Last week I sat down with my son to watch The Hunt, a new David Attenborough documentary about predatory behaviour. The episode was filmed in the Arctic. There, when the ice caps melt, the life of the polar bear becomes precarious and that proud animal is reduced to foraging on hopelessly dangerous sea cliffs. We sat and willed the seasons to change so that the bear could return to safer ground and a more substantial food source.
Images of ice floes are often present when I consider my new job as a university based teacher educator. I am standing on thin ice and either the conditions here will become less hostile, or I will be forced to move elsewhere. Regrettably, the perilous environment in which I work has been brought about deliberately. Ian Leslie’s recent article in The New Statesman explains that when Gove was Secretary of State for Education, one of his advisers said: “We identified three groups that were holding back the [teaching] profession:… local authorities, the unions, and the universities doing teacher training. We went after all three.” So I recognise that I am perceived by some policy makers as, to quote Leslie again, a “woolly-headed Marxist”; therefore, it is of little consequence if I am systematically starved of recognition and resources.
If we collate evidence of the skills and knowledge that we use to do our jobs, we can fend off accusations of wooliness and torpor
As a rookie in a threatened professional group, I oscillate between feeling a dispiriting urge to slink back to the relative safety of a secondary school and a strong desire to defend my current role. One method of defence comes in the form of the establishment of a set of clear professional standards for teacher educators (Czerniawski and Ulvik 2014). If we collate evidence of the skills and knowledge that we use to do our jobs, we can fend off accusations of wooliness and torpor. I am in favour of the broad aims of such a project. However, I am nervous about the possibility of a set of standards becoming reductive.
The most important professional development that I have experienced as a teacher – and I have been teaching English in London schools since the 1997 – cannot be formulated as a standard to be reached, but can be better explained as a practice to be developed. In 2009, I went to a LATE residential conference in Cambridge. There, I opted into a writing workshop run by Jeni Smith and Simon Wrigley. I was challenged to confront my own reluctance to write, I was invited to write freely after being given a carefully chosen stimulus and I was taken to the Museum of Anthropology, where we used physical objects to generate ideas. I wrote in a way that I had never written before and I was amazed by the quality of what emerged. It was my ugly duckling moment in which I suddenly saw myself differently: as teacher and a writer. It was also a critical moment for me professionally as I was moved to reconsider my own pedagogy when teaching writing.
My epiphany was not unique. Carefully informed by Jeni and Simon ’s deep understanding of the process of writing and their knowledge of the transformative effects of ‘Teachers as Writers’ workshops, my eureka moment – while surprising and delightful for me – was exactly what they had come to expect. I was merely the latest traveller on a well-trodden path.
Educators in the USA have also blazed this trail. The National Writing Project (NWP) there – started in the 1970s and sustained by universities across the states – has helped millions of teachers to practise writing regularly and subsequently to develop orientations towards their teaching which engender excellent student outcomes. Whitney and Friedrich (2013), in their recent research on the impact of the NWP’s work in America, make a compelling case for teachers’ writing groups. A range of researchers here are engaged in similar work (Jeni Smith and Simon Wrigley will shortly publish a book on the subject of Teachers’ Writing Groups; Debra Myhill and Teresa Cremin are also investigating this area).
Is belonging to a writing group ‘Marxist’? No, that is a lazy, irrelevant term to describe the business of closely investigating the psychological and social processes involved in motivating people to write well. Is it ‘woolly’? Well, it is unbounded, ongoing, emerging work, better described as a practice which results in orientations than a standard which is definitively reached. I prefer the word ‘complex’; is there a safe place for that word in our education system?
Czerniawski G., Ulvik M. 2014. Changing context, changing landscapes – a review of teacher education in Norway and England. In: Rabensteiner P. & Rabensteiner G. Internationalisation in Teacher Education. Balmannsweiler: Schnieder Verlag Hohengehren.
Whitney, A.E. and Friedrich, L. (2013). Orientations for the Teaching of Writing: A Legacy of the National Writing Project. Teachers College Record, 115, 070305.