In my last post, I explored the theme of professional unity, and did my best to make a case for it as the only feasible option if we want to see future success. Here, I will explore a few criticisms I have heard and come across, and explain why I don't think they will really hold up if put to the test.
"The unions are ideologically different. Some are against striking, while others support it."
Yep, that's an undeniable fact. But, is it really a barrier to professional unity?
Democratic decision-making is at the heart of the union movement. Unions exist by the grace of their members, and decisions which affect members ought to emerge from them, and of course these same decisions must be ratified by them. Yes, some unions have taken the decision that strike action isn't for them. This baffles me as I don't generally subscribe to the idea that you ought to voluntarily throw away one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal (except of course for the cases of actual warfare, particularly nuclear warfare).
Anyway, fine, you don't currently believe that strike action is a way forward. I don't personally take that view at the minute, but I'll make you a deal: I'll give you as much time as you like to convince me that I am wrong and you are right, as long as at the end of a fair debate we both accept the way the vote goes.
If strike action is fundamentally not the way to go, then you'll find the way to convince me of that. So, are the arguments of people against unification so weak on the issue of strike that they are unwilling to test them democratically?
"A union of teachers needs to be 'of and for' teachers."
I really could just leave it there and feel quite justified, but it am feeling ranty and this is my website after all.
At the NUT Conference, one particularly poignant debate was centred around the need for qualified teachers in every classroom. This is not to suggest that others can't help a child (or an adult) to learn, but the debate drew on the very secure knowledge that trained and qualified teachers are the best at educating others. What came out of this debate, though, wasn't that teachers were just in it for themselves.
It was the love of teaching, and a love of learning, that informed the debate.
People in education are united by a core belief: that education is paramount, and nothing can better prepare someone for life than a quality education. I don't think I'll find a lot of TAs, lecturers, educational psychologists, pastoral managers, deputy heads and head teachers (and I could go on) who don't feel that this central philosophy - this "core moral purpose" (to borrow a phrase) - is central to education. This is the tie that binds, the thing we all have in common.
I know there are arguments that a union consisting of such a wide variety of professions might find common ground hard to locate, and even harder to stand on, but I simply do not agree that these so-called "divisions" should hold back a move towards real professional unity.
"A large union is only about antagonising the Department for Education, and can't possibly take individual members' concerns seriously."
My initial reaction to this argument was actually mildly sympathetic, so I will acknowledge that first. In fact, it fits with my general mantra of supporting small business, shopping locally, and avoiding too many super-corporations. It has all the emotional resonance it needs as well: we generally prefer small classes, more individualised attention for our students, and more direct support ourselves.
But no aspect of my "mantra" is written in stone. I accept that Apple makes a better computer than I could if I managed to source all the raw materials locally. I accept that I'm going to have to shop at Sainsbury's (near payday) or the Co-op (later in the month) now and then. I further accept that I prefer national sports to local sports (I like when the whole country gets behind something) and I like the Olympics even more!
So the more I thought it through, the more it was obvious that "it's too big" wouldn't quite add up. Again, it seems like an easy emotional choice. But at the start of every debate it will almost always be unions trying to converse (and occasionally negotiate) with a national government. That's a pretty powerful force on the other side of that table, with an awful lot of resources. Resources for research, publication, and public relations. Resources for dissemination of information, and collection of data. Huge, massive, comparatively unlimited resources!
So I'm spoiling for a fair fight.
Or, as fair as it can be, and not necessarily a fight, either. In fact, the fairer the discussion, the less likely the need to fight!
Beyond fighting (or "antagonising") I think that a genuine union, which has grassroots membership at its heart and professionalism at its head, need not worry about losing touch with its membership. I don't feel put out that Christine Blower probably doesn't know who I am, but I know full well that if I ever need help, my union will be there for me (though let's hope I don't see that day).
Part 3 - The Way Ahead - is coming soon!
The debate over how to teach sex and relationships doesn't seem like much of a debate at all.
Turn on the 6 o'clock news. Any station will do, though some will demonstrate my point more than others. What content are you inviting into your home? The odds are good - almost guaranteed, in fact - that you will see a corpse. You will probably see a person wielding a firearm. In today's climate you're likely to see a government at war with its people. Guaranteed you'll hear of at least one murder. You'll see violence so senseless that you... well, nothing. If you're like millions of television viewers, you are generally unmoved by it.
How many people have you murdered?
