Tom Bennett

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Is it Christmas ALREADY? Have a few more pages of Teacher ON THE HOUSE. I’m cutting me own throat, guv.

‘Oh Tom, have you written ANOTHER one…?’

I MAY have mentioned I have a book out. You can have a look at the first few pages HERE, but I thought it would be a gift that kept on giving if I were to shuck and jive your shekels by revealing a bit of ankle. So here’s the first part of what I hope is a portable INSET- and unlike INSET, you can say ‘I call bullshit on this’ with confidence and magnificence rather than hiding it under a cough. And you can marinate yourself in Châteauneuf-du-Pape at the same time. Marvellous.

Here, then, is wisdom.

Chapter One- What does it mean to be a teacher?

Most people enter the teaching profession with only an intuitive understanding about what being a teacher actually is. This is understandable, but prone to pitfalls, because those tiny assumptions take root and grow into giant beanstalks throughout your career. Or worse, someone will tell you which seeds are the right ones, and if you’re not careful, you garden is full of…I don’t know, banana trees or something.

If you’re a teacher, you need to take a step back and ask some of the most basic questions about what it is that you actually do- and then assess if it’s what you think being a teacher is really about. So what is a teacher? It seems to me that we won’t get anywhere trying to be a better one if we don’t know what we mean by a teacher in the first place. If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there.

What is a teacher?

Possibility1: Someone who teaches.

Think you’re clever, eh? Not so fast. We’ve only shifted the question back a bit. What is teaching?

Possibility 2: Someone employed by a school to stand in a classroom and…you know, do the thing.

This definition at least has the benefit of being concrete and definable. You are a teacher if someone provides you with a pay cheque to teach. You turn up, make educational jazz hands, and at the end of the day you go home to a pile of marking. Children vaguely address you as Sir or Miss (or if you’re in a progressive hell-hole, ‘Jim’). The problem then is that you’ve also simply pushed the definition back a degree, onto the shoulders of the people who employ you. How do they know what teaching is? What if different schools have different ideas about what a teacher is? No good.

Perhaps a better, less abstract method is to ask, ‘What does a teacher seek to achieve?’ The obvious answer is to say ‘learning’. And then we ask, in full Socratic style, ‘What is learning?’ And if you thought things were vague before, we’re about to press Turbo. Learning is another impossibly thick concept, i.e. it contains so many possible concepts and meanings that it could almost- almost- point to anything.

When we lick a battery we learn something; when we memorise a list of bones, we learn something; the first time someone breaks your heart, we learn something[1]. But surely this is an impossibly broad range of learning activities? The focus of this book is on the idea of a teacher as a profession, not in the broadest sense. What do teachers teach in schools? This is where the majority of teachers operate.. there are also an enormous number of home tutors and educators, parents involved in home teaching, coaches, mentors and various role models. They all have something in common. So I’ll give you my answer about what a teacher is…

A teacher is a professional who educates.

Let me analyze this innocent phrase. By professional, I mean a lot; I mean that it isn’t just a job; it isn’t something you clock on, mess about for a few hours and clock off again. This is important; like it or not, you operate in a very precious space: other people’s lives. You are a small but important link on the enormous chains that comprise other people’s lives. It’s closer to a vocation than a job; it takes heart, passion, guts and steel, knowledge and wisdom. It’s far too important to not care about. There are certainly people who think it is a job; it’s a huge sector, and a huge number of people are required to staff it- about 1.2 million people in the UK alone put Teacher on the census. You can dream on if you think they’re all The Knights of the Round Table. There are turkeys in this job, just like there are turkeys everywhere.

What are the aims of education?

Let me answer this by, annoyingly, sticking my boot into the question itself, and seeing what shape remains. Education has no aims. Education is an abstract. People have aims. A better way to answer this question would be, then, to say, What are the aims of people who educate? This is much easier to answer, because we can simply make a historical survey of what humanity has done previously, and then make a judgement.

Of course this leads us to another problem: just because we can understand what the aims of people are, or have been in education, doesn’t answer the question of what the aims of education should be. That’s a moral question, and one very much dependent on our values and ethics. And it’s one we’ll explore later on. Perhaps you already have an answer in mind.

Some possible aims of education

1. To produce a work force that meets the need of society. Not a very sexy ambition, to be fair, but at least it benefits from the virtue of simplicity. Society needs plumbers, airline pilots, lawyers and carpenters- so we design schools that will meet those educational needs.

