Monday 27 January 2014

Dear Mr. Tristram Hunt #Blogsync


Dear Mr. Hunt,

I have been a state secondary school English teacher for the past 12 years, in 3 very different schools.  In some of them I have gained some experience of middle-management, but in all honesty, I disliked it as there was a shift into administration dominating my workload, not teaching. I made a conscious decision to return to being a classroom teacher; I left my low paid administration job in a bank to teach, so teaching is what I want to do. 

However, the past three years working under the new Secretary of State; the over-powering fronds of Ofsted influencing my everyday practice - to the negative - and the predominantly negative rheotoric from policiticians about education and teaching, have all taken their toll. I am off work with stress, depression, and no end of other health problems.  You would be wrong if you thought I am revelling in my absence from work. If you were able to obtain statistics from GPs about which professions are currently their most frequent visitors and medicated on anti-depressants, I predict teachers would be high on the list. Would you want to be medicated, just to turn up to work? Do you think that is morally right? I do not.

You see, Mr. Hunt, I am capable of 'Good' and 'Outstanding' teaching, lesson observations (oh the horrific anxiety they cause me, but that's another story) have proven as such. How did I achieve them? At the time I had a Head of Faculty who, unique and eccentric in her character, was very much a humanist. She never lost sight of the fact that I and my students were more than the sum of our data spreadsheets.  During a working week, teachers never get much time to go to the toilet (Mr. Hunt, we have bladders of steel) nevermind converse, however confidence was built by gentle encouragement and modest praise. Like all good teachers, she drip-fed me self-belief.  However, trying to do so in a school placed into a Category 4 is no easy task and I have found the pressure completely unbearable.

Now here I sit, mourning the profession (I can now only use that term loosely, as our professional status has been swiftly and brutally eroded by. Mr. Gove) that I once loved, adored and cherished.  So what has changed? Almost everything, Mr. Hunt, almost everything.  Mr. Gove, through his pace of breakneck changes to the teaching of my subject at GCSE has moved me, and many like me, from 'expert' to 'novice' - for we are learners too Mr. Hunt. A new GCSE Specification takes a huge amount of time to plan well for, to learn the intricacies of the exam board's requirements, to use and internalise their mark schemes, which enables us then to teach our students well. When change is so frequent, all we are able to do, given the limited time we have to mentally process the changes is - to be frank - muddle through the best we can. It is a most unpleasant situation to be placed in Mr. Hunt, for it feels fraudulent.  Here I find myself alluding to your proposal for a 'Licence to Teach' - where you think that the label of 'Good' or 'Outstanding' teaching is cut and dried. It is anything but.  Good teachers can teach poorly if they are in the wrong school, if they have an unbalanced time-table, if they are managed poorly by Middle or Senior Leadership teams, monitored in a way that would make George Orwell blanche, or no end of catastrophic difficulties may occur in their personal lives. Conversely, a 'poor' teacher can blossom when managed positively, when their time-table is balanced, their marking workload is at least achievable, when, their professional development IS supportive in the true sense of the word, so in short, they feel valued Mr. Hunt. Do you feel valued by your political party Mr. Hunt? If so, what is that makes YOU feel valued? What at work, makes you feel that you are more than your payslip number?

I think what I am asking of you here Mr. Hunt, is to look beyond the data, to allow your socialist and humanist side into your decision making for education. 

There also seems to be a great misconception amongst the political elite as to what motivates teachers. The move to Performace Related Pay and the removal of QTS status as a requirement to teaching in UK state secondary schools suggests that the Tory Party just don't 'get' what makes teachers tick. Why do we want to teach?

  1. Somehere in our educational past we had a teacher or teachers who were great; these, unsurpringly were my English teachers. They were obviously intelligent, real experts in their field, gently encouraging and gave me what I lacked in most areas of my life - some self-belief.
  2. Somewhere in our educational past, we also had some teachers who were woeful. My GCSE Geography teacher dictated every single lesson. Every. Single. Lesson. My GCSE maths teacher wrote down the pages of our text book to use on the whiteboard then sat down at his desk and I presume, got on with his marking. I can't say I was 'taught'.  Our French teacher, un-affectionately nick-named 'Onions' was a red faced, ranting dictator. We remember these teachers, knowing we want to do a far better job.
  3. The great teachers of our favourite subject enabled us to complete A-Level and degrees in our beloved subjects. Our geekiness about our subject, in my case: language, Shakespeare, novels and poetry was allowed to blossom and our characters to really develop. 
  4. We have a social conscience - teaching is very much a socialist profession - for we know what we do contributes positively to society at large.
  5. There is a certain amount altruism required - it is a job that requires sacrifice - often sacrificing time with your own family while you mark 30 or more controlled assessments, or subsidising the courses you teach from your own salary, giving up evenings and weekend to plan lesssons, days of holidays to do revision classes, or to run school trips. It is done willingly because you know it matters, that it will go far beyond these pupils' exam results; it is about playing a part in building a well-rounded person.
  6. We know, that in schools of all categories, that for some of our pupils, teachers are the most constant, positive force in their lives. 
  7. It is about our relationship with our pupils, there is nothing, nothing quite like it. When it is good, there is a joy from a great lessons that cannot be obtained anywhere else. Or, when a few years after teaching Macbeth to the most difficult class you have had to date, they can quote some dialogue from Macbeth at you, spontaneously in a lesson, completely taking you by surprise; or the class that teaches you something about a poem you've taught for years. Or the marking of an essay which you know is truly remarkable, because it has little to do with you, but is entirely that pupil's ideas and the ideas are wonderful and you know it was an honour to read it; or the pupil who has spent most of his time in class mute, too shy to speak but when he reads his first paragraph aloud from a novel, the whole class smiles, wills him on to succeed while I try not to skip around the room. Or the pupil who's late dyslexia diagnosis stripped him of his confidence, who was working at an 'E' when you started teaching him, but does achieve his 'C' in his GCSE English at the end of year 11. Oh but when it is bad, Mr. Hunt, it is awful. We all get classes on our timetable that @tombennett71 coined as our 'Nemesis' class - where a myriad of factors combine to make it a painful experience, that 'cracking' the class and getting them learning seems an impossibility, that drives you to despair and tears, but that does not prevent you trying each and every lesson.
  8. We are proud of what our pupils achieve when they leave us. Many of my first ever tutor group are in their final year of University, one of whom is going to do her English PGCE next year. A VERY bright boy from my first ever A-Level Media Studies class (who taught a great lesson to us in Year 13) is now a fabulous English teacher in Sutton Coldfield. Then there's a lad who found himself in one if my 'Nemesis' classes, with no coursework to speak of in Year 10, but achieved his C grades in Language and Literature and is now a Radiographer at one of our local hospitals. Or the pupils in your A-Level classes that choose your subject to study at university. Then the A* year 11 pupil of 2012 who has now got a place at Cambridge University. Many I have been lucky enough to teach are not just working, but have careers. They WORK Mr. Hunt, they contribute to the tax coffers and so much more. 
  9. Teaching is not just about our pupil's learning, but about our own learning. We learn every day, about our pupils, our subject, our pedagogy. 
I am nearly finished, but will show you some comments from pupils, in their own words, about the difference a teacher can make to them:


These are not on here to boost my oh so fragile ego, rather to demonstrate what I mean by relationships between teachers and pupils. It is unique amongst work places, and I hope shows you what motivates us and them. 

It IS NOT big literal or metaphorical sticks.
It IS NOT money.
It IS NOT fear.
It IS NOT Machiavellian self-interest. 
It IS NOT crippling and crushing pressure. 
It IS NOT merely manufacturing data. 

But it IS about knowledge, love, care, compassion, potential and dare I say it, eccentricity of character (pupils and teachers) and the joy of learning. 
No one. No one, sets out on their teaching career with the amibiton to be mediocre.

Do you have the conviction of purpose to remember the people behind the data, Mr. Hunt? Do you have the courage to do what is right for the pupils, not your career ambitions? Do you have the steel to truly oppose Gove's policies that damage, not enhance teaching and learning in our schools? Do you have the will to reform Ofsted so its role is less punitive, more supportive and fair to the schools it inspects? Do you have the gall to really make teachers feel valued? Lastly, Mr. Hunt, do you have the integrity to listen to us, not to just pay lip service, but listen

Yours Sincerely, 

Miss. Nelson 
To view more letters to Tristrum Hunt, click here

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