Train Hard Fight Easy or how to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine Part 2

This is the second part of guest-blogger Adam Bantick’s post on the impact of stress on educational performance. He would be delighted to hear others’ thoughts on this, and can be reached via the comments page of this post.

In Part 1 we looked at how stress affects us both in general and with exams, and now we deal with what to do about it.

According to Crum/ Akinola/ Martin and Fath (2017), how we perceive the stress threat is important in dealing with it, calling it the Stress Mindset. When encountering a new stressful situation, we do the following things. We have a Primary Appraisal, where we work out whether we can deal with it. Then a Secondary Appraisal, thinking what resources we have to deal with it. If we fear our resources cannot deal with it, we see it as a Serious Threat. Thus, if we can use our resources to deal with it, it is a Challenge ‘The mountain is big, but I have climbed mountains before, so I can climb this one’. If we cannot deal with it with our resources, it is a Threat ‘The mountain is big, and I have never climbed a mountain before, so I will fall off it and die’. Thus, we need stress to live.

With the meta-cognitive Stress Mindset, if we can think about stress the right way, we can turn a disadvantage into an advantage. A Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset is constructive, because it gives us a push to do something; a Stress-Is-Debilitating mindset is destructive, because if we think we will fail, we will not do something. We use a Stress Mindset every day, although we may not realise it. When we cross a busy road, our brains perceive the traffic as a threat (we could get hit by a car), and produce stress hormones to keep us alert. As we have crossed busy roads many times before, however, we know that we can cross this one. Using our resources to deal with the threat (judging traffic), we can cross the road – we use a Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset to get us across. We get the usual stress hormones in our brains, but as we see crossing the road as only a challenge, we can do it.

Our Stress Mindset for exams is ‘Exams are stressful, but by adopting a Stress-Is-Enhancing way of thinking, the exam is a challenge, and can be overcome’. The Stress Mindset is a long-term thought process, because it governs how we see ALL exams, not just the paper in front of us. It is also essential, because the other ways of dealing with exam stresses are merely avoidance strategies, e.g. small rooms, extra time, coursework – the exam will not go away. Thus, we must change the way we think about exams if we are to overcome them.

Now, we return to the stress-confronting professionals who deal with danger every day. Every soldier, fire-fighter etc has been trained to do their job, and the longer, more realistic their training is, the more they will be able to do their job no matter what the difficulty. The Armed Forces, in particular, maintain a ‘Can-Do’ attitude, which means that whatever the obstacle, it can be overcome through training and practice; in other words, the Stress Mindset. They do not simply expose their personnel to repeated stresses, however, since that will only magnify the stress, but train them how to cope with it through Stress Inoculation Training (SIT). Firefighter trainer David Werner (‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ 4.8.13.), uses examples from the US Marine Corps (‘Warfighting: the US Marine Corps Book of Strategy’ 1989) in identifying and overcoming real-world stressors for his fire service. Here is Werner’s list of problems with my exam example: ‘Friction’ -things that if they can go wrong, will go wrong e.g. arriving late to the exam; ‘Uncertainty’ -not knowing what to expect e.g. the topic that you *knew* was not going to come up; ‘Fluidity’ -having to think on your feet e.g. the poorly-worded, random question; ‘Disorder’ -where our plans have been thwarted, and we must ‘re-order’ what we do e.g. supposedly memorising an answer that we cannot remember; the ‘Human dimension’ -our mental and physical state at the time e.g. having a bad cold in the exam; and finally, ‘Moral Forces’ -our mental preparedness for a hard task e.g. being confident of success due to proper preparation.

SIT was developed to condition personnel for these problems, and for the US Navy Seals, these are: Goal-setting and segmenting (working out what you intend to do, then break that goal into smaller/ more manageable tasks); Tactical Visualisation, (mentally rehearse what to do in any situation); Arousal Control, (controlling the physical effects of stress with deep-breathing etc); Self-Talk (talk yourself through how you feel and what to do); Focus Training (tuning out distractions and focusing on essentials); and Compartmentalisation (breaking thoughts into sections in order to deal with them).

A final observation from Murray is about ‘Weapon Push’. This is where soldiers believe that their weapon is better than their enemy’s (it doesn’t matter if it is), and so this confidence in their resources gives them an edge. In exam terms, our Weapon Push is the excellent subject knowledge and exam skills we have that enables us to take on the challenge of the exam; effectively our ‘secret weapon’.

Finally, to Marshal Zhukov (Soviet commander in World War II) and ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’. He realised that new recruits were being slaughtered on the battlefield because their training was inadequate. He popularised the dictum of ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ by making training as realistic as possible (train hard), so that when soldiers got into battle it was just like training, and they could cope (fight easy). Thus, all training must reflect the real problem to be encountered, and must be so effective that training routines become second nature.

We have looked at the nature of the exam stress problem, and how important realistic training is to overcome Stress Threats. Now we need to see what to do to become an Exam Machine:

1 – Understand how our bodies perceive and react to stress. We have neurological, emotional and physiological reactions, which can inhibit our performance.

2– Acknowledge exams are Stress Creators. Exams create stress because they are tests with value-outcomes, such as grades. Our body’s reactions to stress can inhibit our performance in exams, so we must acknowledge exams are stressful.

3 – Adopt the Stress Mindset. Stress can be a destructive or a constructive thing – pre-exam nerves are essential to keep us alert. Stresses are challenges to overcome, not threats to kill us; exams are only a measure of our knowledge and understanding, not a judgement upon us personally. Do not catastrophise; even if we do fail, it will not ultimately make a huge difference in our lives. We are motivated to do well, because we could get high grades in the exam. Therefore, exams are a challenge, high grades are possible, we will use our body’s reactions to stress e.g. adrenaline, to work to our advantage and keep us focused.

