we take for our fellow (Princes) men.

I wish you happy and restful holidays, and a productive and purposeful Term 3 when we return. I’ll finish with the words of President John F Kennedy, who understood better than most the need to unite people:

 In his 1961 address to the Canadian parliament, he uttered perhaps my favourite Kennedy quote: “Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

The Immaculate reception

I have written about the sport of American football before, and the surprising number of themes common to the world of education. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 article , Most Likely to Succeed, draws a convincing parallel between the difficulty of identifying effective teachers and effective Quarterbacks. My own most recent NFL-related scribble, Players not Plays. has perhaps not reached so wide an audience, but think it makes a valid and related point: the contents of one’s playbook will pale into insignificance if the players are not fit for purpose.

I was reminded of the NFL again this week as I was made aware of a dragon I believed to have been slain. Caitlin Moran’s terrible Why I should run our Schools , George Monbiot’s development of a game for all the family, Sir Ken Robinson-bingo, and now this latest polemic are generic examples of an argument that, despite its nonsensical construct, staunchly refuses to die. It is educational bindweed – just when you think you’ve hacked away the final root, it springs up somewhere else in the garden.

One of the key principles of the argument, as if you needed reminding, is as follows. All information is on the internet, and everyone has a smartphone. So anything you need to know can be accessed at the click of a button. Hence by not knowing anything yourself, you free up your brain, and rather than acting as a store of undigested chunks of information, it can be used for nebulous skills such as thinking critically about the latest piece of information you’ve just accessed on your smart-phone.

Of course the people whose job it is to put stuff on the internet do need to know something, and probably quite a lot, but we’re not them, so we can just look up things they have placed on the internet whenever we need. If we know what it is that we need to look up, that is. And also how it relates to the other things we needed to look up to be able to be able to understand and give context to the thing it was that we didn’t know anything about originally.

Despite all this, the internet has not as a rule made us cleverer, and those writing the articles would have you believe that it’s the fault of teachers cramming Gradgrindian facts into the heads of poor Schoolchildren. If only we knew less, we could do more critical thinking. Except you can only think about what you know, and at that point, the argument fall apart. What even are you, if you don’t know anything about anything?

A disclaimer: I do not believe that all learning happens in class, or as a direct result of what we are taught by teachers, though they may provide the inspiration. The acquisition of knowledge comes from myriad sources, not least from the self. Learning how to learn is a thing, and we should embrace the idea that we can all be autodidacts.

This is where my link to NFL comes in. It is perhaps the best example of something I have discovered and learned about purely by myself. I have never played the sport, been exposed to it at School or university, or been encouraged to investigate by parents, teachers or coaches. I simply stumbled across the game some time in the mid-90s, and have been finding out about the game ever since. I have been to games in the UK at Wembley, and also in the US at Buffalo, Green Bay and Dallas. I have watched countless games live, in replay, condensed and analysed. I have read books, articles, message-boards, and have attempted to absorb the rules, strategy, history and culture of the game.

And yet, despite this 20-year commitment, there is plenty I do not understand. Tackling, pass-interference, the difference between College and professional game, the scheduling, salary cap; the effect of the 1978 rule changes, re-location of franchises, read-option and what makes a good long-snapper remain as much a mystery as ever they were. I have committed to finding out about the game, piecing together each fragment of information and developing links between them. Incidentally, the title of this blog is probably the most famous play in the game, when Chuck Noll’s Steelers overcame John Madden’s Raiders and set the tone for Steeler dominance for the remainder of that decade. It took me 10+ years of interest in the game to uncover this pivotal moment.

The journey has been enjoyable, but in terms of efficiency, it’s happened at a geological pace. If I had signed up for a 6 week intensive course on Football: America’s game (note: course does not exist), I imagine I would have learned as much as I have done in 20-odd years of auto-didacticism. And therein lies the problem with the ‘you can just look it up’ argument. Maybe you can, but even if this is true, it still requires effort, luck, dedication and it’s mightily inefficient. It requires the time we do not have.

With learning, there is always an opportunity cost; auto didacticism and looking stuff up might be a realistic option when it comes to transatlantic sport, less so when we’re talking fixed-time Schooling.

And if you don’t believe that, you can Ickey-shuffle off.

Teachers on Film

Who would play you in a film adaptation of your life? Many people already have an answer to this question, from the delusional Ryan Goslings to the (faux) modest Steve Buscemis.

If we change the question slightly, to ‘who would play you in a film of your life as a teacher?’, I wonder if the answer would be different. Our style of teaching is inextricably linked to our personality, but all teaching is to an extent a form of acting, with the classroom our stage.

