I enjoyed a very civilised working lunch today with members of Year 10 who had come to discuss with me a planned change of uniform for Year 11. The details of our meeting don’t matter. What does matter is the approach of this group of students who had come to persuade me to change our current plans. They had consulted with the wider year group and were keen to work with the leadership of the school to get what they saw as a better outcome for them and, they believed, the school. They were armed with their arguments finely honed by debating the uniform situation in the year group.
My interaction with these students reminded me that life and learning within school is about so much more than the pursuit of qualifications (at whatever cost). These young people were demonstrating impressive powers of persuasion and, indeed, leadership within their year group. I believe their education, with its emphasis on the learner at the heart of all we do, has contributed to our students being the young people they can be.
Why am I musing on this vignette of school life? Mainly because the unrelenting diet of news about schools is negative and uninspiring and commodifies education wrapping it up nicely in a data bow. In such a landscape why would anyone want to join the teaching profession? Indeed, why would you stay? In the spirit of re-energising the debate around teaching and why we should care that the best teachers are working in all our schools, let’s go back to the fundamentals of education.
“Educere” – “to lead out” (Latin) gives us a starting point. In this context I believe teachers are charged with doing something quite extraordinary. They are charged with helping learners discover themselves, their interests and their passions. Laying the foundations for learning with knowledge and skills, teachers are engaged in preparing a new generation for the changes that are to come. As we look to a future where globalisation and the digital revolution are drivers for change, teachers are readying young people to create solutions to problems yet unknown. This requires questioning, thinking, and creating. This means far more than just memorisation and the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, the dimension of education which is most easily measured in examinations. Learning has to be more dynamic and interactive and less passive.
The teacher is absolutely critical in this. Their skills and expertise are integral to the learning experience of every student. And how exciting it is now for teachers who are often learning with their students. The opportunities for re-thinking pedagogy are huge with digital tools allowing different ways of learning. Instead of textbooks a teacher can create a tech book; digital devices can enable meaningful collaborative ways of learning; and google classroom offers a fantastic feedback loop for students. There are so many ways for teachers to reflect on practice and to think differently about teaching and learning.
And inspiration remains the core business of schools. A recent Channel 4 series “Born to be Different” focussed on the lives of young people with disabilities and I was greatly struck by the interactions between these young people and their teachers. In one case, the Head Teacher cajoled a student to stand for Head Girl despite the student’s own reservations. The belief and support made all the difference to this young lady and she acquitted herself well in the election being appointed Deputy Head Girl.
Inspiration is important to every student. Ask anyone after they leave school what they remember and invariably it will be the inspirational teacher in Mathematics, History, Music, Classics, Art…. To under estimate the relationships between teachers and students is to miss the point of education. My “cri de coeur” to teachers, aspiring or working in schools, is don’t be deterred by the leviathan of government policy. Once you strip away bureaucracy, the children are still children and they deserve the best we can give then. And what better job is there than to work with young people to help them be the people they can be? Teachers, your country needs you! (No apologies for using exclamation mark.)