Sean Scully - Morocco, 1995
Wednesday I was at Emily’s piano recital but Thursday I gave the wind-up speech at a conference in in town. One of the previous speakers had an interestingly fancy day-shape, but another made me want to bang my head on the table: ‘Building ethos through teacher rewards’. Not as in hard cash or time off, elegant performance-related pay review or a glowing reference. No, visiting classrooms and handing teachers postcards. Writing to them on Fridays ‘so they get a doormat thank you waking up a bit growly after a few cheeky beers’. ‘Corridor chats’ were recommended, and namedropping in briefings, because everyone loves that.
To my certain knowledge there’s only one person in a school who loves briefings. They’re catnip to the head but dentistry to everyone else. I’ve had leadership teams volunteer for bus duty in snow rather than sub for me at briefing.
Why so ungrateful? Why do I think this goodhearted Head so squirmingly wrong? First, teaching is a public service to be rewarded with decent pay and conditions and public respect. ‘A finger of fudge’ awarded in briefing (yes, really) is demeaning not amusing. Second, teachers choose the job and are paid for it: they don’t need corralling into a jolly gang but professional guidance and support to do well. Third, good teachers are tuned into the personalities in a room and are skilled at trying not to embarrass people. Fourth, teachers are not children.
Treating adults in a way that’s too crass even for most adolescents is symptomatic of a gimmicky, shortcutting, undermining approach to educating the nation’s young. Maybe I don’t thank teachers enough, but I know that their hard work and motivation aren’t reliant on clumsy presents from a corporate mother. Teachers are public intellectuals with advanced interpersonal skills and a liking for children. Being good at it can’t rely on superficial activities. It takes time, years of it.
Some training routes for teachers underplay this and undermine young colleagues with false promises. They breed an expectation that the institution will always do all the heavy lifting in terms of adolescent formation through uniform and behaviour proxies, silence and compliance. It’s just not as easy as that: a school’s strength relies on individuals and their relationships in classrooms, labs, studios, fields, offices, corridors and yards. Young people make choices and it’s in the nature of youth to make the wrong ones. They have to be educated and turned to face the light so they can grow.
Chatting on the corridor (oh all right) we tell Thos to take his coat off. He does, slowly. Sir remarks: we could have yelled at him and destroyed him on the spot, then he’d yell back and we’d have to exclude him. What would be the point? We like simple rules that build up our common life, so Thos has to take his coat off because the sea of Tallis turquoise indoors shows that we all belong together. As we explain again.
I collide with a class of year 7s rushing to watch a primary dance showcase that’s been practising on our lovely hall floor. They are beyond excited at a change to routine as we sheepdog and shush them into the hall, and the little ones gaze on these giants with awe. The dancing is blissful and the audience immaculate. Is that compliance, or happiness and human interest in a secure atmosphere? Year 13 assembly this morning was Caleb on gender construction: clear as a bell. ‘He couldn’t have done that when he was younger’ his form tutor beams.
Earlier I’d been to admire the new whiteboards in maths. We’ve got ‘em on all four walls in the rooms now and the mathematicians love them for their squares. ‘Maths teachers love squared things’ I remarked to a class which amuses Peter the wonderful band singer. Small groups help each other with topics from the mock. ‘I’ve just not been comfortable with this decimal!’ shouts Ahmed. ‘It made me panic in the exam and I lost 3 marks! I insist on doing it again tonight! ’
Some of them came to school for four days over half term and with skilled help are edging ever closer to success. How do you reward that public servant with a bar of chocolate?