Teachers have been portrayed as heroes, role-models, sadists and plenty more besides, and provide an avenue of revenue from big Hollywood blockbusters to straight to DVD C-movies.

There follows a list of some of the most notorious teachers on film. Are you one? Do you recognise any of them? Are these characters richly observed, three-dimensional human(e) beings or wafer-thin caricatures? I have collated a magnificent seven (one for every lesson in my School day) from least to most-favourite. Would you like to be taught by many/any of these characters?

  1. Susan Kennedy (Neighbours)

Not a film, admittedly (yet), but Susan’s story is one of meteoric career rise, moving in a relatively short space of time from working for Annalise in The Coffee Shop to being Principal at the local high School. It’s an inspirational tale; proof that you don’t need to teach any obvious subject, have relevant experience or even work long hours to be a successful School leader.

  1. LouAnne Johnson (Dangerous Minds)

Almost as unbelievable as the Susan Kennedy story, and with fashion only slightly less 90s-disaster, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in this dud is ex-US marine LouAnne Johnson, who manages to turn around the fortunes of some drug-pushing kids, hitherto heavily involved in gang-warfare, through the writing of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas accompanied by a liberal scattering of un-merited A grades and lots of chocolate. The film is adapted from the book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, which placed in the context of tit-for-tat murders and drug wars, doesn’t seem all that bad. The film proves that you can turn around any disengaged kids by donning a plastic-looking leather jacket and teaching them a few karate moves on day 2 of the School year.

  1. John Keating (Dead Poets Society)

 From a personal point of view, this vies with Love Actually as my least favourite film, but at least this is one bad film, as opposed to a mash-up of several. Keating is the maverick teacher who doesn’t do much teaching, but he does encourage his pupils to ‘make your lives extraordinary’, whilst ripping up parts of books (the dull introduction, fortunately, rather than the bit with Whitman’s poetry) and allowing boys to stand on tables to gain a ‘different perspective’ (a slightly higher one, presumably). The Headmaster is less of a fan of Keating than the boys, and he doesn’t like the fact that Keating (like Dirty Harry) refuses to play by the rules. The Dead Poets Society is resurrected by the preppy boys as an ode to Keating, and we get a unison chanting of Whitman’s O Captain, my Captain as Keating is banished, ostensibly for being too inspirational, but also for wanton vandalism of School property and flaunting Health and Safety regulations referring to standing on tables.

  1. Douglas ‘Hector’ (The History Boys)

 Possibly the only play/film where a General Studies teacher (the subject equivalent of deep fine leg, which is where you hide your weakest fielder) takes centre stage. Hector is a flawed character, given his predilection for touching up his pupils whilst giving them lifts home after School on his motorbike. His saving grace is his inspirational teaching of said General Studies course. His technique involves moving the tables around a bit and acting out some of the material (though not too vigorously due to his own corpulence) to make it more memorable. He is preparing a group of ‘seventh term’ boys in a Sheffield Comprehensive for their tilt at Oxbridge, and despite this being quite a tough gig, he manages to get them all in, even the Russell Tovey character, who is clearly not very bright. Later, Hector is killed on his motorcycle, unbalanced by one of the boys on the back (there’s karma for you), and we get to find out via ghostly voice-over what happened to this Oxbridge set. Despite all winning places at Oxbridge, none of them seem to do anything terribly exciting with their lives, unless you count ‘Dry Cleaning Manager’ as something to aspire to.

  1. Charles Edward Chipping (Goodbye, Mr Chips)

The model for all long-serving teachers, Mr Chips is a School stalwart who spends his entire career (all 58 years of it!) at Brookfield Public School (which sounds rather posher in UK-speak than in Australian context). He develops slowly, from naïve young Schoolmaster, mocked by his junior Latin class, all the way to Headmaster. His promotion occurs at geological pace compared to Susan Kennedy, and the deaths of many colleagues during the war helps enormously when it comes to promotion opportunities, but it’s tough to hold back a tear in the final scene, as he utters the line:

‘I thought you said it was a pity I never had children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them, and all boys.’

  1. Miss Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a grown-up version of The History Boys: more subtle, complex and layered. A false dichotomy exists between the necessity of rigorous knowledge espoused by the School’s Headmistress and the cultural and artistic pursuits favoured by Jean Brodie. This is a familiar theme in teacher-fiction, that of the creative and brilliant individual, hamstrung by the boring limitations of the system and curriculum. It’s a lazy stereotype, perhaps, but Jean Brodie is a teacher who needs the pupils more than they need her, and this is often the case with teachers who develop a small cult following in their place of work. The dramatic death of ex-pupil Mary, killed whilst travelling to Spain, her head full of the fascist ideals of Franco, is a jarring and unnecessary plot development, with the overbearing influence that Brodie has over ‘her girls’ evident to all but her. This is a film that is sympathetic to everyone and no-one, and is all the better for it.

‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life’.

  1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)

‘The One Who Knocks’ tops the list. Walter White manages to become a cold-eyed killer, whilst maintaining a slavish devotion to the chemical purity of his product. It’s a lesson for us all: you don’t need to sacrifice accuracy in your chemistry experiments to build an illegal multimillion dollar drug empire. Walter’s teaching style is traditional, but his passion for the subject is evident and the chemistry in the series is correct throughout, with a pleasing bath-tub scene involving hydrofluoric acid and the only appearance of mercury (II) fulminate on television that I can remember. Walter is modern-day proof that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’, and whereas his morals become more suspect with each series, it’s tough not to be #teamWalter.

 

A Short History of Cucumbers in Ukrainian

Which part of a tree is the most important – the roots, trunk, branches, twigs or leaves? The fastest way from the roots to the top of the tree is directly upwards via the trunk, but does that make the trunk the most important part?

Is there a most important note in a musical symphony? If we play the piece faster, we’ll get to the final note quicker, but is the point of the music to get to the end in the most efficient manner possible?

In both cases, there is no single component more important than any other, and enjoyment of the journey is just as important as arriving at the destination.

It is the same with education. Education is not a means to an end. It is something we should commit to for a lifetime, for the pleasure of the journey, even though the destination may be uncertain, changeable or never reached.

My mouth is dry today, which is something I always experience when I’ve eaten a lot of garlic. I made and enjoyed a punchy cucumber pickle yesterday, spiked with raw garlic and chilli, and the effects of the garlic are noticeable. It’s not unpleasant for me, but I cannot vouch for the opinion of others, especially those in the nearby vicinity.

Here’s a brief story about how I came to make that weekend pickle:

I was in a Waterstone’s bookshop in 2003 (I know, Waterstone’s, but at least it was a bookshop). They have a ‘3 for 2’ deal that seems to run permanently. It was for this reason that I picked up Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin. I had never heard of him, but the curious title was enough to pique an interest.

I loved the book – typically Soviet in its (black) humour, with nods to Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov plus some absurdity worthy of Kafka thrown in. I gathered up and read Kurkov’s other translated works of fiction, and gained a better idea of the man, his life and also his love for his native Ukraine.

Inspired by Kurkov, I went to Kiev in 2007, and put names to places whilst also gaining an idea of the architecture, history and complex politics of the region. I was initially keen to visit Chernobyl, but found that once in the country it didn’t feel quite right to use it as a tourist destination. I visited Babi Yar and learned about the massacre of over 30,000 people during two days in 1941. I went deep into the caves with only a small candle for company to meet the mummified monks.

I heard Kurkov in conversation at Daunt books in Marylebone in 2010. It was a very intimate gathering, and a thoughtful gift bought for me by my wife. He was just as charming in real-life as in print, with an amazing back-story. It’s said that we write about what we know, and his experiences shape his writing, his humour at least partially developed to deal with the harsh realities of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

I am currently reading The Ukraine Diaries, his first work of pure non-fiction I have read. His latest book, The Bickford Fuse, is his most ambitious to date, and it’s always interesting to see a writer develop in complexity, message and purpose.

The food I ate in Ukraine in 2007 was cheap, hearty and variable – think beetroot soups, boletus mushrooms and lots of dumplings. I find that food is the greatest stirrer of memories, and have recently purchased a cook-book called Mamushka, by Olia Hercules. Having spent more time leafing the pages than cooking the recipes, I was minded after a few heavy meat-filled days to make the spiky cucumber pickle. It would be untrue to say I was transported back to Kiev (I didn’t eat any cucumbers during my stay there, something to do with a fear of radioactive dust), but as the waves of raw garlic washed over me, I felt a little connection with the hero of ‘Death and the Penguin’, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov.

Those people who believe education is a means to an end, knowledge acquisition is something determined only by syllabus and eschew all interesting things around the corona, miss out on the real spice of life, which is available to all who open their eyes wide. And by spice, I don’t mean just the chilli in the cucumbers.

Eliot put it better than anyone, when he wrote the following lines:

 We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Lions led by donkeys?

