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.