Amongst the busy life I lead as a school principal, leader, counsellor, mentor and blogger, I also teach classes, currently some Year 8 History and Year 9 Spanish. It’s important to note I have always taught, secondary and sixth form it must be said, in order to validate some of the decisions I have had to make over past years. It’s one thing to know the theory, quite another to have the experience to understand how that might roll out in practice. When the Chartered College of Teaching opened 12 months ago, I became a founding member, because I am utterly convinced that Teaching is a unique profession, not just an extension of business or commercial activity.
Rachel Jackson, from the Institute of Education at John Moores University in Liverpool writes under this headline in today’s Impact magazine from the College. Rachel’s quite right about the activity of teaching being that complex, and not the first from our profession. Here’s Lee Shulman, an American educational psychologist, widely quoted on the difficulty of Teaching.
Here’s Rachel writing further: “It must be remembered that education was considered a discipline of philosophy at first but due to the desire to find ultimate answers to questions of pedagogy, it was thought best to view education scientifically. This ‘big R’ Research, as Goswami and Stillman put it, was seen as inadequate if teachers are not granted the space to think carefully about the implications. Over 30 years on, are we philosophers or technicians?
The dominance of the ‘science of learning’ reinforces the perception that teaching is merely a technical endeavour but, as Cochran-Smith and Lytle maintain, it is so much more than this and ‘practitioners are legitimate knowers and knowledge generators, not just implementers of others’ knowledge’. Winch et al. see teaching as consisting of tacit understandings and reflective thinking as well as technical information but surmised that until teachers are given the space and the capacity to think deeply about the evidence they are bombarded with, teachers cannot be philosophical. As Ball, Maguire and Braun put it, teachers remain ‘ciphers’ who merely ‘implement’.”
Over the last 5 days since our return from half-term, those I work with have noticed I have been a little vexed. Obviously, with the new Campus proposals and consultations underway, pressure groups and their arguments to consider, I have a whole new wall of work to consider. We’ve also had 2 Year 11 parents evenings to handle this week, discussing exam possibilities as well as future destinations with some 100 families and the young people concerned. We had over 160 children involved in our Scholarship examinations, so I have had all those cases to consider, as well as those applicants in contention for Sixth Form award as well. With some of my leadership ill or injured too, there have been additional parents consultations to attend and monitor, and of course the daily ‘Russian Roulette’ of school life brings its unexpected experiences too. Late on Wednesday evening, I needed to act as paramedic, accompanying one of our older pupils home in their mother’s car for example.
None of the above vexed me.
Prior to half-term, I had been asked to read a manuscript of a new book on Childhood and parenting, to provide feedback and perhaps a ‘quote’. Since the book has yet to be published, it’s title is confidential, but the 6 authors are coworkers in one of the psychology services we use. Mothers as well as clinical psychologists, these current practitioners have chosen to write in depth, giving pen-portraits of case histories, about the children under the age of 11 they have been working with in recent years. The book is over 300 pages long, and the contents are a page-turner. I’ve already replied in draft with my quote: “This is a remarkable book; it is packed with wisdom from expert practitioners whilst at the same time illustrated with case examples that highlight very specific strategies for successful therapeutic interventions that parents will recognise straight away. The writing exudes empathy from the 6 authors, everyone a mother and still working on getting it right for their own children”.
What vexes me is that I never knew being a parent was so hard, and on reading through the very many case notes in the book, we obviously had it so very easy when bringing up our own children. Equally vexing is that I recognise the exemplars in so many of the cases I and my colleagues in leadership are dealing with each day. We are facing an epidemic of mental health issues in our schools in England and mine is certainly not immune from the crisis. National statistics suggest that 1 in 10 of our children are suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder, that’s over 100 children at Claires Court, 2 in every class at any one time. Those individual mental health issues may be resolved, but of course those unseen at an early age in others will rise up to take their place.
I have tried my utmost to ensure that we have both the qualified staff and expertise/experience in place to manage the daily issues that confront teachers and parents in the daily care of their children, to ensure we are so much more than ciphers implementing from a cue-card. What’s so comforting about the writing of the 6 clinical psychologists (coming from healthcare) and of researchers such as Rachel Jackson (coming from educational research) is that both confirm the sheer complexity of what we in teaching have to do each day, and that there are sources of confirmed knowledge and proven therapeutic pathways that will keep teachers and parents able to manage well the daily challenges they face…which I repeat are “As challenging as in an emergency room during a natural disaster”.
Let me finish on a hopeful note. Almost everything a parent naturally does to provide for their children is intuitive, and most get this right. A baby needs an adult nearby whenever they need them, to comfort, console, secure and care. Readily available parents, and as we are proxies to this, teachers too, are able to provide physical reassurance to help children feel safe, and by being consistent in such support allows children to learn how to calm themselves. What is less obvious to parents as their children get older is that that need for a place of safety does not get less, and this is not just about ‘space’ in a physical sense, but also of that in time. Being together, not making all of life the treadmill that some days feel, keeping blame away and keeping hope in conversation alive and eternal is the way forward. As we all age, what next has to be done is not quite so intuitive and automatic. Telling children not to worry is often the worst thing that can be said, as is expecting that learning is linear and there won’t be serious hurdles along the way. It should be no surprise that in really effective schools, mental health matters are pre-eminent, because the children do feel safe and able to surface their worries and cares. That does not mean that every child needs clinical interventions, but it does mean that those of us with responsibility must (and do) consider these as serious options. And it means I need to get to know my pupils well, and that’s why I need to be in the classroom, so I keep that particular skill ‘honed’.