An Exploratory Daitribe on the ‘Good Teacher’

The following is a train of thought exposition of my ideas that have been stimulated by the question ‘What makes a good teacher?’. Some articles follow that have informed these ideas. These are rough unfinished ideas that are written here as they came through my head, but feel free to judge and feed back x

It is clear that Education (capital ‘E’) in the UK is an institutional entity clearly subject to debate and change from political, social and cultural and worryingly (for me) financial forces that shift the crucible of state-sanctioned learning practices like giant swells in a constantly turbulent sea. The ‘teacher’ is one character amongst many who sail aboard each educational vessel that is a school.

I recently read about  ‘The Blob’ that Mr Gove was attempting to tackle and after some reading, ‘The Blob’ is apparently the state education system as it made up of teachers, representative unions, governors and other state schools’ staff. An adopted term from American state educational parlance used to describe the overseas equivalent of our state schools: ‘The Blob’ seems to be used almost exclusively as a pejorative term  on both sides of the Atlantic.

Critisisms of the Blob include a lack of flexibility or innovation in pedagogical practices, a swallowing up and inefficient use of money (presumably an argument for more influence from the economic sector). These stones of critisism often (almost exclusively) come crashing in from outside the glass of the educational house.

Invariably, from the union education sector, pay issues are predominantly exposed and by way of reply, the State criticises a misuse or inefficiency in the spending of existing money. A ‘use it or lose it’ policy in the use of the school budget (passed on from councils and to councils from central goverment) can’t help with the carefully considered use of recourses.

These insights are predominantly based on my empiracle observations, pupblic media coverage and read peer reviewed journals from PGCE study and and Outdoor Education degree.

Good Teach-er/ing

Can we decide what a good teacher is before one is ‘created’ (are good teachers hatched or grown???). Is this ideal, this construct useful?

In a sense, a ‘good’ anything (is efficient/ produces desired outcomes) is defined by the parameters with which we judge that goodness – and by a polar association, a bad something (less good, inefficient etc) (structuralist concept? or Relativistic?). Can someone be inherently good? Does the idea of ‘good’ get redefined every time we identify ‘good teaching’ and as part of the reflexive process, meant to feed back this knowledge / identification of ‘good’ back into the process, changing it again (see ‘hermeneutic processes’ So therefore ‘good’ is changing all the time. As ‘Truth’ might.

So what ‘makes a good teacher’ can be identified as a process – not a particular process but any process, any movement, you have to risk become a ‘less good’ teacher to become a ‘better’ teacher. Conversely to be a ‘bad’ teacher or a ‘not as good as ‘good’’ teacher would be to not change BUT maybe if you’re a teacher for long enough, if you don’t change, what’s generally ‘good’ in teaching comes back around and, like a broken clock that’s correct twice a day – the system (moral/ political/ institutional) changes around you.

Teachers have told me that when you are observed by peers, Heads or Ofsted, that you try to present your perfect lesson – but that this ideal lesson could never happen every day – too many variables. It’s admirable to try and get close. Improvements are made by trying and failing less badly every time…!

For an individual to stay relevant with the systemic idea of a ‘good’ teacher – or the idea of fulfilling a job requirement who’s parameters are ever changing would suggest that adaptability is essential. Otherwise a stagnant pedagogic practice would find the parameters of ‘good’ shifting around them, leaving them behind or away from the centre (if the desire is to be as close as possible to the central, general idea of ‘effective’ in a profession).

Community of Practice

‘you can’t lose if you don’t play’ (Marla Daniels (character) – The Wire)

The Wire is a collection of stories, a representation of a city close to a reality. Some characters spill over the border between fantasy and reality (some characters from the show perform the same role in society when not in front of the camera) . But it’s (I think) an eloquent depiction of the way people can behave when they, after finding their way to the centre of a ‘community of practice’ (CoP – see find the institutional aims that initially defined their role, changing. Characters possess influence and skill and intimate theoretical and practical knowledge of working practices for a certain period of time whilst having a system/ legal parameters/ operational battleground change around this CoP (as the political system shifts around teachers whilst they still belong to an identifiable CoP). Characters are forced to follow the new rules and values and risk separating themselves from the values of a CoP they have previously subscribed to, (or partaken in / helped to define) or to find a way to try and retain a sense of identity (invariably linked for some to their vocation) and their own idea of a ‘good job’ whilst the institution changes its own definition of the job that is to be done ‘well’ (in order to achieve institutional recognition) even as we can see the separation between the state sanctioned ‘good teacher’ and what the CoP make define as ‘effective teaching’. Any stepping outside of the institutional re-drawn lines must therefore be covert to be operational practice whilst ‘acting’ or playing a part within the rules and values of the system to gain any form of recognition: as we see the archetypal ‘covert rebel’.

So does this particular educational ‘CoP’ and the legitimate legal/social/ politically accepted operational arena it operates in, have the same values and/or best practice? Can somebody be at the centre of their educational CoP – an expert, but still be on the periphery of the system in which it operates? OPr even outside? How does affect the effective operation of a teacher?: This community of practice that relies upon a separate authority to sanction its operations and dictates its theoretical and physical location? Does this explain the frequent political tention? This disconnect with what the community agrees is good teaching, and their paymasters/ landlords?

The Physical

I would suggest there are ethical commonalities generally within western teaching – corporal punishment, I would suggest is unacceptable regardless of the learning outcomes (generally – some might disagree): some things are more important that tangible results and the progression of learning?

