Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Scandal in Academia - On the Observation of Teachers.

"You see, but you do not observe". ( Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Watson "A Scandal in Bohemia". )

This post is occasioned by TEACHERS OR CRISPS? by @HeyMissSmith in which she takes issue with the  pervasive notion that the profession is in need of general improvement and that that is secured through inspectional critical and graded scrutiny by senior teachers and Ofsted. She argues that this is a counter-productive regime born of attitudes and motivations themselves the (real) object for improvement.

My career as a secondary teacher of English for more than three decades from 1969 bears this out in spades. There was (and therefore is) another way.

HMI Inspections.

Once per decade I was inspected by HMI as clear-sighted, empathic, respectful and autonomous as the teachers and institutions they visited. Lesson and whole-school assessments felt negotiated and balanced. These were positive experiences because the inspectors observed in the manner indicated by Holmes's remark to Watson.

Internal Inspections.

All my schools and colleges had a system of annual staff development assessments, which featured (centrally) self-assessment of perceived achievements and needs and classroom visits by the Head or a Deputy. I was never inspected by anyone else. Visits lasted the duration of each lesson and were conducted with patent respect, interest, participation and an open agenda: observe what is really encountered. Feedback discussion supplemented the final report with teacher evaluation of each lesson and an emphasis on the positives observed.

These feedback chats were always valued because most of the matters were dealt with as equal professionals discussing their common art. They could be of surprising practical use: for example, one Head was fascinated by the use of body language in the classroom and observed something I had never been aware of - that I had the slowest blink-rate he'd ever encountered in a teacher. He had discussed this with some students and all agreed that to sit in one of my lessons gave you the uncanny feeling I saw everything that happened...even that I saw what they were thinking. Not so; but I wasn't about to disabuse them!

Other Observations.

1. 1969-71.

I entered the profession in the last year you could with a degree but no teaching qualification. This, automatically, extended probationary status to two years. From Day 1, I taught a full 11-18 timetable. No one ever inspected me in the manner so familiar today. Observation, however, was frequent and took two main forms.

By invitation and request I observed many classes conducted by experienced colleagues. From these I learned all I came to know about classroom management and what I call presence. I offer one example: Desks were typically arranged in five rows of doubles with, therefore , aisles between. I found difficulty communicating effectively with the back rows until I watched my Head of Department (also a Ray) do two very simple things I'd never considered. He spent most of the lesson on his feet (away from the 'protection' of the teacher's desk) either conducting the lesson from the back of the room or (a very strong stance this) at the head of successive aisles, reaching all students under the 'umbrella' of one outstretched, emphatic arm-movement. This I imitated, just as effectively as I replicated the stentorian voice of Dick W... who could (as I still can) silence the whole school queuing for dinner. 

I was left in no doubt that what happened in my own classes was entirely my personal responsibility. This did not mean I was neglected. Classrooms are typically adjacent with thin walls. When discipline irretrievably broke down (and it frequently did) the present problem was dealt with either by the teacher next door or a deputy taking over the lesson for long enough to a) discipline the class and b) demonstrate the art of teaching. My desire to learn was taken for granted and I felt supported but never undermined. Simply, I sensed, that if I did not learn by example, then fight my own demons, I'd not cut it in the long run as a teacher. No one ever suggested visiting to observe because I knew they were doing this in far subtler ways.

For example, I did not fail to observe how frequently Heads of Year and Deputies glanced in through the door window or popped a head in 'for a word' with A or B. Stan M..., a Head of Year, never passed through my lessons in the school library (on his way to collect geology specimens) without adding humour, moral support, educational enrichment and professional comradeship to my work. The message was we were all in it together and we respected the subtle complexities we teachers call 'a lesson'. Teachers like Stan were (are) legion - they have Holmesian powers of observation that take in realities in a moment and act accordingly. I have been proud to  know Heads who have slipped noiselessly into a lesson and sat patiently until they sensed a convenient moment to pursue the (often minor) reason for their visit. 

2. As a Qualified Teacher.

It may raise a sardonic smile in many a 21st Century teacher as I record that a standard sentence on my annual self-assessment was to the effect that, as I considered all my teaching was done on behalf of the Head Teacher (saving him or her from having to teach all classes), my classes were there for the visiting any time the Head wished. An open invitation that, to their credit, I think all my heads and principals took up with enthusiasm. 

Otherwise, within my departments, I was fortunate to work with some colleagues who valued teaching a class together where there was a perceived gain for the students. In the teaching of English many occasions arise where the active contribution of a subject colleague adds freshness, variety and a different perspective. From Year 7 to A level, lessons may be aptly enriched with judicious recourse to the double-act. One example: a prepared full reading of T S Eliot's The Waste Land dramatized for two (teacher) voices and performed for combined A level classes, invited to listen with no text to follow. English teachers are necessarily fluent and highly effective readers and give of themselves in such memorable lessons. Student feedback often noted how much more meaning and impact may thus be rendered evident in a literary text. 

On other occasions, we might request a special appearance from a colleague to act a part in a play or bring their class to discuss a specific topic, such as exam preparation. Variety, professional comradeship, common goals, mutual caring. Everyone (pupils and teachers) learn.

A Final Observation.

 Teachers have ever completely understood their work may always be improved and is a proper subject for inspection. In 1969 as now these tenets underpin a profession that is a humanity and an art. My private analogy has always been with the artist and the apprentice. I would simply ask (with, I believe, Miss Smith): Which would you observe to learn more, artist or apprentice? How best does the apprentice improve: by micro-scrutinizing performance with an abstract checklist of someone's notion of simplistically measurable artistic skills or by encouraging the apprentice to observe the master and mistress as they create? AND, finally, who would have the insensitivity, the patronising stupidity to critique an artist in media res as something unique and self-valuing is being created?                  

