Why it's time to take a radical and artistic approach to the workload crisis

16th February 2016 at 14:23
Teacher workload
Strikes won't work, and nor will petitions, writes this head of humanities. If we're really going to get the public to understand our workload woes, we must scatter ourselves and our piles of marking across the landscape like an Antony Gormley installation

When I have had enough of the Great Workload for the day and am slumped in front of late-night television, I like to unleash one enormous and extended “Tomasz Schafernaker!” whenever the weather forecast is on the way. It doesn’t matter whether he’s on duty that night or not; I just feel a lot better about the day gone by after bellowing out his magnificent name. 

While I would recommend Schafernaker Therapy to anyone, I do appreciate that it may not be the most radical form of action against the teacher’s considerable lot today. Mao marched. Che got on his motorbike. I sit on a sofa and shout out the name of a weatherman. 

But what should we actually do to try to make teaching and education a better place to be? Does writing about it help? The pen is a mighty weapon, of course, and regular readers of TES online will know that there have been some incredibly powerful pieces written here in recent months.

But how much of a difference do words really make, however brilliantly argued? Not much, I suspect. So what more can we do? Step up the industrial action? Take strike action? I honestly cannot see it helping in the case of teachers. It will not win public sympathy. It will not force the government’s hand. For most parents it will simply be regarded as an “inconvenience” and – you can surely hear those mischievous cabinet ministers now – it will be depicted as “damaging children’s education”. I have been on strike as a teacher on several occasions. It’s what happens.

The charm offensive

So I think, in this age of social media, teachers en masse need to consider other ways. We need to charm and disarm our potential allies, wrong-foot those who seek to demonise us – in ways likely to build public sympathy and support, rather than in ways that will turn people against us.

How about, for instance, a sequence of “Antony Gormley Sundays” this spring and summer?  A "Gormley" would involve each one of us heading out to some minor or major local landmark (urban or rural) and effectively becoming a living sculpture for a day. It would be a nationwide Markathon protest, where up to half a million Extreme Markers will be scattered across the national landscape, looming with our piles of marking randomly and slightly hauntingly in all kinds of unexpected venues.

Marking is what we normally do for many hours on a Sunday anyway, so there would be little significant extra time or commitment required. The public (often desperate for some form of recreation on a Sunday) would start to take pride in finding or "collecting"  another "Gormley Teacher" and sharing the news with their friends online. Maybe we agree to stand up on the hour and perform some kind of pirouette – adding to our appeal, particularly to families with young children.

An odd and mysterious thing for us all to do, yes, but that would be the whole point. Even the more derisive members of the public will be at least curious and the media will be eager to hear what we have to say for ourselves. We can present our grievances from a position of strength, without anyone being able to label us as the bad guys. 

I merely put this out there, in some hope that it might inspire similar (and probably better) forms of protest. All of this could, alternatively, prove to be a mere pipe dream. In which case, I’ll humbly return to my “Schafernakers” and leave the campaign strategy to the experts.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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