Rile and Role…

Roles & Idealism

This is a massive post that I composed over several weeks in several bursts and I still don;t think I have managed to get the nub. But I’m sick of it nagging at me so I figured I should just release it and be done. It’s definitely one where I’m challenging perceptions and standards, so I should add a get out clause here: this is about my role, and my job, but it does not in any way reflect the views and the ethos of  the place where I work, but is rather a reflection on my role and my views on teaching and learning.

So here goes. I live in three, or possibly more worlds when it comes to work. First, I have my ESOL teacher hat. I don’t like the word practitioner, it smacks of doctors and the idea that learning is a disease to be cured, rather than a process to be embraced, and makes me think of that annoying patronising “they’re so cute” attitude teachers have, from whom I must admit I can’t exclude myself, but it’s a bad habit I need to quit.

 So anyway, my roles: First I am an ESOL teacher, responsible for the language learning of a group of adult learners from diverse and interesting backgrounds. Second I am a teacher trainer, responsible for the training and development of teachers who are either pre-service, or in-service, experienced or not. Thirdly, I am an Advanced Teaching & Learning Coach, and have a responsibility for supporting and developing my colleagues within the college guidelines (you may know this job as Advanced Practitioner, Senior Tutor, or some such).

So here’s the thing. In all of these roles, it is my responsibility to demonstrate good practice at all times – fair enough. Do as I do and as I say. It’s also key for me to be, as far as possible, at the cutting edge of research, to know what developments there are in the world of teaching and learning and specifically in the world of teaching and learning English. In theory there should be no conflict between these roles – what is good practice should be recognised as such from the ground floor up, inspectors, SMTs, ATLCs, teacher trainers and teachers should all be singing from the same hymn sheet, and this hymn sheet be made up of the most up to date, most recent studies and appraisals of good practice.

Except it never feels quite the case. For me there seems to be a pull in different directions for each of my roles, or rather there are different limitations placed on me by those roles, the cartwheels I have to pull and hoops to jump through.

One of the joys of the teacher training role is doing that which Richard Sennet (in The Craftsman) described as the roles of a good teacher – “to upset, provoke and challenge”. I present the status quo, the standards set by the various standard setting bodies. But I also present (or rather encourage trainees to explore) the flip side. I don’t see my role as being the medium through which we create generations of like minded, sheep-like teachers “ESOL is about literacy, ILPs are great, everything should be measured by targets, differentiation should be planned in excessive detail in advance, teaching is but an adjunct to the main job of getting learners to pass exams.” Rather my role as teacher trainer is to train effective teachers to do their job well within the terms set by established theory and evidence based practice,  not the whims and vagaries of instititutions and quangos. This means encouraging people to challenge what they are being fed as good practice in their role in colleges, to ask the uncomfortable “yes, but why?” questions of their peers and superiors. Why is it good practice to complete SMART targets? Where is the evidence base for this? Or is it just woolly, generalised anecdotal evidence that has been blown up into a national strategy? I make no claims to know the answers to these questions, and highlight that we are dealing with conflicting issues of belief rather than facts. Which is why, in some ways, that in training teachers, especially in-service teachers, you have the luxury and enjoyment of challenging them, and challenging their working practoces that have been sold to them as good practice by managers, colleagues, and, well, Advanced teaching and learning coaches.

So then I come into my role as Teaching and Learning Coach – bringing this knowledge with me, but then realising that I am in fact powerless to invoke change against the ex-teachers (and non-teachers) that form SMTs, institutions and policy makers. Institutions (in the broadest sense of the word) generate inertia against change. It takes time for any practice to filter up (or down?) to the levels of management and policy, and still further time for that practice to embed itself in thought, by which time this has become old and stagnant, losing its energy and novelty through a continual process of erosion and decay in the face of this inertia. Change needs to go through the teaching staff, then through their immediate managers, then into wider practice and into the senior management teams of colleges, schools, and so on. Then from there, these managers leave and move into higher posts, becoming policy advisors or even policy makers, enshrining their good practice into canonical fact. By which time the world on the ground floor has moved on, new people coming in, new people are researching, new concepts, innovations are being developed, technology and knowledge has moved past where the managers/policy makers left off.

There are ways of avoiding this, of course. Managerial staff should have some teaching role, preferably something more demanding than just one or two classes a week. This would at least force them to do something. But then again, perhaps not. Managerial staff have a role to play, they have skills to focus on things other than teaching and learning, the ability to recognise it, to deliver it if need be, but their strengths lie not necessarily in the teaching and learning, but in measuring and planning it to the maximum benefit of the college in terms of drawing down funding. Fair enough. But either they have a joint role (half the week manager, half the week teacher) to enable them to clearly define which is which (and I agree that this is not always doable), and to be expert teachers as far as possible.

I should add, however, that there are countless managers I am sure who do read the research into teaching, who do have significant teaching loads, who are, in short, teachers. And I definitely know that there are teachers out there who do the bare minimum, and have done for the last 30 years, and are retiring soon, thankyou very much. 

This, of course, doesn’t make my job any easier now. I am still stuck in this place where I am torn. I shouldn’t be seen to be overly critical of institutionalised practice, particularly when it has the weight of managers and inspectors sitting behind it. The annoying thing is that I shouldn’t be torn, good practice ought to be research based, ought to be the same from top to bottom, but the fact is that people at the top are not necessarily at the top of teaching and learning – and I’m not saying that they should necessarily be: as I have said, I accept they have different strengths (and weaknesses), and need to have different strengths to enable them to do those jobs well. I freely admit that Ihave a crap head for admin, management and so on – it’s a miracle if I get a register filled in. I understand, on a theoretical level, that it is important, and needs to be done. I see that, but when I’m in the classroom, I get so involved with the teaching and learning bit that I forget to check that all the students have up to date enrolment cards, have supplied their evidence about their status and so on. I know this is important stuff, I really really do, and I am not belittling it, at all. Nor am I belittling the people that do it, either. My problem is that I just, by default, de-prioritise admin jobs, drop it down the list and then forget it until I am pressed to do it.  The fact is, given the number of interviews I have had for that type of job, if I had a better management head, I would be a manager by now.

I think that we can safely say that the reason I have never gotten to that level is precisely  because I think that there is a gap between “good” practice (how is this defined? answers on a postcard please) and what is expexcted of us by the powers that be – the policy makers, the SMTs, the Quality units. Until I feel comfortable bridging that gap, I know where my strengths and beliefs anbout teaching and learning lie and will keep working at that level. I do know that the higher up the hill you clamber, the less actual teaching you do, until you become the head of ofsted and feel obliged to make disparaging and generally unfair comments about children’s literacy. But that’s another discussion…

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