4 – Train for the exam. We know the subject knowledge and exam skills inside out, which is our Weapon Push/ ‘secret weapon’. We will feel confident going into the exam, as no matter what the exam throws at us, we have prepared for it.
We have done our own Stress Inoculation Training through past-papers, revision sessions, mark-schemes etc. We have:
-Goal-setting and Segmenting- worked out what we intend to do in the exam, breaking the goal up into smaller, more manageable tasks.
-Tactical visualisation- mentally rehearsed what we intend to do in a given situation in the exam.
-Arousal control- controlling the physical effects of stress e.g. deep-breathing, drinking water etc.
-Self-talk -talked ourselves through why we feel the way we do and what we will do about it.
-Focus training -tune out distractions to focus on essentials in the exam.
-Compartmentalisation -break our thoughts into sections to deal with things when they go wrong. We are prepared for these problems:
-Friction – our physical preparations are good e.g. know our exam timetable, transport route, brought the right equipment
-Uncertainty – we prepared for all questions, revised properly
-Fluidity – we looked at all past papers, thought how our teacher would answer that question, and can plan it
-Disorder – we don’t rely on pre-prepared answers, don’t assume certain questions will/ will not come up
-Human Dimension -we sleep well, eat well etc
-Moral Forces – we have prepared as best we can, but keep a sense of perspective
Our brains use Cold Cognition in the exam, the Hypothalamus produces hormone to keep us alert and focused, but the Pre-Frontal Cortex and Hippocampus operate as normal. We feel confident because we have trained for the exam.

5 – Train Hard, Fight Easy. We have trained for a long time, and not just crammed for a while. We have done so many past papers that we can eat exams for breakfast.
Our exam training has been in proper exam conditions (timed, in an exam room, marked to exam standards). This exam will be just like a ‘normal day at the office’. We will show what we can do, but don’t worry much about the result. If there is a question we have not seen before, we think our way around it, using our secret weapon of knowledge and skills. We have been trained like this from the beginning of our course and everything is second nature. It will run like clockwork. We are Exam Machines. Our training will kick in.

And now for the teacher…
You probably prepare your classes using many of these ideas or methods already, but training for exams clearly takes a long time. Some students will have been preparing for exams from SATs onwards, but many children do not think about exams the right way. If we can equip our students with the right frame of mind and the right tools for the job, they should be better prepared for exams than ever before. How you do that bit is up to you. As any fire-fighter will tell you, heroes are not born, but trained.

Adam Bantick teaches History at The Sixth Form College, Colchester.

Bibliography
‘Brains and Bullets’ Leo Murray 2013 Biteback publishers
‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ David Werner 4.8.2013
‘Mind Blanks in Exams’ Jared Cooney Horvath and Jason M Lodge Straits Times 31.10.2016
‘Exam Stress and Psychology’ Dave Putwain The Psychologist Journal December 2008
‘The role of Stress Mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and psychological responses to challenging and threatening stress’ Alia J Crum, Modupe Akinola, Ashley Martin, Sean Fath Anxiety, Stress Coping 2017

A fair crack at the whip.

One Friday in November 2016, I left my classroom – and never went back. The mental health consequences of working in a stressful profession for three decades had finally caught up with me. They were a combination of the specific conditions at the very demanding (but increasingly misguided) school where I worked, and my growing sense that education more generally was moving in a direction that I could no longer reconcile myself with.

In November 2019, I was asked to fill an urgently-needed supply post at a different institution – this time a sixth form college – and I found myself, rather unexpectedly back in front of a class. I greatly enjoyed the experience, and since January I have been working part-time in a different department of the same college, covering long-term staff absence with a contract that will last a few more months.

I didn’t expect to find the profession had changed very much in those three years. But I increasingly sense that it has. While the different context makes direct comparisons difficult, my having tuned more widely back into teacher-talk is leaving me with a similar impression.

I should say immediately that what follows is no criticism whatsoever of the college where I have been working. I am extremely grateful for their having offered me a manageable way back into work, and the fact that they are continuing to employ me even over the current closures. It has been a pleasure to work in a place that values its employees in a way that my last one manifestly didn’t, and not to have to go to work worrying about hidden agendas.

But renewed exposure to the profession is increasingly suggesting that there have been further moves in a direction that gave rise to my previous misgivings. Education seems to have (been?) moved even further down the route of narrowly concerning itself solely with what happens in exams. In the process, the ability of individual teachers to provide creative, thoughtful and (hopefully) inspirational teaching seems to have been eroded still further.

I’m the kind of teacher whose main resources are his own brain, his character, and dare I say, his own eloquence. For me, teaching is akin to acting, not being a lab technician. To be able to function at my best with students, I need the freedom to think, create and interact with students in ways peculiar to me. Without it, I become little more than a human tape-recording. Rigid systematisation is all very well – but such constraints actually prevent the inspirational teaching that the system asks me to deliver. I have enough years in various classrooms to be certain about this – and recent experience is proving no different.

I suspect that this is a consequence of the Gove-led changes, which were only just starting to take effect in 2016. It seems that the changes in content and pitch have led to teachers becoming even more obsessed with what their students will encounter in the exam room. There also seems to have been a discernible quickening of the pace at which it is necessary to move through the curriculum, and a consequent increase in anxiety amongst teachers leading them to jettison anything that might appear not to be of direct use in an exam.

This worries me. It means that depth has been further sacrificed. It worries me even more that those in the profession seem not to have noticed. Or perhaps they just don’t share my misgivings. I read recently that education is not the meeting of fairly constant human intellectual and societal needs that I have always believed – but is instead a valueless, ceaselessly-evolving phenomenon which mutates in the way it conditions individuals for whatever is the prevailing socioeconomic climate of the time. In other words, it is reactive rather than formative, coercive rather than liberating.

This makes sense: as someone in his mid-fifties, I can hardly deny that my own education took place in a different era. It also explains why many of my younger colleagues and friends seem not to have the issues with the marketisation of society that I do, or to even notice what I tend to regard as its manifest failures. It also explains why the same phenomenon seems to prevail within the education profession: I am aware that my reservations seem not to be shared (at least publicly) by very many in the younger two-thirds of the profession. The obvious explanation is simply that they have grown up in a different era, more acclimatised to current norms and expectations. Maybe it really is nothing more than an illustration that I am getting longer in the tooth, than I care to admit.

But I don’t think so. Being adapted to a certain climate is no guarantee that it is actually benign.

I’ve been reading Seneca. The most striking thing about reading a 2000-year-old author is the similarities in the fundamental concerns of life then and now. In many ways, basic human need has not changed very much – and consequently neither, I suspect, has the need for an educated mind with which to tackle life’s difficulties and uncertainties – and whose success in doing so provides an equally enduring reward through a “well-lived life”.

Seneca counselled an approach to life that would serve us very well at the present moment. Yet modern education is moving further and further away from educating the “whole person”. It has become just another systematised production-line: good at maximising output, but lousy at quality control.

While it is of course important that every single young person gets a fair crack at the whip, that importance diminishes if the whip itself actually isn’t really very worth having. No amount of standardised, conveyor-belt education can ever attend adequately to the needs of distinctly un-standardised individuals. Those whom it attends to least are, as usual, those who arguably need it most. Neither is the answer to make the individuals more standardised.

