Sing-Song Pedagogy: It hides all manner of sins

Yesterday, on the 16th February, the Chartered College of Teaching (CCT) held its inaugural conference in London called ‘A collective voice’ with the aim of introducing the CCT and providing ‘an open forum of discussion and interaction on a variety of teaching matters’, according to its website. Whilst I was unable attend the conference, my twitter feed was bombarded with running commentaries from the teachers and educators that could afford the “Founding Member” membership fee. Unfortunately, I could not and thus I had to watch from afar.

Indeed, much of event seemed like a success. The first keynote speaker – Rt. Hon. Justine Greening MP – largely impressed the crowds of eager professionals as she promised to save QTS from being scrapped and argued that teachers are the drivers of social mobility, even suggesting that the our profession needs – and deserves – a higher status. Moreover, Professor Rob Coe’s rallying cry to abandon the progressive/traditional debate and rather support a vision for enhanced professionalism within teaching also seemed to go down well. Myself and many others were particularly impressed by the all-female panel discussion, highlighting CCT’s enthusiasm for social equality and egalitarianism. Yay.

Regardless of how interesting and provocative these speeches were, the image that I have cemented in my head is of a short fourteen second clip showing a room of teachers poorly singing “I’ll be there”, which allegedly lead to a massage session. My concern with this was not that a room full of professionals were chanting and rubbing one another, as perverse as that sounds, but actually something much more significant.

First, the singing was a poor attempt at addressing the crisis of teacher wellbeing. The average career span for a teacher is no more than five years, meaning that teaching is now not actually a career at all. With this, I have worked with colleagues who have burnt out in their first terms of teaching because of poor behaviour (both the annoying low level stuff and actual full on violence), because of enormous and frankly ludicrous workloads, because wellness and self-love simply isn’t taught sufficiently at teacher training, and because schemes of work and properly rigorous and in-depth curricula have not been put in place from above. Teachers are taught to be so selfless that they actually become worthless, unnecessarily slogging away. This is a crisis that needs addressing immediately and a forced choir recital comes off as patronising and thinly-veiled rather than a genuine cause to a crushing problem.

Secondly, because teachers don’t stay in teaching, there is also a crisis of retention. As a teacher and member of steering committees at Teach First (called Action Networks), I have worked with many talented individuals to build teacher retention but also ensure that top graduates enter the profession, especially in schools with low socio-economic contexts, where their impact would be the largest and is most needed. I strongly believe that a massive part of promoting proper teacher retention is enhancing the status of the profession and a group sing-song categorically works against this. One wouldn’t go to a national conference of brain surgeons, aerospace engineers or theoretical physicists and have a quick karaoke session, yet you do with a conference of teachers. This is something that not only detracts top professionals from teaching but is actually dangerous to the profession as a whole. It looks as if we have bought into another gimmick, that we are scratching the surface of hugely widespread problems once again, and that we are all happy together even though we’re crumbling from within.

So, by all means, slap a smile on your face, have sing-song and pretend that everything is hunky-dory, but excuse me if I don’t join in.

oh-god-no

NB: I appreciate that the singing will not go ahead at CCT’s next conference but my concern is about what the singing represents (or attempts to fix) rather than the activity itself. 

 

 

 

Starting again: every year, every term, every lesson.

I am standing at my classroom door but remain just inside. One class gone and another waiting to be let in. These few seconds in my room alone is my time. My nice, safe, relaxing time. It’s been a long day. My feet ache, my head hurts, I’ve not had a cup of coffee or a swig of water in hours. I’ve got papers to write, lessons to plan, parents to call, and nine classes of assessments to grade this weekend. My brain feels like water leaking out of my ears because I am so tired. AND I’m about to teach my worst class. All term. All term I’ve tried to train this class but for apparently nothing. What were they like last lesson? Talking over me, climbing on tables and chairs, throwing papers and spit balls. And so much bottle flipping. Okay… breathe. Breathe. I take deep breathes, I wiggle and correct my tie, step outside and welcome the class in. I start again.

