Recently, I’ve been think a lot about the conflict between working as an individual and working as a department. I think English teachers general inclination is towards maverick/anti-establishment type behaviour. Basically to ignoring instructions. One of my previous employers gave no instructions, held no meetings and (jokingly) denied the existence of a policy – everyone taught what they wanted and the department was packed with rebellious Dadaist existentialists (or such.) Strangely, this did not co-exist with a culture of trust or open discussion. On leaving the room colleagues would criticise each other, especially the senior members of department. One colleague, now a head of department herself, would share lesson plans and people would openly mock the lack of cohesion. In my current department the outline is considerably more structured. It would seem to go against all concepts of the teacher as an artist, yet, I have never felt more creative and trusted.
This contrast has led me to wonder what use it is to think of ourselves as artists and why, sometimes, teachers become frustrated with the more systematic elements of our role.
Perhaps in the past I’d bought into the idea of the teacher as an artist. We do craft a creative product, we do use judgement to decide on which method to apply and when, we are developing our ‘talent’ through reflection on our process and we are all a bit odd! So why does the idea of being an artist feel odd?
One explanation may be that paints, canvas and sculpture rarely answer back! We are agents of what we create, but our students must surely have some agency-if they don’t then we have probably got a bigger problem than just whether we are artists or not.
Second there is the recurring thought about progress versus aesthetics. Artists concern themselves solely with the message and the aesthetics. In education our primary focus is ‘have the children learnt.’ Granted, as a socialist, I am at times deeply disturbed by what a ‘fascist’ I have become in the classroom, but I don’t feel skilled enough to simultaneously make aesthetics and message a focus. I still feel like a baby teacher, (this will be my fourth year) and so the extent to which the students progress has to be my main thought.
As a result, I find myself becoming more of scientist, throwing hypothesis at the wall and seeing what sticks. I want to find the best ways to teach each element of the subject I love. I’m obsessed with it. I think about it almost constantly. My students are a vital part of that process, I think deeply about the psychological impact on them. I want them to be in flow, to feel like they get a good deal…a student left my room recently and simply said “I think I’m getting this now.” I nearly did a lap of honour. But, now I have to understand how I can replicate that experience. For every child, and across all of my lessons.
When I do understand it, will I share it with all my colleagues? Will it work in their room? Have they already solved this riddle? I’m not sure, but I do know that every resource they send to me allows me to run beta tests in my head. I grow from this. Perhaps the artist and scientist aren’t so different.
So here’s the rub- my department has some pre-designed, ready to roll lessons. I love them. They work. The kids feel successful and they appreciate being able to hook into some fundamentals that they can get right. Perhaps more importantly, we see massive differences in their writing.
It led me to wonder how the maverick/creative teacher might feel about these, some teachers might feel this strips them of their creativity. They could worry about their opportunity to take risks, to create those ephemeral, life changing moments when students acquire the spark that might create a lifelong love of the subject. However, working through a pattern or set of rules is a fantastic way to create those special moments. Most art movements have didactic rules and routines which must be adhered to- the creativity comes around that start point. For many a didactic approach terrifies and they imagine a production line approach. I have no desire to make my room into a production line, although I admire its consistency. Equally, I have no desire to sacrifice the future of the children I teach in favour of some grand political (anti-establishment) gesture.
Within these lessons students grow a great body of knowledge which allows them to have those ephemeral moments and deep discussion. Last week my lesson was interrupted by a deep discussion on the word classes, two of my students were arguing at the back of my room- expecting a private issue I slowly approached while the group continued to work. On arriving I was delighted to find them squabbling over the sentence ‘the glimmering diamond necklace’ and referring back to an earlier example ‘rapidly fragmenting line.’ They could not decide if ‘diamond necklace’ was operating as a adjective-noun compound, or a compound modifier. The passion with which they were discussing this and their deep understanding made a clear and what’s more is it spiralled into a discussion about the route of effective description. The basic knowledge of sentence structure caused, rather than hindered,the ephemeral moment. This is by no means a one off.
Are we artists? Does it matter? I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that we must leave our egos at the door and just aim to benefit the students. Any objection can’t be based on a sense of the self as a creative, but equally to lose all flair would probably not benefit the students anyway. It is perhaps not human nature to follow orders, especially when these seems to contradict your sense of your self, but , and I think this is crucial, we are not trying to make an aesthetic statement, we are trying to leave students with more than they had before.