Never has it struck me more forcefully than now, how essential real education is. Society’s responses first to Brexit and now to the coronavirus are symptomatic of a nation that simply lacks the widespread personal-intellectual maturity and resilience to cope with adversity.

That is a failure, amongst other things, of its long-term educational approach. We have created a society that is so deafened by the noise of trivial distractions that we have not bothered to develop the internal grit – strength of personality and character – to cope when it stops, and we are forced to fall back on the void where our own personal resources should be.

Many seem to be afraid of how they will cope when they no longer have endless working hours to fill their lives, to help them avoid having to stop and contemplate anything more fundamental – like how to address our own mortality, or the fragility of modern society. They seem to lack the intellectual horsepower that might help them get a grip on the real nature and scale of the current problems – and deal with them in a thoughtful, considered and resilient way.

A local acquaintance told me about his (adult) daughter – who goes out every night to some kind of event. They have all stopped; her comment was, “My life is over”. My response, had I met her in person, would have been, “No: it has just begun”. I tried the same approach, with varying success, with my students in the week before the college closed: “Now is precisely the time when you have an unprecedented opportunity to find out more about yourself, and what you are capable of when all the scaffolding is taken away”.

What it boils down to in the final reckoning is a system that does not know how to stop consuming. In a very real sense, education is just being consumed in exactly the same way as everything else: superficially, at top speed – and then discarded, without ever a chance to savour, and learn from, the quality of what really does not benefit from rushing so giddily past.

This is what concerns me about the headlong rush to cover exam syllabuses: at what point do students ever have the chance to stop and ponder the implications and deeper meaning of what they are encountering? How are they ever supposed to gain in wisdom from their studies if they are whip-cracked ever onwards, the whole thing just merging into an indistinct blur whose only purpose is to be just sufficiently organised that it can be regurgitated in an exam?

It is incredibly difficult to buck this trend, not least because it is now the prime determinant of what people expect education itself to be like. That goes for the teachers as well as the students. I have tried hard to enhance my new students’ lessons, in order that they could understand and appreciate the significance of what we are covering, rather than just fill pages with notes that do nothing more than scratch the surface.

It is, however, difficult to persuade them that this is worth doing, as it seems to be something they haven’t encountered before. It is almost as hard to convince colleagues that it is worth disrupting the hell-for-leather teaching schedules for, too. It is hard to persuade them that occasionally going a little off-piste for the sake of contextualising and enriching learning may be entirely productive even in the narrow, exam-specific sense. There is value – where one judges it appropriate – in going beyond what the exam board says we should know. Especially when the dividend is better learning – and wiser people.

There is so much more to education than skimming an exam specification. And so much more to teaching. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should abandon exams and formal syllabuses in favour of a 100% curriculum of fuzzy navel-gazing. But there is an art to getting people to think that is beyond “being lost”; in my experience, it is already widely lost. We are in a situation where education consists – and can consist – of sitting in a room going through the motions, without any real thinking going on at all. Just as long as sufficient is remembered to get through the exam. It’s not really the teachers’ fault, nor the institutions’. This is what, via the democratic process, ‘the nation’ decided it wanted its education system to become.

As a result, we are perhaps in the final throes of an education system that no longer knows why it really exists, except to perpetuate its own conveyor belt-like existence churning out more false certainties to people left too incurious ever to discover better. And to distract from the really big issues they need to be thinking and learning about. That art resides in allowing teachers to be more than mere technicians: to draw on their own intelligence, wisdom and above all humanity, in the interests of drawing the same qualities out of their pupils.

That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all: in these most pressing of times, the one force within human society that has the potential to help people to cope – education – has, to my mind failed to prepare them adequately for the enduring challenges of existing and surviving – let alone thriving – on this planet. It was too busy meeting targets. In the interests of preparing people to be compliant workers and consumers, it failed in its duty to encourage them to become complete humans. And faced with the last-chance saloon for doing so, it is still so busy listening to its own trivial internal chatter that rather than looking hard at what it could be doing right now, it is just busy churning out even more of the same. Fiddling like Nero. Meeting targets. In overdrive.

Holding this belief central to my own practice, I have seen all over again why my own sense of purpose went into meltdown those years ago. I simply cannot spend an hour in a classroom with young people and come out feeling they have done nothing more than learn how to jump through a few new hoops, but are otherwise none the wiser.

I feel that the way people are responding to the present wider emergencies is vindicating me.

The Sound of Silence

54e090c6-mirror-image-058

“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.” Bertrand Russell

There is a way in which every one of us is alone in the world. Despite social media giving us a greater sense than ever of how we all belong to one great herd of humanity, there is much of life that can only ever be individual. Ultimately, it is not possible to delegate one’s experience of life, and everything that it might throw at you, to anyone else. It is down to individual resourcefulness to deal with.

Bertrand Russell had a lot to say on the subject. For me, his most memorable observation is the one above. Russell died in 1970 – but whether we have made much progress on this in the intervening half-century is moot to say the least.

The present situation, with around 20% of the global population in lock-down perhaps presents the ultimate test of his thinking. One of the things that has struck me in the past couple of weeks – and indeed continues to do so – is the level of unspoken alarm that many people seem to be exhibiting at the thought of not having work to do.

Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why work needs to continue; we cannot press the Pause button on life, because the clocks continue to tick. People have needs that cannot wait.

There may also be a value in work as displacement activity, if it helps distract from the more anxiety-making thoughts of the current time. But I still suspect that a lot of the – frankly excess – effort that seems to be going into “putting arrangements in place” still comes back to Russell’s observations about the human fear of under-occupation, and the unavoidable contemplation of existential issues that may follow shortly afterwards.

As an educator, I find this distressing. My professional raison d’être, as I see it, is to encourage and help people to develop their inner resourcefulness, through the only media that we ultimately have available to us – our minds and bodies. That was the original purpose of education – to develop the individual – not to create efficient but unthinking work-units. Ultimately, these are the only inalienable tools we have with which to buttress ourselves against whatever life does decide to throw at us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted exhaustive research into the experiences that people identified as giving their lives meaning and fulfilment – and he concluded that irrespective of culture, these were things that presented us inwardly with challenges that once mastered increase our sense of autonomy.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ideal has been lost. While we have repeatedly dreamed of a future with increased leisure time, the harsh reality is that we have, if anything, moved in the opposite direction. Even the world of education itself has lost sight of that holistic remit, and has increasingly focused on preparing people for a lifetime of work, a situation which, while it can present personal challenges of its own, in many cases has completely the opposite effect on people’s sense of autonomy and individuality.

