Saturday 3 May, 2014.
It's years since I attended a gathering of teachers but today's ResearchEd in York was streamed live and I took the opportunity to listen to some fellow Tweeters. The day proved to be about far more than its title suggested and I'll examine why in due course. First, it seems useful to take the reader back in time to...
An 80's Staffroom.
I was already retired when the Gove Glacier scoured its relentless way down the valleys of education and, for one who loved and misses the classroom, it is bitter-sweet compensation that I'd neither want nor feel able to teach under the current dispensation. It's no country for this old man.
By 1988 I'd moved into 16-19 teaching, so never taught to the National Curriculum. Even so, the college staff experienced winds of change with regard to the treatment of staff, small in themselves but indicative of things to come.
First, something novel began appearing in pigeon holes - the memo. A new senior appointment with an office just down the corridor chose to write (typed!) what was easier to say in person. I watched colleagues bin missives in astonished distaste. The penny - eventually - dropped that this was a college where teachers talked to one another.
One glorious summer 3 days of INSET at the end of term took the whole staff to a venue owned by freemasons. Lodges don't have windows. A sweating, seething staff is not a pretty sight. Nor was the bill for rooms, refreshments and (uninspiring) speakers. That April had seen capitation cuts; ring-fencing for such INSET extravagance was savaged in full staff meeting and College Board. In future we ran our own, bespoked to our own agenda, for free, in college.
Successfully too, we fought what I see now as a rear-guard action in defence of regular full staff meetings. Noting a decrease in frequency and a tendency for senior management to select and monopolise items that talked at a passive audience, we reclaimed both regularity and agenda.
When I left that college for (Welsh) pastures new, someone paid me one of my most cherished compliments. A young Chemistry teacher in his first year asked for a private word after the 'Goodbye' do. We had never had reason to speak before, he said, but he just wanted me to know things I'd said in full staff meetings had given him strength, faith and inspiration to stay in teaching. I'd given expression to matters he realised he valued. He was not to know this was precisely what had happened to me long before in 1969.
A 70's Staffroom.
My first colleagues (for 5 years) inhabited the staffroom of a 3-form entry, 11-18, selective technical school. I returned to the school after secondment for a similar period, when, after the 1974 reorganization, it had re-opened as a 6-form (sometimes 8) 11-16 comprehensive. Despite their differing sizes, each staffroom operated as engine room, mess and recreation decks in every teacher's daily life. 'Embrace the mess" says the mantra. We did. And cleared it once (Augean-style) at term's end. This was the epicentre to which all gravitated. Departmental staffrooms and individual work stations neither existed nor were desired. You might mark in quiet for half an hour in an empty classroom, but you'd return to where the action was, quite naturally.
Here were the all-important notice boards (pigeon holes were mostly for post): sports teams, union notices, calendar...and, crucially, the only copy of the whole timetable next to 'cover for the day'. This last you checked frequently: we did a lot of cover, often at short notice, in those days. To be based in the staffroom, there to do my marking, grab a bite and field issues as they arose was just as essential when I later headed the English department and its parent area. Practical.
But this environment offered so much more than mere efficiency. It sustained a natural continuum of direct human association. If for a moment I think of a school as a living organism, that first 11-18 was the healthiest I've known. The presence of a sixth form seemed to me doubly beneficial: younger students are daily in the presence of those who people the spectrum between themselves and professional adults. For the teacher, I hold that the frequent shift from an A level class to one of (say) 11 year olds enhances the clarity, depth and sensitivity brought to both age groups. One lives and absorbs the range. However, this is not, for the teacher, enough.
The beauty of such a staffroom as I describe is the essential, extra dimension afforded for adults to be, as naturally and as often, with other adults. And these are not just any adults. They are the teachers who currently, or did, or will teach the pupils in your classes. To rub shoulders with these people is to experience something of the daily, yearly and whole-school experiences as each pupil perceives them. Your own staff are a teacher's second best resource (after yourself) because their knowledge of these children is localised, specific, current and professionally filtered.
