Should we teach “Compassion” as a new subject in our schools?

compassion

“You look like a sex offender.”

“You 12 Year Old Faggot.”

“You should drink bleach and kill yourself.”

“I hope you get cancer.”

These are some of the comments left on a teenager’s YouTube channel after posting a series of short clips. As an adult, let alone a teacher, I was shocked to find comments like these in abundance. These comments were sent by other teenagers specifically to criticise the content of a channel. Having looked at other social media, the trend is very similar, particularly on Instagram.

I don’t want to get into a debate about how we teach internet safety to our kids. In my opinion, its a no-brainer that we should be teaching kids to be more intelligent and “streetwise” when it comes to the internet. However, to me, comments like these do not simply originate from a lack of understanding of how to use social media, but grow out of a total lack of compassion for other peoples’ feelings. Worryingly, as a teacher, it seems I am seeing more examples of this complete lack of understanding of how the actions of our students impact on their wider world.

Before I start suggesting that things are worse than they have ever been, I’d first like to reflect on my own years as a teenager. At times, teenagers can be cruel. Arguably, many lack the empathy we would expect from them as adults. It is easy as a teenager to get drawn into unpleasant behaviour due to many factors – peer pressure being a big one. But I would argue that the anonymity afforded by social media has allowed the very worse elements of teenage behaviour to take route, which is more reason why schools and individual teachers need to take more responsibility in supporting their students to make the right choices, maybe to the point of formalising this in the classroom.

Homophobia has been a recent case in point. In many schools, low-level homophobic comments have largely gone under the radar. “Oh, that’s gay!” says one teenager to another when referring to something they dislike. I continue to hear about comments like these unchallenged by teachers in charge of a classroom. On the upside, I have also worked with an amazing colleague who brought this issue to the forefront of her school, becoming a leading member of the Stonewall campaign to raise awareness of the use of this language in schools. The results were outstanding as students began to really understand the impact of their actions. More of this needs to happen.

But as teachers we are facing a battle. How do we teach compassion to our kids when the world around us is becoming increasingly hostile? A case in point was an article in the Guardian today about the wearing of the “Burkini”. I was shocked and dismayed that a supposed democratic, enlightened nation could enact and enforce such prejudicial laws for little purpose other than it “may offend people” on religious grounds, and was not in keeping with a “secular” society. I wonder how many Catholic Nuns were asked to de-frock in Paris today as a result of their religious expression?

After the Brexit vote, race hate crimes in the UK rose by 57% according to some research. Yet in the midst of all this intolerance from our societies, we expect our students to be tolerant, open-minded, non-prejudicial? We are fighting a losing battle!

My point here is that in the climate of intolerance, injustice and prejudice, maybe we need to be clearer to our students on ways in which to avoid this. Maybe we need to specifically teach the values which education SHOULD be about – compassion, understanding, open-mindedness. I know teachers that do this already – they are amazing. Their kids listen to them and learn a great deal about life from them too (and they know who they are!!) But I also know many teachers who avoid tackling these issues head on. That is why I would suggest that there needs to be a more formal approach to teaching these values in school.

At the moment, our societies have a great deal of room for improvement. But if we want to start making those improvements, maybe we need to start with education and the values that this should bring to our young people and start that process in our classrooms.

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Dear Mr. Gove…

Dear Mr. Gove,

Please accept this letter as a heartfelt plea to withdraw from the Conservative Party leadership race, suppress any further ideas of becoming Prime Minister, and seek immediate help for your narcissistic delusions. I understand why you clearly think that you are the right person for this job. However, my understanding of his is based not on your ability nor your track record of perceived success, but your worrying history of delusional self-righteousness when you have been given positions of responsibility. There seems to have been an emerging pattern in your behaviour where you are absolutely unable to accept that there are people in this world who actually know more than you and on the basis of that knowledge, disagree with much of what you have attempted to do.  I would like to help with your recovery by highlighting only a small number of these instances.

In 2006 you published Celsius 7/7 to extremely mixed reviews. However, one of the main criticisms of this book was your attempt to dilute the issue of Islamic extremism and terrorism into an emotive package that was really just a reflection of pre-existing prejudices held by many. The worst part of this is that you wrote this book with the absolute belief that you were somehow an expert on Islamic extremism and terrorism, and in that process you tried to argue against the real expertise of scholars such as William Dalrimple and policy advisers such as Marc Sageman. As a result, much of Tory policy towards combating extremism was based on your flawed ideas.

This, however, seems incomparable to the work you did while you were the at the helm of the Education system. Your track record speaks for itself as you single-handedly dismantled the entire system and left it in an extremely poor state of health. You also lied about your thought towards professionals here. While you claimed to value the work of professional teachers, you increased the numbers of untrained teachers which had a very damaging impact upon education on the whole. Even Professor Sir Richard Evans said, “Gove presided over the disintegration of our school system; he opened up teaching to untrained people in state schools, because he had contempt for professional educationalists.” See the pattern emerging here, Mr. Gove?

Even when you brought yourself to consult with experts, you then ignored all of their suggestions. The History curriculum is a good case in point. After consultation with some of the top history educators in the country, you ditched their ideas and came up with your own ridiculous patriotic version of events to ram down the throats of our next generation with little regard for the skills they should learn in the subject. Furthermore, against all advice, you changed the GCSE system in 2012 making it much harder for students to compete with those who had sat the same level of exam in previous years. Then when results dropped that year, you blamed the very people who you ignored – the education professionals.

There has been an abundance of research about behaviour in schools, and engagement, and student well-being…. but you disregarded the lot in a bid to recreate your own school experience because, of course, all children in schools are just like you were, and if it worked for you, then it will work for every child in the land. Well, guess what, Mr. Gove, it didn’t work for you at all. You might have little pieces of paper with some qualifications written on them, but you have a long way to go in understanding people. For example, in a bid to improve discipline in schools, you pushed for getting more ex-soldiers into teaching roles. Is this what kids really needed? A sergeant-major figure shouting at them to get them to learn more? Clearly your ideas about school discipline are contrary to much of the current research, especially when we take into account your views about writing lines as a form of punishment. During this whole process you have presented yourself as an expert in learning and behaviour management despite the advice from those who have worked in this field for longer than you have been an adult.

Finally, the only time you have actually referred to any type of model to underpin your ideas was when you suggested that schools should be open 51 weeks of the year and until 6pm in the evening. Here, you cited school systems in the Far East as being models to which we should aspire to, with absolutely no regard for the cultural differences between British and Far Eastern students and the fact that the “Far East” covers a very diverse cultural region within itself. You failed to include the fact that the rote learning that often takes place in Chinese schools has rendered many Chinese students unable to deal with creative and critical thinking required at the highest level of education. But then maybe that is exactly what you would like to achieve because we all know how dangerous critical thinkers can be, don’t we? After all, you have spent most of your career trying to undermine them.

I sincerely hope you will consider withdrawing from this leadership contest. Your track record of such a high disregard of those who really know what they are talking about is disturbing to say the least. Are you threatened by people who you are more equipped with knowledge than you? I don’t know.

What I do know is this. I am no expert in politics or education. I am not as experienced as you in government affairs. Whilst I do have more qualifications than you, please don’t feel intimidated by this because they were gained long before your reforms took hold and in your eyes are probably meaningless. I do know that I left the teaching profession and the UK in part as a result of your reforms, and I was a half-decent teacher, despite the ridiculous restrictions you were placing on my practice. But given that I am not a recognised expert in the field, and with your clear history of rejecting the views of experts, maybe this time you will listen to someone who is far beneath you in your perceived pecking order and you will do the right thing and retire with your destructive legacy intact.

Yours Hopefully,

A former UK Teacher.

 

Independence Day: a pointless celebration?

Tomorrow millions of Americans will be letting off fireworks, attending parades, eating good food and not going to work as they celebrate their national holiday of Independence Day. July 4 is always a day to be remembered. I will remember my first July 4 in the USA… a failed firework display at Mount Rushmore in 1998 which sent most Americans home in tears after the whole event was cancelled due to thick fog. The Brit inside me felt the mild ironic amusement of the fact that of all things NOT taken into account when planning the display was the weather – something the British would have surely done if we were still in charge of our former colonies, given our obsession with weather. I was, however, sympathetic to the thousands of Americans that had traveled from afar to witness a cloud of fog; feeling particularly sorry for those Californians who could have simply gone to LA to see something similar!

But this cancelled event made me think… why do Americans celebrate their independence on this day? This is not a glib question. So let’s consider why.

First of all, the Declaration of Independence was suggested on July 1 and kind of agreed with the next day. Then hours and hours of work ensued until by the July 4th, a final draft of the letter was agreed upon by the Continental Congress. But not by everyone!! New York didn’t agree to accept this until July 9th, and that saw riots in their city which was occupied by a serious British contingent at the time!!

Next, no one really signed the letter for almost a month. Most of the signatures appeared on August 2nd, and the last person to sign it did so on November 9th!!

Next, let’s just put into perspective what this letter actually was: it was a letter to King George III saying “We don’t want to be in your club any more because you’re basically horrible to us and we could do a better job than you anyway.” That’s it really. A letter.

Did this grant American independence? Not a chance!! King George didn’t just reply, “Okay then, I’ll pull all of my troops out of MY colonies and hand them over to you.” In fact, in response to this, he escalated troop numbers. By 1776, when this letter was written, it could be argued that the Continental Army was actually losing the War of Independence, so I hardly think a letter would turn the tide and give the Americans what they wanted! It certainly didn’t work for me when I wrote to the British government refusing to pay my tax fine of £100 because it was their error, etc, etc, etc… We can pretty much say that the British government have a track record of rejecting letters, especially when it comes to taxes.

So basically, Independence Day is a celebration of writing a letter to a person who then rejected that letter completely and the outcome of that letter was that nothing changed really, in fact it just got a bit worse!! Is that really worth a celebration? Maybe not.

So when could America postpone its celebrations of July 4th and pick a more appropriate date for the purpose of pandering to my over-pedantic sense of historical well-being? Well, there is a debate over the first country to formally recognise America as an independent nation. Some say it was Morocco in December 1777 when a Royal Moroccan ship saluted an American vessel. But most say it was France when they officially allied themselves against Britain in the War of Independence in February 1778. This is more convincing to me because there was a formal thingy signed. But this was still in the context of fighting a war for sovereignty over Britain, so just because France said, “We’ll help…”didn’t really make America an independent nation.

So what did? Well, even after the decisive American victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, there was a lot of box-ticking to do, largely because King George refused to accept the war was over. This wasn’t finalised until the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3rd, 1783, where Britain, the former rulers of the American colonies, agreed to give up its claims on the region, thus accepting that Americans were in fact capable of choosing their own leader and governing themselves – an acceptance that is now under serious review given the current situation involving Donald Trump as a Presidential Candidate!

So, Independence Day? Probably not July 4th. Possibly August 2nd. Maybe November 9th or even February 6th. Most likely September 3rd. I would suggest that Americans should be more savvy about these dates and petition the government for them ALL to be celebrated in the spirit of Independence as public holidays! That way, there can be no argument!

So, my last message to my American friends is: enjoy your pointless celebrations on July 4th – signed – the Brit that can’t let go!!!

Class War in the Classroom?

A recent, magnificent article by Sarah Moore in the Guardian got me thinking about the issue of class in the UK. As a teacher from a very lower class background, I find myself in the minority. Okay, I get all the sociological arguments about access to education and all the fluff about working class culture, but the fact remains that most teachers in the UK are from backgrounds that carry with it some level of privilege. Here is where I hold my hands up and scream out my disclaimer- I know I’m generalising (I know lots of working class teachers), I know it might appear that I am suggesting that class has any impact on the excellence of a teacher (it really doesn’t). But one worrying pattern that I cannot help to notice is the fact that the education profession is generally led by people who are quite far removed from many they are paid to teach. This permeates throughout British society from the highest level right down to the types of teachers certain schools can recruit and keep hold of. If Britain indeed is locked into some kind of class-war, as has been suggested by many social critics, maybe that war starts in the classroom; in schools which end up creating ideas about class, privilege and rights within our young people which has led to the vast ideological chasm about what it expects from people in society today.

