Monday, June 17, 2013

An Inspector Calls - My Thoughts on Three Teachers' Blogs.

There was a shared poignancy about a trio of blog posts by practising teachers which I read this weekend. A blog is a monologue, an e-soliloquy, and here were three ladies reflecting in media res on education with unavoidable consciousness of Ofsted's inspectorate as a common, palpable background.

I know none personally; nor do I imagine are they acquainted. All have considerable experience. This seems important to highlight.Each illustrates a different effect of the existing national curriculum and inspection system. Each prompts considerations that I , as a retired teacher, find fascinating. 

The order moves from the most spontaneous to the most formally expressed.

1. A primary school teacher just after the inspector has called. (Please read her blog post. It will open in a new tab: Dear Inspector. ).

Stress, illness, tiredness, duty, love. Anger, low morale, completely valid self-confidence.

She has been here before; she will be here again -she knows this. So: what to say to her?

First and foremost, I don't need to visit your class to know you educate your pupils. I've read your "Splog" for some weeks now and you could not have written it if you didn't 'get' the difference between education and training. With the latter, content rightly takes precedence, whereas education (leading out) is person-centred and involves consistent observation of what a student needs, is ready for or enthuses about followed by the deft, artistic, empathic provision thereof by any means you can conjure.

As long as you continue to do what you are doing children are being educated and that's all that matters. I suggest you do precisely that until someone locks you out of your classroom.

Inspectors are no threat. As you describe vividly in your post, they know next to nothing about you or your students. What does constitute a very real threat is their given brief. I'll come to that later.

For now: two anecdotes.

The first time I was inspected was in I think my first (qualified) year of secondary English teaching, 1972. After observing my retake GCE 6th form lesson, he painted for the Head a glowing picture of cutting-edge teaching: "My God!" he exclaimed."He's giving one-to-one tuition up there!". Needless to say, my canny Head did not tell him there is no other way you can teach re-take students with heavy "A" level schedules which meant they dropped in for the occasional English lesson as and when.

Every year I worked with him, a Head of Upper School, a Geography & Geology teacher, 'resigned' to become a long-distance coach driver on "A" level results day. And every year we talked him out of it. This is a man who never visited my English class (whatever the reason) without taking in what we were studying and adding value (often in the shape of an apt literary quotation that would stagger the students - "That's education!" he would beam.).

But you know that.

2. A secondary English teacher gives a memorable illustration of how the analogies of imagery are much more than mere decoration - imagination is inspiration when teacher and student meet in a moment of true education. Please read: Magic Moment ).

 This post speaks for itself - I value it highly as a superbly captured moment of shared insight, which is impossible to express in the received jargon of education.

I was astonished by the closing sentence and still wonder if I mishear its tone, which seems simply sincere.

Patently (or why the post?) this lady considers the incident described as emblematic of her best as a teacher. Why would you baulk at showing this to inspectors? I conclude you fear it is not what they wish or expect to see.

 Two things. 

If an inspector had been present not to have responded thus to your student would have meant no educating took place. You'd have given what my final blogger will call a "good" lesson. If you withhold your best for fear it will not be approved, if everyone does so, inspectors will never see real education happening.

You do not know what is in a given inspector's mind, however much you try to second-guess.

The night prior to the last inspection of my career before retirement (despite my experience and confidence) I anguished over whether to proceed with the lesson as planned. The group was A1 English Literature, the text: Brian Friel's play,"Making History". I was to use 'The Alfieri Technique'.

You won't have heard of this because I developed it many years ago as an enrichment method intended to bring literary texts to greater life in the classroom. 'Alfieri' simply because his was the first character (Miller's "A View From The Bridge") I presented thus.

It's an intense, revealing, refreshing, energy-sapping thing to do. And very risky for inspection purposes because much of the learning experience takes place invisibly on a virtual stage of shared imagination. Hardly any didactic element to it. Pregnant silences. Not a lot of writing. Utterly unpredictable responses in teacher and students. But everyone needs to know the text inside out to participate.

I like the irony inherent in The Alfieri Technique- it disappears the teacher so that literary appreciation may take place. And I couldn't get out of it for that inspection because I'd set it up the week before.

The class were primed to expect Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, the central character of "Making History", in person, as it were, when they next came to class. He would read a specially-written soliloquy (I chose a suitable moment in the text) after which students were free to ask prepared questions, make observations arising from their reactions to the play and my soliloquy. Comments and questions had to be supported with reference to the text. O'Neill would reply. 

This is not costumed acting. No accents, no props. The teacher simply 'lends' mind and voice to the  spirit of the character for the duration. Students are warned not to expect answers the teacher may have given.

I had the class all morning. The plan was: me as Hugh up to the break (1hr 10mins); then for the second hour or so one of the students who had asked if she might try the technique (as 'Mabel Bagenal'), followed by class discussion of quickly made notes on what it felt like to experience the lesson and how, if at all, it had enhanced learning.

I hardly registered the inspector's entrance during my initial 'soliloquy'. The 5% of Ray still operating did however observe a gentleman quietly take a seat close by,in the midst of the gathered students...and sensed absorption.

He knew the play. He contributed sensitively, having cottoned on to what was taking place. He was back straight after break (his only comment thus far  - "You've earned your break - see you later.") Mabel proceeded to do a far better job than I had and the inspector again contributed as a student to the feedback session.

I like to kind of think that the right inspector turned up because I did not give in to fear and teach for safety. You are always in the right place at the right time.

3. The Headmistress with insights into the difference between good and outstanding: Consistently Good to Outstanding. )

For me, this represented the most ironic of reads. For here, I suspect, we have one example of something very common - the senior, experienced teacher caught up necessarily in the nets of an educational language that is actually inadequate to describe the magic moments of education.

I'm a simple soul. Probably naive. However, I cannot but conclude after reading this post: first that its writer is realising afresh (this time in an alien edu-language) what she already knows. Second that the terms good and outstanding lead down a blind alley. 

I read the writer's descriptors for good and I think they accurately describe a skilled trainer. I read about what it takes to be outstanding and I think they describe a skilled educator.

I think I am saying that education either occurs or does not in a lesson. There are no gradations. Training may appropriately happen too - ALL the time in a driving lesson; SOME of the time in an English class where there is a finite body of knowledge that requires transmission and absorption such as the basics of punctuation.

Education is another animal. In general (especially compulsory) education the holistic development of individuals takes centre stage. 'Knowledge'  is fuel to a free-burning fire; the teacher an expert stoker. 

So, I would say to the headmistress - those termed "outstanding" are merely the educators amongst the trainers. That the more prescriptive the curriculum and its delivery the fewer educators there will be. It's why the first of my 3 ladies is fed up to the teeth - she is an educator in a system which more and more demands she be entirely a trainer. Neither she nor you, nor the children deserve or will derive real benefit from such demands from officials who either never educated anyone themselves or, if they ever did,  forgot what it really means in the welter of government initiatives and incessant, unsettling and political change.

To all 3 ladies and any Inspector Calling to read this post I dedicate this quotation from Priestley's play:




    "We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night."

(copyright ray wilcockson 2013 All rights reserved.)

To go to my next post please click The Empty Space & The Illusion of the First Time in Teaching.