This is a long-term trend that is observable in all developed societies: as economies diversify, more and more human activities are contracted-out to other providers – be that food production, child care, entertainment, or almost anything else. Modern media even, in effect, allow us to outsource our own need to think about things. We can just think with the herd – until we discover that the herd doesn’t really know how to think at all. There is perceived as less need to know things because we can resort to Google, and less need to develop intellectual agility as apps will do almost all of the thinking for us.

Except they won’t.

For a start, there is a huge difference between information, knowledge and understanding. In terms of the cognitive development that is so essential for a fulfilled human life, by reducing the need to work at things for ourselves, all the “conveniences” of modern life actually remove from us the need to work at our own intellectual development. They limit the development of our neural networks. Many of those media present us with pre-digested forms of information that require us to do nothing except vegetate and passively, uncritically absorb. The absence of the need to persevere, to struggle and to develop the patience necessary to do so, actually robs us of the mental resilience we find we still need when the world bowls us a spinner.

As I said, the education world has regrettably almost entirely colluded with this trend, in the name of inclusivity and “engagement”. The marketisation of education has turned students and their parents into passive consumers of educational services. That seems to have meant providing wall-to-wall conveyor of equally pre-digested content, without any opportunity ever to stop and seriously think about it. Because anything too demanding (i.e. anything that makes you demand too much of yourself) is likely to deter – and as we know, The Customer is always right.

Yet personal development is just not like that; there is only one way to do it, and that is to struggle with something for yourself. All of the scaffolding now available to learners often does little than defer (perhaps indefinitely) the enduring need to get to grips with German genders or violin vibrato. Let alone your comfort at simply being present with your own mind…

I think this trend has now been embedded in our society for so long that it is almost invisible. As a teacher, I have seen the “helicopter parent” become a more and more prevalent phenomenon; it now extends up the age range to those who are at and even beyond university. And it has been supplemented by the helicopter teacher, who (with, of course, the best of intentions) feels the overwhelming urge to stop at nothing supposedly to assist their students. We can hardly blame them, when social disapprobation can reach the levels that it nowadays does, and when in the case of teachers their careers can hang in the balance if they are seen to be doing otherwise.

But as Russell, I am certain, knew, it is all in vain. All the hyperactivity to create illusory structure and ‘purpose’ for our own and others’ lives cannot ultimately deny that fact that we must all meet our fates alone. I have long harboured an uneasy feeling that the ‘contracting out’ of so much of our lives does little other than render us more helpless, more dependent on others, less equipped to face things that only we will have to face.

What’s more, we deprive ourselves not only of the resilience that comes from self-sufficiency, but also the rewards. No one can learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language for you. Ultimately, we all must make such journeys for ourselves; to avoid the pain is also to avoid the gain – the deep satisfaction and ongoing fulfilment that comes from mastering something difficult, which thereby enhances our own autonomy and empowerment. The brilliant cellist Pablo Cassals, was asked why, in his eighties, he still practised. Apparently, he replied, “Because I think I’m improving”. To deflect others from (having to) do so is almost worse.

I don’t think any of the foregoing is to deny the need for the necessary to be done. There is no question that we can assist each other in all sorts of ways. But as a teacher, I have always kept in mind an image of young birds on the verge of flight: there comes a point when even the best teacher, even the best parent, needs to stand back and let destiny take its course. There comes a point when letting someone struggle (a bit) is the best form of support – and certainly the quickest method of learning. Perhaps the current situation is just such a moment?

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not only the young who would benefit from the need to spend a bit more time for introspection, for facing the existential realities of who they are, what they stand for, and how they face the sheer, immovable dilemmas of simply existing. I’m not sure that providing more and more vicarious distractions that prevent people from ever facing their own inner selves is ultimately very helpful. It may be why, with the current prospect of enforced leisure, many are rushing around frenziedly trying to find anything and everything that will obviate the need finally to contemplate their own navels. It is a form of helplessness that makes the prospect of months of curfew all the worse, perhaps almost worse (and certainly more immediate) than the risk of viral infection.

I’ve had experience of this. Luckily, I seem to have a restless mind that almost never tires of entertaining itself. This may be a personality trait that is not shared by everyone – but I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to address the issue. It’s a matter of finding what engages you and absorbs you – but being engage-able in the first place is a skill that may need practice. For people who are used to finding their entertainment externally, looking inward may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But my experience of being largely housebound for much of the past three years (as well as being a lifelong hobbyist) is that, in the longer run, it is the inner world that is the more rewarding.

So if you are reading this as a home-constrained worker, a harassed parent, or an over-anxious teacher, I’m not suggesting that what needs to be done should not be done. But it is perhaps necessary to question what that “need” really is.

By all means seek ways of filling the time – but the best place to look is inwardly, not outwardly. Find a new skill, interest or ambition to fulfil. And if you are responsible for others, do not feel you have to fill their every waking moment. Now might be precisely the moment to give them the space and time to explore their inner resources. They are there – even if they need some looking for. The teachers amongst us might benefit our students from giving them the space they need to find themselves, rather than our insisting on doing it for them. It is not a dereliction of duty.

The current crisis might in the longer term shed some beneficial light on our modern human condition. Part of that might be to show the extent to which we have lost our resilience and self-sufficiency and inner lives. Don’t resort to wall-to-wall Netflix; find something more challenging and active to do – and encourage others to do the same. It might be tough to begin with – but you will soon learn to accept the outward silence – and listen to the internal conversation instead.

 

Still standing…

Some weeks ago, I was asked to stand in for an ‘A’ Level Politics teacher who was having an operation. It felt like a huge step, particularly as I had vowed I would not go back into teaching.

Two weeks – which felt like two months (in a good way) – further on…

The new chapter of my career in education is written: no longer is the ending that ignominious crash, but a successful (if brief) return to the classroom three years later. I apologise if this seems over-dramatic, but it is an important matter for someone who always took his profession seriously and with a degree of pride.

I suppose I should be less surprised at how easily I dropped back into the classroom routine – but I am no less delighted, having been given the opportunity to prove, if only to myself, that I am still an effective practitioner – and that the questions raised three years ago were as groundless as I believed.

