What we have to give

Small changes will help us confront what’s wrong, support those who need it most and remind ourselves what we have to give.

My son begins his primary PGCE in September. He leaves self-employment and begins life as a teacher. What a year to start. I’m excited for him, but also afraid of what lies in wait.

On the one hand there’s the thrill of teaching, the mastering of skill and the “I get it!” moments from children when you explain something well. And on the other hand there’s the full-timetable, the long nights of prep and getting past the moment when you ask yourself ‘will I ever be able to do this?’

Challenging the status quo makes things better for those who follow on from us. My own teaching was made easier because people in the past were willing to challenge what was wrong. They challenged the ‘sort-it-out-yourself’ culture around behaviour, misguided teacher-training and macho school leadership. Those whistleblowing crusaders made it easier for us all to have a decent stab at the job.

So for those fulfilling this role now, for every victory over unrealistic workload, for every challenge over female representation in leadership, for every rebuttal of triple marking, this will be one less struggle my son and his contemporaries will encounter in their new vocation. And also I hope for those joining with him now, far more of them will still be inspiring children in five years time, instead of becoming the 40% who leave the profession, because we kept quiet. Because we were too easily beguiled.

So it is right that @PeterHyman21 is challenging school leaders not to return to the pre-virus ‘normal’ which was the status quo for schools; that @LorraineMHeath wrote to her MP about the impact of the Dominic Cummings scandal, that @RealGeoffBarton is demanding that the government set a ‘Plan B’ for September; and that @JonColes01 has sent an impassioned plea to Ofqual that our exam system must do better.

An approach to exams which starts with the premise of what proportion will fail, is a message which flies in the face of the dignity and compassion of the last four months. And one which will harm the life chances of too many pupils already disadvantaged, and schools turning around and unable to show their pupils’ progress.

Contrast this with the way that school leaders responded when schools could not open and thus perform their daily miracle of trying levelling the playing field: teachers uploading clips, leaders opening their curriculum doors and reading online, all so that children across the country could try to keep up. I wrote about this Pandora’s Box of sharing and solidarity, the like of which we’ve not seen before.

We are seeing things differently. Instead of viewing children as data-sets to meet performance tables, staff picture children at home with or without a computer, trying to educate themselves. We make fewer assumptions. 

A profession with a strong social conscience will always call things out. The German scholar Helmut Thielicke said that a person who speaks into this hour’s need will always skirt the edge of heresy, but only the person who risks this will gain the truth. The sixth beatitude translates as “blessed is the person who is always angry at the right time and never at the wrong time.” We need leaders who will face the challenge of the present, be angry on our behalf and have the resolve to see things through. Leaderes who will show contagious calm.

Right now school staff are wiped and need a proper break. Working hard through successive holidays and swimming against a tide of ever-changing directives has been exhausting. For many there is a strong sense of “I didn’t sign up to this,” and a fear for new teachers that they don’t know what September will bring.

Part of the exhaustion is because the ordinary boundaries between work and family have dissolved. For many of us, when working we’ve been worrying about our own children, and when looking after our own children we’ve been preoccupied with work. And doing neither well. Laptops and lego on the kitchen table. For lots of us, Zoom meetings have been a revelatory discovery of women and men performing the daily miracle of juggling work and child care. 

On a plane (remember them?) the flight attendant tells us in the event of emergency to put our own oxygen mask on first before helping our child or partner. If we don’t, we are not in a position to help. The same principle applies in life. We need to know we have enough in the tank to give.

Until we recognise our own internal strengths, we can’t fathom the resources we have to draw on.

We may not be able single-handedly to stem the tide of teachers leaving the profession, or solve every disadvantaged child’s home circumstances, but we hugely underestimate our influence. Each time we consistently support a behaviour policy, we make it easier for our least experienced teacher to deal with Y11 on a wet Friday afternoon. Each time we talk positively with friends about the privilege our job brings, we build an invisible network of goodwill in our community. Each time we make that encouraging phone call to a parent, we can change the music.

The NQT may only remember a hazy picture of the lesson they just taught, while the experienced teacher watching will have just the right language to provide clarity and help fill the gaps. The Teach First in their first week on playground duty may only see a chaotic blur of kids. The old hand will tell them where to stand and which Y6 needs the calming word.

Which reminds me of one of my biggest regrets I wrote about here. In a previous school I had appointed a brilliant teacher, who in her first year did well. She had the kind of meltdowns we’ve all had – volume of marking, unhelpful paperwork or working late – but I sensed, with a little support, she could withstand the roller-coaster of the first two years. I’d visit her classroom at 5.30pm and tell her to go home. Her team would take her for a drink. I’d tell her to stop marking for a few weeks to get the balance right. I moved schools and then heard that she had left the profession. We could have caught her before she fell. I could have done more.

What we regret most in life are failures of kindness. We underestimate the influence that we have, and don’t realise until it’s too late.

The tragedy is that we are less helpful than we might be, not because we are inherently selfish, but because we don’t appreciate what we have to give.

After the most difficult year ever, and after a proper break, let’s remember what we have to give, welcome nervous new colleagues, and rekindle our excitement for the best job in the world.

3 thoughts on “What we have to give

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