This blog post is inspired by, and related to, my experiences of various Australian education conferences over the last year or so. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about conferences, professional development, teacher training: what they are for and how they might benefit the developing teacher. A worrying conclusion I came to is that far from boosting the effectiveness of teachers, which must surely be the aim, we run the significant risk of over-complicating education, confusing teachers and in the worst case scenario, creating worse teachers than would be the case if they were left to their own devices to work things out for themselves.

I met several really impressive early-career teachers at a recent conference in Sydney. They were clearly bright, committed and sponge-like in their willingness to absorb information. Their subject expertise was unquestioned and I felt sure they would improve with time, practice and with appropriate support. By ‘appropriate’ I mean having a line-manager who knows how to strike a balance between support, development and challenge and probably a more ‘social’ mentor, who could be a slightly more experienced teacher able to offer more generic advice on how to prioritise and therefore cope in the School environment.

It is one of the benefits of teaching that most people will be appointed to roles months before they actually take up the post, and hence ample time exists for planning. Line-managers can be careful with the classes given to an inexperienced teacher, with the aim of enabling them to work on the business of pupil learning rather than behaviour management, which tends to improve with time, seniority and experience.

The best way to improve your skill in any area is to practice and then reflect, and in as realistic a situation as possible. There is nothing more realistic than a ‘class which counts’ and teachers will always tend to do most of their learning on the job. I don’t see this as a problem at all, especially given the safety nets I have mentioned above. If we can get the brightest and best into our classrooms (and don’t worry about the offical training, especially given its quality) we can ensure the systems, structures and processes are in place to develop that ‘craft of the classroom’. After all, teaching only requires people to have an excellent knowledge of their subjects and to be able to communicate that knowledge to their charges, right?

In Australia, we all need to complete a minimum of 60 hours’ worth of professional learning in a three year period, and on the outside, this is a noble aim. However, it does lead to a tick-box mentality, where teachers are keen to attend two or three day conferences (often far more filler than killer) to get their hours up. Most conferences (understandably) do not focus on subject-specific teaching, but on more wide-reaching matters of pedagogy, which tend to be less easy to take back to the classroom. The best thing I tend to do at conferences is make contacts, and I think others feel the same.

The aim of professional learning should be two-fold: to improve subject expertise and quality of communication (pedagogy). The former requires training to be domain focused and Schools could take a lead in this, hosting conferences with a specific focus on certain subjects, or Faculty areas. Creating a network of like Schools, with each School committed to hosting certain subject meetings each year would enable genuine collaboration, a focus for teachers on staying on top of one’s subject and a likelihood that each teacher attending would be able to pick up ideas and approaches to take back to their classroom. This would contradict teacher isolation, allow for sharing of good practice between Schools and would remove the need for well-paid consultants to offer ‘off the peg’ training that lacks the focus and knowledge of the individual School where it is being delivered.

The quality of the conference presenters (I’m judging from a sample of only about 50) has been low, both in term of message content and delivery. The word ‘engaging’ is used on an almost minute by minute basis, without any definition of what this means. When looking round the room, the assembled throng usually looks less engaged than Miss Havisham. The current edu-narrative goes something like this:

Kids in Schools are disengaged. This is down to the unwillingness of Schools to move away from a C19 ‘factory model’ of education, with children in rows and all content being passed on by the teacher. The C21 requires a paradigm shift due to technological advance and an uncertain future jobs market. All knowledge can now be looked up on the Internet, so instead we need to teach generic skills (creativity, collaboration and critical thinking) which can be applied in any domain. These skills are best taught through relevant, real-world examples, through a vehicle of ‘passion projects’ where children effectively decide what they want to learn about (content not important).

If you wish to know in detail why I think this is fundamentally flawed, please ask for my presentation from said conference, or peruse my Twitter feed for the last 72 hours. In essence though, the argument against all this can be summarised thus:

1. We are not preparing children for jobs that don’t exist. The vast majority of them will end up in jobs that do exist, and even those who end up in current non-existent jobs are far better off being prepared in core academic disciplines which have served us well so far and will presumably therefore support a yet unheard of job. The idea that success for an unknown job might involve not knowing anything is odd.

2. Knowing things is vital. You cannot apply any critical thinking to something about which you know nothing. Consider the quality of School debates when pupils are debating a topic on which they are inexpert. They can have as much access to Google as they like but without the background expertise, the debates end up being fought only on the surface.

3. Projects tend to mean pupils end up displaying knowledge they already have, thus learning nothing new, or worse still, they end up learning nothing at all about what they were supposed to, but instead learn only about the medium (PowerPoint, website, diorama(!))

