Whose Role Models?

I seem to have been writing a lot more about political issues than classroom practice recently – my apologies. This post is a quick response after I read this recent article from a Year 12 student, as published by the Teacher Support Network. One sentence in particular caught my eye:

“Teachers are role models and should act in a way where there is no room for criticism.”

Now, I have two major concerns about this attitude, separate but linked.

Role Models

Yes, we are role models. We demonstrate, hopefully, good attitudes and behaviour. We show our students what it means to be an adult. Of course, all adults do this, deliberately or accidentally. When we vote, and explain why it matters. When we attend a church for a faith we don’t have, to get our kids into a school we think is ‘better’. When we tap a stranger on the shoulder to return the coin we saw them drop. When we slow down for a safety camera, then speed up again. When we are wait politely in line, ignoring aggressive behaviour from others. Each of these actions, these moments, teaches something about the ‘right’ way to behave. In the classroom, this is part of what is referred to as the ‘invisible curriculum‘. I think of it as an extra subject area, one called ‘Civilisation’.

So yes, teachers are role models. But teachers are people too. I don’t spend my life planning to be a bad example. But equally, I’m not going to spend every waking hour wondering whether I’m being watched by a student. Why shouldn’t I have a life? Why shouldn’t I do the things I choose to do, out of school and off the premises?

Is a teacher being a bad role model if they smoke? What about when they have a few pints at a wedding reception and dance really badly? Or argue with their spouse in public? Should they be obliged to put money in every charity box they pass, simply to play the part of a good role model for any pupils who happen to see them do it? If I choose to hold my partner’s hand in public, or have kids before I marry, is this anything to do with my professional life?

Of course, the other things about role models is that they can inspire change. Sometimes the behaviour we model for pupils is something their parents don’t like – and this time I’m not talking about simple bad habits or minor errors. An openly gay teacher is a role model, but it’s one that some parents might see as unwanted. Homophobia means that lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers still often conceal their sexuality from kids, and sometimes even from colleagues. I would never criticize a colleague for doing this – but equally I feel that telling them to do so, so as not to ‘influence’ children, is ignorant bigotry at best.

I tweeted about this article yesterday and had several interesting responses. @alomshaha pointed out that in questions of faith, or the lack of it, defining a ‘good role model’ is also tricky. I’m sure that the religious parents of some of my students would think my atheism means I’m a bad example to their children. Does that mean I shouldn’t answer questions from kids about my beliefs? Or that I shouldn’t challenge children who tell me that the universe is 4000 years old, that evolution never happened or that human beings are made out of clay? (No, I’m not making that last one up, and no, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

No Room For Criticism.

“I’m not saying that teachers should not have a life outside of school, but just in case of meeting a pupil in a neutral area they should conduct themselves in an appropriate manor.” (sic)

Actually, that’s exactly what you’re saying. Who chooses what is appropriate? If you’re suggesting that there should be no room for criticism, you’re giving all the right to those who choose to complain. Whether it’s smoking, drinking or wearing a bikini, somebody somewhere will object. Who gets to choose the standards teachers are expected to live up to?

I totally accept that there are some actions which cannot be accepted. I happen to agree that teachers who don’t guard their FaceBook accounts are being careless – I choose to blog and tweet discreetly for similar reasons. I don’t think many people would argue for criminal behaviour to be ignored, or actions that represent a risk to the children in their care during the working week. But like everyone else, teachers are entitled to a private life. Nobody cares if a group of shop assistants have a night out and wander into a strip club, or if a bus driver likes to gamble, or if a bank manager takes a life drawing class. So why should teachers be accused of unprofessional behaviour if they spend their own time doing their own thing? Their actions might incite comment, and people will have their own opinions – but that’s not the same thing as saying that criticism is okay.

I really don’t think many Year 12 students would really expect their teachers to be perfect role models, every hour of every day. (Those who have a teaching parent would probably have a particularly interesting viewpoint.) I’d love to see how students expect us to behave, what they would see as acceptable, for teachers as opposed to other careers. Maybe this is a discussion that needs to be had, but the questions should be; “Why do you expect teachers not to be human?” rather than “What would you allow teachers to do in their own time?”

A line needs to be drawn somewhere about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Fortunately, we already have that line. We don’t need every individual parent, or each newspaper editor greedy for sales, telling us what is and isn’t okay. I make my own choices, in my own life. I’m happy to commit to being a role model in the classroom and on the school site. But my private life is mine, and just because I’m a teacher doesn’t give anyone the right to tell me what I can and cannot do.

