Remembering the good stuff

As I return home from my fourth full school day after my year’s sabbatical writing my thesis, I have now finally remembered what the good stuff in education looks like. I am more than relieved to say the least. I was beginning to lose hope just a little.

The first week back at school, before lessons started, had involved so much talking and administration that I almost ran for the hills on a couple of occasions. After a year of freedom and so much time to read, reflect and write about education, was doing it going to be how I imagined it, or at least how I have come to imagine that it could be? Were the hopes and dreams that I discovered, nurtured and developed throughout the writing of my thesis going to simply disappear into thin air, never to be seen or heard of again? Was I going to be disappointed that the reality of school and classroom teaching would not look the same as the imaginings that I have had over this year? Was there a place for democracy and student voice? Would it be realistic to believe that spaces could be created where students could be both safe and brave? What I will tell you is that I have found my groove again and I have been reminded why I love this job so much. The reason for its rediscovery has been, unsurprisingly, due to the students.

One of my roles at school, alongside being a German teacher, is to coordinate service learning; a form of experiential learning through engagement in a service partnership with a local community (Annette, 2015). This week, as an introduction to service learning, I have presented to the students in my high school about what I understand to be the good stuff in education; the opportunities that are given to us to learn by doing, to come to know who we are and what we can contribute, and to work with others for the good of others. What is interesting is that I never quite know how much the students have taken in until they begin to approach me with their own ideas for group projects and initiatives within the school. There was one specific moment this week however when I did understand that something had resonated with someone, and it made me truly fall in love with my job again. I will mention this moment here.

After one of my presentations about service learning, three boys came to talk to me about their idea for a collaborative student project. They talked about how they think there is a need for a space where boys can get together and feel comfortable creating more emotional and supportive bonds with one another, as this is something that does not happen in regular classroom settings and within the culture of a school. This idea was genuine and it came from the hearts of three students who were brave enough to suggest leading something that they cared about. I was moved. These boys had understood and responded to my emphasis on choice, voice and individuality, and that all of us are different, yet we all have something to give. They had understood that there was a potential learning space for them that was at the same time ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ (Cook-Sather, 2016); they would be supported in their own individual choices by me and in doing so, they would in fact be being pretty damn courageous.

Reflecting on this moment, I had to write it down. I am on my own learning journey all of the time, and this year I have certainly learnt how writing about practice is such a powerful way to shape and change it. Recognising this moment as significant has certainly helped to reignite the hope that I have felt whilst being out of the classroom for a year. The hope that we can be ethical in a practice that starts and ends with caring. The hope that we can encourage and nurture student voice and choice. The hope, ultimately, that we can inspire students to be brave by letting them know that they are safe in doing so.

References:

Annette, J. (2002). Service Learning in an International Context. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Winter 2002 (VIII)

Cook-Sather, A. (2016). Creating Brave Spaces within and through Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships. Teaching and Learning Together, Higher Education, Spring 2016(18).

 

 

For Billy: The story of a man that does exist

Billy, I have just sat with you on a town centre square in wintry North England and, over a takeout coffee, you told me your story. How you got to be in this position, travelling from town to town and living from day to day. As we started talking, my legs began aching as I was crouching down, so you offered me the smaller of your two rucksacks to sit on – this was a kind gesture, thank you. I took my place and listened to you.

You told me how, having grown up in a travelling community, you were rejected by them once you fell for a girl outside of this community. You told me how it would be dangerous for you to go back to them, and you would have to literally physically fight your way back in. You said that you recognised that their way of life was not for you and you wanted out. You got out but, with certainty, there is no going back.

But, even though you try, you can’t move on either. You can’t move on because you were never registered anywhere. According to authorities, you don’t exist. You have no birth certificate, no national insurance number and no history of address. You can’t get a job because you have no proof of experience, even though you have done so many different types of work, and you were good at them at well. You can’t keep dry in this weather because there is nowhere to wash and dry your wet clothes that you know of, and you couldn’t afford it anyway. You can’t keep as clean as you would like because when you try to wash in public toilets you get told to get out, and anyway, you feel ashamed to have to be doing that in public.

Tonight you could stay at a fairly cheap room you have found, just so that you can wash and dry your clothes in preparation for another day tomorrow. Your aim for today is to try to get the money together to do that. You told me that you are not interested in drugs and alcohol and that’s not what you spend money on; I guess that is what people usually think that see someone like you, so you felt you had to say it.

To me you do exist though Billy. I saw and heard you this evening quite clearly, and because I did, I will try to do something that might change things for you, even if just by a little bit. Since talking to you, I have contacted and heard back from a local launderette that would be willing to offer a scheme that I proposed to them. People can buy a voucher in that launderette for someone on the streets like you, and you can go there and get your clothes washed and dried. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Thanks for the hug you gave me when we parted, and thanks for telling me your story; you have given me the resolve to make your voice heard and to remind people that you do exist. Just like me, you are human, and you deserve the chance at some dignity at least. Fingers crossed for the launderette plan.

