In Search: Reimagining What it Now Means to be a Teacher

Dealing with uncertainty, seeing teaching as a journey, asking bigger and deeper questions, is more important now than ever before

I wrote a book before the pandemic. I wanted ‘In Search: Reimagining What it Means to be a Teacher’, to be an optimistic and necessary book for all of us. Teachers who’ve made it this far, new teachers, experienced teachers, and those in the middle. By asking the biggest questions of what it means to be an educator and not seeking simple answers, I wanted to say here is what is possible. These questions have never been more urgent.

‘The walk toward’

Now more than ever, the notion of journey and uncertainty are critical. I take direction from Freire who invites us to adopt, ‘A spirit in which we are certain by not being certain of our certainties. To the extent that we are not quite sure about our certainties, we begin to ‘‘walk toward’’ certainties’.  Above my desk in my drama studio a sign reads “Life is a journey not a destination”. I don’t think it’s a cliché. For myself and my students, this walk-toward manifested as a social process over an extended period where we learnt to let go of notions of certainty in order to discover something long-lasting. Now, as it’s clear once again that all certainties are uncertain, we must make sense of everything anew, and begin our journey once more. Nothing else will do.

‘Reimagining core values’

To begin, let’s reimagine our core values as teachers, school leaders, and policy makers. Our core values will take us to a series of fundamental requisites that we can apply and nurture in our lives and places of work. Here’s a question. When you return to your classroom, what are your requisites for creating deep, long-lasting experiences with your craft, your students and your colleagues? Make a list and see where it takes you. Here are mine, grown organically from what Hattie lovingly describes as, gently closing ‘the classroom door’ and performing ‘the teaching act’. However, look at them through the lens of the pandemic. The building of community, expertise, considering ourselves and others, social resilience, creating different experiences, encouraging enquiry, and being part of a wider nurturing culture. These have all been fundamental in sustaining us.

Wellbeing

At the centre of everything, including my cognitive, experiential child-centred practice, lies our wellbeing. For teachers and pupils to flourish once more, we need healing to release us from Maya Angelou’s cage that knows ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. The psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Edith Eger, understands more than most that, ‘expression is the opposite of depression.’ This is now the space schools and teachers must define. Teacher, writer and former colleague, Jeffrey Boakye describes the search as, ‘the effort to walk towards, not forward, or upwards, but inwards towards the self and outwards towards others, at the same time.’

To discover; to revisit

To help us, there are places we can revisit such as Maslow’s expanded hierarchy of needs or discover new pedagogy such as Prochaska and DiClemente’s Cycle of Change just as I did when I visited Carney’s Community, a boxing club on the front line. I highly recommend listening to George Turner’s Ted talk, Young and in Trouble, Walking in their Shoes, to understand how the boxing club practices a lifelong, unconditional, ‘virtuous cycle of support and positivity’. Investigate the Academy of Will Power, as an aid in helping students and adults alike move from a reactive state to proactively taking responsibility, heeding Gabor Mate’s advice that we pay compassionate attention to not only, ‘what’s happening on the outside, but also to what’s taking place on the inside’. We need to facilitate those vital one to one conversations by developing a common language, using distinctions such as ‘Fact v Opinion’; ‘React v Respond’; ‘Shielding v Showing up’; ‘Sincerity v Integrity’; ‘Change v Transformation’. Or we can delve into vital work around vulnerability and connection, using Brene Brown’s writing as a starting point.

Seismic shocks; recovery

As we see those around us struggling to live, we must ask ourselves what we’ve been doing, and what are we going to do? Covid19 has created a series of seismic shocks to the educational system that require us to answer hard questions:

  •   How do we confront ourselves in the face of complex, irrefutable challenges?
  •   How do we tap into our own unrealised resources? 
  •   What’s the point of it all?
  •   What questions do we face, and how do we want to face them?
  •   What evasions, tricks, and clichés have shown up in our lives?
  •   How do we show up with what Artaud called being ‘cruel to myself’ by committing with a dedication we may not have shown until now?

These shocks and questions may overwhelm. The resulting paralysis may induce what Kierkegaard described as, sticking one’s ‘finger into existence’ only to find ‘it smells of nothing.’ For many of our hard to reach students they too have done this, until ‘there is no point’ has become a fact that is incredibly hard to change. It makes them extremely vulnerable, at an optimum age for grooming by drug gangs. At risk of being excluded, leaving them ‘200 times more likely to receive a knife-carrying offence’. When asked what might be done, the police and Somalian mothers of an estate in North London, with children in the front line, talked about a solution requiring ‘ambition’. The reimagining they demanded is now essential for all of us, not only for those living in extreme environments. This reimagining must start in recovery. Barry Carpenter talks about a recovery curriculum that addresses the loss of ‘routine, structure, friendship, opportunity and freedom’, which in turn ‘can trigger the emergence emotionally of anxiety, trauma and bereavement in any child.’

Why else teach, if not to live?

To address this, schools need a new ‘habitus’ which will in turn, produce what Bourdieu called, ‘durable dispositions’- ways of acting, seeing and making sense of the world.  Is the challenge for education, first and foremost, before trying to attempt any ‘catching up’, about stabilising the self into a form, so that we can help students and teachers create a life that’s worth living? Are we all now in search of this steadiness? To find this kind of balance, we need to reimagine what sustains our private and public lives. Why else teach, if not to live? How many of us live in our careers but not our craft?  In a world of constant change and shifting priorities, never has the search for craft and meaning been more necessary.

Daniel Shindler is the author of In Search: Reimagining What it Means to be a Teacher (Grosvenor House). He was a teacher of drama, wellbeing, and project–based learning within inner cities and internationally, and was architect of School21’s ground-breaking oracy curriculum. He now works as a chef for The Real Junk Food Project in Brighton as well as a freelance trainer of teachers, trying to find ways of exploring what it means to be an educator

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