Does mental illness change people permanently? Perhaps. I found the daily ‘cognitive load’ greater than it used to be – but that may equally be a simple lack of practice (and it certainly got easier). I was wary of the fact that I seem to have a somewhat shorter fuse these days – but thankfully the students were so docile that it was never an issue. I think I am also more inclined to optimism, having been in a position where I was simply unable to experience positive feelings about anything for months on end. And I think I am also more understanding of other people’s imperfections and weaknesses too.

Equally, an important practical point has been made – it is possible to get back into work and cope. Until now, this has felt like an impossibly huge step. Indeed, it felt strange this morning not to be going to work again. I previously felt that I would never go back to the world of education – but now that is much less certain.

Having watched the other staff dealing with the usual heavy marking and administrative load, I don’t think I want to go back full-time: there are too many other things I am now involved with, that I want to keep up. It is true that work robs us of the possibility to have wider lives.

But the chance to go back into the classroom and just teach has reminded me that I really do enjoy doing this, and I seem to get results. The positive reactions of the students (seen not least in several leaving cards after just two weeks with them) suggests I am not wrong about this. And yet I still hesitate on such matters: the legacy of years of working in a place where one’s competence was implicitly and perpetually called into doubt runs deep. There again, a (small) amount of professional self-doubt may not be a bad thing…

The question is how, if at all, it can be done on something approaching acceptable terms.

But most of all, it felt good to work in a place where the vibe is positive, and where my colleagues were friendly and supportive – and who clearly retain views, qualities and practices that have gone a good way to restoring my faith in the profession. Thank you all.

Stand Back!

I am a heartless ***. I must be, because I never cried or lost sleep over pupils’ exam results on their own account (although I did when some less-than-spectacular ones were weaponised professionally against me). I did not spend my entire summer holiday in fear of results day, or head to school early on that morning in order to High-Five with my pupils. Their public success did not need my validation; my job was done.

Neither did I ever feel the need to discuss my sexuality with my pupils.

Both of these issues warranted attention in The Guardian’s education pages this week. Maybe I am just too long in the tooth, but such things make me wonder whatever happened to the concept of Professional Detachment.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that teachers should be indifferent to their pupils’ successes (and failures) – but there should remain a difference between private thoughts, and what one transmits publicly. The extreme blurring of such boundaries, while simply reflecting wider modern attitudes, is really not at all helpful either to teachers as professionals, or to their pupils.

I’m in little doubt that it is me who is out of line on this: my own school had more than enough teachers who seemed to feel that their role was something between personal buddy and whole-life coach, that this did come to pervade official expectations. It was me who was the party-pooper for adopting a more reflective, proportionate stance, who saw his job as simply to sharpen his pupils’ minds. I never could see the similarities between exam results and winning the lottery.

The problems with the soppy approach are many. From a pupil’s perspective it implies that their teacher is complicit in some kind of battle that they are both conspiratorially fighting against the big, bad outside world, as represented by the Exam Paper. By taking so much on themselves, teachers actually risk creating a dependency culture – particularly, perhaps, with vulnerable pupils. Better to encourage self-reliance – and that requires both the scaffolding to exist only at a certain distance, and the ability to spot when to let someone fail. Removing failure as an option – sometimes a deserved one – does not really do people a service.

While we all know what pupils mean when they say they “couldn’t have done ‘it’ without their teacher”, to me that is actually the last thing they should be thinking. It is (or should be) about their achievement, not the teacher’s. Whatever ‘it’ is…. While in reality we are undoubtedly a significant factor in their outcomes, we should not be seeking such ownership of their successes – or their failures. We are just doing our job as kindly muses, and our responses should be calibrated accordingly.

Becoming too close to one’s pupils risks professional compromise. It is almost impossible to be equally close to the numbers of individuals that teachers encounter – so the immediate accusation is of favouritism. Being human, all teachers probably do have  favourites but in the interests of a wider fairness, this is something that should be utterly concealed from pupils. Being able to over-ride one’s personal biases is what it means to be a professional.

Becoming personally involved also risks letting children down more seriously than would adopting a more detached position. There are times when teachers have to take difficult decisions – and becoming too close to the individuals concerned risks clouding professional judgement – and there is the risk that the pupil may feel “betrayed” by a teacher who suddenly needs to step back.

A deeper message that such conspiracy sends is that pupils actually need such utterly partisan support. I suspect more really want to be helped – from a distance – to stand on their own feet. To lead children to think that they will always be surrounded by people who think the sun shines from certain parts of their anatomies is doing them a disservice. That is the job of – if anyone – their relatives (and I would argue not, inevitably, them either). The teacher’s role is to form an intermediary between home life and the indifference of the wider world: a person who will support and nurture, but also be the critical presence that is not afraid of pointing out deficiencies and encouraging the strength of character to take knocks on the chin. Not to be a surrogate wet nurse.

Of course teachers can and should feel satisfaction in their pupils’ (deserved) successes – but that is rather different from the level of partiality that now seems to be seen as necessary. We should also be able to look dispassionately at those who are less successful, feeling a philosophical regret when it was not deserved and vindication when it was. But above all, we should be able to look at such things as part and parcel of life, where our greater wisdom reminds us that things are not always “fair”, but that in many cases good can come from adversity, and that what does not kill us can make us stronger. Then we can teach our pupils the same thing.

(Behind this argument, I am of course aware that the extent to which the raising of short-term exam stakes has led to much greater ‘investment’ by teachers in their pupils’ results – but that is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It has decimated teacher’s ability to remain at a certain distance from the minutiae of their pupils’ lives and focus on the bigger developmental picture.)

 

The same edition of The Guardian included an article about whether gay teachers should come out in their schools. The mere existence of such an article to me speaks of yet more self-indulgent floppy-lippedness. I simply fail to see why, in almost any circumstance, this need even be an issue.

I had gay colleagues. I have gay friends. As far as I am aware, for the majority of my colleagues it was simply not an issue. The individuals concerned were liked and respected not for their sexuality, but for their wisdom, integrity and professionalism. One’s personal life is not, or should not be, any concern of one’s employer, at least as long as it is not compromising one’s professional standing. I cannot see that sexual orientation does that, so long as it does not influence one’s professional conduct. Part of being a professional involves ensuring that it doesn’t.

Of course there are going to be occasions when one’s personal circumstances become evident to one’s colleagues – but once again, this is where a degree of professional detachment from both parties can be helpful. The need to import intimate aspects of one’s personal life into one’s professional life is really not helpful or necessary; to do so seems to me to invite controversy. This is not the same, by the way, as not challenging real discrimination where it happens.

