Tom Bennett says never mind the bloggox – the Matrix is the new staffroom
I suffered in silence a lot when I started teaching back in 2003. Like many rookies, I was full of uncertainty – in and out of the classroom. I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing, and often I didn't know who I could ask, or what I should be asking, in order to fix it. And, like many new teachers, I internalised my inabilities, and assumed that they were incompetence, which bred unhappiness, insecurity and timidity, which made things worse. I'd already begun to suspect that some of my teacher training wasn't as secure as it could have been (this was my first twinge against junk science, although I didn't know what to call it then), but I buried the suspicion and trusted my trainers, mentors and advisors. The fault lay not in my stars, but in me. How could I object to the settled will of everyone who directed and instructed me? How could a mere teacher dispute the Mosaic wisdom of his masters?
I smelled rats roasting long before I knew what they were, but I couldn't put a name to the meat. Then I started to take teaching online, and everything changed. I joined some groups on Facebook (@facebook), but it was Twitter (@Twitter) that really lit the fuse. It seemed an odd form of communication, to speak only in haikus, stuffed in a bottle and flung off into what seemed like an ocean. At first, I did what everyone did: followed some famous people, plus Stephen Fry (he's like the free voucher you get when you join Amazon, and ironically, at the time of writing, he's off Twitter). Turns out Lou Ferrigno (@Louferrigno) didn't want to chat about waffles. You start off following some of the big edu-hitters, simply out of conformity, like the TES (@TES) and UK Education Matters (@schoolduggery), and slowly start to see what's out there. Lurking at first, of course. The first time you get someone replying to your tweet, it's like finding someone standing in your bathroom, reading your diary. Who the hell are you and what are you doing?
And then you start to see ideas coalescing from the stream; opinions you'd never thought of, or ones you didn't know you really had; information you wanted to access but had no time or avenue to do so; people with experiences and roles you wanted to know more about; people from other countries, geographically or experientially. Twitter is like an enormous staffroom on the first day of working in a new school. You talk to people that look friendly. You hang around the kettle. You tell a joke, ask for help. But the staffroom is vast, and everyone's there. It takes a while to find like-minded people who inspire and guide you. Or people who will challenge and test you. Twitter is no more and no less than a macrocosm of every room, every party you ever walked into. The nibbles are awful, but the conversation is fascinating.
This also means that it isn't some fairy safe space where everyone wants to share their biscuits and pinch your rosy cheeks. There is ugliness and unkindness and every shade of vice known to humanity. And there is altrusim, wit, love and camaraderie. It's people, just people.
Twitter even provides you with facilities to become architect of your own space:
- The people you follow: choose only ones who add to your idea space in some way, either as friends, or even friendly fire
- Your public status: be visible only by request
- Muting and blocking: gentle and painless ways to build walls between you and those who offend
With those three superpowers, you can build a network of strangers and friends you'll never meet who can enrich and activate your idea space immeasurably. You can build an international village of allies and sparring partners and scratching posts as big as the world – bigger, if Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) replies to you from the ISS (@ISS_research).
One drawback to being exposed to the views of so many people is that you get exposed to the views of so many people. In daily life, many of us are not ready for that: our personal networks reach as far as the next desk, the edge of the classroom, the ringing phone in your lounge. But to go online means plugging in to a great matrix, an ocean of human beliefs, ideas and opinion. It can be overwhelming, especially if you don't enjoy being contradicted, or discovering that people don't agree with your cherished values. It is far easier to have faith in free speech and liberal tolerance in the abstract than it is to endure it in concrete form. Plurality of expression and belief are fine things until you actually meet some.
Some people, in my experience, can't get past this simple fact: the world is beautiful, broad and bountiful – and it is diverse, and that diversity forms part of its value. Some people equate disagreement with attack; or difference of opinion as ugliness. We are the heroes and heroines of our self-penned melodramas; it is often a shock to discover we are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to someone else's Hamlet. Twitter's become negative, they say, oblivous to the fact that there are a million conversations going on that they've chosen not to follow. It's like complaining it's noisy at a Slipknot (@slipknot) concert.
Being a town square, there are prats and angry people with foam at the sides of their mouths, and sad people in their underpants who live only to share their unhappiness. Most of that can be squashed in a heartbeat with your superpowers (see above). My little boat has been caught in a few Twitter storms since I joined; the first one made me perfectly miserable, as what seemed to be countless strangers lined up to give me a kicking for thinking "x", instead of "y". I use Twitter not just as a professional network but a social one too, so seeing my salon/saloon transformed into a boxing ring was unpleasant. Five minutes of muting (maybe 15 people in total) and it all stopped. I welcome dispute, but no one has to invite negativity like a soundtrack into their personal space. What feels like an army can, online, actually come from a mere lift full of angry adversaries. Poof! Like Marvin the Martian (@the_kaboom), you've disintegrated them.
For whom the bell ends
So I think I can say that I've enjoyed more dispute than most; I have a Little League social media status, more than some, much less than others. (The minute you start to think lots of followers makes you special, check out how many @iquotecomedy has, or @parishilton, and sit down. There are strippers in Alaska that have six figures after their names. When Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) says 'hi' the national grid (@nationalgridUK) pops a vein). I follow a lot of people and a fair number follow me. I get abuse ("bell end" most recently, with my cornflakes); I get mobs of people with Twitchforks and burning brands because they can't read past headlines. I get weird DMs and emails. I get Shift Happens sent to me on a daily basis, inspirational quotes and other devilish tortures.
Out of the ocean, endlessly rocking
But you know what? All of that pales in comparison to what my online relationship with the world has given me. Oceans can be rough, but they can also be beautiful. Knowing that others think like me has made me more confident: in my ability to to teach, in my opinions, and in my right to dispute opinions with which I take issue. It has forced me to confront many of my own dogma; to revisit many of my own axioms, and to address, as far as possible, my prejudices. As a teacher, I have been exposed to wonderful ideas from around the world, moments after they have been thought. Before teachers were limited to the opinions of their physical networks. Now we can hear a chair drop in a classroom in Australia, and learn how the teacher dealt with it. Or even share our experiences.
That's why I call this a revolution. Because teachers can organise and collaborate without the permission or vehicle of traditional heirarchies with their concomitant dominance of value. We can share our own experiences for ourselves; we can train and challenge each other; we can question and short circuit power bases that have enjoyed monopolies on the ideas we are allowed to entertain. Teacher voice has taken off on Twitter in a way that has yet to be replicated in any other form off-line. Everywhere else we're the last to be asked anything, the last to be invited to tables of power. Here, anyone can stand on a box and be heard. There, it's teach what I tell you, like this, and Hell mend you if you wriggle and rebel.
I was astonished to find that after a while of blogging and tweeting into the void, people were reading. I was more astonished to find I was being read by some of the educational panjandrums. We built researchED (@researchED1), a grass roots, teacher led project, almost entirely through social media, from recruitment to advertising to ticketing. Other such projects, like Northern Rocks (@NRocks2016) and Teach Meets (eg, @TeachmeetNW) have also used Twitter as the vehicle to create something beautiful, something that restores agency and dignity to the profession. We have found, buried in the web, a world where our opinions matter, to someone. Is it any wonder that many teachers have embraced it? Is it any wonder that some of the traditional gatekeepers of authority in education have derided it, unhappy with the liberation it represents to the previously marginalised?
There is good and bad in this ocean, as there is in any public space. But that's not an argument for sitting on the sand. Dive. In. Your voice counts.
Oh, and me? @tombennett71. See you there.