Friday, 10 July 2009

From drama to real school change

During this summer holiday I have kept watching reruns of the BBC school drama 'Waterloo Road' every afternoon. Once a teacher, always a teacher I guess, but on top of that the series is simply too addictive to skip.

This week it was one episode from series 3 that made me start thinking once again about one of my favourite complaints, changing schools. A new head teacher was unexpectedly appointed to Waterloo Road, with the agenda of radically reorganizing the whole establishment. To implement any changes, she also started scrutinizing the practices of the staff, because according to her "there is no place for lazy and incompetent teachers in my school".

It dawned on me that in schools like mine, with a long-standing permanent staff, most of the teachers have secured quite wide comfort zones for themselves over the years. Although I wouldn't go as far as calling them lazy, they certainly feel they have the right to protect these zones at any cost. In our system, once teachers are given tenure, they can keep that post till they retire without having to develop or change anything in their teaching. No school inspections. Qualified teachers' competence is trusted and and they are highly autonomous, which, in most cases, gives them free hands to innovate and improvise. The other side of the coin is, of course, that the system also condones the attitude of the likes of Mr Budgen in Waterloo Road, whose "cynically disenchanted" work ethos is "I will only do what I'm being paid for", ie. I alone can decide how much or little effort I make for as long as I put in the required hours and paperwork.

Unless the head teacher, or school leadership team, or local authority strongly starts to require changes, there is the threat of a school becoming totally stagnant and isolated from the fast-paced surrounding society, with teachers stuck in a rut of perpetuating the style of their own teachers in the last century. Not many school heads are brave enough to start insisting on changes in teaching styles. Many of them are concerned about alienating their staff with the excuse that teachers would interpret their proposals as if the head was claiming that they had been doing it wrong all along, and consequently feel their professionalism undermined. Plus there is the further requirement for aging nations to try and entend people's working careers as long as possible. If it's an individual teacher who displays enthusiasm to inspire others to adopt new approaches, this is typically crushed by, if not outright resistance, at least the total indifference of the complacent majority.

A determined and dynamic head, like Ms Mason in Waterloo Road, would definitely be terribly unpopular among most of my colleagues. What I would like to question, though, is whether teachers can be competent if they don't feel the need to learn anything new about their profession after graduating from university. In the private sector, they would soon find themselves out of work! Maybe there should be more Ms Masons around to shake schools!

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with a Spanish student in June, when I visited our partner school there. This student had visited our school for a student exchange, but was currently in his first year of ICT studies at college. I had kept in touch with him as he had come across as a very astute young man, and had also helped me with another school project. Over a cup of coffee we started talking about school and education, and very soon he quite sharply pointed out that, in his opinion, there should be a strict age limit to how long one could work as a teacher. I queried his reasoning for this apparent 'agism' of his, and he maintained that younger teachers would reach students much better, as they lived 'in the same world' as them. I was quite taken aback, and took his criticism very personally. How could he say that to me, since I considered myself as still rather an 'in-with-the-times' teacher and young at heart? I tried to elaborate how school grading puts teachers in a position of power that easily leads to the 'us and them' mentality, and students failing to see teachers' good intentions of genuinely caring and trying to help them. On the other hand, I did agree that age is a problem for teachers if it turns them into condescending besserwissers unable to listen to, appreciate and learn from young people's points of view. Part of his argument was that too many teachers work rather more like civil servants than educators with a true calling. I couldn't but agree that, unfortunately, many counterparts of 'Mr Budgen' can be found in real life. Then again, should teachers be expected to be self-sacrificing entrepreneurs at the present salary levels in many schools? Why are so many clever mathematicians deserting teaching for more lucrative jobs in tech companies, for example? Where to find justification to the maintenance of the costly, and apparently outdated, state school system in the present economic situation? And so the dialogue went on.

In the end, we started laughing that actually the whole premise of the age argument had been disproved by our very meeting and fruitful sharing of ideas. As we parted, we agreed to become Facebook friends, and I started praising the user-friendliness of many new social media tools for us 'oldies'. His final comment: "You know, it takes young people like me to develop these tools so that old people like you can use them!" Touché!

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