The Guardian’s interviewee expressed concern that her sexuality was going to prejudice her career – which it actually seemed not to have done. But I question her apparent need to introduce the issue in the first place – let alone with her pupils. A teacher’s private life (or at least potentially-sensitive aspects of it) should remain utterly out of bounds to one’s pupils, and by not enforcing this, she was in fact increasing her risks of discrimination.

I also question her desire to become a (self-appointed) role model for gay pupils. Why did she feel the need to engage in this attention-grabbing behaviour? She might better have been willing to participate in formal educational discussion of sexuality – but that is a rather different matter. Quite apart from the above-mentioned risks, it seems to me that homosexual people might object if overtly heterosexual role models were presented in schools. Taking it upon oneself to become an icon is hardly compatible with genuinely equal treatment, which should be blind to such matters. The best role model this teacher could have presented would have been to make her sexuality an utter non-issue. Deliberate flag-flying does not allow that to happen.

It also forces people to adopt dishonest positions. Inwardly,  I am somewhat uncomfortable with homosexuality – as, I suspect are many heterosexuals if the truth were known. But that discomfort evidently exists in the other direction too. I suspect that it is an instinct to shrink from whichever polarity is not one’s personal norm. I have gay friends – but once again, it is simply not an issue. They just are who they are, no different from other friends. My discomfort is purely internal, and it does not adversely affect those friendships whatsoever, indeed others have resulted from them.

This is about a form of personal detachment, which acknowledges rather than denies one’s weaknesses and imperfections – and then overrides them in the interests of a greater good. That is also the essence of professionalism.

I am by no means an advocate of the Stiff Upper Lip approach – but I really don’t see that the modern hyper-floppy one that causes people to become hopelessly, self-indulgently, squeamishly partisan about every issue, is really better. Having the fortitude not to weep over one’s pupils, or to display one’s sexuality publicly need not imply emotional coldness or callousness; it is simply the mark of a mature, wise mind that is able to calibrate its responses and take an at least partly-detached and bigger view.

It is that which teachers, above all, should be nurturing in their pupils: an ability to rise above one’s petty, transient emotions, to see the world from a wider, wiser perspective and even to accept that it requires a degree of stoicism. We need to encourage young people to see their egos in a wider context, rather than encouraging them to centre the world even more firmly on themselves, than both immaturity and modern social attitudes promote. Perpetually wearing our hearts on our sleeves is not really very helpful.

And as professionals, the place to start is with ourselves.

On educational totalitarianism – and teaching my first lesson for two years.

In the Beginning, when the world was young, people set up organisations because there was work that was better done collaboratively. The army, for instance, was established in order to defend the nation. The greatest soldier was hailed as he (and it normally was ‘he’) who most successfully defended that nation.

But in time, as armies grew, they developed their own internal structures. They needed their own provisions and evolved their own interests. They needed resources, and those who worked within them wanted to be rewarded as well as possible for their efforts. The best soldier became he who most successfully defended the interests of the army.

It is probably an inevitable side-effect of specialisation that this is so. But it hugely increases the risk that organisations will become diverted from their core purpose – and as those organisations have become more complex, and the competition for resources between them intensified, it has become commonplace that self-perpetuation possibly now even consumes more time and energy than do their original purposes.

I still follow the education world, but with increasing distance, it is ever clearer that it has become just the same as all those others in this respect– just another interest-group within wider society – albeit one that claims special importance (don’t they all?) – whose internal politics and policies may be of massive, overwhelming importance to those who have to deal with them daily, but whose significance withers when seen from a wider perspective. (How on earth did green pens ever assume such a huge significance in my life?)

This is not for one moment to suggest that education is not important. If anything it is more so than ever in a time when the quality of public debate about all sorts of issues seems to be plunging hell-ward through floor after floor that you thought really was the basement. In modern times, there has perhaps never been a greater need than now, for a widespread ability to think clearly and rationally about the big issues facing the world, and one’s own place within it. We are seeing without a shadow of doubt, that a little education is a very bad thing.

But thinking ability is not what the education sector is any longer providing, and nor has it for at least several decades when jumping accountability hoops has been more important. ‘A little’ education  seems for many to be the best it could do, and there were times when I suspected that that was indeed its only aspiration. There is a strange, unspoken counter culture within education that hints darkly that you should not expect too much from the ordinary punter…

While I accept that platforms such as social media have some very strange effects on the dynamics of discourse, turning normally sensible people into raging autocrats, experience of such interaction is leading me to conclude that the mean ability for rational, detached thought within the population is – well, almost non-existent. While the formal education sector cannot be the only culprit here, its success in equipping citizens at large with the ability to be considered, reasonable, responsible members of a developed society seems to have been slight. And while it is very easy to overdo the them-and-us comparison, my experience, as so often, suggests that this deficiency is not the same in every country. It is not inevitable – and hence not solely the product of media that are available everywhere.

It is very easy to conclude that education (at least in Britain) really does now put most of its collective efforts into self-perpetuation. I don’t mean the thousands of unseen hours of classroom teaching that happen every day (though even classroom teachers have been forced to think more carefully about self-preservation in recent times). It is precisely with that filter in place that the other impression comes to the fore.

Seen from the outside, those with audible voices in education really do seem to spend most of their time either pulling wings off intellectual flies, or devising ever more devious ways to command the internal politics of the sector. Not much there any more about the nuts-and-bolts purpose of successful teaching, except insofar as it is necessary to validate the efficacy of the establishments that deliver it. What has happened to the social-intellectual vocation of the profession?

I have been struck (again) by this in recent months in what appears to be the very muted response to the pronouncements of the new(ish) Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman. Were I still teaching, I would be very enthused by her comments about the need to deliver real education as opposed to the box-ticking of recent decades. Her views that breadth and subjective experience are more important than conformity or narrow-definition ‘results’ should be manna from heaven for all in the sector. The downgrading of exam results within inspections should be a blessed release. And yet, my perception is that there has been barely a murmur of approval.

Such is the grip of the edu-establishment over the sector that it is increasingly difficult for any dissenting voices to be heard. Anyone not toeing their desired line simply does not get heard – the blogosphere notwithstanding. And even that seems to have lost the dynamism that it had a few years ago. If even the chief inspector can be met with indifference when she says something out of line, what hope is there for anyone else?

Perhaps all the approval is happening in the privacy of front-line classrooms, but from those whose voices can be heard, very little. I suppose one should concede that this might be the behaviour of those who have seen too many false dawns before – or could it be that those who run the system these days are just too invested in it to want even benign change? Perhaps they actually secretly yearn for those harsh inspections? After all, many of them have done very nicely from it – dynamic careers and even more dynamic salaries for those who have risen to run sometimes multiple schools whose entire position is based on bean-counting, and a feudal approach to those who are more or less willing or able to deliver those beans when they are needed. In this climate, the real imperatives for education are so far removed from their daily preoccupations that they might just as well not really exist at all, any more. Educating children is just an incidental consequence of a system whose real purpose is now the career success of those who climb the ladder.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on them: they are only copying the nest-feathering that is apparent in ever-wider sectors of society. Stellar careers were the carrot offered by past governments to entice people into the profession. But one might have hoped for higher principles from one whose basis is in the altruistic doing of good for others, let alone the preservation and perpetuation of the nation’s higher cultural and societal capital. In that sense, it makes the situation all the more reprehensible.

In the meantime, tomorrow represents my first venture into teaching in over two years. No, I have not changed my mind and re-entered the school environment; I will be running my first adult education evening class in Critical Thinking, a commodity that seems to be in extremely short supply. Despite my initially-low expectations, I have a small group of adults locally who will be coming along over the next six months to learn more about the skill that really should be the fundamental basis of everything the education system says and does – and which school management does its best to suppress.

I have even been planning ‘lessons’ again. I’m looking forward to doing this. Hopefully I can in a small way deliver something of real educational value, free from the shackles of the formal system. But I will never again be submitting to the regimen of those who run the that sector – at least not until something very fundamental changes and there is a re-birth of its true raison d’etre.

Festina lente

There are occasionally times when specific events give rise for a little educational optimism. The change of heart at OFSTED regarding the use of data in inspections is one such, which I have mentioned before.

It will, of course, take a long time to work through a system that has been obsessed with data for several decades. But for every point of optimism, there still seem to be several heading in utterly the wrong direction, that reveal modes of thought that one might have hoped would have been completely seen-through and rejected by now. All the more regrettably, they often seem to be coming from those in policy-making positions.

One such is the recent revival of proposals to cut degree courses to two years in a drive to make them more affordable. To be fair, the current proposal is intended to provide an option rather than a cover-all. But it is just another example of the extent to which educational policy remains utterly economy-driven. One might have hoped that, by now it would be widely accepted that (supposed) economic efficiency does not always deliver wider, often intangible life benefits – and given the nature of the degree ‘experience’ probably does not deliver very good value for money either. A better solution would be to cut or abolish tuition fees, so as to remove the financial pressures from the learning process.

If one sees a degree as little more than a passport to employment, then I suppose it does make sense to push people through and out into the workplace as quickly as possible. But that is utterly to miss the point of the process, and it is depressing to think that such policies very probably originate from those who went through it themselves. Does it reflect their own understanding of what they did?

What this outlook still fails to understand is that life – most of all a genuine life of the mind – is not a directly-commandable economic utility. Cognitive development cannot be hurried for the sake of simple economic efficiency. While the three-year degree is of course an arbitrary construct in its own right, the longer such courses last – within reason – the more chance there is that the individual undertaking it will ‘grow’ into the experience. That, after all, is one reason why higher qualifications take longer!

In my own case, it was only really in the final year of my degree that the thing started to fall into place, and with it the commitment that had simply not been there during the first two years, when there was so much else to do at university.

And that is the other ignored point: as well as being an intellectual experience, being at university is a time of major personal growth. This can only be even more the case given the relatively recent knowledge that the human brain is not fully mature until one’s mid-twenties. There is still a lot of learning and personal development to be done at that stage, and compressing the process only risks further devaluing the whole thing to begin with: a two-year degree will be over before it has hardly begun.

While schools are not directly concerned, of course, with the duration of pupils’ study, much of the same thinking has been prevalent in them for years. It has all been about quantity and speed (for which read quasi-economic efficiency), without any apparent appreciation that the real experience of learning can neither be hurried in this way, nor packaged and sold in such limited terms. One might have hoped that we would be much further down the road of seeing such economised myopia for what it is – there is plenty of evidence of its effects right across society. We need to accept that there are certain things in life that you just can’t hurry.

But perhaps the critical feature of such myopia is its propensity for being self-perpetuating.

A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

The Unprofessionalisables.

I suppose it’s just yet another Holy Grail to hope that the teaching profession in Britain might ever reach a steady state. I remember my former head teacher saying in the early nineties that henceforth the only constant would be change. Maybe that has always been true, and the perception that there were (and are) steady states is just an illusion. Change probably is endemic.

But one is still entitled to wonder where it all gets us. While the physical world marches to its own rhythm, change in social constructs such as education is a more controllable matter. And we might wonder whether the fundamental need that people have for cognitive development has really changed so much that the constant upheaval is justified.

I came to the conclusion that most change in professional circles is really about people’s perceptions of what they are doing – and about power-play: who is in charge and whose world-view takes precedence. It is not much about delivering the basic service at all. Recent trends have only bulwarked the authority of those at the top of the greasy pole, and made it all worse.

The problem with teaching is that nobody really knows – let alone can agree – on what it is and what it is for. That, despite the essentially simple process of spending time with children and exposing them to things they have yet to encounter.

High amongst the confusions come the ceaseless calls to improve the ‘professionalism’ of the profession. Nobody seems to know what that means either; it is just more empty words. For school managers (and perhaps their political bosses) it probably means a workforce that does whatever it is asked with maximum effort and minimum dispute. Which might be fine, if what was being asked was both uncontentious and sustainable – but it is neither.

Then there is the view (which managers mostly seem to hate), that professionalism is about the ability to operate autonomously, within a set of guiding ethics, and still achieve largely good outcomes (although those outcomes themselves are not beyond question). This seems to me a much more viable model, especially in a field as nebulous as education, but it means allowing people more latitude than the current gate-keepers are willing to grant. It also means accepting the inherent uncertainty of the process, something that those being held to account are understandably reluctant to do, no matter how little they can really change it.

Attempts have been made to impose order and standards on the profession by the establishment of various bodies. But their legitimacy is questionable when they are not composed – voluntarily – of the majority of the grass-roots individuals that they purport to represent. So I am far from convinced that it is possible to increase professionalism simply by imposing structures: in the final reckoning, professionalism is a state of mind, and only the owners of said minds can really control it.

