The Teaching Profession: Time to Pick Ourselves Up and Dust Ourselves Off

Before I decided to become a teacher, I tried my hand as a travel agent.  The idea of travel and exotic places as a career really excited me and I, at age 18, enthusiastically entered the vocation with ideas of glamour and adventure.

The reality, however, was a little more sobering.  Most of my time as an agent was about sending other people on exotic adventures, while I, remained behind the desk, on a telephone and computer ensuring nothing went wrong.  My working week was consistently mundane and predictable.  I was due in at 8am and clocked out at 5pm.  I had a series of jobs that needed doing in the morning and a series of wind-down jobs as we closed the shop at night.  I had a responsibility to report to my boss, provide information about my clients, ensure sales targets were met and make sure I wasn’t putting anyone in danger, or at the very least sending someone somewhere without the appropriate visa or legal documentation.

Life was predictable, consistent, non-creative, and boring.  The most exciting responsibility I had was to come up with a new window display to encourage people it was time, in the middle of winter, to book a holiday to the tropics.

So I decided to answer the call to teaching – a call I had been ignoring for a significant amount of time.  My rationale for becoming a teacher – life was never dull, never predictable and working with children allowed me to be creative and imaginative, and to have fun in my profession.  Being a teacher would not only challenge me but provide me with academic stimulation, as I was a learner in the journey of life just as much as those learning alongside with me.

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And this rationale was very much answered when I entered the teaching profession as a beginning teacher almost two decades ago.  Within the structure of a profession that asks for and should have accountability, I was able to be autonomous in my style of teaching.  My methods of delivery were not put under a microscope, but were celebrated, by carefully considering those children who would be placed in my classroom.  Children who would connect with me, and I with them.  It was not a judgment call, but a recognition of my ability as a teacher to speak to some children more successfully than others.  Other children were placed carefully with other like-minded teachers.  There was a trust that our unique teaching methods and styles would get the job done.

The autonomous nature of the teaching profession was a big selling point for me in choosing to become a teacher.  The professional trust communicated to me early on in my career allowed me to work extremely hard to be the best teacher I could be.  I wanted to do the job more than well, because I enjoyed it, because I was dedicated to my students, because I wanted my management team to continue to have faith in me, and because I relished the idea of being creative and adventurous with my kids.  I wanted my kids to enjoy the learning adventure just as much as I did.  I achieved this in a teaching culture that did not question my every decision or every bit of assessment data.  I achieved this by not feeling like someone or something was waiting for me to ‘mess up’, or slack off, or demonstrate that perhaps I wasn’t a ‘good enough’ teacher after all.

This teaching culture did not require me to teach reading at the same time as the rest of the school – just so that the school could say without a doubt reading was being taught.  This teaching culture trusted that I, the professionally trained (degree-holding) educator, also believed teaching reading was fundamental to my role (let alone crucially important) and that it would happen every day (as I was trained to do).

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This teaching culture did not require me to hand in my planning every week, or month, or term and microscopically examine it to identify where I may have missed a dotted i, or a crossed t, indicating I was an inept professional.  Instead, I was trusted to have my plan and only needed to show it if an issue arose where we needed to reflect on a way to tackle the issue in a different way – going back to the start and looking at a creative alternative to solving a problem instead.

This teaching culture did not look for the deficits in my assessment data, raising an eyebrow if I had some (or in some cases nearly all) students ‘below’ a standard or target….as if I may have been simply slacking off that week causing thus causing the slump in the data graph.  Instead, if I had a concern about the progress of a child (and yes, I was concerned as a teaching professional) I could confidently discuss these with others without fear of being judged in my teaching ability.

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As I weave my way around New Zealand, working now with teachers, I am sad that this teaching culture, for many, no longer exists.  This culture of professional trust and professional dignity is being eroded and replaced with one that has teachers……good teachers……looking over their shoulders and feeling devalued as trained professionals. Teachers now are being treated with distrust and contempt…..questioned by those without the knowledge or skills to be able to stand in front of a class of 30 children and get through the day while remaining sane.

The culture of standardisation, ‘outcomes’ and ‘accelerating achievement’ is sucking the very life out of a profession that draws its strength from those who can work in an environment of autonomy, creativity, flexibility, and at times mild-madness.  Many teachers I meet have been working ‘on the shop floor’ for well over 30 years, and who have sound and proven skill as practitioners.  They know how children learn best, and how to establish a learning culture in their room that provides the necessary conditions for children’s successful learning.  And yet they express a frustration that they have lost that autonomy to be the teacher they know to work – because of the requirement to be able to justify and explain every single decision they make. This culture of mistrust is extending its tendrils across the country and into our classrooms in an epidemic manner.

