Coming to Terms with Teaching

I have been on blogging hiatus.  I started something I couldn’t finish.  I couldn’t think round the thorns in these experiences which are matted into my educational history of being brought up by teachers in East London in the 1980s and training in the same area as a Sixth Form English teacher at the start of a new period of political hostility to the teaching profession and amid deepening financial depression.  In my attitude towards teaching, there has been a receding hope for the possibility for social change and a dying faith in what I thought was a genuinely new landscape in which to help young people to embrace a fully democratic literacy.  This is a collaborative piece written by Jemima at the beginning of September this year and edited and extended by me today.  So, starting back in September…

Cornfield

I woke up perturbed this morning.  I did some rambling around recent thought trails surrounding my feelings about teaching.  A friend of mine has recently been aghast to find that she will not be able to receive the funding for the primary PGCE she would be more than competent to excel in given the experience she has working as a learning mentor in primary schools and the unquantifiable aptitude she possesses for understanding the educational predicament of swathes of kids from East London because she was one mark off a 2:1 in her degree.  The choking stupidity of this kind of incentivism which savagely restructures the recruitment of entrants into the profession and the outrageous insult to those practising and aspiring teachers who gained 2:2 degrees is so obviously lacking in any attempt to acknowledge the qualities of good teaching that it barely warrants analysis.  My first instinct upon hearing about this situation was to undermine the significance of government initiatives and the funding of teacher training and declare that we can’t allow the transitory cultures of political intervention to corrupt the work of good teachers.  She would be a fantastic teacher and it is wrong for them to keep her out of the profession by economic bullying. But I am uneasy…

The thought I am squirming away from is that in participating in the programme of national compulsory education: are we colluding with the government?  How independent can one be when bound by contract to implement curriculum strategies and initiatives?  When having one’s competence assessed by the success rates of students taking qualifications with dubious marking structures and content that shifts in response to pressures more closely tied to politics and media caricature than the work of educationalists?

I have a very strong sense of what is of value in teaching, one which has been developed by encounters with teachers, socially and professionally, in East London and on my PGCE course at the IOE.  I seek out other teachers to reinforce and develop my sense of professional identity and dissociate from the voices which denigrate the profession from a position of inexperience or conflicting interests.  I thought this was enough and in a place like Walthamstow it can be.  There, you are never terribly far away from an affirming ear or an inspiring socialist line reiterating the core values which it seems are bleeding out of the corpse of traditional left-wing liberal society to be replaced by neo-liberal marketised models of humanity.  With schools and colleges that are driven by teachers rooted in communities and that have a strong solidarity among staff with experience who welcome and nurture the idealistic newcomers to the institution it is easier to insulate your work from externally enforced procedural structures.  The transforming of damaging or meaning-snapping rhetoric is commonplace through the discursive work of teachers who redescribe their daily working lives in terms of language taken into the profession and accorded respect and alternatively in the sarcastic tone reserved for buzz-words where we play at being someone else – someone institutionalised; we have to ‘play the game’.  But when a large portion of one’s energy is set aside for this playing along and the structure of documentation and student and curriculum monitoring is directed by players disconnected from direct perception of what is actually happening with the relationship between the two mediated by a deceitful filter there is a mad fog obstructing real work and collaboration.  I fear the strength in professional identity – which is elbowed out towards break times and the pub on Fridays – is unable to do much more than maintain morale and resilience, however vital these are for the continued work of these communities of practice and for achieving a positive impact on the students in one’s care.  The parts of your work which you can identify with and which are a matter of pride can only be acknowledged and drawn together into a unified professional self in one’s own time.  The bad taste of perpetual insincerity and deference to meaningless procedure takes a toll on the idealistic ethical worker who imbricates their sense of self with their role in the community.

Newham on the road

To return to the specific problem which sparked this perturbation, what I fear in the recent interference with teacher training is the attack on the ability of teachers to recognise and embody a specific set of skills, practices and a fully ethical professionalism and replace it with an obfuscating marker of merit from the world outside.  They skew the recognition of the value of teaching by severing the link between the skills of the teacher and the incentive to train.  Why not interview or allocate funding on the basis of experience?  But this is the problem I don’t want to have to justify.  I don’t want to dictate a set of core values in education and I don’t want the nihilistic absence of values in the system.  I recognise the geographical particularity of my values and fear the consequences of rigid prescription of professional procedures from a centralised perspective.  What I want, simply, is for decisions on Teacher training to be made by teachers with experience and expert knowledge of the areas which will be affected by the changes.

To take this tack is to question the rationale for the specific method of selection which has now been implemented.  However, I perceive something darker going on which began with the Teach First Scheme and has been the consequence of the way Academy status and Free Schools have disrupted the networks of practising and training teachers.  There is an attack on the culture of teachers which is perceived as hostile to Conservativism and a move has been made to displace those training under established teacher training programmes with longstanding links to experienced mentors in placement schools and colleges by bringing a new type of teacher into existence.  This is a complex process but its cynical aim is redolent of the undemocratic mechanisms beneath the interested redrawing of electoral boundaries to gain political influence.  I will not explore the nature of the impact of Academies and Free Schools here but point to the gathering horror in the educational vista I withdrew from only two years ago.  And my words have slid towards those of Sarah Hall, we did not think anything could become truly broken.  But I don’t know whether what was good in the work I hoped to do can survive the onslaughts of this short period of political supremacy.

There is a haemorrhaging of value from the Education Sector.  But I am so close to the instinctive movement towards the values of my social peers that I have barely subjected these to the critique that I fear would lead to a fatal nihilism.  Expanding from the recognition of expertise within the profession to a more fully formed account of the values and abilities of these teachers, I would like to point towards the possibility of an Ethical Professionalism – not as a synonym for ‘Moral’ or in reference to the implementation of a written code of conduct but with recognition of the nature of an Ethics as a way of living.  Deference to the judgement of teachers would be in virtue of their status as ethical practitioners.

An ethical professionalism would be something you are inducted into and contribute to as you embody living practices working in specific schools and colleges.  In an ethics based on practice, the emergence of value is immanently generated.  To clarify what I am pointing towards, I make the following distinction: There is intrinsic, immanent value and external, extrinsic value.  Intrinsically generated value is generated and perceived via direct collisions between connected parts of the sphere of concern – in this case the sphere of educational institutions.  Externally allocated value is awarded by outside onlookers on the basis of features catalogued in isolation and apart from their interconnected contribution to the system as a whole – an example would be the use of the marker of a non-pedagogical, subject specific degree to create a hierarchy of teaching practitioners.  The source of genuine value can only be an immanent one, set according to encounters within the sphere in question.

Those who know my habits of thought at present will recognise Nietzsche, Foucault, Hadot and, more recently, Bergson shaping this sketch for a rediscovery of value in Education.  I was at a wedding this weekend and found myself, almost against my will, falling into an impassioned rehearsal of some of these topics and volunteering solicitous advice for a newly aspiring teacher.  I find it impossible to withdraw from the problems despite the hopelessness choking my response to them.  I don’t know what structural or personal changes could bring me back to a point where I recognised and could rejoin a community of ethical practitioners who were strong enough to sever the hold these external forces have over us.

Diogenes of Sinope 1870s

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He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

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