As we stand on the doormat of 2017 and wonder whether we are expected to remove our shoes, it’s tempting to conclude that institutions that are meant to look after us – politics, the media, the rule of law – have somehow let us down. Many teachers will be reaching for placards while others will look on with despair. I do not wish to discourage teachers from being political advocates but I would draw your attention to issues closer to home where your activism has the potential to make a material difference.
The institutions that are supposed to look after the teaching profession have also broken down, if they ever worked properly in the first place. There are accountability procedures that require teachers to do things – such as follow onerous marking policies – that are likely to have no effect on the progress of their students. There are schools of education that don’t adequately prepare teachers for the job. There is a wealth of ‘research’ where you could guess the findings before reading the paper: let’s face it, a poststructuralist who researches something he or she labels as ‘neoliberal’ is not going to find anything good, right?
Yet if we examine the first of these issues – teacher accountability – there are signs of hope. A few years ago in England, teachers were judged by Ofsted inspectors who would observe their lessons and grade them. The practices that these inspectors favoured included group work and minimal teacher talk. So a style of teaching was imposed.
The teacher and campaigner, @oldandrewuk, was prominent in the movement that saw these graded lesson observations abolished. And he did this by researching and writing blogs: something that each and every one of us in the profession has the potential to do. Not only that, he also encouraged others – including me – to persist with blogging and he has created a number of Twitter platforms that highlight teachers’ posts.
It is this kind of activism that creates real change in teaching and makes us all more, well, professional; driving the future of teaching from within.
We have also seen the emergence of the grass-roots, teacher-led researchED conferences. These are cut-price events where speakers voluntarily offer their time and that take place on Saturdays so that teachers may attend. I have been privileged to go to the two Australian events and I hope there will be more here in the future. These conferences host speakers who are teachers as well as those who are academics and they address teachers’ concerns. This weekend saw a live stream of the Amsterdam conference, available to view by anyone with an interest.
Again, through researchED, teachers are taking charge of the profession and setting the agenda.
Contrast this with the traditional, top-down approach to organising teachers, best exemplified by the new Chartered College of Teaching in England. This is an organisation that first tried to crowdfund it’s launch by appealing for donations. After this failed – due to general apathy – it somehow managed to secure vast sums of government funding which it currently seems to have little idea what to do with. It will be interesting to see what it promotes when it finally declares its hand.
One initiative that might just save the College it is its promise to provide free access to journal articles for teachers.
I think that all teachers should have such access but I don’t think they should have to pay to join a club for the privilege. It could be argued that a little knowledge can be a bad thing but, as someone who constantly had to duck and dive to source papers prior to starting my PhD, I would be a hypocrite to not back open access. If it leads some teachers into error then we have the corrective force of all the other teachers with the same level of access to put that right and perhaps offer appropriate challenge.
However, challenge is not always welcome. If you decide to add your voice to the growing ranks of professionals who are debating the issues in blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook then you need to be aware that you may attract some unpleasantness.
I tend to avoid mounting personal attacks but I still get accused of being a troll, usually for being abrupt with people on Twitter. Not only is this ridiculous when you consider Twitter’s 140 character limit, it exposes a double-standard that you may have to deal with. The little guy has to be meticulously polite, hedging every comment for fear of causing offence. In contrast, the establishment figure gets the benefit of the doubt.
So what are you going to do in 2017? Perhaps you could start a blog or get involved in researchED? Perhaps you could create your own form of grass-roots activism (but please, no more 90 minute podcasts)? Perhaps you could create new spaces where teacher professionalism can flourish?
But remember: professionalism is not about being obsequious and agreeing with your betters, despite what they might have you believe. It is about rigorously inquiring into our profession with a view to ensuring that it is founded on a robust set of principles that lead to an effective set of practices.
Do you reckon you can help with that?