Here we return to the dichotomy mentioned earlier: should the professional state of mind be one of compliance with institutionalised norms (laid down by whom?) or should it rather be a state of independence to follow one’s conscience and experience – albeit probably within a general ethical framework? Until such matters are resolved, it is unlikely than any greater semblance of professionalism will be achieved.

In the case of other professions, one might  observe that status is indeed conferred by membership of august bodies – though they are usually controlled by their members rather than outside agencies. But this form of institutionalism is no guarantee of professional behaviour either – only a recognition of it (or not, as when people are struck off).

Here we come to perhaps the most uncomfortable point of all, for those arguing for a grass-roots definition of professionalism: there is simply no shared understanding of what it means. I can think of very many individuals over the years who, while technically competent, exhibited all manner of behaviours and attitudes that I found professionally questionable. Perhaps they thought the same about me. What are we to make of the Advanced Skills Teacher who was found to be having a relationship with a student? And there were many lesser manifestations of individual attitude that I certainly did not agree with.

Then there is what one perceives as one’s own responsibilities. In my view, a professional should have a degree of ‘benign remove’ from his or her clients (and employers) so as to retain the necessary detachment from partisan interests. How else can ethics be upheld? But I was regarded as old and pompous by the teachers who seemed to perceive themselves more as children’s buddies and life coaches (or management lackeys), things that I found verged on the puerile and professionally compromised.

It seems that attempts to engage with the mainstream teaching body as a profession is stymied by one simple fact: many of those concerned simply aren’t interested. What they want is to have fun with children; or failing that, to drill exam statistics out of them (which is not at all the same thing, but not much better). Or more charitably, just to do their job.

Unlike the researchers, whose interest most often strikes me as nerdishly academic, or the managers whose interest most often strikes me as blindly corporatist, ordinary teachers most often have only a vague sense of belonging to a discrete profession, let alone one that has any sense of dignity. They are more interested in something to get them through the next lesson than the underlying philosophy or psychology of what they are doing. And the short-sighted technocracy which now passes for teaching standards is only making it worse.

That is not meant as harshly as it probably reads: I do have sympathy with those who just want a simple life, though that should not excuse them from identifying and maintaining appropriately high standards. From recent conversations with long-retired teachers, it probably  always was the case, and was not necessarily a bad thing, in that it gave them an authenticity with their pupils. My sadness is that few will discover that bothering to find those underpinnings actually gives such an outlook more sense. (That’s what TonicforTeachers is about…)

Much of the lack of interest is also due to simple time pressure. Full-time teachers are just too overloaded to have much left for the niceties of what they are doing, let alone membership of professional colleges: that is for those who are already looking for ways to escape. Neither is climbing the management ladder (which seems to be the sole reason many suddenly find interest in meta-educational matters) for everyone.

But we are still left with the same dilemma: those who want to apply ‘standards’ don’t understand that imposition is actually the last way to succeed – while those responsible for the day-to-day upholding of said standards seem to have little conception or concern for what that might mean, beyond its simplistically being “all for the children” (which is something else I’ve questioned before now…).

I can hardly be the only person who has attempted to square this circle unilaterally, by self-equipping with the philosophical background that was otherwise conspicuously lacking. In my opinion that is the only way it can be done which is why, in certain other countries, teachers are expected to have higher degrees, even doctorates, before they can teach.

I tried hard to develop my own strain of professionalism in my work: in this blog, in my book and in my contributions to CPD. My approach (though categorically not the content) was sometimes criticised for being over-academic; for my part, I could not see why mature adults should not be able to raise their own outlook above the ‘fun and group-work’ that they deliver to their pupils. We do not need to conduct professional discourse in the manner of Year Nines.

Yet it was my approach that was (supposedly) found wanting in the end; my determination to retain high professional and intellectual standards was apparently not pupil- (or data-) friendly enough – even though the same school was exhorting its teachers to deliver high academic standards. There was a personal dilemma all of its own in there: I found insight that I am certain enhanced my own professionalism – only for it to be ignored, and ultimately rejected, by a blinkered establishment. I can only assume that the individuals concerned either could not see the contradictions in that, or had no real idea what they were talking about.

What kind of professionalism is that?

Unconditionally mercenary

An eminent writer to a national newspaper recently observed that education in Britain has ‘lost its sense of moral purpose’. That need not imply any particular belief system for it still to be true, inasmuch as education should presumably strive for a higher ideal in the quest for objective knowledge.

As if more evidence were needed of the extent to which this is true, The Independent has reported that the number of unconditional offers made to would-be university students has risen from fewer than 3000 in 2013 to over 68 000 this year. It seems that the sole driver of this has been the desire of universities to fill places in advance and secure their incomes for the year ahead.

Where is the concern for the actual quality that entrants are required to demonstrate, or of the likely impact on their motivation? The adverse effects of this are blatant evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the system on all fronts.

Unconditional offers used to be the preserve of the very few highly talented (or possibly canny) students in whom universities expressed complete confidence that they would achieve their entry requirements. That has been thrown out in favour of the hard logistics of bums-on-seats in an over-supplied marketplace.

But the response of the students is hardly better: while the psychology of receiving an unconditional offer was always the same (I saw how a couple of people I knew who received them suddenly eased up as their ‘A’ Levels approached), it is now plumbing the depths of the mercenary, with The Independent reporting that many students simply stopped showing up at school at all, and one school reporting a fall in its pass-rate as a result from 74% to 14% in one year when 40% of its students received unconditional offers.

As I said, the reverse-psychology effect of the unconditional offer has always been there – but in the past, I think that students still perceived enough inherent value for the learning process to know that it was important to see their courses through for their own sake.

Today’s students would appear to have no more value for their courses than as a passport to the next level, and seem utterly unprincipled in doing absolutely no more than is required to secure it. This is no surprise either, for it follows precisely the known effects of contingent rewards on effort levels.

I hardly blame them, for these are the values that the entire education system has been peddling for several decades now: education as commodity; something whose value is entirely extrinsic and material; learning for learning’s sake an utter waste of time. And a system of exams and qualifications that itself has become more important than the qualities and abilities that it supposedly represents.

I strongly objected to such views when I was still working in education, and did what I could to combat them amongst my own students. It was the reason why I drew clear limits around what I was prepared to do just to cram students through the same corrupted, superficial hoop-jumping process. And I have documented probably ad nauseam the reaction of that system to my principles.

I can only assume that those who promote such values in what now passes for the British education system view these developments without the slightest alarm.