Back to the joy of teaching
The theory and practice of educational change need to probe deeper into the heart of what teaching is, and into what moves teachers to do their work well. Good teaching is not just a matter of being efficient, developing competence, mastering technique and possessing the right kind of knowledge. Good teaching also involves emotional work. It is infused with desire: pleasure, passion, creativity, challenge and joy.
English primary teachers interviewed by Jennifer Nias spoke of their relationship to the children in terms of care, affection and even love. But too often educational reform elevates cognition above care as a priority for improvement. Care for persons, things, and even ideas, become marginalised as a result.
In a study of 32 grade 7 and 8 teachers identified as having a sustained commitment to common learning outcomes, integrated curriculum and alternative forms of assessment and reporting in their classes, we are finding that teachers do not plan their courses or units of work in a linear way that starts with the learning they want to achieve, then identifies the methods and materials which might lead to those outcomes being realised.
Rather, teachers start with knowledge and feelings about their students, with their intuitive understanding about what is likely to excite and engage those students, and with their own passions and enthusiasm about ideas, topics, material and methods that they can picture working with their classes.
Teaching and leading are profoundly emotional activities. You would not guess this from much of the educational change and reform literature, however. By focusing on knowledge, skill cognition, decision-making and reflection, those aspects of educational change and teacher development that are rational, calculative, masculine and managerial in nature are the ones that are given prominence.
Caring occupations such as teaching, which involve commitment to the well-being of others, involve immense amounts of emotional labour. Not just "acting out" feelings superficially, but also consciously working oneself into experiencing the necessary feelings required to perform one's job well, be these feelings of anger or enthusiasm, coolness or concern. In many respects, this emotional labour is a positive aspect of teaching. Classrooms would be (and sometimes are) barren and boring places without it. But emotional labour also exposes teachers, making them vulnerable when the conditions and demands on their work make it hard for them to do their emotional work properly.
When teachers are overwhelmed by the demands of change, those who invest themselves emotionally are likely to become racked by guilt, feeling that they are hurting those for whom they care. Primary teachers trying to cope with the detailed and rapidly introduced national curriculum often became crippled by their own conscientiousness; by their determination to make the best of unreasonably imposed demands for the sake of the children they taught. The costs of such intense emotional labour when the conditions of teaching do not support it are that teachers overextend themselves, burn out, become cynical or leave the profession altogether.
If educational reformers ignore the emotional dimensions of educational change, emotions and feelings will only re-enter the change process by the back door. Festering resentment will undermine and overturn rationally-made decisions; committee work will be poisoned by members with unresolved grudges and grievances; and pedagogical changes will fail because they have not engaged with the passions of the classroom.
Taking our improvement efforts into the emotions of educational change should mean understanding how to create workplaces for teachers that promote positive, even passionate emotional relationships to teaching, learning and improvement. It should also mean protecting teachers from overextending themselves and from becoming burnt out or cynical as a result.
Computer technologies can break down the barriers of schooling, enabling students and teachers to participate in virtual learning communities across the world, where there is instant access to extensive information and where physical space is no longer a limit to learning. However, I want to caution educators not to enthuse unequivocally about the benefits these new technologies bring. External text-based interactions may weaken the development of more immediate and emotionally enriching face-face relationships. Clifford Stoll makes just this point in this caustically titled book Silicon Snakeoil: "Computer networks isolate us from one another rather than bring us together. We need only deal with one side of an individual over the net. And if we don't like what we see, we just pull the plug. Or flame them. There's no need to tolerate the imperfections of real people ... we lose the ability to enter into spontaneous interactions with real people ... All of us want children to experience warmth, human interaction, the thrill of discovery, and solid grounding in essentials: reading, getting along with others, training in civic values ... Only a teacher, live in the classroom, can bring about this inspiration. This can't happen over a speaker, a television or a computer screen."
Dangers such as these do not deter the corporate predators of computer technology from relentless and remorseless marketing of their products around promises of limitless learning and parental fears that their children will be left behind in the economic rat-race.
The corporate computer giants have helped create a computer hegemony in the world of education and in the culture as a whole. Competing for clients in an educational market, schools install computers and flaunt them as a symbol of their success. Sceptical teachers find it hard to voice fundamental doubts, and feel they can only apologise that they are not yet technically competent.
As computers proliferate, more and more teaching and learning is based around them and technology begins to dictate rather than support the form that learning takes. Emotionally inspired creative writing generated by teachers with presence, imagination and a reich vocabulary, may be eclipsed by electronically-assisted writing that concentrates on technically adequate communication alone. As Stoll succinctly put it, "simply by turning to a computer with a problem, you limit your ability to recognise other solutions. When the only tool you know is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
What is worth fighting for in our schools is ultimately the needs of learning and caring for students. If our fight is for the needs of all children and not just for the elite few, then markets and managerialism will help us little in our quest. Openness, informality, care, attentiveness, lateral working relationships and reciprocity are the basic ingredients of effective school-community collaboration, not merely emotional icing which adorns it. The struggle for positive educational change must now move beyond the school in order to enrich what goes on within it. And it must fully engage our hearts as well as our minds.
Professor Andy Hargreaves is director of the International Centre for Educational Change, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.