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.