so retirement then

Unceremonious. No gold watch. A private moment at 00:01 on the 27th June 2016 as I watched the lump sum plop into my account. Twenty-eight years as a teacher in the secondary and further education sectors is probably enough. I no longer rely on walking through a classroom door for the paying of bills. Instead those bills are covered by Teachers’ Pensions on the 26th of each month, as long as I stay alive. Nothing really compares to the knowledge when you wake up each morning that all you have to do in order to keep being paid is make sure your heart is beating. I won’t be ordering any yachts or helicopters, but I can live on it. Until recently I always thought of the payment to Teachers’ Pensions as a compulsory levy, a bit like tax. If it was possible to opt out of the scheme when I started teaching, I had no knowledge of that. Good.

Teaching has never been how I defined myself. It was just something I did for a while. You can’t simply believe in your own professional world because you’re in it. Other criteria need to be applied, like whether you feel culturally or emotionally supported or nurtured by your working environment. Too many teachers I’ve met have seen classroom practice as a battle of wills rather than a collaborative enterprise, sometimes boasting about making children cry in what I have always seen as an absurd act of cruelty. For me it was largely about making students laugh and helping them to debunk the system, while at the same time learning some stuff. Aggression and confrontation never seemed to do anything other than break down communication and cause resentment. If someone gave me a coherent reason for handing in that day’s work the next day, or even if the reason was incoherent and the person seemed upset, that was always fine. If they needed to call their parents on their mobile phone about something that they saw as urgent, that was fine too. I generally allowed people to eat or drink in the classroom, as long as they put the wrappers and cartons in the bin. If the room was cold, they kept their hats and coats on. This is what it is to be human. We are not resources or statistics, but people.

Until the twenty-first century, I had only ever encountered a reasonably tight consensus on what learning was. New knowledge or skills were acquired and could then be applied in future acts of analysis, decision making or reflection. The point was always that you couldn’t establish whether learning had taken place until you had seen the person try to apply the new knowledge or skill several times, over a period of at least several weeks. Now, the teaching profession in England and Wales is forced to live with a notion of micromanaged learning: learning must be seen to have taken place within any ten minute chunk on which an observer chooses to eavesdrop. When I first heard the term ‘learning walk’ in 2012 it evoked teacher-led nature trails on summer afternoons when the besieged students for a change didn’t have to do anything except walk, pretend to listen and breathe the fresh air. Sounded nice. It soon became clear that they were actually run-for-your-mortgage opportunities for managers to see learning taking place in randomly selected classrooms, in that golden ten minute window. What a sack of rotting faeces. In reality it’s a cycle of performance. Lessons are timed to the minute, for fear the students may get the chance to interact with each other or with the teacher in a way that’s purely social. Heaven forfend that social interaction should interfere with learning. And then we wonder why the average teacher’s Sunday night resolve to dispense with reaching for alcohol as a stress reliever has been abandoned by Tuesday.

Of course I understand that it’s Ofsted driven, and I’ve heard many times the mantra that if we don’t do what Ofsted say they will close the school, but the problem with Ofsted is that they have changed their minds so many times about what they’re looking for, since they breach-birthed themselves slippery and wailing like dementors into the classrooms of the previously content twenty plus years ago, that they cannot possibly be an organisation fit for purpose. Imagine Trading Standards revising their framework of inspection every two or three years. Many people in the profession have confirmed this opinion, privately of course, always with one eye on that mortgage. But still we get those giant vinyl banners cable tied to railings, proclaiming ‘Ofsted Outstanding’, as though that judgement were a permanent vindication of the school’s or college’s approach. In the real world the currency of the judgement has begun to fade before the last cable tie has been pulled tight, and that teacher who called in at the pub on her way home to reward herself for that Monday afternoon’s Outstanding observation has her approval rating set back to zero the very next wet Tuesday morning in November at 8.00am sharp. Ofsted’s stand out achievement has been a top-down homogenisation of classroom practice, removing the possibility of imagination, creativity, autonomy or intelligence in the delivery of lessons. Apparently now these are seen as negative qualities in the recruitment of new teachers: intelligent people are likely to be ‘awkward’ and adopt a critical view of the institutional ‘vision’. Yesterday I noticed again that bus stop advert enticing people into the profession with a picture of a teacher and a student, one saying ‘I’m making a difference’ and the other saying ‘I’m making progress’. Such is the binary process we are now led to believe drives forward learning. I would like to have an optimistic view of the future of the profession in England and Wales, but I’ve seen too many people psychologically mangled and shat out by it to have anything approaching that optimism.

So, all said, I’m out, but I’m out with an optimistic view of my own future and some good memories of pushing forward the frontiers of surreal and humour and sharing the undermining of the status quo in many classrooms over many years, with hundreds of teenagers. Young people will always for me have the clearest view of what it is to be alive. I remain a teenager mentally. Responsibility is overrated. Somehow I was never given my own classroom, always remaining peripatetic. Perhaps an appropriate metaphor: someone who was not considered mature enough to manage his own domain. Set up your stall, talk some shit, move on to the next venue and see who else might be prepared to listen.

so education then

Several times throughout my time in teaching I have found myself repeating my original motivation for entering the profession. It hasn’t changed. Often the restatement has been on job applications, but in general I trot it out every time someone asks me why I became a teacher. A simplistic, slightly cynical answer might be that at the time I couldn’t think of anything else to do. At a practical level there remains a kernel of truth in that. I still don’t want to do a job that is not linked to the two degrees I did back in the eighties. Seems such a waste of learning otherwise. For me it’s still only about passing on subject knowledge and skills in a supportive environment. This has several implications.

