Caring about education: An international high school teacher’s manifesto

Having just been through the highly emotionally charged process of defending my educational beliefs and research approach through my initiation ceremony (viva) into the world of educational academia, I feel brave enough to put this text out there. It forms the concluding chapter of my thesis, intending to portray my current thoughts and stance on education as a result of the practitioner inquiry that I undertook. I take my lead from the style of a ‘manifesto’ or Dewey’s ‘Pedagogic Creed’ (Dewey, 2013), where my writing is seen as a call to action.

For me, being heard and listening are vital to an education system that I dream of. Ultimately, when one cares about something, one wants to speak. When one cares about the person speaking, one listens. What follows is therefore my own manifesto for education. It is written from my own perspective as a teacher-researcher in an international school, calling upon others in the same situation to join me in my thinking. It is my voice, but, as I belong to a community of teachers, it is written to express what ‘I feel ‘we’, as a community need. It is not written in order to influence a political election campaign, but to interest anyone concerned with what an alternative education system could look like. You don’t have to be a dreamer like me to consider it worthy, but, having read the rest of this thesis (which my examiners had), you can hopefully understand where it comes from.

The Teacher

We need to listen to our students. We can all achieve things for ourselves, but if nobody is listening to us, there can seem no point. It is our job as teachers to listen to the students and to give them the opportunity to be heard. This does not mean that we simply ‘appear’ to be listening, but we act on what we hear, and show the students what happens to their opinions.

We need to listen to each other. A school is not a playground where different cliques play off against one another. It is a place where our colleagues are valued for the contribution that they can make. We may not always agree with what others care about or are trying to achieve, but we respect each other in the process, and allow voices to be heard. We do not see each other as competitors, but as fellow humans with values similar or different to our own. We all have a shared goal of believing in the power of education and we all play our part in our community in our own way.

We need to see ourselves as learners. We should not pretend that we are owners of knowledge and that we have something ‘finished’ or ‘complete’ to deliver. We should be open and honest about ourselves as inquirers and we should present ourselves in this way to our students and colleagues. There is no room for ego. We are not in the teaching profession so that we can wield our power over others and speak the loudest, drowning out others’ voices.

We need to see ourselves as mentors. We are not deliverers of knowledge or merely facilitators of learning. As teachers, we are mentors, role models and guides for our students. We are guardians of learning, able to recognise the potential of our students and to draw on what they are capable of.

The School

We need a school that listens to us. This means that those in power should not see themselves as untouchable, all-knowing individuals who are above others in the school community. There should be no holding on to power for fear of being exposed. Every person in the school community should feel that there is a way of contributing to a discussion or a decision, even if they are not the ones who speak the loudest or whose face fits.

We need a school that listens to our students. When individual teachers listen to our students, this is not enough; we need others in the school community to do the same. Leadership in a school should not be a ‘top-down’ approach, but rather one that commits to engaging with students in genuine, ongoing and trustworthy relationship. Decisions should not be made on the whims of people in power who sit hidden away in offices, but by informed professionals who have reached out to the student body to hear what they feel and want.

We need a school that lives out its own values. We need to believe in our school. We need to know and understand the values of the school we work in and see them as part of everyday school life. We need to see ourselves as part of a school community and not lone, isolated voices. If our school does not respect its own values, then we will not respect them, and in turn the students will not respect them either.

We need a school that is not afraid of change. Holding onto policies and guidelines just because time was invested in them is not a successful way to work. Times change, people change, the world changes. A school is not an institution that is set in stone, but a moving, growing, ever-changing place of learning.

We need a school that values inquiry. High school teachers are so caught up in the demands of their subject area (s) that there is no time or opportunity for them to realise that teaching is a process of inquiry. Teachers should not inquire for the sake of it, as a result of someone else’s agenda or fad, but they should be given the opportunity to plan for inquiry if this is what they desire. They may not know they desire it however if the school does not encourage and support it. As long as a school ultimately views teachers as being accountable for grades, and not for the learning processes that go on in and outside the classrooms, then there can be no hope for teachers in the role of inquirers.

The Community Partners

We need reciprocal relationships with local and international communities. We have something to offer others and they have something to offer us. We need our school to be less of an island and see it as part of a local and global community. This means that we need to reach out to others and establish relationships with them. These relationships need to be built upon mutual understanding and respect, and not seen as a one – way learning opportunity.

We need to understand the historical, situational and political nature of ourselves in relation to other communities. We need to address the nature of ourselves in relation to others and consider the role that we may play in keeping the status quo. We must look beyond dehumanising discourses and allow authentic, indigenous voices to be heard.

The Research Community

We need to listen to the research community. We should not be afraid of research. It should not be put on a pedestal as something alien. There should not be a fear of ‘academic’ knowledge as something only accessible to those working in universities. We should open ourselves up to educational research and welcome and encourage it. ‘Theory’ is not an ugly word. ‘Academics’ should be invited to work with teachers on their professional development, and should be seen as learning partners for teachers. Our schools should support access to literature and give us time engage in discussions informed by it.

We need a research community that listens to us. We should be respected as professionals with experience in our field, and as people that are willing to learn. Our practice as teachers, our in-situ experiences, and our capacities as learners should be acknowledged and celebrated. We have knowledge of education that people who are not teachers do not possess. We should be made to feel empowered by this knowledge and welcomed as professionals. The educational research community should work with us on our agenda and not only theirs.

The Student

We need active, questioning students. We do not want our schools to churn out students who will simply succumb to being part of the capitalist economy. We want students to question the structures that they are part of and make those in power accountable for what they do. Rather than students expecting to be told what to do, they should be given the opportunity to figure out for themselves what should be done.

We need students who are informed. We are all entitled to our own opinions, but they are most effective when backed up by knowledge. Students need to know how they can support their opinions by evidence. This means that they learn how to consult or involve others through the process of inquiry. Bringing this kind of knowledge to the table strengthens their voice and helps them to developed informed perspectives and opinions.

We need students who feel empowered. We want students to believe in the strength and weight of their voices. School should provide students with the capability to contribute to society and make changes.

We need students who are not afraid to fail. Taking risks is an exciting part of life. We want students to feel their own hearts beating in trepidation and adrenalin as they embark on something new. A risk is such because success is not always guaranteed.  If success is seen in the risk taking itself, then one does not set oneself up to fail. Life is about ups and downs, and students need to recognise and accept this.

We need students who are allowed to dream. The future is never certain for anyone, but we want to feel that we are able to dream of one for ourselves and others. If our students are not encouraged to imagine what might be possible, then they their creativity is cut short. Imagination is part of living, and it is something that keeps us going in the face of adversity. If we let students dream, possibilities are opened up, and hope emerges in place of fear and anxiety. Students should not be afraid of pursuing their dreams, and we should support and encourage them in finding out what they are and how they could be achieved.

These principles are, in my opinion, how I imagine education to be; they are the manifestation of my educational imaginings and what I have come to learn through this inquiry. Such an education system is where one is listened to, whether as a teacher or as a student. What one cares about is respected and validated by others. It is a system where being professional is about being informed, and being informed is what makes us professional. It is a system where hierarchies are dissolved and relationships are at the forefront. It is a system that both starts and ends with caring.

References:

Dewey, J. (2013). My Pedagogic Creed. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (4 ed., pp. 33-40). New York, NY: Routledge.

 

 

 

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