‘Dear teachers: you have been amazing’

Looking back on the past year, school staff should remind themselves that they have been doing an extraordinary job in extraordinary times, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Amazing

Here’s an end-of-year injection of optimism:

“It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate/It takes guts to be gentle and kind.”

Thank you, Morrissey.

He’s right, of course. I could fixate on some of the woeful decisions of this government in recent months: the missteps over exams and free school meals; the slap in the face of this week’s pay freeze; the many contradictions, mixed messages and policy contortions we’ve endured – but, hey, instead, let’s not.

Let’s have the guts to be gentle and kind.

One day, we’ll all look back and reflect on what it was like to be a teacher, a leader, or any other member of school staff helping young people to navigate their way through the biggest crisis the UK has faced since the Second World War.

In judging how we’ve done, and in reflecting on your personal contribution to the national effort, I’m guessing you won’t be looking at performance tables, Progress 8, Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment) results or Ofsted ratings.

Instead, like all teachers, all leaders, all school staff, you’ll be thinking about the children and young people whom you are responsible for and asking yourself: what did we achieve for them, and how far are we helping them to get back on track, educationally and socially?

End of term: messages of thanks

If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t judge education, or health, or wellbeing using narrow, easy-to-quantify metrics. The moral purpose of a profession isn’t easily reduced to a spreadsheet.

Parents have reminded us of that. Indeed, here’s what one parent wrote to the staff at one UK school via the headteacher this week:

Dear teachers,

My son has had the most amazing start to secondary school! Nearly every day when he's come out of school, his answer when I've asked him about his day hasn't just been that it's been OK or good, but "Great!" or "Awesome!", followed by him telling me what he's been learning about.

When he was sent home to isolate a while ago, he cried. Not because he was scared to catch Covid, but because he wanted to be in school. He absolutely LOVES school!

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you! You are amazing!

What a message of optimism and faith in what you do each day in your classrooms and your contexts, across the country.

Teachers need to hear messages like this right now. We’re at that point of the year when we’re all exhausted. Our judgement becomes skewed. We find it hard to be dispassionate.

I don’t know whether this is or isn’t a turning point for our education system. Will the instinct to default to an old normality be overtaken by a wish to reform qualifications, the curriculum, and how schools and colleges are judged via that ugliest of words, “accountability”?

This may be a moment for shimmering change. Or it may be a moment for old certainties.

Why teaching matters

All I know is this. From where I sit, and from all I hear – in conversations, emails and other messages – teachers and the many other staff in our schools and colleges, in all contexts, have done an extraordinary job in extraordinary times.

And that includes you.

You have done it against a backdrop of gnawing anxiety and political ineptitude.

You have done it when you were inwardly suppressing fear and frustration, and yet projecting towards your children and communities a sense that one day – yes, one day – all will be well again.

You have been understated beacons of hope.

And in doing all of this, in class and online, you haven’t just kept our schools and colleges open for business. You’ve done something much, much deeper.

Your work over the past 15 months has reaffirmed education as a profoundly human activity, one not easily measured, nor replaced by robots.

You’ve re-emphasised an extraordinary professional calling in which we, the older generation, support the younger generation to take their cautious first steps into the adult world, from where we hope they will build a better future.

There is surely no more noble mission than this.

We don’t do it because of how it’s measured. We do it because it’s what we believe in.

I began this blog with Morrissey, reminding us to be kind.

I end it with Winnie the Pooh, reminding us of the deep unspoken humanity of intangible things:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. 

“Pooh!” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Thank you to all of you, for making so many people, across your classrooms, schools and communities, so resolutely sure of you. As that anonymous parent said: you have been amazing.

Now, enjoy a well-earned summer break.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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