Evidence on Behaviour?

And next week, the Commons Select Committe for Catering will be hearing evidence from the latest participants of the TV show “Come Dine With Me.”

A year ago the newly appointed schools minister, Nick Gibb, made clear that he did not consider teaching skills to be important for teachers. Politicians clinging to ideology and bias is hardly a news story, and you only need to ask Professor David Nutt for further examples of government meddling in the sharing of evidence. More recently Gove’s suggestions – from 50 books a year for all students to the opportunities offered to tiny percentages of pupils through the free schools programme – have angered many who have seen them as stemming from a nostalgic view of private schooling.

On Tuesday, and since then, many teachers have been particularly frustrated by the Commons Select Committee for Education. They chose to interview some of those involved with Jamie Oliver’s controversial Dream School project. If you missed it, this idea involved asking university academics, Olympic sports personalities and Shakespearean actors to ‘teach’ disgruntled and disruptive students. To put this in perspective, they worked with the students for on average an hour a week over several months. They appeared to have little advance instruction in teaching techniques, but to rely on inspiring students with their wit, charm and considerable subject knowledge. It would be fair to say that their success was variable.

So naturally these are the people who understand behaviour issues in British schools.

The Select Committee has many alternative sources of information – but they seem to have forgotten that they asked for it only 3 months ago. This wasn’t a chance to get a contrasting viewpoint to reports from OfSted that emphasize the need for a range of agencies, counselling and mental health services and the use of teaching assistants. They didn’t refer to research from the General Teaching Council, or even their own Department for Education review pointing out the dangers of focusing on details of the curriculum at the expense of classroom management, especially for staff new to the profession. Many organisations, including the Teacher Support Network, have pointed out that free schools and academies tend to encourage competition rather than cooperation – making it harder for teachers to share ideas. And this is before I point out just how many world-class researchers in education could explain their evidence-based ideas, if asked. (@DeclanFleming did a great job tweeting his responses to the video, which he has since Storified.) Why are the opinions of a handful of non-teachers being seen as having equal weight to that of education professionals and the research they have undertaken?

The focus in government often seems to be on the small number of extreme cases, rather than on the persistent low-level disruption which makes life so difficult, and learning less successful, in classrooms over the country. Maybe I’m lucky that I don’t worry about students bringing knives to school. I’d just like students to be able to focus on learning, rather than a long series of exams and resits which they see as my problem, not theirs – because they know that grades matter to the school.

Dream School was about experts inspiring young people. The problem is that, to misquote Ben Goldacre, teaching is ‘a little more complicated than that’. Of course teachers – myself included – aim to inspire students. We are enthusiastic about our subjects and hopefully knowledgable. We hope to share our interest, the ideas that captivated us in the past and often still do. It was clear as the series continued that the ‘teachers’ at Jamie’s Dream School were also passionate and expert, and in some cases students were able to recognise this, even respond to it. But it was also painfully obvious how vital the other skills of teaching are to a functioning classroom. They struggled, partly because they failed to understand that teaching is more than inspiration. The kids on the show hadn’t failed in mainstream education just because Rolf Harris had never shown them how to draw a picture, or because they’d never dissected anything supervised by Professor Robert Winston.

To me – and I suspect to many teachers – Dream School was a huge missed opportunity. I would kill for the chance to share some of those resources with my classes, even to team-teach with some of those people. Imagine if instead of trying to reach just 20 students, a completely different programme had been created. Imagine if Tinchy Stryder and Alistair Campbell, Simon Callow and Ellen MacArthur had found out what teaching is really like – not by taking on a full timetable, complete with marking, but by visiting real schools.

Imagine 12 inner city schools being offered a schedule with a dozen visitors. Imagine Rolf Harris and Mary Beard seeing 5 classes in a day, supported by regular classroom staff. Imagine if Starkey, with his resources and knowledge, had been paired with an experienced and enthusiastic, professional. Imagine what we as teachers would have gained from the chance to talk to someone at the top of their field as a peer, to swap ideas and see what they were excited about sharing with the students. Imagine how much those young people could have learned if instead of playing pretend for the camera, it had been real. Imagine if Jamie had realised that teaching, just like history, law or science, is a career and a profession in its own right.