Almost all I know about teaching was derived from personal observation, trial and error and a process of natural absorption of my colleagues' insights and experience (which included their teacher training, as I had none). Staff meetings were riveting. They were my chance to listen to wiser heads speaking their minds without fear or favour and to consider (silent at first) just where I stood on the issues of the day, arising, with agenda priority, from the staff.. This was INSET at its most dynamic and meaningful and (with the honourable exception of a course on Listening) I have only ever really valued full staff meetings and such home-grown initiatives as that of our remedial department in this school's comprehensive incarnation.
The purpose was simple: give all staff first hand experience of what it felt like to be totally out of your depth in a lesson. Along with other heads of department I taught half a day of the most difficult concepts I could think of in English (Eliot's theory of the objective correlative, Metaphysical poetry and the like) to 30 non-English staff and spent the other half as 'student'. Raw, chastening experience. Lesson noted. But, oh! How we loved watching our talented colleagues in their chosen calling.
In Praise of the Informal.
A visitor to the staffroom I describe would not. I hope, have been fooled by its characteristic informality and apparent chaos. Mankind may not be able to bear much reality (and teachers certainly need a break from their pupils...and vice-versa) but people thrive on variety and relish hard work that is engrossing, owned, valued and leaves wriggle-room for human warmth. Thus, just this week, I watched a programme featuring two water workers doing the worst job in the world (clearing sewers) with good spirit and a camaraderie that made light of it all, rounded off with a pizza binge. What people cannot bear, for long, is a bland diet of unrelieved formality.
The formal register has its place. But, in the staffrooms of my earlier career, many an issue was put into perspective and settled without undue formality. This effectively fielded and aired concerns about pupils that were not so serious as to warrant formal notification, concerns that may never see the light of day or suffer exaggeration where the absence of a working staffroom necessitates arranging a special meeting in someone's office.
The working, united staffroom can seem a fearful place for senior management - the less they experience it, the more distantly formal they grow. (You see where I am going).
It need not be so. In that first school, there was some concern that our Head, returning from extended sick leave, might not be quite ready. One busy morning break, he popped his head round the staffroom door and summoned me, by name, loudly, from the far end of the room.
"Mr Wilcockson! Come here, if you will!"
The tone was serious. Jaws dropped. Elbows nudged. He watched, they stared, ominous as les tricoteuses at the guillotine, while I traversed the crowded room.
"Your shirt's hanging out." A cherubic, mischievous laugh and he was gone.
With one superbly timed moment of disarming humour he had allayed all fears, shown he was at ease with the staff at large and (a personal bonus) transparently happy with my work, having no formal issue to raise. Quite how he would have achieved this instant restoration in a school without such a staffroom defeats me.
Comrades and Colleagues.
One Autumn evening, that same head could be found, happy as Larry, standing on the slack in my coal house supping a pint in deep educational discussion with a motley assortment of senior and junior colleagues. It was the 'after play party'. The house being full, they'd taken to the back yard.
I think on reflection now that it was because the staff of that school (as selective and comprehensive) lived cheek by jowl, knew each other so well, met in a united staffroom and owned their gatherings, that they naturally, readily participated in school life outside the academic day. It is utterly appropriate in a profession that is a humanity (and not a business) that its practitioners have the freedom to exemplify in their own lives that absorption in cooperative experiences (in classrooms and everywhere else) which makes for happy living and learning.
Just as students are much much more than their grades, so teachers are not to be defined by their labels. When I sat down with Brian to write large-cast plays for our school drama society, he wasn't Head of Maths. When pupils rehearsed alongside teachers and parents and then performed "The Crucible", something else had melted away - temporarily irrelevant formal distinctions of age, of status, of skill. You cannot "teach" these things, still less formally "require" them - they have to be experienced and are only born from a body of teachers who are free to be comrades as well as colleagues.
In short we had energy to play with because, individually and collectively we enjoyed and took seriously the autonomy of professional trust. Work-life balance isn't an issue for those who possess work-life integration. The skies were emptier then.
Truth to tell research played little part in our lives. New ideas, supplementing initial training, tended to come with new appointments or were introduced (with the lightest of touches) by LEA advisers. If they gained currency, it was through gradual testing, modification and absorption not prescription. Sometimes I wish the internet had existed, for access to new thinking is so much easier nowadays. On the whole though I believe we were doing other things which felt wholesome and worthy, things ideas alone can never achieve.
