Listen To The Teacher

I work in education, but I’m not a teacher. I’ve got no teaching qualifications and I’ve never worked in a school, unless you count the three weeks when I photocopied 350 reports three times over on A3 at the school my dad was headteacher of in 2001. I don’t. But the work I do impacts thousands, millions of children’s lives and life chances, it infiltrates nearly every secondary school classroom in this country. When it comes to my line of work, I’m pretty knowledgable. I was going to say I am an expert, but I’m very aware, working where I work, that there are others far more expert than I, but it is my profession and I work hard to understand the complexities and ramifications of what we do for children and their teachers everywhere.

Amidst all that, the thing I always strive to remember is, I am not a teacher. I’ve been surrounded by teachers my whole life, my parents, all three of them, friends’ parents, my own teachers, teachers who became my friends, the ex-teachers who I work with, now my children’s teachers. But I wouldn’t profess to know much more about teaching than your average well-educated broadsheet-reading liberal/socialist. You see, the problem is that everyone who was once at school themselves, seems to think they know something about teaching. I’m not saying they’re not stakeholders, I’m not saying their experience hasn’t given them insight, but are they experts? No. Which is why it makes me so angry the way that government, of any colour, messes and meddles with education despite in the main, the people doing the messing and meddling having no idea about everyday teaching and learning and how schools actually work in the 21st century.

When a fellow non-teacher came back from observing a maths lesson at a local school and said “it was a masterclass on differentiating to seven levels, I mean, I was gobsmacked” I knew what he meant and I knew what that highly skilled teacher had achieved and I was also highly impressed. But I know I could no more stand up before a class of 30 and teach them something meaningful than I could do a length of the butterfly stroke. I haven’t had the training and I’m not sure I’ve actually got the ability. Teachers are highly skilled professionals, who undergo intensive training, have to maintain their professional development year after year. But we don’t value our teachers.

You see, teachers are an easy target. It’s so easy to dismiss the late nights marking, the weekend days sacrificed to planning, the preparation. I work in a comfortable office with free hot drinks on tap and I can go to the loo whenever I want. Not teachers. They work in buildings that are sometimes not fit for purpose, without resources they need. They’re not able to get to the loo, because they can’t leave their class because their TA hours got cut due to budget cuts. They then scarf their lunch to run a club during the break. After school they’re driving the mini buses to the netball matches, football tournaments. All the kindnesses, the comfort given against bullies, the book chosen especially for a voracious reader, the encouragement given to the sportsperson in their area of talent or skill, the nights lying awake worrying about the young people in their classes.

So is it any wonder when they do all this, against the backdrop of funding cuts, a national curriculum that regressed to the 1950s, which doesn’t value the creative arts, against Academisation, performance related pay, against a testing regime which is unreasonable, against qualification reform in all areas, that teachers are telling us as my friend told me “We’re on our knees”? Teachers are leaving the profession some in the early stages of their careers, others after long service. I read about a couple, who are quitting education all together, because of the “bland and joyless” curriculum they are forced to teach. My friends alerted me to this impassioned post on Facebook by a teacher, Rebecca Bee, which went viral, as so many of these posts do. There is something very wrong here.

Why is nothing done about it, when a large group of highly qualified professional people are telling us, over and over, that this can’t go on, that their job is getting harder and harder to do? Whether that group of people is doctors, nurses, teachers, carers… Because it doesn’t fit the narrative. Because it doesn’t fit those lovely emollient soundbites they want us to swallow. Because it doesn’t fit their ideological journey to a country that sounds fair and sounds reasonable, but where inequality and opportunity no longer exist. Rather than admitting that schools need more money, that teachers need more support, that children deserve better, the government is fannying about the edges with free schools and “bring back the grammars”. Bring back an education worth having for every child. Stop measuring educational success on an arbitrary set of assessments. Start thinking about what skills children need to become independent adults in a world of zero hours contracts, social media, automation, payday loans, revenge porn.

Why is it that those of us who read those Facebook posts and newspaper articles and talk to our friends and our children’s teachers, why is it that we don’t we do something? Why are we not marching in the streets, alongside our teachers, in solidarity? Why aren’t we adding Facebook buttons about how much we love our education system, in the same we declare our love for the NHS? On the one hand, for people like me, it’s because we feel powerless. Because it’s inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Because it might have greater ramifications. Because it might mean that all that soothing political pepto bismol we’ve been swallowing is wrong. Because it makes us feel guilty for our lack of care, motivation, when we have our own things to worry about or our own cosy existence to preserve. Maybe next time teachers strike, we should be there with them, not whinging about it on social media.

But for others, the reason they don’t declare their admiration for our teachers, for our schools, is that their own schooling experience let them down. They worry about their own kids at school, because they remember what it was like. Maybe they still resent schools and teachers a little bit. Because they hated school, they hated exams, they felt stupid or frustrated, or they were desperate to get into the world of work, or their skills and talents weren’t recognised. Their education wasn’t a staircase to a successful adult life. It was a fenced in prison and they couldn’t wait to jump the wall. For some it won’t have mattered that they didn’t succeed in conventional ways. For others, they’ll feel their life chances were forever stymied by the fact they hated double maths on a Friday morning. To those people, I want to say, we can make it better. We can work together to make sure no child feels the way you did.

I’m willing to accept compromises for the meanwhile, because I know that no matter which flavour of politics is in government is, education and schools will never be perfect in its current format. A change more fundamental, more dynamic is needed, and I believe we’ll get there, one day, hopefully before the human race has to abandon earth for one of Saturn’s moons. And hey, maybe June 8th won’t effect that change, but miracles do happen, and it could be a start.

Omnishambles*

A big huge thank you to all the 13 of you who filled out the survey! Someone left a very intriguing message when I asked what else you, dear readers, would like to read about in this here blog. “Go meatier” they urged. “Travel, ethics, politics…”
And I thought, typically, “Well I don’t go anywhere much, and my ethics are a bit shaky, and I’m not going to bang on about Brexit..”

Events, however, have conspired against me. I haven’t been much of a fan of UK politics, because I’ve been feeling so sad and disengaged ever since sitting in an Ibiza hotel room watching the Tories rustling up Theresa May as their brand shiny new Prime Minister on BBC News 24, while Labour were undergoing an embarrassingly extended leadership contest. In fact, I cancelled my membership of Labour months ago, after Corbyn was confirmed as leader. Labour, bless them, didn’t appear to notice until on Monday night, Labour sent me a slightly shirty sounding email telling me I had 24 hours to renew my membership, and I sent back an email basically saying “Sort Corbyn, mushes, and you’ll get my monies.”

On Tuesday morning, I was watching the scrolling news on the tv screens at work, and seriously took my glasses off and rubbed my eyes, thinking that I had misread the ticker tape. But no, there she was, Theresa May, pudding bowl of steely hair, creature of the night gimlet eyes, announcing a snap General Election.

Awww NOOOO! I thought. You see, I had been writing a blog post about how when you have shit going down in your real life, you can’t face shit going down in the big wide world too. I’ve been ignoring Brexit (as much as a dedicated R4 listener and Guardian reader can). I decided to stop caring about Comrade Corbyn and his Momentum chums. I had stuff happening closer to home! My work and home life was imploding! And yes I do actually really care very much about this country, and people in poverty, and food banks and benefits cuts, and schools and education and the NHS, and I wanted to stay in Europe but I understand why some people didn’t. I care about it all very very much. But there are times when actually you don’t have the energy to care enough about the big things, when you’ve got big personal things happening that are overwhelming and scary.

And there’s another factor. Like so many others, I am tired of politics in this decade. I remember my first maternity leave, crying watching Brown leave Downing Street, because my baby girl was going to grow up under a Conservative government. I’m tired of leadership contests and referendums and new Prime Ministers. How much money is this General Election going to waste? Are Labour ready to fight a decent opposition campaign? (The answer is no). Can the Lib Dems recover from being tainted by their coalition experience and the tuition fees broken promise? And will the people who didn’t vote in the last General Election, and genuinely I do know someone who said they’d never voted until the Referendum on Europe, turn out and make the difference, make their voices heard?

Part of me has no faith, no confidence in any of it. Part of me thinks “Another bloody ballot, I can’t take this,” and I want to go and put my head under my duvet until June 10th. Another part of me, the hopeful part, thinks that maybe this is an opportunity for those of us who don’t like what’s happening across our country, who don’t fancy another five years of Tory rule, to rise up, somehow, and change things.

I don’t know if that’s at all realistic. I know I don’t live in a world which represents the experience of most people in this country. I know that we all live in our own echo chambers. The people we love, work with, stay in touch with on social media – we hear our own thoughts and feelings reflected back at us. Hence the number of people, colleagues, friends, who already have said, with that hopeful spark in their voices “it’s got to backfire on her, right?!” Maybe it will. But will it in a big enough way?

I’ve lost friends before, posting on social media about politics. Luckily I honed my ‘disagreeing but staying friends’ skills at university, when I hung out with some delightful Young Conservatives. In declaring my allegiances, I feel the need to reiterate that these thoughts and feelings, they are my own, and I’m not asking any of you reading this to vote the same way I might vote, or hold the same opinions I hold.

However, I guess this is a bit of a rallying cry in general, to those of us whose hearts sank at the news on Tuesday. We have to care. We have to get beyond feeling bogged down and unable to muster the energy to respond in the way we know we need to. No one is looking at this election with passion or enthusiasm, but at the very least, we need to gather enough motivation to cast our votes and to make our voices heard and our votes count. And then we can all go back to thinking about the small things that really matter, like which box set to watch, and what to eat for dinner and what to wear to work. Because it’s those things that make life bearable, the small, mundane and beautiful, against the canvas of the huge and impossible.

* From The Thick of It