My expereience working in a special school has had me experience frequent physical handling (and training guidelines for it) which are an everyday, essential option to achieving the objectives of learning and safeguarding children from themselves and others. Physical contact is something I would expect most mainstream teachers to be petrified of (given current moral/ political/ cultural media  landscape) and I expect that this couldn’t be further away from the desired best practice in classroom learning.

It’s not rocket science (is rocket science really so hard?) to say that every child, every classroom, every school and every different cultural context can require very different approaches to produce the best learning outcomes for the children. And that those learning outcomes are partially (largely) dictated by the needs of the national curriculum and results of children and schools measured against the national averages of children across the UK. The state system of education has requirements for ‘membership and support’ from government – rules, standards conditional to the practitioners presence etc. It’s an institution and whilst influenced and linked to many other areas of the state and our personal lives – its has boundaries and remits.

When learning a bit about conservative hermeneutics, I personally immediately made the connection to institutionalisation. The school system is the first example that came to mind – a feedback process of experience, reflection, processing, learning and development within the limits of the school system’s ideals and tropes. Any change coming from without the institution either requested or prompted by political change or forced by internal pressure or social change.

‘You’ve got to give a shit’

from ‘What makes anybody good at anything?’ by Susan Olij, Artist (1/10/13)

Is the idea of ‘good teaching’- something that might be a common concept running up against the changing nature of teaching’s institutional requirements? Are we losing the essence of what a good teacher might be to these layers of meaning created by so many thousands of invested stakeholders in the education of our children? (general public, government, social sector, parents, business/ economists).

Is cultural meaning of ‘teacher’ becoming like the meaning of ‘child’ – a multitudinous, multifaceted word imbued with so much historical heated debate and opinion and feeling that it’s too much of a blob to recognise or describe?

If there are so many opinions of what a good teacher should be – what teaching should be as a profession and what should be taught and how – then does a pure idea of what a good teacher does reside only in the hearts of those who ‘give a shit’? Like a flame that needs to be carried throughout your career.

Seems to be a common thing that you need a very strong determination in your core values and reasons because these values are getting buffeted around in this sea. ‘Good teacher’ is like an empty vessel waiting to be imbued with values and meaning – set sail to see if it floats – maybe you’ll work it out, change and adapt – maybe you have figured out what you need to do already to be a ‘good teacher’ .

The perfect lesson, the good teacher, good teaching is just waiting to be revealed – it doesn’t exist until it’s seen? It exists and waiting to be revealed? Have we produced a good teacher yet?

Thinking outside the box and a hermeneutic process

What is teaching when it isn’t institutionalised? Teaching outside of the box? Would it be a very different thing or would elements of good teaching remain universal?

In respect to schools, state institutions – I tend naturally to take a critical social stance, whilst as I understand it – teaching profession as I have been trained in it operates  a conservative to moderate hermeneutic, reflexive process to observe, develop new practices but within the constraints of institutional remit and rules and ‘best practice’ (debated politically between institutional stakeholders (or representatives of) such as unions and the government) .

The nature of the system historically and nationally doesn’t tend to support diverse or radical ideas that step too much outside the boundaries of ‘best practice’ (maybe because there are so many stakeholders and like an oil super-tanker turning round – has a turning circle of miles and miles). Individual institutions can and have been given license to experiment in certain educational practices (free schools, academies), a proviso remains that they have to produce results deemed acceptable through (increasingly) media, government, interpretable public opinion, national statistics i.e. they are still ultimately answerable to a set of criteria.

Theoretically, if (state sanctioned) teaching is only happening within a conservative framework, then if the nature of good teaching as defined when put through the self-reflexive process steps beyond these limits then this core definition will produce a schism – cannot be contained within the vocation of teaching as we know it. Until the nature of teaching / education changes and stabilises to accommodate a more radical/ experimental process (or at least allow the time for the process to prove any kind of success).

Above are two articles (if you can access them) alluding to hermeneutics as a process of reflection to progress and develop future practice as a constant feedback loop. One (Barad) highlights that reflection in theoretical physics is a very 2D process i.e. am image is refracted at the same angle as it is reflected – but using diffraction in the physical world is more useful as it highlights subtle differences and undulations in the surface: sending the original image/ light off in different directions therefore exposing difference but also creating a multifaceted 3D pattern of diffraction in many planes compared to the simple reflection back from a theoretically flat surface.

The second (Arnon & Reichel) concludes that student teachers studied in Israel came out as a professional with the same ideals as they went in to training with – mentioning hermeneutics process as one style of teacher development in the analysis. The study’s findings were to observe that the students had not had their perceptions challenged or ruptured and neither they taken part in a process by which they could create new tangents of thought that diverged discernably from the beliefs they entered the student teacher arena with.

From a teacher’s perspective, to retain or accommodate a more radical, creative or ‘freer’ hermeneutic process (to provide unrestricted conclusions and developments diffracted by the difference and imperfections) – then currently the individual or creative entity  would have to hold those radical developments away from impacting on active practice in a noticeable way – avoiding a conflict with existing structures and accepted practice. In this way, tangenital ideas ‘outside the box’ are a ‘fire within’: the light that must be kept burning secretly until they can be presented in a form acceptable or be presented in a convincing rhetorical form.

Unless of course, an institution supports these ideas of practice in a way that they can be implemented without noticeable ‘rupture’ to certain standard practices and overall results that will invariably be observed, noticed, political points made from and action taken about if they have any short-term negative effect. Currently it is easy to see how something that may be successful that does not produce results within a political term, will not be given change to breathe or grow. Time it seems is always the ultimate variable?

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