If I did a survey of people reading this blog, and asked how many people had murdered someone else, I imagine my affirmative response rate for that question would be low. Most of us have, at best, a cursory, distanced relationship with that level of violence.
Go back to the news. What won't you see? Well, in Canada and the UK, you're not likely to see a penis or a vagina at all, and if you do it'll be an animation, or they'll be a clear censorship bar or pixelation of the image. Breasts may make a casual appearance, provided they too a blurred out.
If I did a survey of this blog's visitors and asked how many had genitals, I'm quite sure more than 99 per cent of readers would confirm that they, in fact, do have genitals.
So I don't understand this discomfort with talking about them, or what they are for. As a generalisation we seem completely comfortable with the most egregious forms of violence being shown in prime time, but sex is danced around. Alluded to. We have to infer it from TV sitcoms showing two people in bed together with mysterious, L-shaped sheets that cover a woman's chest while leaving the man's bare (and that's just heterosexual relationships. I'll have more to say on the characterisation of homosexual relationships in prime time in a later blog).
A culture lacking frank sexuality.
People are spun into dizzying psychoses trying to assess their sexual character against an ambiguous standard, and regardless of how sexualised our culture seems to be, it lacks simple, frank sexuality.
This is having a seriously detrimental effect on the healthy development of our young people, not because "being human" is changing so drastically, but because (and it's no secret) access to sex is everywhere. There was a day when "sex" was the most-searched for word on every search engine, though I suppose people have either become more refined or more explicit in their search keywords.
Personal electronics mean even the most innocently curious person can suddenly have gigabytes of information at their fingertips. And I do mean innocent curiosity. It is well within the bounds of reality to expect people to be curious, and it is silly and negligent of us to ignore this fact using an outdated shield of "propriety." There is nothing improper about the curiosity, but there are ways that we can harness that curiosity as educators, as we seek out positive, healthy, developmental lessons for young people.
Sex education is not keeping the pace with pornography.
Recently, Guardian Teach tweeted a link to a well-curated resource list.
The list comes on the heels of a BBC article claiming (quite correctly) that sex education is not keeping the pace with pornography, and as a result young people are poorly prepared for "real world" (my phrase, not theirs) sexuality (ie: outside of a classroom/laboratory/textbook setting). There is no shortage of anecdotal data to indicate that people's perceptions (whether they are young or old) are substantially, significantly altered by what they have viewed, whether they were seeking it out or not.
I am not here to make an argument that "all people are sexual beings" nor am I here to claim that "sex is beautiful and should be celebrated." Those opinions have existed for a long time, and have been expressed clearly elsewhere. I simply want to say that our current approach is damaging, monumentally slow to change, and too heavily politicised.
Don't put me in charge. But if you did...
If I were asked right now what I would propose, if I had some say in the sex and relationships education curriculum, I would base any proposal around these five foundations:
1) Access to sexual content is nearly impossible to control.
2) People young and old have an innate curiosity about the mechanics, the biology, and the emotions of sexual relationships.
3) The access to content, coupled with the deep sense of inquiry around sexual relationships, can create some significant, meaningful teaching and learning opportunities.
4) The best teaching opportunities will take into account the social context of the subject matter, and the sensitivities that range from class to class.
5) Shying away from sex and relationship education, even as it becomes more challenging, has never worked and will never work.
My measures of success would be manifest across the statistics available, and I would look for successful indicators in:
- Student feedback: do the learners feel they have a better understanding (not just a better impression of) the subject matter?
- Teacher feedback: did conversations about sex and relationship education become more mature, more discursive, and more educational over time?
- Are students more adept at discussions the scientific aspects of sex? Can they identify the connection between sexual content on the Internet, and sexual assaults? Can they identify (and therefore avoid) the dangers associated with their own sexual expression online?
- Has there been any impact on the rate of locally-reported STIs, underage/unplanned pregnancies, or sexual assault?
- Has there been a positive change in the number of people seeking advice about contraception, family planning, and/or safe sex?
- Have pastoral/religious organisations noticed a positive trend amongst their populations?
I'll conclude by summing up my original point: why are we so tolerant of prime time violence, but so squeamish about sex?
How much positive change could we make if we approached its teaching, not as a rite-of-passage, or a taboo, or an embarrassing and awkward lesson plan that is sure to break classes into fits of laughter? But rather, as a fairly universal human experience, which has a social and a scientific basis, and which can be understood better by seeking out answers with the guidance of people who know how to find the answers they need, and not the first answers to come up on the search engine.
