Who cares? The role of teacher voice in pedagogical relationships

Published as part of a series of working papers ‘Mentors Matter’ by Leeds Beckett University, April 2020

Abstract

Experienced teachers in schools are often left out of discussions regarding mentors. Having established themselves within the profession, and having proved themselves capable of managing classrooms, developing curriculum and building up positive relationships with their students, it can all too easily be assumed that these teachers do not need a helping hand and an open ear to help them through times of transition and change. Perhaps teachers change roles within the course of their career, perhaps their line managers and members of leadership change, or perhaps they decide to improve their practice and contribute to the field of educational research by embarking on further education awards alongside their teaching roles. Such experiences are not without their ups and downs; they can certainly be unsettling, disorientating and lead to a feeling of having lost one’s voice. This is where a mentor is sorely needed. This contribution to the collection ‘Mentors Matter’ proposes that in order for teachers for be able to weather the storm of change, instability and in some cases a personal transformation as a result of academic engagement and inquiry, access to a ‘caring’ mentor should be normal practice. This will be discussed in light of empirical research conducted by the author as part of her doctoral inquiry, and a revisited framework for a Pedagogy of CARE will be introduced. The author believes that certain principles and attributes belong to such a framework that foregrounds voice and an act of ‘care’.

nothing is important unless the difference that it makes is an important one (Frankfurt 1988, p. 82)

Has anyone seen my voice?

This piece is about voice. It is about what happens when you feel you don’t have one. It is about only realising that you should have one when you become aware of the fact that you don’t. I have been a secondary teacher for the past seventeen years, and only now I am wondering where my voice went. Only now I am feeling alone. Only now I am missing what it feels like to not only be heard, but to be listened to. Only now I am aware of just how much mentors matter; not only for teachers new to the profession, but to those of us who have been here a while. Is there anyone there who cares? Is anyone listening?

Having the courage to love and to listen

One of the things that I have come to realise as a result of the process of my own doctoral inquiry and how I now feel teaching on the other side of its completion, is that ‘care’ is in fact fundamental to the structures, relationships and processes within schools and within teacher professional development, be those student – student, student – teacher, teacher – teacher, teacher – supervisor or teacher – leader. I would like to go so far as to talk about these relationships as an act of love, where love is a mode of caring (Frankfurt 1999; 2004); in our practice we find ourselves in a relational pedagogy in which our actions are given a direction and in which the actors are ‘linked together through a pedagogical dialogue characterised by horizontal and dialogical relationships’ (Fischmann 2009, p. 236). Such a pedagogy allows voices to emerge through a process of listening that is open, intentional and responsive. One is not simply given the opportunity to be heard, as part of a ‘functionalist’ (Fielding and Moss 2011) process of ‘box-ticking’, or meeting some ‘capitalist-friendly’ (McClaren, 2005), performative agenda of voice provision for teachers and students. Rather, such listening is based on what Fielding (2014; 2016) calls ‘democratic fellowship’; an ‘insistence on the necessity of human significance’ (2014, p.517), where a ‘dialogue of love’ emerges from ‘an act of daring, of courage, of critical reflection’ (McClaren 2005, xxx). If we reimagine the relationship between a teacher and their mentor, what could this kind of dialogue look like?

In order to address this question, this article draws on a framework for a Pedagogy of CARE that was developed as a result of my doctoral inquiry. However, due to the short but seemingly profound distance that now lies between the process of my data analysis, the creation of my framework, and the continuation of my teaching practice since completing my doctorate, I have begun to see this framework in different ways. At the time of our inquiry, and during the process of analysing and presenting the data as it was emerging, my preoccupation had been with student voice; what I had not predicted however was that the process would lead me to an eventual understanding of the necessary principles and attributes for participants in all collaborative relationships in schools. Writing this contribution after some time having tried to introduce the framework within the context of my school has allowed me the opportunity to step into very different shoes than the ones that I was wearing whilst pursuing my doctoral inquiry. Through reflecting on the framework, I realise, with the simultaneous loss of my voice, that it is applicable to teacher voice just as much as it is to student voice. Within the context of why mentors matter, revisiting the framework allows me to reimagine what ‘caring’ relationships between a teacher and their mentor could look like if the principles and attributes within the framework were acted upon. I wonder if, were that to be the case, I would be able to find my voice. At this point in time, I also find myself longing for the relationship that I had with my doctoral supervisor. She had the courage to care. She knew how to help me find my voice in a world of academia and practice in which I felt I was faltering. She knew what it meant to be a mentor.