Of course, one drawback with this model is that it has a depressing emphasis on utility- what is needed, what is useful. So that’s philosophy, arts and sandpits right out the window. Of course, you could argue that there is a need in society for entertainment, and people to provide it, therefore people to write, dance, sing, and perform, but that’s a fairly mean perspective to justify the arts and humanities from. And it writes off enormous fields of human endeavour that we unaccountably, perhaps irrationally are quite proud of, like Mozart, Shakespeare, you know, all that rubbish.

2. To socialize people into the cultural values of society.

The problem is that this aim, like many fuzzy ideas that lack specificity, means so much that it starts to mean nothing. Is it the job of education to instil the values of society? Even if we accept this axiom, the next question is, which ones? Even in Amish villages we can find dispute and subtlety of value. And a further problem is that teachers are not neutral umpires in this process; if we see education as the process where we formally instil values into children, then we encounter the problem that the teacher might very well have values of his own. You don’t have to go very far to find points of disagreement between people, even people who broadly share many values. How is a Catholic teacher to act if he is expected to teach how to put on a condom? How is an atheist teacher to react to the suggestion that children in his classroom will be expected to hear a prayer, led by him, every morning?[2]

You can’t just teach them values, not overtly. Despite a succession of well meaning governments, who have all seen the school system as the answer to the problems of society, children remain resolutely defiant of being told what to value. Perhaps it has something to do with how they are brought up at home? Just a thought.[3]

3. To develop their emotional intelligence

This is a more modern aim, and usually involves pitfalls and conceptual man traps similar to those found in (2) above. Emotional intelligence is so popular these days, I fully expect it to start Twittering and over take Stephen Fry. But what does it even mean? I’ve looked extensively into it, and I can report back, happily, that the answer is- very little. How can emotions be intelligent? How can feelings be reasonable? And by whose judgement?

Besides which, even if emotional intelligence was actually something real (which it isn’t) the problem remains; how would we teach it? I don’t know much about you, but I have a degree in Philosophy with Politics, which gives me a reasonable claim to expertise in those fields. What do I know about helping children to get in touch with their emotions and hug their inner child? Answer: none. I’m not a psychologist. A little learning, in this case, is certainly a dangerous thing, and brave indeed is the man or woman who dares to try to formally play games with anyone’s noodles.

4. To make them happy.

That’s nice, isn’t it? And it sounds good, until you consider that nobody is actually seriously suggesting that education should be about making people unhappy. If it does, then that’s incidental. Besides, the difficulty of actually trying to define happiness is so enormous, so Leviathan, that it’s almost pointless even trying, and certainly too conceptually abstract to develop anything like a teaching system that could be rolled out to millions of educational professionals. Another problem is that happiness means so many things to different people. Some people get their kicks from writing furious anonymous replies on educational blogs[4]; some people read Heat; some people collect stamps.

A further, even less appetizing idea that has crept into schools since the Every Child Matters initiative (of which more later) is the idea that teachers must actively try to make sure that students enjoy lessons. Again, while this sounds a perfectly innocent aim, it isn’t, because every time a student claims that they didn’t enjoy the lesson, the teacher is to be blamed. And as I’ll expand upon a little later, sometimes education just isn’t a blast. Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s dry. Boo-hoo-hoo.

5. To develop their potential.

This is another idea that sounds lovely, mainly because it’s so vague that it can mean whatever you want it to mean. The idea that we should discover what a child enjoys, what he or she is talented at, and then encourage them to blossom like little tulips is very attractive, and to be fair, it has a lot of strengths. I would certainly argue that we are usually good at the things we enjoy; perversely enough, we also seem to enjoy the things we are good at. Surely this then should be the goal of education, leading intuitively as it does to the idea of happiness, fulfilment, and hopefully life-long success?

Well, perhaps, perhaps. And I would certainly give a cautious slow clap to this idea. But there are other things to consider: this indicates that students shouldn’t be made to do anything that doesn’t interest them, or that they feel uncomfortable with. But education must be more than simply allowing children to do study what they want, because there are many fields and areas of knowledge that at first we might be uncertain about, until a passion develops further down the line. Or more significantly, we might still make a claim that there are things that everyone should study, even if the student doesn’t like them. Maths, for instance. Learning isn’t all about child-driven interests, or our perception of their personal flourishing.

[1] Chiefly, to spurn humanity forever and live like the Mole Man.
[2] I suspect he would be hopping up and down.
[3] Crazy idea, I know.
[4] Bastards.

To read more, you masochist, click here. Hope you enjoy it. 

What makes a good teacher? Clue: the answer isn’t in a questionnaire

Apparently in the future, dentists will build people.

