by Jon Berry, University of Hertfordshire
One of the more comical moments of recent weeks occurred when Nicky Morgan tried to rally the troops at the NASUWT Conference. As a hardened ex secondary school teacher, I have some (very limited) sympathy with anyone trying to cajole a grudging and reluctant class into thinking that what you have to say is important. But that’s the full extent of any compassion. Morgan’s message was insulting and patronizing and, as I will argue here, demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of what teachers are and what they do.
She had perused the NASUWT website and found that it was all rather gloomy. If this was the impression that teachers were giving of their valuable profession, she suggested, it was little wonder that people were thinking twice before entering teaching. Teachers needed to ‘step up’ and present themselves and their occupation more positively. The notion that any discontent on the part of teachers may be ever-so slightly connected to the actions of herself and her colleagues seemed to have blithely passed her by.
Over at NUT Conference – and this is not a sectarian point – teachers were debating, even as Morgan spoke, those very things that contribute to making their lives – and, much more importantly, the lives of young people – meagre and miserable. Baseline testing (since severely dented thanks to the brilliant perseverance of activists), silly synthetic phonics, relentless measurement, data collection and the whole wretched business of reducing education to numbers and outcomes. Speaker after speaker spoke of the frustration of not being able to do the right thing as their working – and private – lives became subsumed in a welter of meaningless and time-consuming paperwork.
Most readers will fully appreciate that this imposition of drudgery is not accidental. As the state cedes control of educational provision to the private sector with such confidence that, somehow, this overtly ideological move finds its way into the Budget, various ideas and actions become ever more normalized. Schools and teachers are expected to ‘perform’ in a variety of ways, ensuring that outcomes can be quantified and compared; the pursuit of results becomes the sine qua non of what schools do. The fact that, as part of this normalization, schools now police themselves through the apparatus of the ‘learning walk’, book trawls and frequent high-stakes lesson observations is alarming. Morgan and her mandarins should be giggling up their sleeve at such compliance.
But she shouldn’t be fooled. And at the same time, if she had any real knowledge of teachers and what they do, she should be massively encouraged. It is true that teachers perform and they develop survival mechanisms; they do so to ensure the reputations of their institutions and the concomitant effect of this on children and parents. They do so to pay the rent as well. The problem for Morgan – and the encouragement for those of us who continue to oppose marketization and commodification – is that despite this outward compliance, teachers harbour a much more vibrant and creative notion of what education is and should be, than the thin gruel they are forced to offer to children.
In Teachers Undefeated I tell the story of those teachers. (Incidentally, this is not a crude plug: all royalties from sales will be donated to appropriate causes). Dozens of interviews, tens of thousands of words of written testimony and innumerable emails recounting brilliant – and sometimes very funny – episodes paint a picture of a profession that is committed, energetic and creative. It shows how teachers will willingly devote huge swathes of time to preparation and planning if they think it is in the best interests of the child and will result in engaging and interesting lessons. It demonstrates that teachers will happily stay for prolonged meetings after school – or at weekends – if the purpose is to produce classroom opportunities that are fun, creative and promote learning. It reveals a hunger for ideas and a desire for greater pedagogical understanding that are never discussed because of the treadmill of data gathering and outcome collection. Rather than telling teachers to ‘step up’, what this testimony reveals is that Morgan and the DfE need to step away and leave teachers to do the right thing by children, parents and wider society.
So far, so good – at least as far as teachers’ attitudes are concerned. Two central questions need addressing. First, most teachers need no convincing that they could do a much better job if they were free to act more independently; many headteachers also acknowledge that they would like to allow this and a surprising number, incidentally, believe that they allow such autonomy. The question is this: can the profession trust itself to do the right thing and still produce the results that schools need to survive? It requires something approaching a leap of faith and one that few schools seem prepared to take. When the chips are down, rehearsal, coaching and teaching to the test appear to hold sway. Examples of how to have both – creativity and results – are what we need and what will be exercising this particular researcher from now on – so all examples and instances gladly received!
The second question is to determine what actions teachers can take to assume some control over their professional lives. The answer here lies beyond the actions of teachers and their unions themselves. The welcome calls for action at NUT Conference were prompted not for the betterment of pay or pensions but for the defence of the service and the quality of what is on offer for children. In that regard, teachers’ calls for action have much in common with the demands of junior doctors. It is the very notion of public service that is under attack, along with the need to promote social justice. In this respect it is vital that teachers see their circumstances as part of a wider political picture. Any fight-back needs to be connected to wider resistance to privatization and profiteering and in this, campaigning with parents who, as citizens, experience the dead hand of austerity in so many aspects of their lives, is vital. The undefeated spirit of teachers is to be applauded, but real change will require them to see themselves as being in a wider political battle.
Teachers undefeated: how global education reform has failed to crush the spirit of educators by Jon Berry is now on sale.
For multiple, discounted copies, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org