Even though I am a trainee teacher, and have been for only a term, this scenario could have been only too real for me quite a few times during the leo-busylong stretch from September to December. When I was training, the most resonant thing that was said to me was that during the long, dark November nights, “tough” will not even begin to describe teaching. They were sometimes right. After a sixteen-week term, cosy Undergraduate research transformed into hectic inner city London school. The days were long and my patience often wore thin.

Despite all of this, or perhaps in light of this, one of the most important things I learnt in my first term was to reflect and to simply start again. This is something that many educators have been doing for years. For example, Kevin Gannon reflected on a challenging semester where the ‘seductive cult of busy-ness’ became too much to handle and The Quirky Teacher reflected that they needed to ‘do’ more and ‘write’ less in 2017. Starting again means different things to different people: for Kevin it meant making aims for his next term, for others it might mean wiping the slate clean with a challenging pupil (or an even more challenging colleague) or perhaps even opening the classroom door, completely forgetting how soul-destroying your last lesson with Year 11 was. Regardless of how you do it, starting again is not only therapeutic, it is utterly necessary.

First, and perhaps most importantly, starting again is good for promoting a teacher’s sanity. In a recent article, Toby French wrote about the change that teachers can bring to student’s lives, even if implementing that change isn’t the most stress-free of journeys. Teaching is a profession that I already adore, just as many others do like Tom Bennett, and it consistently gives me the greatest reason to wake up in the morning; however, because of the high intensity of emotions flying around, it can be incredibly challenging, especially when the scenario at the beginning of this blog post becomes reality. If you were to open the classroom door and start that lesson in the same way that the last lesson ended, then there would be an endless cycle of bad behaviour, lack of effort and very little engagement… and that’s just from the teacbaby-dont-worryher! By starting again, you can rebuild relationships and make the change that Toby referred to more easily. After all this is why teachers teach! Make it easy on yourself and help be a part of that great sense of change. Every single lesson.

Secondly, starting again is crucial for your students. I work in an inner city school with a low socio-economic background, half of the students qualify for Pupil Premium grants, and it was only when I became a form tutor that I really understood the deprivation and troubled lives that my students face. Oftentimes, my students might come to school hungry, they might be unsure where their parents might be when they get home and, with the rollercoaster of puberty, they likely have little understanding of their own emotions. Tumultuous to say the least. By starting again, the teacher is providing the students with the stability that they may not otherwise experience. Teachers don’t hold grudges, they don’t feed into a child’s reputation, and they have accepted and moved on from what happened last lesson. They are monotonous in their stability and when you start again, you give the student a reason and opportunity to correct themselves and thrive.

It is also, somewhat coincidentally, the beginning of a new year and just how I like to start each lesson with a fresh mind-set, I like to do the same with a new series of 365 days. And like most people, I like to set myself a list of resolutions or aims for the year ahead. For various reasons that I will cover in a later blog, it is important to me to be transparent about my aims, both to my colleagues in teaching and my students in the classroom. And in the spirit of reflection, my resolutions for 2017 are things that I need build upon that perhaps weren’t the most successful in 2016.

  1. Publish more, or more specifically, publish two articles. During my time as an Undergraduate historian, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of publishing a few things. Now that I have dipped my toe in the sea of education, I would like to continue to challenge myself by teaching stimulating and publishable material.
  2. Become a qualified teacher with outstanding grade. A blog post is coming as to why this is important to me.
  3. Teach more historically rigorous enquiries to all my students. Since I started teaching, I have made all of my own lessons and resources and I have aimed to teach all of my lessons in sequences of provocative historical enquiries. I would to build on this whist also evaluating and re-writing those enquiries that I have already taught.

2016 was apparently disastrous for more people than just me. And you may have really struggled with a particular child, class or unit of work. But it doesn’t matter. My biggest lesson from last term was to learn how to reflect, take a breath and simply start again.

new-year-new-me