Confronting the Juggernaut: 2. Going pink and fluffy
I think that one of the best answers to the perennial question, ‘What is the Meaning of Life?’ is: ‘To keep asking the question’. An essential component of properly fulfilling a Hippocratic Oath would be for teachers to constantly re-examine their own practice and the hidden curriculum; and to try to give their teaching a context which puts individual children’s lives and learning – not the fulfilment of externally-imposed requirements – at its heart. We should keep asking ourselves the question: Is what I’m doing to, with or for this child really the best thing for her or him? Because if the answer is no, professional ethics should prohibit us from doing it.
This is an enormously uncomfortable issue. The reality is that the vast majority of people who work in schools can’t suddenly place their jobs in jeopardy by going off-message, however much they may disagree with what they have to do. But when children’s lives are at stake, we really shouldn’t be sticking our heads in the sand and hoping the storm will blow over because we are dealing with forces beyond our control. We have to constantly re-visit the Hippocratic Oath question, pick our battles, take some action. Some of us have lost our jobs and damaged our careers and are still grappling with these issues. However, there’s no value in a holier-than-thou display of the scars of battle; what matters is taking steps in the right direction.
At a meeting of Primary Headteachers several years ago, a newly-installed Nottingham City Director of Education gave us the standard spiel about targets, the woeful position of Nottingham in the national league tables, the necessity of ‘raising standards’ (meaning, of course, only in the tested subjects of English and Maths). When challenged about other areas of the curriculum, personal and social development, equal opportunities and other possible areas of interest for schools and pupils, the Director called all such stuff ‘pink and fluffy’ – clearly an optional add-on only when the real business was done. Note the implication that ‘feminine’ characteristics have lesser and limited value compared to the hard, masculine business of competition, number-crunching and doing as you’re damned well told.
Here are a few suggestions for what anyone might do to be quietly, or more noisily, subversive of the juggernaut in a pink and fluffy way:
- Give children choices. OK, I don’t mean: ‘You can choose to do this now or at playtime …’ Real choices: stay inside or go outside at ‘free’ times such as playtime or lunch (we did this, it saves loads of hassle, makes everyone happier and doesn’t necessarily need extra staff for supervision). Give all learners at least some independent time when they can make real choices about what to do: self-directed learning. A full day sometimes, half a day, an hour, anything is better than nothing. But, please please please, NOT as a reward for good behaviour and NOT as a sort of treat dangled in front of them which can be snatched away because individually or collectively they were talking in assembly, messing about in class, not working hard enough. Make it a part of the curriculum which is at least as sacrosanct as English. And within reason give children the resources they want to work with; avoid the pitfall of thinking that nice resources are far too precious to be left to children to play with.
- Show trust, respect rights, let children exercise responsibility. Far and away the best way to learn to make good decisions is to make decisions, not to blindly follow the directions of others. So show trust, give responsibility (or rather, allow children to take it) and respect young people’s rights. Don’t put young people in the demeaning position of having to ask for permission to go the toilet. Do away with, or at least reduce, lining up and sitting in silence waiting for adults. The result will not be chaos, it will be more pleasant and efficient transitions. Let children take real decisions – how to decorate the classroom, manage a budget for a project or an area of the curriculum, develop a play area. Give children the opportunity to make massive mutual gains by mixing age groups, giving older children the chance to help and care for younger ones. Above all, perhaps, encourage children to discuss and solve their own problems, giving them he time and space to do so.
- Foster intrinsic motivation. The Behaviour Policy is one of the key documents in every school, with its lofty aims, detailed explanations and justifications, and elaborate enunciation of rewards and ‘sanctions’. Unfortunately, (spoiler alert) rewards destroy intrinsic motivation and punishment breeds anger and resentment (see Alfie Kohn’s books for the evidence). So any move to celebrate talents and interests, but reduce rewards and zero-sum competitions, will be positive.
- Promote democracy and citizenship. Come on, be honest now, does your school have some kind of Pupils Council because you were desperate to introduce some democratic participation into a rigidly authoritarian system or because it gets a tick on a checklist somewhere? Examine how it works and what it does. Institute class meetings which can become a fantastic milieu in which to explore, discuss, share and solve problems in a caring, respectful and democratic way. Encourage discussion of things that matter to your kids and help them explore options for doing something about it – writing to the Governors, their MP, the PM, Donald Trump …. Develop partnerships with an older/younger class, other schools, a nearby Care Home. Encourage pupils to join Student Voice.
- Show integrity. Be honest with yourself and about yourself to the kids. I saw the comedian Romesh Ranganathan on TV recently describing in his drily very funny way his experience as a secondary teacher leading a field trip in Derbyshire: how he had to pretend to be loving the walks, how he had to cover up and try to hide his fear and incompetence. But if he can be honest with us now, how sad that he couldn’t be honest with his students at the time. I think we are wrong if we think that any intimation of weakness demeans our authority with children. On the contrary, apologising if and when we make mistakes and explaining the reasons, or being honest about our own fears and failings, humanises us and provides fantastic role-modelling. Kids make judgements all the time about how reasonable/fair/consistent their teachers have been; if we’re prepared to admit to, and apologise for, mistakes we’ve made, and acknowledge our own feelings, it makes it easier and acceptable for them to do the same.
- Treasure the non-academic stuff. Art, Music, Drama, sewing/knitting, cookery, woodwork …. ‘Successful’ students (of whom teachers are generally a sub-group) often miss out on opportunities to investigate and develop other skills and interests and retain a suspicion or slightly demeaning view of them. But kids ‘stuck’ at Maths or English not only need to have fun with other stuff to avoid going mad, they can use the confidence and enthusiasm engendered there to help with quadratic equations or the mysteries of fronted adverbials. Learning to swim may be the best thing that a child can do to help with academic difficulties.
- Be a quiet subversive. As the saying goes, sometimes, it’s easier to apologise afterwards than to ask for permission in advance.