On The Divide Between Practitioners and Theorists

Unlike many 'experts' in how to be a schoolteacher, I am a schoolteacher (mainly) who actually teaches actual children in actual schools. I don’t just visit those schools. I stand in front of children and do the thing they call teaching. I’ve just finished a stint at a loved school in a community I hold in the highest regard that I’ve been lucky enough to have served at for three of the last four years. This is my twenty-eighth year in a classroom. I am fifty-nine next month and, this year, a student, on finding out I was taking over a class said, “We’ve got the old man.” I worry. I worry a lot. But that’s just the never-not-boring nature of being massively introverted.

In those twenty-eight years, I’ve formulated ideas about what it is that I do for a living. These chop and change a bit – sometimes I think this, sometimes I think that – they become modified with time and experience but, to me, it’s important that they are the views of a practitioner about his practice. I quite like theories, but I’m not a theorist. I think theories have to be tested out on the field of play, otherwise, as we are dealing with sometimes quite vulnerable children, theories can be quite dangerous to those children. Most of my ideas about teaching are not from watching people teach, or from reading research (though I read a lot of it - I find what we do inexhaustibly fascinating) but from doing it myself. They are generated through the act of teaching and some/much/perhaps-even-most of the cognition I have about is embodied. I haven’t wilfully generated thought about it. It’s just something that my body seems to know that’s generated the mind into the involuntary process of thought.

And what my body seems to know and seems to want to tell me to think is that teaching is mostly a version of dance. There’s a massive and vastly important element of drama, of course, and it’s also quite a musical form, but that music is more rhythmic than it is melodic (there’s some melody, I think) but, as it’s mostly a version of dance, it’s the rhythmic element of the music that’s the more important (I might be wrong here). We are, to an extent, as Seamus Heaney, who always taught, has said, ‘athletes’. You’ve got to be in some form of shape to teach to its fullest extent. It’s got a decent analogy in singer-songwriting, (something that I’ve practiced for far longer than I’ve been a teacher (and which I still practice (under another name as my work is adult))) in that we write and then we perform what we have written and, in that sense, we are quite near stand-up comedians. To quote Stewart Lee, who has been by far the biggest influence on my teaching in recent years, “I wrote it, and I learnt it.” There’s a little visual art involved if you’re still allowed a real whiteboard as opposed to the projector thing that succeeded in making teaching less dialogic, more coldly didactic. But as I’m not very good at this bit – I tend to self-satirise when I’m drawing “Here comes one of Mr. Beadle’s ‘famous the world over’ drawings. Can you guess what it is yet?” – I don’t particularly valourise it. This is a fault, I know. Must do better at the visual element.

So, my body and the mind that follows the body’s advice (sometimes) seems to think that teaching is a vastly (perhaps infinitely) complex, relational art form. It is about creating an experience for others, one that they might enjoy and profit from. It’s also about the artist pushing themselves into new areas, trying out new things and, sometimes, if the artist is going to become all that a class of students might want them to be, those new things might be edgy, might not work, may occasionally offend (one has to be careful here – there is a line: it’s OK to walk it, to play at the edges of acceptable, but professionalism exists – I’ve met some teachers that don’t understand this and balk at minor linguistic risk, thinking it is Ok for them to give you entirely unwelcome and deeply useless feedback on lessons they were not actually in).

And, on mentioning Stewart Lee, I’ve recalled another realisation I had recently while in a classroom doing the thing they call teaching: that if an artist is truly world class, and forgive such a patently hubristic, smirking claim, then there will always be a meta-level to their practice. At the same time as being about something, it will also be about itself. Much of the education I attempt to provide children will be about education itself, what education is for, how it interfaces with their lives, the various schools of thought, how these line-up to the political space. The intention of this is to open a dialogue with them where their thoughts about their lives and what is done to them in the name of education. I hold this a foundationally important element of their experience of lessons.

When I teach my highest profile client (someone whom you will all know, who I am friendly with, who regards me as someone to be listened to but whose name I can’t publicly reveal as it would impact on ‘competitive advantage’) I generally run the sessions on about five different levels at the same time. I’ll stop at points, ask the ‘elite’ level people I am teaching, to work out why I am doing what I am doing, then tell them why I have done something. 

Pretty well everything an expert does in a classroom is deliberate. 

And when working with elite level clients, the meta levels can go off the charts until there are times I’m not sure as to whether I’ve lost myself in the analysis of the analysis of the analysis and disappeared up the fundament of my own fundament. But it’s all play, innit?

I’ve been teaching well this year, perhaps better than ever. I’ve been reincorporating elements of a former self, things I was doing twenty years ago when I was more experimental, more playful than I have been for quite a bit and interlinking these into new knowledge I’ve acquired since. My lessons have been popular, and I was overjoyed when two very senior people told me that they knew the atmosphere in them was “joyful.” Joy is important to humans, and I try to bring as much of it into my students’ lives as possible.

As to where I go next, what the next stage of developing my practice is, after twenty-eight years, I’m not quite sure. I think I will deliberately practice (something that cannot really be done in the realms of the theoretical, surely) the visual element. Along with this, I want to find ways of bringing in more colour, more music, more singing, more rhythm, more poetry (written by students), more excitement, more joy, more explicit understanding in students and in the people I advise that experience is as important than outcome, that one’s pedagogic palette and their pedagogic diet should be rich and should be varied.

The point of this, I suppose, is that this is a profession and that it is also a complex art form that some of us are seriously talented practitioners in. We have informed views, have written more books than some people seem to have read, hold honest opinions, and it is entirely reasonable for us to express those honest opinions when we see things that we think are damaging to the body pedagogic, to the profession, to the children in schools. My view is that our art form CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be systematised by theorists without there being potential for great damage to be done those children subject to a pedagogy that sees them as disembodied test scores and seeks to de-culturalise them.

Added Mon, 6 May 2024 10:44

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