The emergence of CARE: Team ‘ChangeMakers’ inquiry 

Over the course of one academic year, I spent time as a practitioner-researcher alongside a group of seven high school girls in grade 11 (16-17 years old) who had responded to an appeal to their grade to take part in my proposed ‘Team Change-Makers’ inquiry project. Influenced by my convictions about a methodology that provided for student voice (Mockler and Groundwater-Smith, 2015) and a practice that is driven by principles of democratic purpose and social justice (Cochrane-Smith and Lytle, 2009), my intention was to act as a teacher research partner to the students, in which I would mentor them throughout our inquiry journey, and in which we would all endeavour to act according to agreed ethical collaborative principles, or ‘rules of engagement’ that we drew up together. The topic area for our research was service learning; a ‘research based’ approach to community service activities, connecting what is learnt in the classroom with the needs of a particular community (IBO 2015, p. 20). Service learning was something that was being developed at the school, and something in which the girls and I were all engaged, for example through a ‘Personal Development Week’ (PDW) in which we all travelled to various locations across the globe to ‘help’ other communities, or through the ‘service’ component of their International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme’s (IBDP) Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) component (IBO 2015). My role at the time was CAS Coordinator at an international school in Switzerland, so the inquiry was situated firmly in my own practice. My own concerns about international service learning in particular as an ‘unethical’ act, serving privileged ‘White Saviours’ (Bruce 2016) from international schools the opportunity to look into the lives of others (Andreotti 2010;Cook 2012) and to feel a sense of ‘gratification’ (Mitchell, 2008), prompted me to appeal to all students beginning their IBDP with the prospect of working within a dialogic, participatory framework of inquiry into service learning that modelled my beliefs about ethical, responsible, critical practice.

Our work together over the year consisted of several group discussions and focus groups in which we used for example visual methods to capture reflections, such as a ‘fortune line’ (Wall 2017) technique, we learnt and practised how to conduct interviews and focus groups in an ethical way (Kvale 2006; SpeakUp 2013) or we practised constructing research questions using an ‘ice cream cone’ model (Brownhill, Ungarova and Bipazhanova 2017). At the start and at the end of the year, semi-structured, in-depth interviews were also conducted with each student, in order to capture their thoughts and feelings on an individual level, and to give me an insight into their own perspectives at two very different points of our inquiry journey together. In addition, I also kept a reflective journal in which I either wrote down my thoughts and feelings, or I recorded my voice with an application on my laptop.

Data analysis through both a series of feedback loops (Baumfield, Hall and Wall 2013) during the inquiry itself and through a system of coding after its completion, allowed me to identify emerging themes that had been present throughout different phases of our inquiry, and within the different collaborative spaces in which we had been working. Beyond our TCM as a group of inquirers, the students had had the chance to conduct interviews and focus groups with some of their peers, we had all worked with different teachers in some Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings, and we had planned and taken part in a ‘pre-PDW forum’ in which the girls led a panel discussion with their whole grade on the topic of ethical service learning.

With voice clearly at its heart, and the stance and process of ‘caring’ as its backbone, the themes that emerged led to their conceptualisation and presentation in a framework of a Pedagogy of CARE for ethical, collaborative inquiry, envisaged as a pyramid model. The acronym CARE stands for the principles and attributes of Consciousness / Conscious, Action / Active, Responsibility / Responsible and Experimentation / Experimental.