The Research Movement.
I choose this wording as a catch-all for more than the event at York represents. Since 1988 educational research has received unprecedented attention because recourse was made to (some of) its findings to underpin governmental and business re-modelling of education.
The first thing that strikes me about such teacher-owned initiatives as ResearchEd is that it is a response in kind to the above, born of the dawning realization that not all research is good and some is downright dangerous. Under Gove especially we witness a side-lining of both LEA & College of Education expertise, in favour of centralised dogma. ResearchEd engages the government on its chosen ground as well as (admirably) providing teachers with resources and a forum for patently enthusiastic, critical thinking about their practice.
I do not think this is going to be enough; nor do I observe this to be the only significance of ResearchEd, which has much to say also about the importance of re-validating and re-empowering the Teacher's Voice.
The teacher of today is in the ironic position of having instant access to a world-wide, virtual staff, but far less everyday association with the real one in his or her own school than I was afforded.
I read of new schools built without staffrooms, of existing ones converted to classrooms, teachers isolated in subject base and office or in the constant company of pupils in and out of lessons on the justification that every moment is deemed formal work. I maintain that your own company is not enough; that association restricted to your own subject staff effectively blinkers a broader, richer, participatory relationship with your school; that unremitting proximity to children and 24-hour exposure to anyone (SLT, student, parent) who thinks it's OK to send you a faceless memo by e-mail) are thoughtless, inhuman and debilitating. Whether by insensitivity or design such arrangements effectively dismember the body of the staff and silence its common voice.
A student teacher I know has been a term at a local school. There are two "briefings" a week (before school). He's never heard the Voice of the Staff. What sort of society is that?
I can think of no better word than "joy" to describe the exhilaration sensed in those tweeting and blogging gleefully from York (and, for that matter, staying up late at night to blog themselves to sanity and simply connect). Enthusiasm for new ideas, but JOY for the unclouded skies of camaraderie. And I would ask this question: if this level of elation is rarely if ever felt back "home" with your own comrades in arms, why not?
A specific idea seems to have emerged from this weekend's 'staff meeting' in York - that it would be great to have someone in each school with research responsibility. Such a green shoot will flower in fertile ground. At the moment (as ResearchEd and Teachmeets illustrate) such suggestions come from and are valued by real and virtual extra-mural 'staffrooms'. How fertile is your own? My own sense, for what it is worth, is that on the only ground that really matters - the school you teach in - what's needed at root is the propagation of that joie de vivre that suffuses a staff and a school at ease in humanized systems.
In "The Phoenician Women" Euripedes writes: "This is slavery, not to speak one's thought." I hold, therefore, that the dissolution of traditional arenas for the shared ,confident and valued articulation of teachers' views within schools is an enslavement. There is no generosity in the specious charity of giving teachers "freedom" to choose how to teach while disenfranchising them in every other aspect of the profession. Critical thinking brooks no boundaries and to abuse the teacher's freedom of thought and expression is merely to teach children there are only certain matters about which you are "free" to speak.
No wonder teachers leave. Who would bear the whips and scorns of such a time and the oppressor's wrong for long? Well, teachers would, and do. Until body and spirit just give out.
This must not for long remain the way of the world.
The Great Staffroom.
No more marking. That's what you notice. First. When you arrive.
No bells, no dates. No cover to do or meeting to attend. In place of nights of preparation: sleep and memory.
There are many of us but it's quiet here, the room as vast as vast may be. We are all here. Together.
I came quite recently, having served the last three decades of Century 20 (aka The Blobocene Epoch). Former colleagues, I am aware, are here too. Not that we meet: you have to be doing things for that to be meaningful. We remember, each, what was done. That is enough. Anyway, all but one of my schools no longer exist. We are but legend.
On my daily walks no doubt I chance upon one of your own school teachers, exchange pleasantries with those who taught our country's politicians. They all care. It is rumoured Plato himself has been seen to pause a moment near the bridge on the way to the Gymnasium, deep-browed in furrowed thought.
The ghosts, too, are here. I feel them.
Such is the Choir of Caring - no teacher is ever alone.
It is Milk Wood here across the bridge.
"Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always." (T.S.Eliot "Burnt Norton")
© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved.