'Traditional or progressive? Zero tolerance vs restorative justice? Groups or rows? Does it even matter?'

One teacher asks: how can discussions about a complex professional craft fit so neatly into two opposing tick boxes?

Sam Draper

Trad or Prog?

What has happened to educational debate? We’re currently in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, and in many ways, I can see why.

Maybe it’s the social media, maybe it’s the polarisation of politics, maybe its just a lack of thought, but these days, teachers have to pick a side. Trad versus prog, zero tolerance versus restorative justice. Groups or rows? Sharks or Jets? When did a discussion about a complex professional craft such as teaching fit so neatly into two opposing tick boxes?

I’ll be honest, it comes from a personal pet peeve: I’m an optimistic fellow who understands that a little positive pragmatism goes a lot further in a classroom than a diktat. Therefore, I am labeled a "prog" when personally I feel I have a lot of "trad" tendencies.

I teach in rows (most of the time), and in groups (some of the time). I like to chalk and talk at the front sometimes, and love prepping and providing some independent learning. I’ve tried everything I can to help students succeed and learn, without cheating at the exams. I’d rather not stand behind a label or trend based on the latest research that will undoubtedly be swapped by the "experts" according to the latest political swing.

In all honesty, I still struggle with the definitions and the derision that comes with being one of either side, so I’m not sure how a trainee teacher or newly qualified colleague would deal with it.

Every choice you make in those first few years of teaching comes with doubt and a cloud of neuroses, only found within a profession that demands excellence by the hour for 30-plus demanding souls (rinse and repeat). The best teachers I have worked with have a neurotic energy that drives them to work, reflect, plan and develop lesson after lesson, term after term. The last thing you need to add to that mix is a false dichotomy of absolutisms thrown about by those selling books or training courses, or just trying to fill up their CPD time.

I think it often does a disservice to our profession, sits within the echo chamber of edutwitter, and would strike the fear of God into anyone considering teaching as a profession (do you have to pick a side?)

Unhelpful tribalism

We are a service profession. We should do everything from the top down to provide the best opportunities for the students in our care. Every leadership choice, management choice, planning decision should come down to that. Not whether one particular style or practice will determine the fate of all children within our care.

The "trad" or "prog" propagators need to take a good, hard look at themselves – what are they actually saying?

Good teaching is about a reflective, adaptable variation of activities and practices that enable students to learn, thrive and develop in the years that they have before their entry into the working world arrives. They can cope with five or six subjects/teachers/classrooms a day, so they can cope with a different seating plan or activity once in a while. A singular diet might provide a consistency of sorts, and ensure that your predictions match the targets and fit bell curves, but what self-respecting teacher fits that exacting mould?

If we expect students to be intelligent enough to hold more than one idea in their heads without resorting to absolutism, tribalism or downright pigheadedness, then maybe we should follow suit.

Sam Draper has been head of English in three inner-city London schools and has been teaching for 15 years. He tweets as @alondonbookman

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Sam Draper

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