4. The C21 requires no paradigm shift. Yes, technology develops apace, but skills of critical thinking, collaboration and creativity are not new, and certainly no more important in the C21 than they were in the C20, or C19…

5. Most of us are not interested in the same things as when we were ten years old. I loved the ships of the Royal Navy and the Roman Empire when I was ten, but I’m now pretty glad that I was introduced to Betjeman, Bach and Balthus by expert teachers. It has made my life much richer.

6. We live in the real world. Everything that happens in School and outside School is happening in the real world. I have no idea what makes for a ‘non-real world’ problem, and I expert solving other-worldly problems could be even more fun.

7. Children will always learn stuff, it’s in our nature to be curious, but it’s a good idea if for a significant amount of School time, they are learning what we want them to learn. Children do not develop their Maths and Science by playing in the playground, as I was bizarrely informed earlier in the week.

8. Learning is sometimes fun, hard, boring and thrilling, and so is life. Life is not supposed to be fun all the time and it’s the same with learning. We need to embrace all of life’s natural emotions.

9. ‘Disengagement’ is not a diagnosable illness (I’m sorry, Mrs Smith, but…it’s disengagement, just as we feared…). Motivation comes from the self, and it is with the attitude of the disengaged pupil we need to start, rather than running back to the crepe paper and glue to try to find a fun and gimmicky activity.

10. Stop using a ten minute Ken Robinson doodle to form your entire educational philosophy. It’s remarkable how many people who espouse the need for critical thinking can be so easily hoodwinked by an affable after-dinner speaker with zero teaching experience.

I would be happy to bin all teacher training, and instead expect all Schools to offer a thorough programme of induction and training for their staff, with a long-term commitment to develop teachers, and not just for the first year or two. We would get better subject experts into the profession, and not from those 60 ATAR requirement education degrees, but people with a degree in an actual subject if we removed the need for official training before commencing a career (please don’t use the surgeon/pilot analogy, it doesn’t work). I’d like to see a better balance of subject-specific training with more general pedagogy and I’d like for managers to remember what it was like to teach a full timetable, and to consider a large part of their role is to free up teachers to teach, not to brow-beat them with initiatives to show just how dynamic their leadership can be.

There were times earlier in the week when I caught sight of a young impressionable teacher deep in conversation with an out-of-date charlatan (yes, I am talking about you, Merrick) and I feared for our profession. We have the ability to promote and develop an outstanding new generation, or we can take them backwards by filling heads with out of date and anti-intellectual edu-waffle.

It’s our choice…

 

Insert creative title here

I read through the feed from Tom Barrett’s #creativitychat recently. It made for an interesting yet frustrating e-conversation. Maybe the whole concept of creativity is tough to define in practice, that is in the real world rather than the dictionary, but most of the attempts to nail it down gave the impression of people wrestling metaphorically with a bar of soap in the bath. Creativity is always near the top of the pile when it comes to those interminable lists of ‘what employers want’ or ‘what skills are most important for the future’, which is odd when people seem to find it difficult to explain what is means, let alone how one might go about developing it. 

Despite being hard to define, we can usually fall back to the line that ‘you know it when you see it’. It is therefore relatively easy to give examples, either of creative people or creative works. We can isolate these in what are generally (and I think unhelpfully) termed the creative suite of subjects, that is Music, Drama, Film and Art. Think Bowie, Picasso, Un Chien Andalou, The Garden of Earthly Delights etc.

Except that’s not really true at the moment. TV feeds us a yearly cycle of derivative, formulaic visual wallpaper (Strictly, Bake-Off, I’m a Celebrity, Survivor; film is dominated by franchises, re-makes and adaptations; music relies on nostalgia and covers; the YBAs, Banksy, the Chapman brothers and Grayson Perry feel about as fresh and edgy as a tomato that’s been in the fridge for a month, but who is set to replace them?

Just at the time where creativity is seen as being so important, we seem to be struggling for inspiration. Technological advancement aside (given that we expect all civilisations will move forward in this respect over time), where are the ‘original idea that have value’ (to quote Sir Ken) in the traditional areas where creativity has flourished? Why are we stuck in such a rut and happy to be fed a diet of Paul Hollywood, Ant and Dec, Michael Bay and Justin Bieber? It is perhaps not too much of an over-statement to suggest that empires tend to collapse when they no longer develop, progress and create. Let’s not wait too long to unearth the next incarnation of genuine creative talen.

Even if we still don’t really know what it means, I’m sure we’ll know it when we see it.

