Life outside the Forest: one year into research

I wonder how many of you have been watching the series of The Island with Bear Grylls, one episode with the men’s group and the other with the women’s. As soon as it began it was hard not to compare the performance of the two groups according to gender.  Would stereotyped behaviour emerge or would our expectations be challenged?  I was certainly shocked how easily half of the women’s group, venturing out to discover a site for a good base, were lost in the wilderness. They spent days without proper food and drink looping in circles through the trees trying to find, firstly their way to the sea, and then to find their way back to camp.  Watching their struggles, Bear informed us that, without the ability to see the sky or any recognisable landmarks, us humans have the tendency to walk in circles. As teachers we can easily relate to the idea of been immersed in the forest, especially with the way our lives our governed by the academic calendar.  We take great strides into the trees in September and emerge in June or July, blinking at the brightness of the sun.  In between we trek well-worn paths and sometimes discover new ones.  We often think we are in a new place, only to realise we have been here many times before.  Our worlds become a life under the canopy.  We listen to the twittering of the birds, but even these can be deceptive.  We think we hear distant sound of those cutting down the forest only to discover that some tweets are mimicking chain saws, causing alarm about supposed new government initiatives, deceptively convincing.

About eighteen months ago I had a difficult choice to make: to make a move to another deputy role, go for some headships, or to carry on with the research I had enjoyed so much as part of my Masters, by starting a doctorate.  I had juggled the Masters work with life as a Deputy, but knew that for me this would not be possible, if I was to keep going with the research.  So I decided to step outside of the forest.  This would allow me to carry on with the research, but also continue some of my favourite aspects of work as a deputy.  I could work with teachers, as they worked through the PGCE process and write material to deliver to teachers through training encounters.  At the end of my first year of research outside the forest, what I have learnt so far about the process?

  1. There is always so much to learn.  I never thought of myself as a great writer, but I didn’t think I was terrible either, but I have learnt so much about the ways I can improve my technique through the superb, critical feedback I have received from my supervisors.  They have challenged every aspect of my thinking process and we don’t get that enough in our working lives.  Teachers are usually such a supportive community that we tend to praise our peers rather than truly critique them.  It’s understandable, given morale at the moment, that the common approach is one of wanting to encourage others.
  2. There’s a lot to learn about the forest whilst being outside of it. Of course I’m not suggesting that it isn’t important for teachers to share good practice with each other. As a deputy I was passionate about learning together as a community, so much good can come from it. However, I’ve been surprised by many colleagues’ quick dismissal of what can be learnt from outside of the forest that can inform and enhance our day to day practice.
  3. Inspiration comes from many places.    I have learnt an awful lot from a host of different sources including the twittering birds of Twitter.  Through my research I have enjoyed the inevitable journal surfing, one journal leads to its references and then that takes you to the next article and so on.  Like many here I’m sure, my Amazon wish list runs into hundreds.  I have also learnt that sometimes we don’t get the chance to encounter some great sources of inspiration.  This can be seen when people share their reading lists, as often the same dozen or so books are there. It’s an argument for access to research, but certainly if there are staff researching in your school it’s a bonus for them to share the good stuff with colleagues.
  4. Life outside the forest isn’t always easy. The regularity of the academic year can make you feel like you are living on a hamster wheel at times, but take that familiar regularity away suddenly and it can really throw you out of kilter.   Teachers often say that the intensely structured life following the timetable of an academic year makes the years fly by. I’ve learnt that’s true, but also that there’s a lot to love about regularity, enjoy the support it gives you and that you always have the freedom to change.
  5. There’s a great view of the forest from here and I actually can see the wood for the trees.  It’s all about a different perspective. Sometimes having the opportunity to step outside can help to see new things about the forest. Just like the women on The Island, with no chance to see the sky or recognisable landmarks, I know there were times when I could not see where I was.  That is why I still see value in the away day INSET, because for that day you step outside of your usual routine. I’ve always felt that the chance to acknowledge the bubble we operate in and to be able reflect upon it is essential.
  6. Some people don’t value my time in the forest.  This really shocked me. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, but for some my move to senior leadership was enough to push me to cushy forest fringes where I sat in the comfortable visitor’s centre (drinking tea all day apparently).  That was bad enough, but now I’ve basically been asked to leave the forest, because I have no idea of what it’s like to live there. I can, of course relate to there being different experiences of the forest. It’s very different being a lumberjack to say being a botanist. However, I do know what its like. I have learnt a lot from twenty plus years in the woods and I continue to learn from others who share their forest experiences. I have been trained as a teacher, have worked hard as a teacher and I continue to be proud to see myself as a teacher as I continue to teach. Why are some so quick to dismiss that?
  7. There are always new things appearing in the forest. This is one of the most exciting aspects of this life and yet at the same time this can also be a source of frustration. This is why it is important to always remember…
  8. There are many things that do not change. I can recall recently encountering the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ and being excited to discover this new development. I then realised it was essentially structured, i.e. with boxes or trees, etc., handouts. People were raving about their value and it made me laugh given that these have been part of my experience for well over twenty years.
  9. The more questions you ask, the more interesting it gets.   For a number of years I have been fascinated by leadership theory and the impact it has on practical matters.  I am amazed and saddened by those that teach for a living, but are so quick to dismiss any theoretical study of educational leadership.  How does that inspire a love of learning?  The more I study issues of leadership, headship, identity and gender the more I realise these questions definitely still need to be asked.  Another reason why I am a passionate believer in the professional development of teachers.
  10. The forest looks amazing from here. Perhaps it’s because I am not trekking through, looping in circles. In the thick of it, with no break it’s easy to see the forest as some kind of prison, trapping us and sapping our energy. From here, it looks diverse, broad, huge, full of life and energy. New shoots are springing up all over the place ready to be nurtured. I’m hoping those inside don’t build too many fences because being able to go in and out of the forest I think does everyone some good.

Will I return to the forest? I’m not sure. I actually get to spend more time in classrooms now than I did as a deputy, but who knows where this new path goes, for me it’s undiscovered countryside out here.  This weekend I saw three women from The Island on television talking about their experiences of reintegrating back into society, with all its comforts and excesses.  Despite this and despite their lack of food, water, energy as seen on The Island, they were asked which would be their preferred choice – here or there.  For all three it was easy, they wanted to go back there. It’s amazing what perspective can do for us all.

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Thank goodness RE is complicated

complicatedWhy did I choose to teach RE? The answer was really simple, because I loved my subject. I was passionate about Theology & Philosophy of Religion, and by the time I reached the dizzy heights of 22, had been so for at least a decade. Why did I love it so? Because of complexity. It was the way in which humans encountered the divine in a number of ways, but each was beautifully complex. I had loved my university lectures on Systematic Theology, because I liked the nitty gritty of Incarnational or Trinitarian theology, for example. I even enjoyed coping with the complexities of early church history, because those Patristic leaders seemed to spend decades arguing over single words, because they wanted to agree to create creeds and canons. With Patristic Theology there never seemed to be a sense of, ‘Well, that’ll do for now’. Then there were the textual studies. Having been prepared for Theology by learning New Testament Greek, at my local comprehensive, by the most brilliant of teachers (see ‘I want to continue to develop professionally’ ) I was ready to dissect text with the rest of them. I was happy to translate Mark’s Gospel with all its hurried mistakes and clumsiness. Was challenged by the detail of Romans, but loved in particular John’s Gospel, with all its hidden symbolism, underpinning structural meanings, its theological clues that sent you on an exciting detective hunt. I loved the complexity. Even now, if I’m feeling in the mood for a little Greek jousting, I will happily answer the door to bewildered JWs to discuss the role of the definite article in Trinitarian theology. For me, there were frustrating, yet beautiful paradoxes to battle with and yet this was only half of the picture. Theology’s intricacies also sprung from the fact that people are complicated too. Not surprising if you believe in Imago Dei.

 

Why did I want to teach RE? Well that love and appreciation of complexity of belief, of people and of divinity had been nurtured in me by outstanding teachers. They loved their subjects too and had passed that on to me. The RE department that I attended did have its beautiful wall displays (albeit in a portacabin, too hot for summer, too cold for winter), but it had even more beautiful discussions. Nobody dumbed anything down, that I can remember. We were not a selective school, a nice rural comprehensive, so quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of ultra brights, Oxbridge classes for some, but some struggled too. I remember my A level class had about 20 in it. Students were drawn to the variety within the subject. I wanted to be able to pass that excitement on, just as my teachers had done.

 

Once teaching, I like to think that I managed to sustain that level of complexity, even being asked to teach an A Level paper on Patristic Theology and still using the Greek for analysing Mark’s Gospel at GCSE. Over the years the demands and expectations of the subject have changed, but the best RE is still a subject that embraces the complexity, rather than distils it into something unrecognisable. Watered down, the study of religious views loses its vibrancy. Maybe this is echoed in the ‘post-Christianity’ that Rowan Williams recently spoke about. Rather than a dismissal of Christian values instead an ‘in-the-background’ complacency. It would be easy for that to be a feature of RE too, if it wasn’t for the vigilance of great RE teachers. The classic ‘breadth at the expense of depth’ conflict, making sure we know something of what everyone says on the subject of abortion, at the expense of really knowing what anyone believes. How could you possibly

‘adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ (‘Religious Education: realising the potential, Ofsted, p5)

if religion has become a beige catalogue of pretty days and greeting card sentiments. No wonder RE organisations and teachers see the need to challenge the level of achievement in RE. It lifts the heart to see that the Religious Education Council’s first step in mapping out a way forward with RE is to acknowledge its complexity, not only in terms of its undefinable quality, but also in its encompassing of the complexity of people (‘A Review of Religious Education in England, p48). It’s a tough job out there.

 

So, the on-going challenge to teachers of RE is to embrace and communicate the challenge. One way in which faith was presented to us in a more sophisticated way was through the medium of television with the third series of Rev on the BBC. Here we met with Rev Adam Smallbone, his wide, his colleagues, and his parishioners. What we were shown was an exploration of what faith means, of the value and meaning of prayer, of forgiveness, of liturgy, of sin, of death, of tradition, of ecclesiastical structures, of Easter and perhaps most importantly of doubt. Nothing was explained away to the nth degree, questions were not always answered and it wasn’t always funny, but it was complicated, because belief in a divine being is complex, as are people. Encounters like this also serve to highlight where good RE teaching has always led the way in tried and tested educational theory (see Delivering the Perfect RE Lesson ). A discussion about Rev. could illicit some interesting and profound responses.

 

Why do I still love RE? Because now more than ever is a time to enjoy complexity. We even have a phrase, ‘dumbing down’ and we have books for dummies (of which I am happy to admit I am one). That’s fine, because we all need support and scaffolding to help us understand difficult things, but as with Wittgenstein’s early view of language as a ladder, it serves a purpose to help us climb to a different level, but we can kick it away once we’ve got there. It’s worth the effort, RE for dummies would be like ‘Wizard of Oz’ without the Technicolor. We need to embrace the complexity.

 

I can remember in the midst of my days as a theological student, going along with a friend to their place of worship to see what it was like. The people were lovely, the music was amazing, but as a rather too earnest theologian I can remember hearing a preacher say that ‘Kingdom’ was a tricky word, so for his talk he was going to use the word ‘family’ instead. I couldn’t tell you what he said after that because in my head I think I had begun to list all the ways, theological and otherwise, as to why ‘Kingdom’ was not like a ‘family’.

 

This is not an argument ignoring accessibility, instead it is a celebration of complexity. When I was a Head of RE I often had parents ask why it was still called RE, one even suggested it could be called, ‘Respect’. Hmm. My standard answer was always it is Religious Education because the majority of the world’s population are religious, it was about religion, even when it was about atheism and agnosticism, it was about religion. No need to hide from that. So, my hope, along with so many RE supporters out there is to embrace the details, light the fires of fascination and challenge each new mind you encounter, because complexity doesn’t get much better than this.

It’s time to speak up & say something interesting

20140203-150601.jpgI recently watched a short clip on television that introduced me to The Bechdel Test. This was not something I had heard of before, but was fascinated to discover that it was a very simple test that was applied to films concerning their treatment of women. This was popularised by Allison Bechdel in 1985 and consists of three simple rules:

The film must contain:

  1. Two named women who
  2. Talk to each other
  3. And the topic of their conversation must be about something other than men

Really simple you might think, but when you see some of the films that fail this test it does make you pause for thought. These failing films include recent box office hit, The Wolf of Wall Street, not surprising perhaps, but other films that fail are Slumdog Millionaire, Shrek, The Bourne Identity, Ghostbusters, Wall-E, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Men in Black, Shawshank Redemption, Up and Toy Story. Why don’t these films have a female conversation in them? It could be because the setting wouldn’t allow it, but when you look at the list that doesn’t explain them all. There are many great films that fail this test. Their failure needn’t detract from their greatness, but it is a bit sad when it seems those you made the films thought that women have nothing interesting to say. It reminded me of one scene from Sex and the City where, yes many, many conversations were had about men, but many were not. This one scene had an exasperated Miranda who wanted to share her joy of her new Palm Pilot whilst the others wanted to discuss boyfriends. Is that really all women can talk about?

Whilst watching the latest Celebrity Big Brother I was amazed that the issue of sexism was such a strong theme throughout its run. Whether it was the naive craziness of the Lee Ryan love triangle, with grown women fighting over a very silly man, or the confidence of Luisa which others either found disgusting or threatening. Now I am not condoning all the moral choices that were discussed during the programme, but I was amazed by the way the public hated Linda’s moaning ways and yet were happy to make Jim, who had spent the majority of the programmes bad mouthing many of the women, although all the men were ‘honest’. This seemed to culminate in a heart to heart between Jim and Luisa, which was brilliantly commented on my Allison Woolley (Education Editor from the Guardian) when she said:

@alicewoolley1: Jim telling Luisa she needs to tone herself down and pretend to be less assertive. Classic sexism. #cbb

This just seems to reinforce the idea that women should pipe down. This comes at a time too when I had read a great blog from @Chocotzar (http://chocotzar.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/i-would-if/ ) . She talks about the patriarchy of Teachmeets and of Twitter itself. She touches upon an idea that has been raised before, that not enough women are prepared to speak up on Twitter. There have many well-publicised cases of women being trolled, not just by men, but by other women as well and this is thought to have put many women off from speaking up. This makes me feel very sad and the notion that women have nothing to say or are frightened to speak and I find this far more worrying a prospect than a young girl twerking on a music video award show.

In days when some are remarking on the lack of women role models it is worth taking time to think about which women are speaking up and what are they saying? Any young woman looking for a role model should really look no further than Malala, a young women with plenty to say, all of it inspiring. Great news indeed that she has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is not the only role model available to young women. In other spheres Jennifer Lawrence is carrying films as the lead taking on strong roles such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a character with a story that is not just about her relationships. Jennifer Lawrence herself has challenged some of the stereotypes wrapped up in the body image of the Hollywood ideal. Lena Dunham also has brought a refreshing depiction of life as a modern young woman. Dunham herself as writer, producer,director and actress should be inspiring young women that if they do not feel that they are being represented to go out and write their own stories.

20140203-152524.jpgI could list the inspirational figures of yesteryear, but as educators we need to lead by example and show what is worth speaking up about today. Whether you agree that the educational world on Twitter is patriarchal or not, it is still worth speaking up,whatever your gender and speak up for positive role models and the beneficial effect they and we can have on young people.

Why would we want to watch schools on television?

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With the overwhelming number of adverts for ‘Educating Yorkshire’ it is not surprising that education is yet again in the spotlight. Thoughtful columnists have been extolling the virtues of the wonderful pupils and teachers we have been introduced to in a school far, far away. It seems that everyone has expressed an opinion about the way in which the school has come across. It is not the only school to have let the cameras in as we have been allowed into the exclusive, mysterious world of ‘Harrow’, although by contrast its camera work is less ’24 hours in A&E’ and more ‘Inside Claridge’s’. Add to this the wonderful dalliance with education created by David Walliams and Catherine Tate in ‘Big School’, Jack Whitehall continuing to have fun in a school setting through his ‘Bad Education’, and the on-going bizarre world of ‘Waterloo Road’, it all makes you start to wonder. Is working in a school the funniest and best job in the world? Would everyone want to work in a school if they could? Here are some thoughts on why schools make such essential viewing:

1. Everyone has been to school.
There are not many professions where everyone can claim to have an experience of what it is like to be there. We’ve all been to school and we all know teachers. Therefore there is a universal appeal of the classroom. Everyone has a story to tell from their childhood and people tend polarise their experiences so that they fulfil one of the stereotypes of either naughty, rebel child or swotty golden pupil. Either way there is a humanistic appeal that we can all relate to, even if it is noticing that the first year ‘Shells’ cheat as much as state school kids in ‘Harrow’.


2. It heals those that suffered
.
I think it is odd when some people try to say that school days are the best days of your life. For many they are excruciating times of huge insecurity when self-esteems are trailing along at floor level. What is hugely frustrating for many is that they felt so powerless, either having to keep up with the ‘in crowd’ or to dodge their tormentors. By laughing at all the shenanigans on the television versions they remind themselves just how secure they are now and how good it is to be grown up and past all those school days. Viewers can empathetically share in the experiences of these schools, real and imagined from the safety of their sofas.

3. Everyone has an opinion on how to teach.
Most teachers are fully aware of this, whether it is the on-going debate about Gove, examinations and levels. It is one of those professions where most people think they know how to do it, even if they have been trained for an entirely different job. Think about the average parents meeting where the educated professional lawyer parent is quite happy to explain to you how you should be teaching their child, when you would never tell them that they hadn’t completely understood the law with their latest case. Admittedly we see very little actual teaching in the comedy series, other than mayhem, starters and well plenaries…sort of. It has been gratifying to see non-teachers recognise the authority, good judgement and patience already demonstrated in ‘Educating Yorkshire’

4. Teachers are funny
Now how they are funny is somewhat debatable. Are they funny ha ha or funny peculiar, well of course they are both. There are so many odd balls in the teaching profession that we are most of us just a hop, skip and a jump away from the caricatures that we encounter in the comedies. Teachers are Kings and Queens of their own domains, who are allowed to thwart any challenge to their authority. Is it any wonder that we all go a little power crazy at times? Is it bad that the teacher encounter that has made me laugh most so far from the ‘Educating Yorkshire’ stable is the scary Deputy shouting “Do Maths!” in the corridor at some random child. Haven’t we all felt that at some point. Just me then…ahem.

There are other ideas of course, the appeal of funny interactions of youf and old people (teachers) for example, but these are few immediate thoughts. My sense of nostalgia is now making me miss ‘Grange Hill’ with its opening gambit of bullying via forceful,use of bangers and mash. Come back Mrs McClusky and take charge again, I think Miss Jones has been at the whiskey. Ahh those were the days. Now shush because I want to hear more about Bailey’s eyebrows…