Flumine perpetuo torrens solet acrius ire.
Sed tamen hæc brevis est, illa perennis aqua.
— Ovid, Rem. 651.
In course impetuous soon the torrent dries,
The brook a constant peaceful stream supplies.
“May you live in interesting times” is said to be an ancient Chinese curse. Sadly, I think it is evident that teachers in the UK (and elsewhere) are currently living through some very interesting times indeed.
It certainly seems that before one torrent of change has finished running its impetuous course, another torrent of radically alternative change is unloosed upon us from another direction. Heraclitus pondered whether one could step in the same river twice; teachers ponder if today’s modish ‘best practice’ will be the same as tomorrow’s ‘best practice’, because it certainly isn’t the same as yesterday’s.
And where does all this frenetic change get us? The answer, based on my two decades of experience is: nowhere.
Sadly, this doleful and melancholy truth does not seem to be widely accepted. The purveyors of the many varieties of educational ‘magic beans’ continue to loudly hawk their wares, all too many of which rely more on cant, humbug and the partiality (and sometimes naked partisanship) of friends in high places rather than any demonstrable or proven effectiveness.
Too much of students’ and teachers’ precious, precious time is wasted attempting to implement the latest muddle-headed initiative, or at least minimise the harm it will do. Careerists — teachers, politicians and inspectors alike — pay fulsome public lip service to ideas that they then go on to cheerfully deride in private. (Mea culpa! on that one BTW.)
So what are the eternal verities of teaching? I’m not sure if I can provide an exhaustive or definitive list, but here are a few of what I consider to be, if not eternal undying truths, then reasonably sound advice. And, yes, I do think I learned many of them on my PGCE course.
1. Avoid whole class detentions or sanctions: they are almost always unfair and an admission of weakness rather than a demonstration of strength.
2. Avoid shouting or raising your voice: it might work the first time, but each iteration of this behaviour diminishes its effectiveness.
3. Set suitable work. Although it won’t magically resolve all behaviour issues all by itself (contrary to what some misguided mentors think), it does help.
4. Watch what you say, especially any offhand negative or sarcastic comments, even if meant in jest. Although it may not always seem like it, most students genuinely care what their teacher thinks of them.
These, to my mind, begin to exemplify the “constant peaceful stream” that makes the genuine difference in teaching, rather that over-hyped “Year Zero” and “world-turned-upside-down” models so beloved of politicians and careerists at all levels.
I am not against change; it’s just that a lot — an awful lot! — of the changes that I have been asked to carry out over the years have proven to be transient and temporary, and within a matter of days, weeks or months we go back to the old ways. Show me a better way and I will gladly do it, but I have grown both wary and weary of the change-for-change’s-sake that is all too often foisted on us as a profession.
Genuine, useful change? Only time will tell.
Opinionum commenta delet dies, naturæ judicia confirmat.
–CICERO, vi. Att. 1.
Time obliterates the fictions of opinion, and confirms the decisions of nature.