Authenticity in the classroom…….finding a way to be true to yourself.

Garden design work by a 12 year old pupil.

As I write this we are contemplating a strike by teachers and others about government plans to change pension arrangements.  This is not the place to rehearse the arguments but by coincidence I watched again with my class Ken Robinson’s video (http://www.ted.com/speakers/sir_ken_robinson.html )  on Ted.com about creativity in education and the two things came together in my mind.  Talking with a trainee teacher this week I asked him how things were going and his face lit up as he shared with me a teaching episode where everything had gone smoothly and he had experienced what it feels like when children in your class get what you are trying to teach them.  I believe that I witnessed the start of someone finding their element as Ken Robinson would describe it; discovering what you are really good at and experiencing what he and others call flow, times when you are caught up in what you are doing and totally absorbed with it.  Times when you feel that yopu are doing what you were born for.

This is not a recent phenomenon, we used to call it your vocation, that which you were called to do.  In recent times vocation has taken on a rather different colour as we have used it to describe non academic studies perpetuating the dualist view that there are those who use their brains and those who use their brawn.  There is a Cornish dialect phrase which sums this up, “them as can’t schemy must louster”, meaning if you can’t think you will have to work.  (Just imagine what my spell-checker made of that!)  For those of us who teach and are fortunate enough to love what we do this idea will resonate.  Well the debate about pensions gave me pause for thought, how often have you heard someone say that they would pay to be able to do their job?  I have to admit to being one of those people, unless you are my head teacher in which case I definitely need a pay rise.

In the last few months I have read a lot written by teachers from all around the world and the exciting thing is that there is an overwhelming desire to do the job really well, always based on a deep seated concern for the well being of our pupils.  What also emerges from most of these writings is an informed professional concern that state education often missess the point because it cannot resist the urge to control, test, measure and set targets.  I read a fascinating article which pointed out that in any other profession an attempt by politicians to tell the experts how to do their jobs would be met by total disbelief, yet in education we find ourselves blown about by every wind of doctrine, buffeted by diktats from those who know little about the job and responding to targets set more for their impact on opinion polls than for the benefit they might do our children.  In an interview recently Jamie Oliver stated that since he had been concerning himself with food education he had met and worked with six secretaries of state for education in seven years, wondering how they could be expected to understand what was going on in the system they were supposed to be running.  If as ports team was turning over head coaches at that rate you would think they were in trouble.

Many people who embark on teaching as a career find themselves ground down by this constant bureaucratic change for changes sake, depressed and dispirited by the volume of data collection and paper work that seems to be required but has little to do with the reality of classroom practice.  Some, driven by the need to do their job well and finding it impossible to meet their own standards, break down, leave the profession or worst of all stay in it embittered and cynical.  Any school which seeks to model a  value driven society must surely ask itself questions if this is happening to it’s staff.  So what to do?  How do you find a way of doing what you love and staying sane, of being the person you know yourself to be and doing the best as you understand it for your pupils.  A bigger question is should you be afforded these luxuries or should you be made to do your job in the single way that the government envisions?

On of the dominant ideas to emerge in education over the last few years is that people think and learn and operate in different ways.  That includes teachers.  How many schools tell their pupils what learning style they prefer but pay no attention at all to the styles of their staff?  I work with a team of people who are all very different to me and to each other.  We operate effectively because we all recognise each others strengths and play to them, where I am weak I am quite happy for one of my colleagues to be the one who does that task, where I have an ability I use it for the benefit of the team and ultimately for the children we work with.  The saving grace is that we make sure that whatever we do, in the class room, in the team and around the wider school community, we believe in.  We do what must be done to ensure that those outside the school who will check up on our performance are satisfied but at heart we all strive for excellence as we define it.  We discuss teaching and learning because we all want to be very good at it.  We thrash out policies and ideas together where they matter and we dash out the ones that don’t.  We pick our targets, knowing that we can never be all things to all men or do everything that we would like to, opting to do really well the things that we hold most dear.  We carve a path which satisfies our beliefs and philosophy of education while addressing the things that are imposed upon us.

In short we make sure that we can look our children squarely in the eye and assure them that what we are doing is of value to them as people, not just exam fodder.  We do this because we have thought about what we do and chosen the best we can offer in every situation.  Now all that sounds idealistic and of course it does not always survive intact the practical exingencies of running a school timetable or a budget: but by doing what we believe in we retain the balance that is essential to us as teachers and to our children as learners.

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