Beware the Promise of Perfection

I had a really wonderful conversation for GLTBookClub and we covered a lot of ground, discussing the leverage that curriculum development has in regards to the curricular experience for students, the intrinsic motivation for teachers, but also a significant shift in mindset for us all, as we begin to realise that the what and how of this work might never be complete. It is a challenging task to ask teachers to pay less attention to the end points, and instead make our peace with the fact that this is a thoroughly enjoyable, but nevertheless, an ongoing piece of work.

It made me consider to what degree we take such tentative steps when dealing with our own individual improvement, or even when planning this out at a strategic level, and if it might be useful to consider the way in which at times, we might encounter the promise of completion or success that, whilst falling under the guise of mastery, actually takes us further away from understanding the craft of teaching itself.

There are several who will claim to be an emperor of promise, and I wonder ow much of that narrative is useful for teachers, but in particular, the novice teacher, that it helps to moves them forward in a meaningful way to improve their practice. Speaking of best bets is, on the whole, as much as we can hope for, and an exploration into the way that the research translates to our classrooms is one that feels compelling to me, because so little is confirmed. For me, it is the incessant nature of learning more about how learning works that pulls me back to want to understands it better. In fact, the silver bullets and clear parameters around what effective teaching looks like serve as a distraction from the way in which my subject, and perfecting my practice is infinitely unreachable. For me, that’s exciting. However, after speaking to Rhiannon about the way in which the ground can feel unstable when we group teachers together and ask them to talk about what’s best to teach, what doesn’t work, or what they do not know, there is a presence of fear, as we revert to definitive language, must-dos and reprimanding nevers in order to make sense of what can feel rather intimidating. It is all too tempting to say we know something to be true, because it provides the security and affirmation that we have mastered what might indeed be an unwieldable entity. Indeed, to give attention to a thin veil of perfection is more comforting than standing in the face of the infinite.

But this is damaging, not just to forming and shaping what we understanding about pedagogy, but also for bringing along others as part of that process. It feels exclusive, and as though the process of teaching can only be mastered by the minority. Beyond this, holding up entities that require such nuance, such as subject specificity, lines of enquiry, drawing together what might be regarded as a seminal work of investigation that spans the entirety of their career, this work is endless. Leaning to view the endpoint of teaching, something which can be perceived as successful as the destination we should aim for takes somewhat of an insular view towards something that is so spellbinding- it feels rather a shame to rush it.

The terminology of success, completion and perfection also doesn’t sit very well next to what we understand about teaching, and additionally, the process and evolution of teaching itself. With the formation of infrastructure such as the EEF, working papers developed by the Teacher Development Trust, emerging research reviews presented by our regulatory body, we are moving forward. I do not view that progression as one of purist pedagogical thinking, but one that causes us to ask more questions about what we do, and whether it makes a positive impact upon the children that we teach in that given moment. At times, the answers to those questions will remain the same, but the discourse that features around this ongoing evolution of what it means to teach well, without really seeking out a definitive answer is what I strongly believe will take us forward. And forward in a way that doesn’t feel falsely authoritative , but that remains continually inquisitive in how we are making strides in the process of questioning itself.

When we start to make declarations about what success in the classroom looks like, without taking colleagues on a journey around criticality and reservation, and we speak in absolutes about what is right or wrong in terms of curriculum or classroom delivery- then this is where our practice begins to fall apart, but also our professional relationships with it. I always think back to Carly Waterman’s ‘respectfully sceptical’ as a guiding light here, because it holds the values required to stand back to look at the wider picture, and regard it with a critical eye.

If you are a new teacher reading this and doing some sensemaking around to what degree this reflects your own experiences, I would like to lead you into summer with this: we are all sensemaking. We have always been sensemaking, at every step of the way, and success is truly attained to a submission to take adoration in the process, because beyond that, very little is certain. If there is one thing I have learned during my time as a teacher, it is, to quote David Weston and the rest of Team TDT, ‘hold views lightly,’ and it is this tentative sense of criticality that will endure.

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