Reimagining our craft
How to thrive as a teacher
Daniel Shindler looks at the core values which has enabled him to take an optimistic view of what we all do.
What it now means to be a teacher
I wanted the book I wrote before the pandemic ‘In Search: Reimagining What it Means to be a Teacher’ to be an optimistic and necessary book for all teachers.
This matters. A Google search on ‘teacher burnout’ returns 8,520,000 results. We should worry. I started teaching in 1984 at 23, and it was ever thus. I really was the teacher in Roger McGough’s poem, for whom ‘Chaos ruled OK in the classroom as bravely the teacher walked in’.
But I wanted more.
Like so many educators excited by new ideas, I was on a mission to make a difference, supported by the belief that teaching is essentially an act of curiosity. Like others, I asked whether this is really it, teaching in a reductive world where the whole never becomes more than the sum of its parts. And in answer to my own question, to thrive and not simply survive for 33 years, I’ve clung to a set of core values.
1. ‘Reimagining Core Values’
To begin, let’s reimagine our core values as teachers, school leaders, and policymakers. It will take, first, the willingness to be vulnerable and to resist the temptation to create a new present based on the past.
2. The Requisites
Our core values will take us to a series of fundamental requisites, which are my attempt to articulate a satisfying answer to the often-asked question: ‘How do you do it?’
Sociologist Richard Sennett has much to say about the process of craft. As we progress from career to craft, ‘people can feel fully and think deeply about what they are doing, once they do it well’.
Only as I reached this stage could I articulate the requisites that make for deeply satisfying experiences in our private and public lives. So here’s a question. As 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 education Professor John Hattie describes as, closing ‘the classroom door’ and performing ‘the teaching act’.
- the building of community
- considering ourselves and others
- social resilience
- creating different experiences
- encouraging enquiry
- being part of a wider nurturing culture.
Looking at these now through the lens of the pandemic, these have all been fundamental in sustaining us.
At the centre of everything lies 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’.
To do this there are places we can revisit or discover new pedagogy. Maslow’s Expanded Hierarchy of Needs and Prochaska and DiClemente’s Cycle of Change, are two such places that will allow us to heed Mate’s advice that we pay compassionate attention not only to ‘what’s happening on the outside, but also to what’s taking place on the inside’.
4. Dealing with seismic shocks
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? Covid-19 has created a series of seismic shocks to the system requiring 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 questions do we face, and how do we want to face them?
- What’s the point of it all?
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’.
In the inner-city environment where I spent most of my career, many of my hard-to-reach students were finding this to be true. It made them extremely vulnerable, when they were at an optimum age for grooming by drug gangs, at risk of being excluded, and 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 talked about a solution requiring ‘ambition’.
The same reimagining is now being asked for across education. Of course some may call on us to just ‘get on with it’, citing children’s resilience. However, what can’t be underestimated is the overall impact of the pandemic and how it could cause rapid erosion in children’s mental health. The injustice of the exam system will only have brought this into sharper focus. To address this, then, 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.
6. Why else teach, if not to live?
The philosopher Bernard Williams talks about ‘steadiness’. For Williams, our sometimes senseless private and public lives, full of ‘episodic feelings and thoughts’, become a search ‘of stabilising the self into a form’.
In doing so, we can ‘create a life that presents itself to a reflective individual as worth living’.
Does this mean the challenge for education – before trying to attempt any catching up – is 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? I did indeed find a way to live within teaching for 33 years. I also found a way to live through the pandemic. I’m on a new ‘walk toward’ taking the requisites with me in my continuing search for deep and lasting experiences.
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 has been a teacher of drama, wellbeing, oracy and project–based learning within inner cities in the UK and internationally, for over 33 years.