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.