 

I care, therefore I am

 

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http://classicwinniethepooh.com

What motivates us to do the things that we do? Why do I regularly spend my precious Saturday mornings with asylum seekers to help them with their German language? Why do I walk silently hand-in-hand with others on a rainy Sunday afternoon dressed in a life jacket in order to raise awareness of the ongoing situation of migrants trying to reach Europe? Why do I organise a trip to India with students rather than tagging along with another teacher who has already set up their own trip and done all of the work? Why would I add an additional doctoral research project to my already full-time teaching responsibilities? Why am I even a teacher? The reason is, simply, that I care. I care enough about certain things to do something about them. In caring, I am behaving as an ethical being; I am doing the thing that I think is right. As Frankfurt (1988) recognises, it is what we ‘care about’ that influences our actions and our behaviours:

Caring, insofar as it consists in guiding oneself along a distinctive course or in a particular manner, presupposes both agency and self-consciousness. It is a matter of being active in a certain way, and the activity is essentially a reflexive one. This is not exactly because the agent, in guiding his own behaviour, necessarily does something to himself. Rather, it is more nearly because he purposefully does something with himself (p.83)

As Frankfurt says, it is not possible to have agency without caring first, and, when caring, we subsequently think and act. Caring is what makes us humans do the things we do and be the people we are. I care, therefore I am. There are of course some things that move me more than others and this is of course the nature of being human and living in my own private, subjective reality with my own experiences that shape me. I am, however, happy to say that I am not one of those indifferent people, sailing along steadily and leading a quiet, predictable life, being satisfied that nothing disrupts my routine. There is nothing worse than indifference in my view; nobody ever changed anything by being indifferent. So, because I care, I take risks. I allow my life to be disrupted. I am embracing the ‘mess’ (Cook, 2009; Dean, 2017) that is my research, and I welcome the challenge of untangling it all. That is how I ended up here, designing, carrying out and writing my doctoral research project in the way that I have chosen.

Being a teacher, so many of the things that I care about can be brought into my classroom, and I can try to model my ethical behaviour to my students, in the hope that they will also find things that they care about and that they might do something about them. So, being who I am, and with the principle of care underpinning my thoughts and actions, my research came about, has taken shape and is presented through my thesis. The research is a demonstration of how practitioner research (methodology) and pedagogy (teaching and learning) are one in the same thing, how teachers can be learners just as students can be researchers, and how it is possible to develop an ethical pedagogy of care through collaborative inquiry. Do I care too much? Probably. Is it love? Right now, yes. Let’s just wait and see how I feel by the end of it all.

References:

Cook, T. (2009) The purpose of mess in action research: Building rigour through a messy turn. Educational Action Research, 17 (2), 277-291

Dean, J. (2017) Doing reflexivity: An introduction. Bristol: Policy Press

Frankfurt, H.G. (1988) The importance of what we care about: Philosophical essays. New York: Cambridge University Press

 

Life as a student: observations from my favourite train station café

This is one of the days that I love being a student being off work and getting to see what other people are up to. In the corner of my favourite train station café, with my laptop and bucket of coffee, I am enjoying experiencing a snapshot of the lives of the people who sit at the table next to me. Who else has time to sit in a café? Who are my fellow comrades who are also not at work?

At first there is the young guy with long hair, neck tattoos and a leather jacket who seems a bit alone; I can feel him wanting to engage in conversation, but I am trying too much to concentrate on what I am writing to risk that (I am in fact now writing this rather than the thing I am meant to be writing, i.e. my thesis!) He has been on the toilet for a very long time now, and I’m getting slightly worried about what he might be doing in there. He comes back, downs his coffee and leaves. I feel a bit bad for having blatantly ignored his gaze and I somehow expect that he will have a lonely and sad day. I hope his toilet problem sorts itself out.

Next there is the elderly man who has been sitting for about 10 minutes eagerly awaiting someone. After a while and some crazy waving to signal where he is, an elderly lady arrives and they greet each other by the usual Swiss custom of three kisses on the cheek. They are very sweet. They exchange some Christmas baked goods, thank each other, and sit for a while drinking coffee, before heading off together to get a train somewhere. There are moments of quiet and moments where they laugh about something. I am wondering what their lives have been like and how they met. They keep checking their watches and confirming that they have a lot of time, no stress, more time than last time anyway. I am curious about which train is taking them where , but feel happy that wherever it is, they are going to enjoy each other’s company.

Now there are two elderly ladies who have been discussing their hair for a long time. It really seems to preoccupy them. The price of a haircut, where the best place is to go, how different their haircut is compared to last time. Which hairdresser is the pregnant one again? They figure that out. One lady has bought a hat for the other. It is a red sparkly beanie. Nice hat in my opinion, good choice. Not sure that the recipient is that convinced though. I don’t think she will wear it. It sits well at least though, this was agreed upon. Doesn’t squash the hair too much. As they leave, warm coats are buttoned up and fingers are slipped into gloves to brave the cold outside. They are hitting the town they say. No sign of the sparkly beanie though. Knew it.

It’s amazing who else is out there in the world apart from teachers and students. I will get on with my thesis now though, that’s a promise. Another coffee is definitely in order. Let’s just see who is sitting down now…..