A Pedagogy of CARE: reimagining the teacher-mentor relationship

The pyramid model (Figure 1) for a Pedagogy of CARE shows the interrelationship of the pedagogical principles and personal attributes that are fundamental to collaborative relationships in teaching and learning that are both ethical in their design and their process. The different principles and attributes of the framework are positioned in a nonhierarchical relationship to each other in a four-faced, three-dimensional pyramid model without any specific ‘top’ or ‘bottom’; this positioning is intended to reflect the nonhierarchical, democratic intentions of practice. Figure 1 shows the model in its ‘net’ form; it is the flattened, two-dimensional representation of a free-standing, threedimensional model. Through this model I therefore argue that every principle and attribute of the Pedagogy of CARE has equal importance, and that the different parts interact with each other to make the whole. Each principle and attribute pair of the CARE framework are described below, with the teacher-mentor relationship and teacher voice as the focus.

pyramid model

Figure 1: Pyramid Model for a Pedagogy of CARE

 

Consciousness / being conscious

We can find our voice if our mentor is a critically reflective, conscious being. The inclusion of the principle of consciousness is inspired by Freire’s (1970) concept of conscientização, or ‘critical consciousness’; a dynamic process of action and critical reflection upon the world in order to transform it. Being conscious is about being engaged in an ongoing process of critical reflection that allows us to see ourselves as ‘historically formed creatures capable of learning and transformation’ (Stevenson 2012, p. 148). It is about being aware of our place in the world and questioning the structures, systems, power relationships and status quo within which we find ourselves. The key to this principle is that reflection on our own positionalities and values can allow us to develop empathy and ultimately change our practice. We are not all the same. We have different subjectivities and fluid, changing identities that contribute to how we engage with others and how we strive to be heard on our own terms.

Action / being active

We can find our voice if our mentor encourages us to exercise our agency, or to be active. Action is related to consciousness as described above, however it takes those in the relationship beyond a mere process of critical reflection or ‘disposition of critical intent’ (Habermas 1972; Kinsler 2010) towards being able to exercise agency in a situation (Elliott, 2005). This agency is exercised through practice which is oriented towards an ideal, and which is dialogic in nature. A teacher and mentor who are active go through processes of collaborative inquiry that are geared towards fighting against the unjust practices or conditions that one uncovers through being critical. A school that practices action strives to bring about change and to achieve social justice through practices that are democratic and inclusive. In the process of action, democratic values are translated into democratic behaviour, and we are involved in ‘sensuous human activity’ (Bernstein 1971, p. 11) or praxis.

Responsibility / being responsible

We can find our voice if our mentor not only hears us but knows how to listen in a responsible way. Responsibility is fundamentally about listening; it is an act of reciprocity and ‘mutual affection and care for one another’ (Fielding and Moss, 2011, p. 48) and, as a relational principle, it is about acknowledging others in their individuality and alterity (Irigaray 2001; Levinas 1969). Driven by the act of caring, one listens for the intentionality of the other (Hoveid and Finne, 2015). Responsible practice is a ‘person-centred’ education (Fielding 2011; Fielding and Moss 2011) that is about the relationship between person and community. As Macmurray (1961) phrases it, the ‘unit of personal is not the ‘I’, but the ‘You and I’ (p. 61). Within responsible practice, traditional power relations are shifted, and space is created for active, intentional listening; a commitment to voice therefore becomes unavoidable.

Experimentation / being experimental

We can find our voice if our mentor is prepared to be experimental and push us past where we think we are capable of going. Experimentation is when there is a willingness to think differently, to take risks and to try out new ways of doing things. It is about a ‘venture into the not yet known, and not to be bound by the given, the familiar, the norm’ (Fielding and Moss 2011, p.44). It is also about a willingness to be resilient in the face of the consequences of our actions. This experimental attitude allows us to go beyond the stage of a spontaneous consciousness of reality, simply by being a human in the world, to a critical stage, where we search for deeper knowledge (Freire 1976). Experimentation is linked to risk-taking and being brave. It is about uncovering ‘unwelcome truths’ (Kemmis 2006; Mockler and GroundwaterSmith 2015) about oneself, one’s relation to others, or about the institutions in which we find ourselves. We have to be willing to put ourselves up for scrutiny, to open ourselves up to both critical self-reflection and to critique from others. If this critique is also complimented by responsible practice, then there can be no danger of it being damaging or harmful.

