Let me share with you a bit of my personal story to explain why I am going into teaching. It’s a long and meandering tale, but bear with me. Many moons ago, 29 years to be precise, I applied to study history at university. My sister before me had, heeding parental advice, studied economics and thoroughly hated the experience. Her advice to me was, choose a subject you enjoy above all else and don’t worry about what career you will have afterwards. My parents and uncles were predictably dismayed by my choice. “What are you going to do with a history degree, become a teacher?” they asked in disapproving tones. I hate to say it but teaching was not seen as a prestigious enough profession.
I stuck to my guns and read history, for which I have no regrets at all. I loved it. Best subject ever. But I did not go into teaching. The next quarter of a century (yes, I’m a bit ancient) was spent doing various different jobs, much of that time on a self-employed basis. I loved the freedom of doing things my way and not having to answer to any boss but myself. There were ups and downs, successes and failures, and lots of changes in direction. My siblings used to tease me that I started a new business every 3 or 4 years.
By far my most important project, however, was that of motherhood. I came to it relatively late and it changed me, clichéd as this might sound. I can’t say I was an unduly selfish or flighty individual before, but the responsibility of caring for and shaping a new life, was huge. I noticed something else too. A new world of empathy opened up before me, not just for my own child but for all children. Watching news of children being bombed in Gaza or washed up on the Mediterranean gained extra poignancy because these children could be my child. Nothing quite grounds you and connects you with the world than having a child – at least, that was my experience. As an aside, I do wonder if there was a grain of truth in Andrea Leadsom’s assertion that being a mother gave her an edge over Theresa May. I’m no supporter of Leadsom’s politics, however, given where we are today, I find myself asking the question. Would our PM have done things differently, understood and empathised with her electorate more fully, if she had experienced motherhood? It’s a tantalising and slightly taboo thing to ask, and I don’t claim to have the answer.
In my new reality of being a fully engaged mother, it’s natural that I would take an interest in my son’s education. Our house is literally round the corner from an Ofsted “Outstanding” primary school and, having read the glowing report, this is where I decided to enrol my precious offspring. Our subsequent experience at the school is much of the reason why I’ve come to have little faith in Ofsted judgements, though I welcome the change in direction that seems to be occurring under Amanda Spielman. How could a school be considered outstanding when the following things were happening:
- Constant disruptive behaviour in class
- The responsibility for teaching a class distributed across several teachers (my son has one teacher on Mondays and Tuesdays, another teacher on Wednesdays, and yet another on Thursdays and Fridays).
- Following up from the above point, there’s a very high turnover of teachers, to the extent that none of the teachers in each of the 4 forms in Reception and Year 1 when my son was going through those years, are still there now.
- Ability grouping which is based, less on a child’s raw talent and more on how much that child has been hot-housed at home. Even worse, after the initial streaming occurred in Year 1, the differences in attainment between each ability grouping have widened, not the opposite. In effect, some children have had a ceiling put on how much they can achieve.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Something was terribly wrong for an outstanding school to short-change its pupils to this extent. As a well educated, empowered mother, I fought for my son’s best interests. I tutored him at home, I spoke to the school teachers and leaders, I did everything to make sure, not just that he got moved to the top set, but that whatever shortcomings at school were made up for at home. At the same time, and here is where my newly extended empathy came into play, I couldn’t stop thinking about those other children, not as privileged as mine. Those kids whose mothers couldn’t even speak English well enough to ensure their child did as well as mine. I saw them in the playground, vulnerable and hopeful, wanting the best for their child but not having the wherewithal to game the system like I could. I tell you, nothing has made me more ashamed of being middle class than standing in that playground and seeing the way those social differences increased the disadvantages of some children.
The spark had been lit, the fire was stoked. I wanted to know more about what was happening in our education system. I read articles in the papers and books, and then the Internet opened up a whole new world for me. I started by reading one teacher’s blog, then another, and then another. Ideas were being shared, bounced around the community and refined or refuted by others. It felt alive, vibrant and full of hope. I don’t know at what point I began to think about teaching as a career for myself, but I do know that I would not have seriously contemplated it were it not for the multitude of teacher voices that convinced me that change could happen.
Lately, I have sensed a change in our Edu-Twitter community. Some teachers, disillusioned with the bullying behaviour of a strident minority, have decided to or are considering leaving Twitter. There has been a definite push back against that unique and independent teacher voice being expressed. Get back into your box, don’t presume to know what’s what, don’t listen to teachers that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Opinions and honest experience are disparaged because there isn’t evidence-based research. The very thing that is inspiring people like me, people who have so much to contribute to education, is being cut down by what I can only assume are vested interests or just people who feel threatened by change.
Well I will not be silenced. I think I have valid things to say and insights to share. You may not agree with my ideas. No problem, it’s a free world supposedly we live in. Plurality of opinion is good, as long as people are respected and not abused. You may get me to change my mind about things if you engage me on the arguments and not make things personal. I want to carry on reading about what other teachers are doing in their classrooms or whatever philosophical thoughts they may have. Please don’t silence them either. Someone suggested yesterday that teacher bloggers are intimidating other teachers by presenting their best face and not showing their weak sides. I would dispute this. Many of my favourite bloggers are painfully honest about their experiences, warts and all. But that’s beside the point. Teachers should feel free to write about what they want to write about, and not feel that they have to present a balanced picture (we are not the BBC!)
One more thing. ITTs and PGCE tutors don’t need to fear that teacher bloggers are stepping on their toes in any way. On the contrary, the online edu-sphere presents an opportunity for everyone to join in the conversation and benefit from the knowledge/experience of other practitioners. That cross-fertilisation of ideas can only be a good thing. And I have seen great instances where academia and teachers have come together in this way. Just yesterday for instance, Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the university of Virginia, referenced well-known teacher bloggers in an article he wrote. So let’s get this straight folks, there is nothing to be gained by muzzling teachers.
N.B. The above paragraph was updated after I noticed some tutors on Twitter had misunderstood my meaning. I hope the above clarifies and puts any misunderstandings to rest.