 

Hope in 100 words.

Below are my thoughts from this afternoon as I sat in the university library. I decided to turn them into a 100-word challenge about my favourite theme of ‘hope’.

This common space houses many individual ones, each one in turn inhabited by a lone agent, grappling with their own private complexities. What is it that motivates them? What drives them to commit themselves to an idea, a thought, a belief? What are all these humans striving towards? Is it for the simple joy of learning? Are they all hoping for a better life or, dare I suggest, a better world? Will these quiet musings and silent words turn into anything more? Let’s live in hope. For, after all, that is what keeps us all going. Here’s to you, hope.

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Image: Vicky Wasner, Nov. 2016

Getting naked: exposing myself through reflective writing

How will I be able to make my writing engaging? How can I bring my work to life in the form of a doctoral thesis that entices and intrigues? Will I be able to offer the reader a glimpse inside a social world that offers hope and new possibilities? Will I be able to achieve this whilst sitting at my desk, trying to make sense of what has happened over the past year?

In this process of nurturing and presenting my reflexivity, I am making myself wholly vulnerable and I am taking a risk in doing so. Does this make me a radical? In the spirit of socially consequential writing, I certainly do aim to be ‘unruly, disruptive, critical, and dedicated to the goals of justice and equity’ (Denzin and Giardina, 2009, p. 29). If ‘normal’ research is ‘puzzle-solving’ and a ‘form of practice that does not question the rules of the game’ (Schostak and Schostak, 2008, p. 4), then perhaps what I aim to do might be seen as something radical. As my doctoral thesis comes into being, I am slowly removing items of clothing until I am fully exposed to the critical gaze; I am ‘voluntarily standing up naked in front of (my) peers, colleagues, family, and the academy’ (Forber-Pratt, 2015, p.1.). Is this allowed? Will it make my readers feel uncomfortable? If it does, then those readers are invited to reflect on their own epistemologies and to consider the paradigmatic stance that they are coming from. Recognising alternatives is what makes us human; we don’t have to agree with them, but we can give them the consideration and respect that they deserve. In fact, rather than being tempted to deny that differences exist, they should be at the centre of an ethical discourse about research and scientific inquiry.

Exposing myself and recognising my own complicity in my research is at once daunting, but at the same time absolutely necessary. I cannot pretend that I am standing outside my context and that I am not personally involved. I embody my own knowledge and, through reflecting on this and making it known, I am offering a trustworthy and honest account. I am not prepared to ‘erase the individual in the name of generalizability’ (Pelias, 2011, p. 663).

So, in writing my thesis, which is in itself an integral part of the process of qualitative inquiry (Holliday, 2016), I am coming to terms with what I think and feel. I hope that, as I gradually undress myself, and I “write into” rather than “write up” my research (Pelias, 2011), my readers gaze upon my naked self and appreciate just what it has taken to get there.

References:

Denzin, N.K. & Giardina, M.D. (2009) Qualitative inquiry and social justice: Toward a politics of hope. In N.K. Denzin & M.D. Giardina (Eds.) Qualitative inquiry and social justice (pp.11-50). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press

Forber-Pratt, A. (2015) ‘You’re going to do what?’ Challenges of autoethnography in the academy. Qualitative inquiry, 21 (9), 821-835

Holliday, A. (2016) Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. London: Sage

Pelias, R.J. (2011) Writing into Position: Strategies for Composition and Evaluation. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 659-668).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Schostak, J.F. and Schostak, J. (2008) Radical research: designing, developing and writing research to make a difference. London: Routledge

 

Learning to belong; the emergence of another me

I feel such a sense of elation and personal achievement after having just attended and presented at a graduate conference at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. The theme of the conference was ‘Bridging Theory and Practice in Educational Research’. So what is causing this feeling of excitement?

What it comes down to, is that I just simply enjoy being in this kind of educational research environment so much. I thrive on knowing that I am part of it, that I can articulate myself just as well as others, and that what I have to say can reach other people, no matter where they might be from or what their topic of study might be. Whether it’s during the EdD summer programme in Durham, or at these conferences, I feel that another side of me is brought out, and I become the ‘educated, researcher me’, appreciated for things that no one else ever gets to see. Have I passed some kind of initiation today? Am I warmed by my sense of belonging?

These thoughts tie in well with a session I have just listened to about identity formation; to what extent does my identity shift according to the context that I am in? I have not ceased to be me during these two days, but I have lived out another me, one that I hide in other contexts of my life. Nobody is asking me to hide this self, but circumstances mean that it just simply does not exist; in school, I am a teacher – that is the role that is prescribed to me. I don’t want to appear too ‘intellectual’ and theorise too much in school, as mainly, teachers want me to be practical. I wonder whether a different self will emerge when I begin working with the students-as-researchers project? Will it be my researcher self again, or merely a fracture of this self that comes to the fore? I won’t be with adults and experts in various research areas from all walks of life, and I won’t feel the same energy of fitting into a world that I thought I would never fit into. I predict therefore that it will be a different researcher me that will emerge. I am certainly looking forward to finding out, and seeing what other sides to me are lurking in the shadows of my persona.