Never mind the b******s

Albert Einstein may be the most misquoted person in history, with Lincoln and Yeats not far behind.  In the spirit of mis-quotation, the never-spoken words of Teddy Roosevelt were that ‘complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining’.  Had Roosevelt uttered this line, he may well have been talking about my previous blog post, in which I provided a polemic on how not to interview.  Upon reflecting that I had offered nothing which might be termed decent advice, this follow-up provides some pointers on how to impress at interview.  One must be cautious that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it (Hunter S Thompson said that, by the way), so you should feel free to disregard and/or disagree with it all.  Just be aware that you probably shouldn’t be too disappointed if you aren’t successful with an application to Prince Alfred College in Adelaide.

Don’t write a long letter 

It was clear when receiving applications from teachers at Winchester College in the UK that there was a particular ‘Winchester style’ of letter, namely one which was short (think Christmas card from your local takeaway-length) and clearly designed to convey that teaching at Winchester was enough to be short-listed for any job that happened to be going (which to be fair, it probably was).  I remember watching Darren Maddy bat for England some time in the early 2000s and the longer he remained at the crease, the more palpably obvious it became that he was not international class.  Had he nicked off from ball 1, we might not have known this.  If you’re writing an 8 page letter, there’s a good chance you’re also going to end up on the scrap-heap with Darren.  One page, absolute maximum two, please.

Don’t have a long CV 

The longest CVs I see are from those who have the smallest amount of relevant experience.  Playing lead guitar for Brian Ferry’s support act in 1987 or working at your union bar will not enhance your application for any teaching job.  I worked at my College bar once or twice and all it taught me that was that it was possible to be ‘paid’ in scampi fries and fake coke made from bar syrup.

Make your letter genuinely personal

Education is too complicated for there to be wholesale agreement over ‘what works’.  Equally successful teachers can have diametrically opposed views on the purpose of education and how best to go about educating children.  Maybe you think that education exists to solve the problems of the C21, maybe you think it’s all about social mobility or maybe you just love your subject so much that you want everyone else to gain the pleasure you do from it.  Whatever the case, don’t try to find the ‘right’ answers, or the answers that you think the interviewer wants.  Be honest, be yourself and be prepared to justify and defend your position.

Do some research

Putting together an application is an arduous process, but learning a bit about the School you’re applying to can give you an advantage.  If they teach Cambridge Pre-U, or IB or other lesser-known courses, it’s a good idea to know this.  You don’t need to have experience of these courses yourself, but to know they are offered and to express interest is a good sign.  Try to pick a few things from the website that (genuinely) match your interests to show what a good fit you might be.  Co-curricular activities are unlikely to be the main deal-breaker for an appointment, but they can certainly help to differentiate between candidates.  If the School has a flourishing bee-keeping society and you are a keen apiarist, this just might be the cigarette paper to be wedged between you and a similar candidate.

Teach the best lesson ever 

Everyone should teach a lesson on interview.  There’s always going to be an element of artificiality about the lesson, but any observer will be looking for pace, purpose, rapport and whether the kids actually learned something, not that you managed to perform the party trick of learning all the pupils’ names within the first five minutes.  If you have a show lesson, make sure you use it now.  It doesn’t matter if it feels a bit false, but if you can’t pull out all the stops on interview, when can you?  No-one is going to be critical of a teacher who came in brilliantly prepared and taught a lesson for the ages.

But…don’t rely on IT or practical demonstrations

This is just a bit too high risk.  The School wifi might just be less reliable than you’re used to and spending anguished minutes waiting for your YouTube clip to load up teaches you that time really can expand.  You can of course use this to your advantage if you have a wonderful Plan B up your sleeve, but make it look like you didn’t and were simply able to roll with the punches.  Practical demonstrations can enliven a lesson, but I have been wary ever since a former colleague managed to throw blue copper sulfate solution all over himself during the first lesson of the day whilst on interview.  With the rest of the day still to come, it didn’t make for a comfortable time when every first question in subsequent interviews was along the lines of ‘why have you got blue stuff all over your shirt’?

Prepare, but don’t over-prepare

‘How do you judge your success as a teacher?’

‘Tell me about a really good lesson you taught recently’.

‘If you could teach any book/topic/area of personal interest, what would it be?

These (I think) are pretty standard interview questions, and yet they are probably the three worst-answered.  You will never be able to second guess all questions, but having thought about what *might* be asked will give you more time to think about the questions that are genuinely from left-field.  The third question from the above list is always the most telling, as it tends to separate the teachers who simply plod through the syllabus year on year from the teachers who have a genuine interest in the subject they teach.

You don’t need to ask questions

Interviewers will probably give you this opportunity, but having no questions is certainly better than having a stupid question.  ‘How does the School day work?’ is generally the most banal question for the sake of asking a question.  The answer, by the way, is that you come in, teach, and then go home.