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Just as the standards approach sucks the very joy out of learning for our students, so too, does it suck the very joy out of teaching for our most successful and talented teachers.  It does this by communicating to these teachers they are not trusted, not valued and not respected as the qualified and experienced professionals they are.  We often ask our teachers, when they visit a doctors surgery and received a diagnosis – do they challenge the doctor? Do they question the doctor’s credentials, or perhaps suggest that they re-read the text book with which they consulted?  When a plumber responds to the call to fix a blocked pipe – do we suggest they need to use a more appropriate tool from their tool bag, or perhaps a different diameter pipe to better do the job? Do we ask to see their rate of success on previous blocked pipes?

Why, then, are we doing this to our teachers? Why do we allow the culture of teaching to be bullied by those without the professional knowledge, academic understanding or simple courage to stand in front of a class of children on a daily basis?  Perhaps its time, as a profession, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and bravely challenge those challenging us.  For this is what we would tell our students in the face of a bully – stand up for yourselves and be confident in your skills, talents and abilities as the trained professional you are.

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Play: The Four Letter Word in Primary School

As a researcher, facilitator and advocate of teaching and learning through play in the primary school sector, I am continually asked “it all sounds great, and we know the benefits – but what do we call it….because it can’t just be called play”.

Decades of research provides evidence that play is the most valuable and successful way in which children engage in learning.  Through play, children can build all the necessary skills and knowledge required of them in readiness for adulthood.  Social-learning theory, constructivism, cognitive development theories, socio-emotional theories and physical development theories all uphold the power play has in the holistic development of children.

More recently, neuroscience has also identified the important link between learning through play, physical movement and the successful development of key executive functioning skills now viewed as paramount for the adult workforce.

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Yet in the face of the mountain of research, primary school educators still avoid at all cost the use of the word play to describe the teaching and learning pedagogy within their school setting.  In primary-school based literature itself, play is not a useful search term to input.  It simply brings up very little with regards to the play – by researched definition- that equates to powerful learning opportunities for children.

Instead, educators look for ways to camouflage play pedagogy in a myriad of other packaged-type terms.  ‘Enriched curriculum’, ‘discovery’, ‘developmental’, ‘powerful learning activities’, ‘active learning’, ‘student ownership’ – all terms used by schools to justify the use of play pedagogy in their learning environment.

The need to package and market play suggests that educators are yet to truly understand and value the importance and validity of play as a powerful tool to support children’s learning.  It demonstrates an almost embarrassment at something that seems so trivial as being so vital within the school environment.  It also indicates a wariness of image and appearance – that play does not look like ‘real learning’, hence the need to make it sound as important as it is with a more academic title.  Parents, who vote with their feet, may not accept a school’s competency to provide maximal learning opportunities for their children because by all appearances children are ‘just playing’.

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A further paradox in calling play by its name exists in the mere fact that the light-heartedness of play is key to its very success.  In needing to call play something else – a more formalised label for example – educators contradict the very essence of what makes play so effective.

Children do not see play as difficult.  Play may be a challenge, but often it is the challenge itself that makes play even more enticing.  At no time, however, should true play be rigorous and laborious (as often much of formal schooling tends to be).  The fact that play is light-hearted and fun contributes to its profundity.  By renaming play we extinguish this very characteristic, and in turn reduce its effectiveness.

If we continue to be embarrassed by a term such as play it will never be used as a valid form of teaching and learning.  In avoiding the use of the word play it can only be assumed that educators are embarrassed that something that appears so trivial can in fact have such an impact on students’ learning.

Would this be the case if the terms were ‘reading’ and ‘writing’.  Why are these terms so readily accepted, and play is not?  Reading is not marketed as an ‘Accessing Visual Information for Purpose (AVIP)’ program.  Writing is not validated as an ‘Effective Communication Skill Development (ECSD)’ program.  Yet both reading and writing have a depth of skill and knowledge within their ‘label’ that is not fully understood by those untrained in the teaching of these areas.

Play is the same.  Play, as a teaching and learning tool, cannot be easily defined or explained in a single term.  The teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with authentic play are multi-layered, as is with the teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with reading and writing.  And yet, the terms themselves are widely accepted by all within the greater school community.  Play as a term still struggles to join this party.

How does play become accepted as a valid and powerful teaching and learning tool? By starting with being called what it is.  Play.  Educators need to stop trying to camouflage the pedagogy by calling it something other than what it is.  It should not be embarrassing to say that the way in which children learn best and in a meaningful way is through play.

Teachers know what works for children.  Teachers understand what is developmentally appropriate for their students.  Parents and the wider school community need to be supported to understand this also.  By using the word play as part of an evidence-based, carefully considered and professionally implemented pedagogy, teachers can ensure play gets the recognition it deserves and is accepted as the valid and powerful learning tool it is designed to be.

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