Once annually, a cohort of passionate, engaged, and remarkably engaging young teachers descends on idyllic Stoke Rochford Hall, the National Union of Teachers' training headquarters.
I am back from a remarkable and surprising weekend away.
A few months ago, a colleague of mine (who I admire greatly for her own passionate engagement with the issues that affect my workplace) made sure I got an application sent in for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) Young Teachers' Conference (YTC). For this I am grateful.
The mission of the conference is professional development and networking opportunities for young teachers nationwide (England and Wales). As I meet the necessary criteria (young: check; teacher: check!) I felt I could not miss the opportunity.
Admittedly, arriving Friday evening after a full work day and 2 hour drive wasn't perfectly ideal, but my exhaustion from the week was soon forgotten. I was greeted by a fantastic meal, in an exquisite country setting, and there just happened to be sun at the time! Networking began during the first meal, where I defaulted to my usual approach when meeting new people: dry humour bordering on the obnoxious. (Okay, maybe it isn't my best trait, but I find people quickly realise they'll either want to keep talking with me, or they have been fairly warned that I am just that kind of guy.) Fortunately, these particular ladies took kindly to my nonsense, and soon I was the proprietor of an extra dessert.
Next up was the intellectual challenge of a pub-quiz style quiz in the stunning library at Stoke Rochford Hall. Regrettably, I wasn't able to see through the end of the quiz as transport arrangements did not permit, but from what I understand my team came 3rd.
Without going into an obsessive amount of detail, I will outline some of the highlights of the next day:
NUT General Secretary Christine Blower gave a rousing address to the conference, outlining her enthusiasm for the policy direction that the NUT membership has set out, and coherently articulating why so many teachers do not support the changes to education being introduced by the Education Secretary.
Blower's most compelling comment was that the government has created a system of "toxic accountability," in which schools are committed, not to learning or students, but to statistics, and that this in turn poisons the school for all of the people for whom that building is a community.
She highlighted examples of the education systems in Alberta and Indiana, where teachers set personal improvement targets which are completely developmental, not used as a form of performance management, and supported by their schools' leadership and management.
Blower also highlighted the success of the educational system in Finland, which promotes "responsibility, not 'accountability.'" I interpreted this as meaning that responsibility is being accountable to something more than just paperwork and statistics and it is a statement that will stay with me through my professional life.
"The idea that we have children who come to school hungry and leave school hungry is a terrible indictment of our education system." - Christine Blower
Blower also referenced the recent and horrible news story of Daniel Pelka, a young boy allegedly starved to death by his parents, as she reinforced the NUT's commitment to universal free school meals. Her comments were a sad reminder that teachers need to fulfil a role that is much greater than simply ticking boxes and indicating progress.
The Young Teachers assembled were also treated a lively and informative discussion on protecting the future of education by Sue Cowley, a behaviour expert, teacher, parent, and school leader. Her talk was not on behaviour specifically, as most delegates probably expected, but rather on the role of Union members as safeguards against unwarranted, sustained attacks on not just teachers, but the entire education system.
"As a parent, I beg you: Please save education. For my children, for your children." - Sue Cowley
I walked away from Cowley's presentation with one particularly good new resource, that is a website run by a woman named Janet Downs, who has been hammering away at the Department for Education with Freedom of Information requests. In this one, Mrs Downs shows us that surveys quoted by the Education Secretary saying British teenagers are woefully ignorant about history were undertaken Lord Ashcroft (the only seemingly-legitimate survey in the group), and Premier Inns.
Sue Cowley also encouraged all teachers to create a real online presence in order to voice their discomfort with the current direction being taken in the Department for Education under its current leadership.
As she is new to Twitter, I will also include this link to her Twitter account as she builds up her own follower base.
"I have two gerbils named Watson and Crick, which is fitting as I'm a biology teacher."
This quotation summarises one of the best part of this experience: meeting new people. I love it. I find people to be fascinating and incredibly inspiring, especially when you get insights into their lives, like this clearly-committed biology teacher.
I will not go into detail about the rest of the conference, although I could write many, many more words about its positive impact on me as a teacher and an activist.
If you are a teacher under 35 in England or Wales, I strongly encourage you to consider attending this conference in the future. You will come away smarter, more passionate, and more informed that you left, and you'll have a great time in the process.
Addendum: I had such a good experience at this year's conference I put myself forward to help organise next year's. The delegates were kind enough to give me their votes (and for that I am thankful). If you were a conference participant are struck with an idea, you're welcome to leave a comment here, or tweet me.