Don’t do something mental

I’ve never liked the idea that lunch on interview is some kind of ‘test’.  I do expect that people will know to move inwards where cutlery is concerned and which one is the fish-fork, but I think it’s more important that interviewees can teach.  I once interviewed a candidate for a chemistry post who, upon realising at lunch that there were no more water glasses available, decided to drink out of the large fluted vase in the middle of the table.  I’m not sure what caused this aberration, but the sight of a man drinking what appeared to be a yard glass of water made the rest of us feel rather uncomfortable.  He was not successful with his application.  I wonder if he regretted this, or even felt it was an unusual thing to do; I think about him quite a lot.

Remember that it’s a two way process

‘I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member’ said Groucho Marx, and it’s true that you should be aware of what School you will suit as well as what School suits you.  Be aware of your own value and expect that the School will want you as much as you want them.

Calling out the BS

Interview season is upon us. Appointing the best teachers is the most important part of my job. Actually, appointing the best talent and then committing to the development of that talent is the most important part of the job. No School can rise above the quality of its Common Room; the history, buildings and facilities at the School will always be secondary to the individuals who teach there.

When I left my last School, the Governors kindly offered me the chance to write a self-congratulatory piece, detailing what I felt I had achieved during my 6 and a bit years in post. Some degree of modesty kicked in and I decided to write one side on things I felt had been great successes and a second side on resounding failures I had presided over. I don’t think the quality of the ideas, the approach taken to planning and implementation or even whether these initiatives were needed by the School were particularly important factors in how things turned out. The only thing the successes had in common is that the people charged with carrying things out were talented souls with plenty of initiative. When things didn’t turn out so well, the opposite was usually true. This is a bit of an over-simplification, but a combination of ordinary ideas and excellent people is probably better than the other way round.

Back to the interviews. The process of appointing teachers is always likely to be flawed, all the way from the short-listing to the completion of the interview day. The person on paper is not always the same as the one who walks through the door, and I wonder how many potentially excellent colleagues never even made it to the interview stage. All prospective teachers teach a lesson on interview, but they all teach different pupils at different times of the day and there have been enough diametrically opposing opinions following the formal interviews to make me wonder if we had met the same people. I think people tend to favour interviewees who remind them of themselves and this is a perhaps a reason for the divergent opinions.

It is always important to prepare for an interview, but some interviewees are over-reliant on fashionable edu-soundbites. The trouble with these soundbites is that whereas they may capture the educational zeitgeist momentarily, there’s often not much under the surface once the mm-thin patina has been scratched away. Here’s a (not comprehensive) list of current phrases that arouse suspicion and often lead to ‘follow-up question’ disappointment.

1. Life-long learner

There is nothing wrong with this phrase, so long as you can back it up. How do you maintain regular engagement with your subject? What relevant literature have you read recently? What is your particular area of expertise?

2. Learning journey with my students

This is not a good phrase. I don’t think any teacher with sound subject knowledge should ever be learning stuff alongside their pupils.

3. Teaching philosophy statement

These are a bit like School mission statements. They tend to be a bit bland, all say the same thing and be too generalised to be useful.

4. Individual learning styles

They don’t exist, so best not to mention that you always teach to the individual’s preferred style. Even if they did exist, it would be impossible.

5. Engaged students

The phrase ‘student engagement’ is used a lot. A whole lot. The problem is that it is quite vague, and just because they are engaged it doesn’t actually mean that effective learning is taking place. Lots of people seem to think that engagement will lead to learning. I believe that it happens the other way round.

6. ‘Teaching is all about relationships’

Relationships are important whenever humans communicate but teaching is not all about anything. It’s rather more complicated than that.

7. Emotional, social, psychological, well-being needs of my students

Claims that all lessons take into account some or all of the above is not something I buy.

8. Odd teaching quirks

Maybe a commitment to ‘melody learning’ is your new thing, but you need to take the gamble that this will make you sound innovative, and not like a crackpot.

9. Writing things in the third person about yourself

This is really odd. We are not amused.

10. Chinese proverbs, typos, font crimes (including comic sans)

None of these are quite as bad as finding a quote from education luminary Michael J Fox (as I did last week), but any of the above mean that it’s a no from me.

GifTEDed

If I include my PGCE as part of my teaching career, I’ve just moved into my 20th year in teaching. My teacher training is memorable only for excruciating lectures on the 1944 Education Act, a total inability on my part to make any children be quiet and listen to me and thrice weekly doner kebab lunches from KBC kebabs on St Andrew’s street in Cambridge (an experience which caused me to put on about 25lbs in a few months, which I suppose might have been a subconscious plan to make myself more physically imposing and hence intimidating in the classroom).