Where do we go from here?

So, bearing this rather utopian framework in mind, why is it that I am feeling hopeless rather than hopeful? Why have I lost my voice and what do I need to do to find it again? What role does a mentor play in the search and where do we go from here? The simple answer is that I have lost where I fit in and I need someone to help me find it again. The UK-based organisation Education Support (2020) suggests that in order for teachers to be able to produce good quality work, their wellbeing needs to be looked after. They recognise that the main factors that influence this are:

● Leaders who support employees and see where they fit into the bigger organisational picture

● Effective line managers who respect, develop and reward their staff

● Consultation that values the voice of employees and listens to their views

● Concerns and relationships based on trust and shared values

Comparing these factors to the CARE framework, there are many parallels; the words in italics are my additions to emphasise this. The word mentor is not mentioned in this list, but it is crying out for it. If just one person is listening, be it a leader, a colleague or a supervisor, and if that relationship is provided for and valued within the institutions in which we find ourselves, then we can begin to exercise our voices in the way that they deserve. If we know why we are doing what we are doing, where we fit into the school as a whole, and that what we are doing is appreciated and valued, then we will find our moment to speak and we will get our moment to be heard. Returning in conclusion to the themes of voice and care in this article, I would emphasise that if teacher wellbeing is considered to be important, and that wellbeing is connected with having voice, then the role of the ‘caring’ mentor is definitely something that needs to matter more; not simply to us that need them, but to those that provide the spaces within which they may operate.

References

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CREATIVITY, ACTIVITY, SERVICE (CAS) AND SERVICE LEARNING: JUST THE CUP OF TEA WE NEED

Published online at International School Parent

Now, be it due to my British heritage or not, I sure do love a good cup of tea. I blame my Nana. Her tea was all anyone ever needed in a moment of uncertainty or unrest. So, in these changing and potentially disorienting times, I feel that it is necessary to ground ourselves, sit back and take stock of why we are here, involved in the business of learning and teaching.

We may all be in the process of taking a big, deep breath and readjusting ourselves to what might become a ‘new normal’ in terms of our approach to learning and teaching in these unusual present circumstances, but I find myself wanting to cling onto and celebrate that experiential, authentic and incredibly meaningful learning that goes on behind and beyond the scope of our classroom walls. It makes me happy. It’s like a good cup of Yorkshire tea in my favourite armchair. It makes me feel all warm and cosy inside. It reminds me of my Nana.

In my role as Experiential Learning Coordinator at the High School, at this time of the year I have the pleasure of being able to listen to our Grade 12 students reflecting on their own personal learning journeys in their final CAS and Service Learning interviews. I feel that it is important to share some of their achievements and advice with our community as a means of reminding us of their – and our own – capacity to be thoughtful, motivated and sensitive human beings who know what it means to do the right thing for the right reasons.

This short article will, therefore, capture two Grade 12 students’ experiences through the lens of one of the IB CAS and High School Service Programme Learning Outcomes, namely showing commitment and perseverance. This, in my opinion, is something that demonstrates how students can be resilient, independent and exercise their agency when given the opportunity. We don’t need to simply aspire to a mission that champions meaningful and authentic learning. We are living and breathing it in so many ways. So, if we keep our ears to the ground and our heads safely above water, we will discover that bitter taste and sweet aroma in no time. Come on, let’s wake up and smell the coffee tea!

I begin my account with Isaac. He is a student who makes me intensely proud. When he was in Grade 9 we sat together in an ‘alternative’ Service Learning Group that had been formed for those students who wanted to do something different, but weren’t quite sure what that was and if it would work. I was happy to support these students in their individual quests, and to help them get their ideas off the ground and put them into practice. Isaac had been involved a little in the Middle School with the website ‘7 Cups of Tea’ (an anonymous platform for young people supporting each other). He had got himself trained as a ‘listener’ with that organisation, and coming into the High School, he wanted to see if he could train some of his peers. Isaac’s humble idea three years ago turned into what is today a popular Service Learning Group with students from all grades in the High School, and he talks about it as one of the best things that he has done as part of his IB CAS programme. Whilst he sees his group ‘7 Cups of Tea’ as clearly fitting into the nature and aims of CAS, he began it purely out of his own personal motivation, and the fact that it is ‘CAS’ for him is a lucky coincidence. What Isaac values the most, however, is that the school gave him the opportunity to pursue his idea, and this is what he considers to be important. When asked by his CAS Advisor and homeroom tutor Zoe Badcock what advice he would give to students starting their CAS programme, he replied:

If you want to help people, if you want to do things that you can be proud of, if you want to have these accomplishments, you need to go and do them… you need to commit to them and show that perseverance is necessary to achieve what you set out to do.

Thank you Isaac for reminding us to make the most of the opportunities that we are given. It is, after all, what we do that counts the most, not what we talk about doing.

A second student who cannot be left out of this article is Isabelle. Sharing an office with her CAS Advisor and homeroom tutor Bob Sugden enabled me to learn that Isabelle had completed her interview and that I would be so proud of what I heard when I listened.

At the start of her interview, Isabelle says that the skill she gained the most was ‘perseverance’. Like Isaac, Isabelle expressed her wish in Grade 9 to pursue her passion of wanting to volunteer in an old people’s home for her High School service experience. She spent the whole year researching suitable old people’s homes in the local area, drafting emails to them in German and trying to reach out to them. The reason that Isabelle wanted to pursue this was, she explained, that she wanted to break down barriers between us, as an international school, and the local community:

I was really passionate about this issue and problem and that just motivated me to keep going.

At the end of Grade 9, she finally found a lady at a home who was open to the idea and, after some phone calls, Isabelle’s experience began. She continued going to the old people’s home throughout her time in the High School, and talks with passion and compassion about what her visits meant for her and the residents.

Isabelle also mentions in her interview that what she really liked about the CAS programme was that it allowed her to apply skills that she learnt in her classes to real-life situations. She was a fairly confident German speaker when she began pursuing the idea in Grade 9, but she was by no means fluent. She knew that, whilst the potential interaction with others in the local community would be challenging, it would push her German skills to a higher level. Asked how she felt about the balance between her academic studies and her CAS programme, Isabelle recognised that it was quite onerous, but in fact she gained from the time she put in on Fridays after school and on Saturdays:

Even though CAS is also work, it was kind of a work-life balance because it was more of an interactive type of learning.

Isabelle continued her commitment to the old people’s home because she could see and feel the benefits of it, and this gave her the motivation to carry on. In one of her written reflections during this year, she also recognises this, and talks about the specific ‘need’ that her project met:

I learnt that with this kind of service project, I am building relationships. A lot of ‘charity work’ is based on fundraising to meet some sort of goal, however this endeavour is based on an emotional response to needs within the local community. It takes a lot more time and effort to break down barriers between age groups than it ever took me to raise money by organising a bake sale. My eyes have really been opened to a new kind of service – one that not only helps me grow to be more socially aware, but also makes others wanted and loved. Loneliness is a problem that many people face in our society, not only the elderly. I believe that it is with these seemingly ‘small’ acts of kindness that we can change this.

Thank you to Isabelle for reminding us of this.

Isaac and Isabelle are certainly lovely examples of what commitment and perseverance look like and I am glad to have played a part in enabling them to find and pursue their own personal paths. I am proud of their resilience, independence and compassion, and I am sure that my Nana would have been just as proud too.

One final comment from Isabelle reminds us of the importance of student ownership over their own learning, and that we are certainly doing the right thing in providing opportunities for them to do so:

CAS just adds so much more to your experience as a learner. I think that a lot of educational systems are lacking something like this, because I think what is great about CAS is that it is student-directed. You can choose what you want to do and then you don’t feel like it’s work really because you are kind of like your own boss.

So, let’s all be our own boss and take a moment to sit back, reflect, and have a nice cup of tea.