My Previous Education Posts.

Let the Forest Judge. 4/2/14   HERE 

Of Decile Bands, Levels, Cabbages & Kings. 18/7/13 HERE

Two Allegories about Education. 10/7/13 HERE 

The Empty Space and the Illusion of the First Time in Teaching. 28/6/13 HERE

An Inspector Calls – My Thoughts on Three Teachers' Blogs. 17/6/13 HERE

Brush Up Your Shakespeare – Set Text 2013 for Department of Education Study. 12/6/13 HERE

The Day That the Rains Came Down – Halcyon Days (for Jenny). 8/6/13 HERE

Learning By Hearts – a Poem to Read, Learn & Inwardly Digest. 7/6/13 HERE

A Fable for Our Times. 3/6/13.  HERE


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Let the Forest Judge.

    "You have said; but whether wisely or no, let the forest judge."
     (Touchstone - "As You Like It" Act 3, scene 2. W. Shakespeare.)

I Sing of the Time before the Building of the Temple.

Imagine if you will one broad, free sweep of landscape dipping seaward, rising to the sky, peopled as in 'The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman' by William Langland:

'A fair field full of folk...
Of all manner of men the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering as the world asketh.'

At one with the elements they live and love in the natural cathedral of earth and sea and sky, with a homely profundity and the fearless curiosity of life on the wing.

And there were among them some who carried much knowledge in their minds and wisdom in their hearts who, all knew, understood the child better than most, for they were as children themselves before the ancientness of things. Such were the good companions.

To these were entrusted the growing of the children. In fields folk tended to their crops while, close by, in sundry modest chapels, a different seed-time grew to standing corn.

Of the teachings therein none were quite alike, being as the species of the flowers in a field. Neither did they know the tyranny of the one.

This was the way of things from time immemorial.

I Speak of the Temple.

It came to pass that the deciders convinced themselves and the people that it would be a good idea to replace the old patchwork of chapels with just one majestic temple.

"Everyone deserves the best," they said. "Our temple shall be the envy of the World."

And the people acquiesced, in the name of equality, having no reason to mistrust those who had stepped forward for election.

Wondrous was the busyness of it all.

The deciders sent forth for the thinkers from distant lands.
The thinkers thought and were rewarded.
Then scribes scribbled and were rewarded.
Printers pressed and were rewarded.

The great decider looked upon The Common Teachings and saw that it was good, ordering that it be placed upon the altar of the Temple.
How irresistible seems collective man when harnessed to the one creation! How suddenly, sometimes, night masks the day with no twilight between.

At one gesture from the great decider acre upon acre transformed to Temple pavement overnight. Just before what would have been dawn, the great new doors swung open, enormous bells clanged hour upon hour until all, ALL, had passed the empty chapels and were gathered in.

No one noticed the closing of the doors. There was so much to be done - so, at least, the showers said.

The showers were as much a part of the architecture as the stained glass images and wall paintings they had been trained to show. Some had been good companions; most were not. The great decider had no faith in chapel ways.

There had, amongst the deciders, been some brief discussion on Temple working hours and, having concluded there was nothing of value to know or to be done beyond its precincts, they set the great clock to perpetual day. Adults, henceforth, would work in and for the Temple; and the showers would instruct the young, so they too, in time, would be ready to take an allotted place beneath the beneficent dome.

All the paths were marked upon the Temple floor. Daily, for years, the children trod, listless, past the familiar stucco pictures and coloured glass depicting The Common Teachings. Sometimes a child vaguely wondered what made the stained glass glow. This made the showers unhappy. It was not a relevant question.

The observers were everywhere. They were the eyes and ears of the deciders, and as fearful of losing status as the testers who reported directly to the great decider with favourable statistics concerning the efficacy of The Common Teachings.

It was understood that, with favourable reports, one might attend one of the side chapels for a more varied diet of instruction. But even here the eye of the observer scrutinised by right. 

It was rumoured in dark corners that, unlike everyone else, the deciders and their trusted allies did not live in the Temple; that there were still a few of the oldest chapels outside, attended by chosen children.

Outside? How could there be? There was no 'outside' in The Common Teachings. 

This was how it was in the time of the Temple.

I Sing of the Fall of the Temple.

It began with a slight crazing of the stained glass high above the walls; with the crumbling of plastered images from the touch of too many hands; from the subsidence of stones without foundations beneath the trudge of far too many feet.

"What's that?" cried a child, taken with the tendril of a plant growing through the Temple floor.

"That picture in the glass!" exclaimed another, bathing in a narrow shaft of sunlight. "It's gone! Oh! Stand here with me! It's so warm!"


Then: through the dome above, from the earth below, through wall and window crashed strange things of living green and warm, pulsating, radiating light. Hands young and old clawed at the crumbling stones, tore gaping holes. Scenting the invading vegetation, gulping in an air purer than the rank Temple incense, families of folk stumbled through the breaches into a waiting world.

Weeping, in their thousands they threw themselves upon the forest floor, smelling the pines of freedom, totally lost but incontinently blithe.

When they came to their senses, helping hands lifted them up. And the good companions, patient as nature, lead them, each by each, to the upland clearings through ancient, knowing, sunlit forest glades.

A Personal Note.

This post is...what it is. All I can say is that I began teaching in the year of Woodstock, 1969, and I never dreamed it would be so necessary to recall Joni Mitchell's words:

"We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, And we got to get ourselves back to the garden."

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved.