I submitted my nine month report to my supervisors at the end of June, and a couple of weeks later had a meeting with my lead supervisor and my examiner. This was conducted as a ‘mini-viva’, which meant I had to have a stab at defending my research proposal and background reading. In the short time between submitting the report and re-reading it in preparation for this, I could already see some holes and issues, and of course they pointed out some more and we talked them through.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate tests, exams, or judgements on my performance. I’ve always taken criticism personally, which is why I never went into graphic design when I had the chance. Having the thing you’ve created (or the words you’ve written) pulled apart and rejected is the very worst thing in the world. It’s literally like being stabbed in the heart whilst simultaneously being humiliated by being told to stand still for the stabbing after you’ve stripped naked. On the other hand, I don’t want lavish praise for something that secretly isn’t right either. It’s a fine line which, I’m happy to say, everyone I’ve met in academia (especially my supervisors) are able to negotiate successfully. I’ve had no end of ‘well, what do you actually mean by that….. ‘ or ‘something you might like to consider is….’ which is how it should be done. The very worst experience I’ve ever had was when my Head teacher not only turned down my application to move up a notch on the payscale, but savaged the evidence I’d presented, in front of my head of department, and didn’t stop even when I was in tears and could no longer speak. That afternoon will forever be etched in my memory.
The reason I mention that is because, as a result of the feedback, one of the areas I need to research in more detail is ‘community’. My PhD is based on a community of professionals discussing their practice and other related issues in blogs of their own, and on social media. my approach is, I think, going to be rooted in ethnography (the study of communities from the point of view of an insider/participant) and to that end I’ve been reading this excellent book. One of the things the author suggests is reflecting on your own personal reasons for wanting to research a particular community, and so here is mine.
My interest in this was sparked two or three years after the incident I mentioned above. I was sat at home, signed off with stress, and so I turned to Twitter and invested a bit more time lurking around the discussions that were going on, and contributing my own points.
Back then, my account on Twitter was private. I originally joined Twitter not long after it started in 2006, and enjoyed the banter with the people I found on there. One or two of them I still talk with today, although I’ve never met them. A couple of years or so later, and I’d found a community of teachers, some of whom appeared to use their real names, some used pseudonyms, and some, like me, kept their accounts private so as not to be identified by students. Around that time, I was also ‘warned’ by my Head (the same one) that I should be careful what I said on Twitter, and that she was ‘aware I used it’. I’ve no idea how. Maybe she was one of the pseudonyms? A couple of years or so after that social media use was mentioned in staff forums, and the official local authority guidance directives were delivered. The bottom line was basically say absolutely nothing about your work, don’t even hint at anything, and it would be much better if you didn’t actually engage at all. Shortly after this Michael Gove weaponised Ofsted and the culture of fear surrounding social media was suddenly very real.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that the head to which I have referred was one of the ones that bought unquestioningly into the idea that if Ofsted said jump, she said ‘how high?’. I’m not criticising her for that – lots of Heads did the same. The real problem was that suddenly everything changed. Seating plans had to be submitted and revised and explained and justified; the same with lesson plans; the threat of a lesson observation (entitled ‘learning walks’) was ever present; books had to be marked and extensive feedback left for the students (who then had to comment and then we’d have to comment on their comment…. . Yes, really.); the amount of data that had to be submitted went through the roof; and on top of all this Ofsted appeared to be demanding lots of group work and student-led activities in a school where behaviour was an on-going problem the senior staff refused to deal with if there was even the faintest chance that they could claim it was down to poor teacher planning, lessons that weren’t engaging enough, or lessons that weren’t challenging enough. Plus, there were plenty of aspiring middle and senior leaders peddling the latest fad that we were ‘encouraged’ to try as it would be ‘exactly what Ofsted would love to see’, such as flipped learning. For those of you that don’t know, flipped learning is where you ask a student to watch a video with the knowledge they need at home, and then this is used as a basis for the lesson. Yes, it’s a great idea a) with students that actually do their homework, b) students with access to the web at home, c) students that are allowed to access the web at home, and d) students that care enough to do the task properly. If just one student fails to watch the video, the lesson’s activities are already compromised. If a handful don’t bother, you may as well abandon the lesson.
It’s at this time that I began to seriously question and doubt the things I’d been taught when I was training to be a teacher. I also realised that the atmosphere at my school was, in effect, toxic, and the only people that were going to suffer would be the teaching staff. Indeed, a number of staff left or were hounded out; the senior leadership team also changed and became a group of cheerleaders for the Head. There was nowhere to turn for support. And then I spend some time on Twitter, and realised that, while Ofsted had put THE FEAR into every school, not everyone was dealing with it in the same way. Some Heads and their teams were obviously supportive, as teachers in their schools were making clear on Twitter. These were the people that also blogged openly and felt able to discuss the strategies of their own school, and criticise the Educational establishment without fear of being called to account by their Head. They did it professionally, but they did it. I would have been too terrified to say anything openly. The experiences of other teachers were just like mine, and we commiserated together.
There was also a lot of discussion about Ofsted, which spilled over into blogs where the issue could be stated in more depth. There was much criticism, and many of their ‘demands’ were refuted with evidence drawn from research into pedagogy. Things like ‘learning styles’ (which my school, among many others, was still holding up as a guide to good practice) were thoroughly debunked. I felt, I knew, that I wasn’t alone in the doubts I was having, and the toxic work environment I was experiencing.
When I decided I was going to apply to study for a PhD, I knew the area I wanted to research, and I knew why. The discussions three years ago were intelligent, informed and supportive. Today, I’d argue that they’re even better. Many people appear to have joined in with blogs of their own, and I think I’ve learned more from them both in terms of pedagogy and a professional mindset than I ever learned when I was training. When I reach the end, if just one teacher who has been isolated like I was becomes aware of my work, or perhaps reads my blogs, and finds this community for themselves, I’ll be happy. And if the Educational Establishment realise that there is a community of knowledgeable, reliable and thoroughly professional teachers out there who know their stuff and care about what they do, so much the better. I live in hope.
p.s. After I’d left, my school went through an Ofsted inspection and was judged ‘requires improvement’ for the fourth time. The Head resigned.