Recent studies have suggested that despite the rhetoric of inclusion and the famous “every child matters” agenda which has been a cornerstone throughout education recently, under the current government we are moving nearer to a divided system which favours the agenda of the ruling class. A paper published only days ago by the Social Market Foundations Commission on Inequalities in Education has pinpointed several problematic issues with teacher recruitment in secondary schools. In short, schools which have a higher percentage of Free School Meals (FSM) employ more staff who are either underqualified or newly qualified. In addition, many of the NQTs in these types of schools end up leaving after only a short time. This is further exasperated by the fact that these schools pay teachers less on average, which could be one reason for their short lifespan. However, from my own experience, I would suggest that it is not just the issue of money which drives many of these NQTs away – sometimes it is social class. In many cases, these NQTs came from “nice” grammar schools, then onto a university education, followed by placements in schools which were performing well, and it may be a simple fact that many NQTs from more privileged backgrounds simply struggle to connect with lower class kids from schools in deprived areas. If we follow this paper trail further, we find that less lower class people are going to university because the funding structure and the astronomical fees just don’t support their enrollment. Furthermore, often university culture is alien to most young, lower class people, especially if their parents can offer no help or advice whatsoever. The whole system needs a shake up and more working class kids need to be going to university.

The structure of education itself is also changing. Education is supposed to be about expanding minds and building vehicles for creative and independent thinking. Instead, teachers are now trying to work within a system which is obsessed with measuring and tracking numbers in order to prove to an overbearing organisation that everything works. The outcome of this is deeply ironic because this crazy obsession with measuring progress to a detail means that less education is actually taking place. Those with power in education are increasingly trying to adopt a business model to it, which only further reinforces the capitalist system which favours those with privilege and power. Examples are abundant. Performance related pay in the UK – where teachers are now expected to meet targets like sales assistants in a department store. The academisation of schools – allowing businesses to dictate terms and conditions. There is even talk of businesses running education curricula. We are already in that dangerous zone where capitalism overrides education when we consider the cost of textbooks for underfunded departments in schools. There is a reason why Pearson Education are a multi-billion pound a year publisher. In a wonderful article published by the education blogger @Teacher Toolkit, we should consider a quote which sums this up eloquently from the book Flip the System by Evers and Kneyber, “Education is threatened on a global scale by forces of neoliberalism, through high stakes accountability, privatization and a destructive language of learning.”

Finally, there has to be some recognition of the existence of a class culture within Britain without the Thatcheresque denigration of working class people. Most working class people are not stupid but many don’t get access to the pathways that allow them to become teachers. So, for now, maybe a start would be to redress the system by teaching compassion and understanding rather than a business model of productivity. Maybe if education leaders change their attitudes towards working class students, more of these young people will want to support the system, but until that happens most working class people will see the system as exclusive and oppressive, which will simply reinforce the cycle we are in currently in. Sadly, it appears again that this model is something that favours those with privilege, which I believe is why we find ourselves in this social situation right now and those with the power have very little incentive to change things.

In the long run, getting more teachers who can tap into the cultural needs of working class students is the key. I have worked in a school where this was superb! Teacher retention at this school was fantastic and the number of young, dynamic teachers who moved onto middle leadership was also impressive. In short, few teachers left. (I emigrated!) What was the formula? Simple, teachers were employed on their ability to connect with the types of students they would be teaching. Many of these were teachers from lower class backgrounds; some were from more privileged backgrounds that were prepared to listen and learn. A special culture had been generated. The most important outcome here was the success rates of the students. The school punched above its weight in these terms.

To finish with, I cannot help but cast my mind back to an online argument I had with a student whom I won’t embarrass from a University that should be embarrassed to have him. When I challenged his political thinking he referred to me as “you people”. To me – it spoke volumes. Because I had defended a working class point of view, he made certain assumptions about me and in those two words he assumed that I was uneducated, bitter and somehow jealous of his privileged position as a university undergraduate. Maybe one day he’ll move on to become a teacher. I hope not because he would simply reinforce everything that is wrong with the social system in which we live today. The words “you people” did suggest a difference; a struggle.

For me, this struggle starts in our classrooms.