The two most enjoyable things during these twin decades have probably been cricket coaching and Trivium teaching. I have many happy memories of the former – trips back on the coach having negotiated just the right amount of beer post-match to be able to make it back to base in comfort; facial skin like scrunched tracing paper after a blazing sunny afternoon and a win secured late in the day even after choosing not to trigger the opposition opener who looked like he might win the game on his own. 

The latter joy (Trivium) is an internally designed and taught course, developed with the assistance of many colleagues at my previous School. The basic idea is that every pupil is taught an ‘extra’ subject during their first year at the School, without constraints of syllabus or examination. This Trivium course simply needs to be founded in intellectual and cultural content, ideally with some coherent theme(s) running through it, and should introduce pupils to ‘best that has been thought and said’ (a phrase which three years ago sounded dramatic, but now feels a bit hackneyed, so apologies for that).

Introducing boys and girls to Arendt, Hopper, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Yeats, Grant Wood, Eliot, Chinua Achebe, Picasso, Britten and Conrad was a wonderfully liberating experience. I was never quite sure what was going to resonate and some things I thought were nailed on ‘winners’ fell rather flat whilst other things from left-field ended up being far more successful, but I never felt that it was anything other than educational time well-spent. Introducing children to wonderful art, literature and ideas can never be anything other than time well-spent and even those sessions where all I got was blank expressions still felt to me like I was sowing seeds for the future, in the knowledge (hope) that they would germinate some time hence.

One of the most important things for me was that all pupils were a part of this course. A key problem with identifying ‘gifted’ children is that once identified, it’s impossible to remove that label/stigma. On the understanding that academic progress is rarely linear, there is always likely to be mistakes made around the ‘join’, where the least able ‘gifted’ kid is likely to be less developed academically than the most able ‘non-gifted’ kid in a couple of years. Like Zeno’s ‘bald man’ paradox, it is impossible to say when not-gifted flips into gifted, so why do it? In any case, despite the fact it was generally the case that Trivium was more enjoyable to teach in the Scholarship classes – they tended to take the ideas and run and their work was more self-extending – it was also apparent that many of the potentially very impressive academics were held back by their own (or their parents’) rather boring view of education as simply a means to an end. Interesting views and questions are not exclusive to the most cognitively developed.

I was proud that we developed an inclusive and diverse course, choosing not to patronise pupils by trying to find cheap wins with ‘engaging’ and ‘relevant’ content. Education is full of the terms ‘raised standards’ and ‘high expectations’ but this was a concrete example of what those terms mean. We didn’t just talk about it, we did it.

I’m now looking to build a similar model at my new School, and I’m very pleased to have secured the services of several excellent teachers to help develop a programme of academic enrichment. We will start with the brightest and most intellectually curious boys, but the long-term plan is to develop an extension ‘curriculum’ for all. I sense it will require a little time, because what I am proposing goes against the most common model of ‘gifted education’ in Australia.

As well as being the most enjoyable teaching I have done in 20 years, planning my Trivium course was a lot of work, and I expect this was the case for every teacher involved. With no set syllabus, every individual course needed to be developed from scratch. I expect there was a real fringe benefit of improving the quality of teachers, given that they needed to re-engage with the learning process themselves. Reading, sharing thoughts, committing a fair portion of one’s holiday to the collation of material and ideas: all of this led to an advancement in the intellectual discourse in the common room.

The alternative model of gifted education has none of these fringe benefits. The prevailing orthodoxy involves the identification of children with high cognitive ability, who are then hived off into special classes (sometimes with more than one year group put together). These classes have twin foci: nurturing the pupils’ interests and providing daily ‘challenge’. Notwithstanding the fact that every pupil should be challenged every day (and for some the challenge can be organisational, behavioural or rooted in academic maturity), the approach of allowing these children to simply learn more in a self-directed manner about those things in which they already have an interest seems to relegate the teacher to a mere bystander, or at best an occasional encourager. 

If I’d been exposed to this approach, perhaps all I’d be interested in now would be the Roman Empire and the ships of the Royal Navy. Children require expert teachers (and parents) to introduce them to things they are unlikely to discover in the usual scheme of things. Children require knowledge to be made coherent, to be scaffolded and to have context explained. The real experts in ‘gifted ed’ should be hugely knowledgable themselves, though able to allow the pupils to make connections themselves where appropriate. Otherwise, we’re simply accompanying pupils on their ‘learning journey’, which doesn’t sound much like teaching, any more than is sticking on a TED talk.