NOT SO PRINCIPLED AFTER ALL?

Day after day, year after year, I arrive at work, log on my computer, check I have my lessons in order for the day, then go and teach them. I will do a bunch of other things too: perhaps a duty, or a line management meeting, or a lesson observation. Always some colleagues to talk to. The days never seem to repeat as you do them, but, taking the long view, they certainly shuffle into a pattern. And at the end of each month there is a salary slip, and the prospect of recuperation at the end of term. It’s a job, innit, and not a bad one.
For some reason, however, we see it as more than that. Perhaps it’s uncommon these days to hear people refer to it as ‘a calling’, but most teachers I know do do it as though they were responding to some higher moral purpose. They will let their tutor group in to see them at lunchtime, or lay on a homework club on a Thursday after school, or reply to a tweacher friend while watching the football. They will go through the motions as they would any job, then they go through some more. Why?
I write this in the week that teachers have gone on strike for the third time in one academic year. The government tells us we are the enemies of hard-working families (as if we weren’t also hard-working), that we are politically-motivated (as if politics were something that should be left to politicians), that were are pay-obsessed (as if we were the ones who fought for PRP.) Our principles have been questioned: how can we call ourselves professionals, and how can we say we want the best for every child, if we then down chalk and walk out? The principles of fair pay (when others are on zero-hours contracts) and the right to retire at a reasonable time and on a reasonable pension (when others will not, and have none) are up for debate for any worker, and not just teachers. Are we more righteous than the next?
I entered the classroom at the same time as Ofsted did. The notion of a government inspectorate on this scale was an abomination, and schools pledged to ignore it. Performance management was mooted soon after, and we railed against the unnatural grafting on of business ethics. The Threshold was introduced some while later: colleagues boycotted it, insisting that they oughtn’t to have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to be paid a decent sum. There were principled objections to all of these (and I remember holding them), but there are few now remaining in the staffroom who do not accept these as part of the landscape. Indeed, a whole alternative moral framework can be built around this new reality: Ofsted and the rest have made us more accountable for the increased funding schools have received over these 20 years, and actually teaching is better and student outcomes are better too. Does it mean were are unprincipled, or shallow, if we now accept what once we campaigned against?
What are the shibboleths of today? What are the trigger-words that test our principles, and place us either on the side of the angels or of the Gove-devils? Local Authority vs Academy school – that could be one. Champions of the former believe in local accountability, inclusion and the collective; academy adherents espouse the freedom to experiment, to drive from the front and the devil take the hindmost. If you are at one, you look upon the other with either fear or envy. What about performance-related pay? What place can it possibly have in a profession dependent upon team work, and one where we understand that gains are incremental, sometimes invisible and often fuzzy? On the other hand, if we want talented linguists, mathematicians and engineers to ply their trades in the classroom; if we recognise that the person sitting next to us in the staff briefing truly is exceptional: should we not embrace PRP and inspire more to aspire more?
Right now, I know where I stand. (I’m an LA kinda guy, and PRP is a Pretty Reprehensible Practice.) I am fortunate to have an employer whose instincts tally with my own. But if I were in a different setting, I cannot say for sure which of my cherished principles would remain intact, and I do not castigate my co-professionals for supping with a shorter spoon. We all do what we must.
If I am at the hinge point of my career, and if I therefore swing forward another 20 years, on what moral ground do I suspect I will still be standing? First, last and always, we must saddle up alongside the notion of publicly-funded schooling; this funding must keep pace with demand so that we can continue with an education system as good as any in the world. Second, our system must have children at the centre – not as proto-adults, not as future drones, but as the gloriously inventive and energetic things that they come to us as already. It must be a place that attracts the best as teachers: the smartest of their generation, the most dedicated, even the most principled. The pull factors might include a more competitive pay structure, but some little respect from our political leaders would go some way too. And that would be all (it would already be a lot.) These are the principles – a world class education as a right, respectful of the rights of the child and built upon the glorious efforts of the many – that make it more than just a job.
Now, where was that pay cheque?

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