Subject knowledge has to be the most highly prized of a teacher’s capabilities. And we should apply this in equal measure to reception teachers and Emeritus professors. It worked from Aristotle’s time until Ofsted trampled across the educational landscape in the mid nineties, since when the notion of capability in the teaching profession in England and Wales has been securely broken. Capability has become routinely judged according to the ability to perform a series of classroom tricks. The inventory of tricks changes at least every couple of years, and the package containing the inventory is given a new name with the same regularity. But someone who does not have your subject expertise can still sit in the corner of your classroom with a clipboard, determining your future based on how effectively the balls bounce from the nose of one seal to another. ‘Even better if’ that girl in the corner hadn’t been staring out of the window momentarily as the beach ball bounced off the back of her head, and ‘more stretch and challenge’ if all the students had known where they were on their individual ‘flight plan’. It looked like a few of them were more focused on the duty free shop. If Dylan Wiliam were dead he’d be spinning in his grave at 4000 rpm.

Someone recently commented to me that having an observer in a lesson changes the whole existential reality of the occasion. Observations were not the norm until twenty years ago, and I can hear people objecting that there is no other way of ensuring quality control and accountability. So maybe before then the profession was not properly monitored and teachers got away with being crap. Or maybe they were trusted based on qualifications and their experience. Maybe the emphasis was more on career development than keeping your career on the rails by performing externally imposed tricks. Maybe you were not only as good as your last observation. Maybe introverted students could stay silent if that’s what they wanted to do, without affecting their flight plan. Perhaps they could even land at a remote airport for couple of terms and not do very much except recharge their batteries. Not measurable, I know. Peaceful though. It’s the norm now to talk of a department and a school or college as having a ‘vision’ which must be evident when the men from the ministry descend (they’re still mostly men). Maybe what vision we have left is better spent learning more about the subject we trained in, though. Back to that existential reality. I’ve been in the profession for twenty-seven years and I can confidently say that no adult has ever seen what my lessons are really like. The second another adult enters the room I stiffen up and become largely too self-conscious to pull off the intentionally crap jokes and intentionally surreal take on stuff. I’m guessing it will always be that way now. The few adults who have glimpsed the irreverent departure from reality that I pedal in the classroom, haven’t liked it very much, wincing as they place crosses on their observation proformas, and sometimes commenting that a complex sense of humour excludes some of the students. But then so does making them hang their thoughts from washing lines or bear their soul to a post-it which you subsequently put in the bin. Will I let up on the crap jokes or take things more seriously? Very unlikely. To adapt a quote from David Banner, you wouldn’t like me when I’m serious. Run for your mortgages. The men from the ministry are coming.

so fake memories then

It seems we all carry around at least one memory of an event, action, facial expression or even just an attitude or a state of mind that never actually took place. Fake memories are remarkably easy to implant too, if you set about putting them there deliberately. So it’s unsurprising that so much legal difficulty is inherent in the pursuit of historical abuse cases, or that a domestic row can ensue over what someone may have said or not said on a wet Tuesday afternoon in November 1996. We are used to dealing with and circumventing the unreliability of the human memory. But the question of why we have this, from an evolutionary perspective, does not have an easy answer. A theory I heard recently is that it enables more cohesive social structures in the present by rewriting an angst-ridden past to be more consistent with your current commitments, thus enabling the continuance of social structures that will help perpetuate the species. So that holiday, when you lost all your baggage at the airport and your partner consoled himself at the all inclusive beer tap from eleven o’clock each day, was actually a laugh, looking back. Or that guy, who looked like Rik Mayall and did a very bizarre version of Snoop Dogg’s Gin And Juice in the first bar you walked into at one in the afternoon in that strange town where you missed your parents but didn’t want them there either, actually summed up how you were feeling at the time.

There has been a lot of coverage recently of issues surrounding artificial intelligence and whether one day intelligent machines might one day pose a threat to humans. Let’s be clear. The grandchildren of everyone reading this will be long dead before that’s even a remote possibility. Software is premised on our understanding of computers, not on our understanding of the human brain: that understanding is still primitive at best. We really don’t know why it does what it does. In the meantime, software falls into two categories: performing tricks or getting work done. Educational fashion seems currently to be getting these two categories mixed up. An augmented reality app that turns a wall display into a talking head doesn’t necessarily teach anybody anything: it just looks good. And database apps (applications FFS) are becoming increasingly less popular, and difficult to find on ‘app stores’, but they still run the world, including your bank account and your mortgage. Problem is, they look shit and don’t perform graphically. No brainer.

When your phone or your desktop computer or your laptop or your tablet or your games console or your smart TV or your Sky box or your car tell you that they they’re having a ‘blob day’ and that they’ll probably be OK tomorrow, or when they go offline for several hours and get the fridge to cover for them while they make you a birthday card, then we’re in trouble. Perhaps. In the meantime I’m happy to write reality. That’s what we’re good at.