What makes a teacher? Such a small question, with so many arteries swooping away in fractal branches of infinite regress. Changes in the application process have predictably irked and irritated some. My favourite metaphor, well-worn but serviceable as a pair of lucky pants, is that of a Rubik’s Cube; whenever something, anything, changes, something else changes to accommodate it, as if one were moving a white square from the centre to the corner of the fabled Hungarian toy for obsessed children of all ages.

As in popular solitary pursuits of manic friendlessness, so in policy. Given a closed system, every event has an equal and opposite response. Newton, you can HAVE that for nothing. If I spend an hour learning Sanskrit, my research into cold fusion suffers. I’ve learned to deal with it.

Some have not. Whenever anything changes, some people seem to be blind to this simple principle. Witness the Napoleonic shindigs that erupt whenever somebody moves a pixel on a social networking site. It’s terrifying: pages are launched (ON THE WEBSITE ITSELF I MIGHT ADD. DEAR GOD IS IRONY DEAD?) decrying the desecration of the temple. Oh, the howls, the humanity. I tell you, I would LOVE to see some data on people who leave as promised in response to the unforgivable cheese-moving of Zuckerberg et al, compared to those who…well, seem to be jess fine three weeks later, their sensibilities soothed by time and being a bit stupid.

So: teacher training is being shaken up. THREE. CHEERS. Here we have one of the most important professions in the world, but in the UK we have an application process that appears to be as rigorous and diligent as a Sorting Hat. (‘Ah, you have patience, and a pure heart: an ENGLISH TEACHER you’ll be. Now you….you have cunning and slavishness at your core……CITIZENSHIP MY LAD.’ etc). I had an odd route into teaching; I had a two-lane process- the normal PGCE hoop-jumping, and the ‘Fast Track‘ (motto: ‘Be the inspiration from the Staffroom to the Bathroom’), which was a sort of hellish, prodigal precursor to Teach First (motto: ‘I will work myself to death for a year’)  .

The PGCE was thorough, if nothing else. If the online question form had asked me to record the volume and intensity of my gastric dilations, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised. Then an enormous wait; then a placement in Primaries and induction observation weeks. Then the interview with the teacher training provider. Here’s an odd thing; at the interview I thought I did fine, and then I was hit with the requirement, a week later, that I should spend ANOTHER week in a secondary school before they would accept me. So I went back to my same school (Ellen Wilkinson, *tips hat*) and spent another week with the fine George Wrigley doing exactly what I’d done the first time already, losing a week’s pay in the process. Cheers for that.

IF ONLY

Which is fair enough- maybe they spotted some naivety on my part, some wandering inexperience. The thing is, I had no idea what the second week was for, but that it had to be done; and once done, I was accepted onto the course. ‘One more week,’ they thought, ‘That’ll sort the fucker out.’

On the Fast Track application, it made joining  the special forces seem like applying to become a Jubilee river-pageant steward. ANOTHER online form, with red tape straight out of Winston Smith’s holiday Visa application to Eastasia.

Here’s where it gets serious. THEN a psychometric testing session that took a whole afternoon. And THEN, and then… a two-day residential psychological assessment where we had one-to-one monitoring by aptitude psychologists, who gave their evaluations to the Grand Fromages. (‘Shows promise; may eventually write a petulant and cretinous blog about trivia. Keep away from children.’). Can you imagine the expense of this enterprise? I might add that I swooped through this like the Red Arrows. Clearly I was the Alpha DNA of teaching, to be copied and reproduced in Petri-dishes everywhere. A bit like Judge Dredd.

And when I walked into classrooms, I got shredded like Jeremy Hunt’s emails. Truly dissected, suggesting the surgical abilities of the Whitechapel Ripper. Looks like all that psychometric voodoo wasn’t so prescient after all. Regular readers will know all about my hilarious adventures in misery, my first few years in the blackboard bungle-jungle.

Why? Because in all that lovely assessment, and subsequent teacher training, I had maybe a couple hours of formal lectures on behaviour management, and the unluck to be placed in one school with immaculate behaviour, and another placement where the behaviour was apocalyptic and the coaching was …light, shall we say? There was more emphasis on working with EAL pupils in my teacher education than there was in running a classroom. Isn’t that appalling? Isn’t that the most witless, gutless, moronic way you could imagine to disempower a teacher? You wouldn’t send a soldier into the theatre of war with a diploma in trowel-appreciation skills, yet we send teachers into the battleground/ rainbow-wonderland dream-factory of the classroom with barely a fig leaf of expertise.

I get angry about this, and we should ALL get angry about it, because it’s symptomatic of the necrosis in education; an emphasis on what people would like teaching to be about rather than what it is about; an infantile belief that all classrooms are staffed by legions of biddable, keen, creative children who only need the flint-spark of inspiration to catalyse their evolution into the Omega state of flourishing. Allow me to testify- this is not so. Many children are, by the time they reach school, perfectly civil and altruistic, almost exclusively because of good parenting. But many are not; many treat the teacher as a punch bag until they are taught to do otherwise. For many children, a significant portion of their socialisation occurs WHILE they are at school, not prior to the experience. And we are the ones who are expected to do this, simultaneous with teaching them to read, write, calculate, hurdle and revise.

Allow me a plug: I write about this in my latest book Teacher, Mastering the Art and Craft of Teaching (allow me? Hell, this is my manor; I’ll plug as I please and damn your eyes, sir). Click the loyal link to purchase. If you feel a stirring of your loins as you do so, this is perfectly normal.

What do new recruits need?

‘Then we remove the spine and the testicles…’

Literacy and numeracy. I know of teachers who were allowed to resit and resit and resit the QTS online tests until they simply passed. Is that a reasonable allowance? I would say no, and I apologise to any this concerns. But if we the teachers can’t provide a reasonable level of these key skills, how can we expect our charges to flourish?

Expertise in their subject area. I can’t believe I even have to justify this, but apparently Satan is in charge of the material world, so I do. It isn’t enough to be a paragraph ahead of the kids. You have to have a degree of some kind in your subject OR some kind of comparable expertise evidenced in some other way. I’d far rather have a drama teacher who was/ had been successful in their field than someone with a degree in Method. A requirement to degree level understanding ensures that a teacher can teach to A-level, and to challenge the most able as well as the mainstream. I have no problem with the current restrictions on third class degrees, and reduced funding for sub 2:1 bursary applications, because what on earth is a degree but some kind of indicator of expertise? This is not too much to ask. I don’t want any of my as-yet non-existent descendants taught by someone who isn’t highly qualified in their subject area, and I suspect most parents wouldn’t be either. So why defend the ‘right’ to  do so? It just seems odd.

It says here that applications for Teacher Training are down by 15% since this time last year. Is that a bad thing? I know that teachers already find it hard to get work because of geographical and demographical imbalances between supply and demand. There probably needs to be less, and if the ones that are applying have shown the dedication to get higher degrees, then only someone unconcerned with child welfare would decry it.

‘Did you remember to add the SEAL muscle?’

Psychometric testing, though? Hmm. You’ve just read my experience of this arcane and inscrutable process. It says here that from September, many teachers will undergo personality evaluation. Now on the surface this is a good thing; there are simply too many teachers who aren’t cut out for the job, and I can say this safely because it’s true of ANY profession. We all know teachers who appear to have selected their career by shooting an arrow into a job-centre Rolodex.

OK, Computer- RAGE against the Machine

But the answer isn’t psychometric testing. Why? Because such methods give the illusion of sifting and selecting, of discernment and rigour, while simply being a way to legally insure the training provider against future challenge. ‘Look,’ they’ll say, ‘The Bones have Spoken. The entrails never lie.’ Who says psychometric tests can predict the suitability of a teacher? Any such test is going to be limited to the success criteria imagined by the psychologist designing it. Can any human being so carefully and completely map the well of human experience to say which man or woman will succeed in this life or that? To design an algorithm that anticipates the compatibility of body A to circumstance B? You, gentlemen, are trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

But anticipating the suitability of character is important. So how do we measure it? Simple. By NOT measuring the unmeasurable. By assessing like with like. By having successful teachers monitor and evaluate emergent teachers as they progress through the application and training process, and giving their evaluative opinions as the process proceeds. No test score can do that; only humans, judging humans. We are attempting to assess notions of value and meaning, and we need engines that understand such things, not fatalistic mathematical models of brutality and quantitative banality.

Here are the key teacher virtues: wisdom, gestated through experience; courage, to allow all action to be attempted; knowledge, as the basis for imparting understanding, and justice, to underpin all social conduct in one’s sphere. Build upon these, and I find that teachers turn out fine. Build upon anything else as a foundation, and the edifice tilts and leans, sometimes throughout a whole career. 

So I wouldn’t bother with psychometric tests. It suggests to me just another way for the teacher to be further codified and circumscribed by people who couldn’t do the job themselves. Let teachers judge teachers, and let parents and the Polis judge the result of those labours. I wouldn’t dream of telling a parent how to raise a child, nor a politician how to justify charging a second home to the public purse; I’m simply not qualified to do so. But I AM qualified to talk about teaching.

Because I am one. But no one asks us.

#teachervoice

@tombennett71

My New Book! TEACHER- MASTERING THE ART & CRAFT OF TEACHING, out this week

BUY THIS TO BEAT HITLER

 ‘Tom Bennett is the voice of the modern teacher. Everyone involved in education
wants to be the best they can be, to do all that we can for our young people, and
Tom gets ‘us’ as a profession . . . You will be a better teacher if you read this book!’

Stephen Drew, Senior Vice-Principal, Passmores Academy, UK, featured school on Channel 4’s
Educating Essex

 ‘This is a book all teachers need to read, whether they be in training, newly
qualified or experienced. It contains a wealth of golden nuggets for being an
effective and efficient teacher, as well as providing an understanding of the
current context of classroom life. Quite simply, this is one of the best and most
useful books I have read about what we do, and need to do as teachers.’


John d’Abbro, OBE, Head of the New Rush Hall Group, UK and Headteacher on Channel 4’s

Jamie’s Dream School

And who am I to argue with telly’s super-teachers? I’m honoured that Mr Drew, doyenne of  implacable intra-school justice, and Bad-boy D’Abbs,  have even read it, let alone been kind enough to endorse it.

No cheap shots at educational Aunt Sallies this week; instead a shameless plug for my new book out this week: Teacher- Mastering the Art and Craft of Teaching, which launches on Thursday the 7th June 2012.

CLICK HERE TO BE THE FIRST IN YOUR STAFFROOM TO OWN THIS MASTERPIECE

In my ‘umble, it’s my best one so far. The first, Behaviour Guru, was a straightforward selection of best tips in classroom whispering; the second, Not Quite a Teacher, was my interpretation of the NQT How-To guide. And now, this, the far-from-difficult third album. I like it because it’s closest in style and heart to my blog work, and a better representation of what I really think about education and the teaching profession.

Are you tired of the deluge of commandments that rain down on you like someone dropped two stone tablets on your toes? 

Because as a profession, we’ve had a bit of a hammering lately. No day passes without some educational hard-on passing more and more prescriptive definitions of what we should be doing in the classroom. Sometimes I feel we’ve been boxed into the corner of a painted room. We’re beginning to lose touch with what it means to be a teacher, and not some slavish delivery mechanism for the latest fashionable box-ticking measure. NO MORE. Throw your Ofsted planning guide into the bin and chillax with this. When we think about what we should be doing in the classroom, our first thought should be ‘does this further their educational well-being?’ NOT ‘What would Ofsted think?’ The approval of an external examiner should be an extrinsic concern to our profession. And ironically, if you focus on being a good teacher for its own sake, you’ll find that the other quantitative measures of success are obtained incidentally.


YOU COULD ALWAYS BUY TWO IN CASE YOU LOSE ONE MY GOD CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW AWFUL THAT WOULD BE? BETTER BUY TWO JUST IN CASE

This book is my exploration of what it means to really be a teacher, and how we can improve as teachers. What it isn’t is prescriptive; it doesn’t attempt to tell you what the Platonically ideal teacher is. What is does, is tell you what kind of character traits will make you a better teacher. Rather than tell you what to do, it tells you what teachers should be. It focuses on you, not just on rules to follow. That;s the heart of being a real expert, I think. Teaching requires you to think on your feet and make instant, complex decisions. No guidebook can prepare you fo that. So I’ve created a series of exercises and tasks that you can do in order to push and challenge you as a teacher.

I wanted to write something that I thought really went to the heart of being a teacher, and not just tell you how I do it. I want teachers to realise that there’s no one perfect method to teach, and that anyone who tells you otherwise is mistaking their way for the only way. Discover YOUR way.

I’m very proud of it, and I hope you enjoy it.

Tom

Click HERE to buy Teacher

‘This is a deeply thoughtful guide to becoming a better teacher. Bennett’s book
is full of practical wisdom rooted in sound philosophy and long experience.
His use of virtue ethics is a masterstroke, cutting a swathe through the tickbox
and checklist culture so as to reveal the very essence of good teaching:
good character. The ideas and strategies Bennett provides are perfectly
pitched for the busy professional, whatever stage of their career they are in.
All in all, this is a book which gives the reader practical and effective solutions
to the question which everyone in the profession asks themselves: how can I
get better? The answers, ladies and gentlemen, are within.’


Mike Gershon, sociology teacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, UK