Reflecting on 3 Years Teaching in the UK

I’ve made it home to NZ and it is a bittersweet return. I miss London and the people I shared it with, but there is also a sense of escape and with it: relief. It isn’t just escaping an epicenter of the pandemic, it is an escape from a failing education system within which I found little joy. I was lucky to have spent two of my years with a media department that has brought me considerable happiness, but it was surrounded by a toxic system. Below are some reflections on my time teaching in UK under some themes that have regularly emerged from my writing during this time.

Where are the Values?

A core part of my journey in the UK was looking for pockets in the system that shared my values. Ideally this would have been a school that as a community represented this – but ultimately I only found individuals. I feel let done by school websites that write about an engine entirely different from what is under the hood. I feel frustrated by leadership that talk of values in the start of the year staff meetings but then shelve them for practicalities. Recently, a newly introduced school vision has been boiled down to the directive to staff to label all work set on google classroom with one of the visions three key words: learn, achieve empower. The shift from an exciting shared language and school direction has almost immediately been undermined by the tick boxing exercise that will look good externally but loses all power to investigate and interrogate the vision and the potential for it to naturally emerge in our practice on the back of an engaging and collaborative professional journey.

Since 2018, when I arrived, I gradually improved my situation by moving schools after a challenging period of supply teaching, but I still never really found a school that meets my checklist. My most rewarding experiences were with the organisations I have encountered. Courageous Leaders is a group that holds it’s values up front and the people behind this are some of the most inspiring educators I have ever encountered. In our days together, I learnt a lot about authentic leadership, myself as a communicator and the art of mentoring; also, I proudly contributed to a publication written by the group. Perhaps Courageous Leaders remains so strong in its intent because it remains humble and small, while other similar organisations have expanded and been corrupted by a mission that undermines its values. I’m so grateful for this part of my UK journey – if everything else had been a disaster, Courageous Leaders would have made the three years worthwhile.

Assessment Or Else

In the Lord of the Rings we have the one ring; in the UK education system we have assessment. I was shook recently but a friend who is a nanny of two 4 year old children sharing with me the family’s concern and the extreme choices they were considering based on one child performing below the expected level. How is this child going to have a love of learning if already they are feeling the pressure of catching up? This is characteristic of a system with narrow measures of success without a holistic view of development. It also reflects a class system where those with means have options.

I have found assessment to be regimented to the point where teachers have no incentive to explore new approaches. There is no enabling attitude to enthusiastic staff. There is only hierarchy and transgression is punished. My most significant developments in terms of pedagogy have come from experiment and freedom to play. The life and death stakes of GCSE and A-Level results drives the entire system to corruption. Campbell’s Law is visible in the system in numerous ways.

Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

Campbell, Donald T (1979). “Assessing the impact of planned social change”. Evaluation and Program Planning2 (1): 67–90. doi:10.1016/0149-7189(79)90048-X.

The most debilitating aspect of the assessment system has been the limitations of the set text system. I have written about this prescriptive approach at length. The quantity of the required content are significant in most subjects, leaving little room for responsive teaching or ‘hidden curriculum’ moments. As I wrote just before the pandemic began: “Dear front half of the NZ curriculum: I miss you”. The pandemic created an opportunity for reflection and reform that could have been quite exciting. However to date, the solutions presented have been band-aids for the gaping wounds that continue to disadvantage the next generation.

Quantity Not Quality

Related to this data experience is the approach to measurement in the UK education system. I heard the phrase ‘box ticking’ often and it accurately reflects much of my experience. I’ve been fortunate to have had a diverse experience of professional development, but the worst of it is always characterised by this idea of meeting a completion criteria rather than engaging with the idea of mastery or exploring the diverse opportunities created by personalisation.

I would generalise that the overarching approach to education is time-based. I’ve recently witnessed a rather reductive conflict about directed hours, which quantifies our time as teachers to a terrifying degree. I’m aware of the role that numbers play in respect to contractual fairness, but I did not get into teaching so I could be monitored when I log in and out everyday. This obsession with monitoring is a deterrent to the system; it views learning as temporal. Solutions to the lost learning time cause by school closures have been centred around quantifying this time and restoring this through low-cost methods. As outgoing Children’s Commissioner put it to the government: “Do you understand the additional harm that has been done to children during the pandemic? Are you serious about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’?” She understands that this isn’t just about results and that this is much more complex situation that a set number of tutoring hours will fix. The neglect of emotional development, the role of social interaction and failure to see the curriculum as more than just test results from the leaders of this country is terrifying. The discussion about teaching and learning needs to be more nuanced than the reductive obsession with time spent in the classroom.

Accountability

Every time I reflect on a context that has hindered me while being in the UK it is almost impossible to examine it in isolation. I wrote in the September return to the classroom after the first lockdown that we have been “failed systematically at every single level” and therefore it is impossible to hold the school leadership accountable when they are responding to guidance from the Local Authority who is held hostage by the requirements of Ofsted who are politically guided by the Department of Education etc. There is a crisis of leadership in education in the country, made evident by the contributions from the diverse participants in the recent Tortoise Education Summit. Identifying the problems is not difficult, but we appear to now live in a post-accountable world preventing them from being meaningfully addressed. This is evident from the top down. The government has continually avoided admitting its mistakes or acting decisively on matters of serious negligence or incompetence. There is no possible decision that might cause a dismissal, history can be rewritten through changes some words around, and people that speak out can be silenced through passivity or active smear campaigns. This creates a culture that I could see in the school that I worked in.

What does it tell us when the highest office in the country appears to ignore a reasonable moral code? It reveals a toxicity that infects and I’m glad to be getting out. However, it isn’t just the UK and leaving isn’t the solution. We have to fight for accountability and to restore trust in the system. As the Guardian education editorial put it: “the government’s neglect of young people during this pandemic is among the ugliest blots on its record, and one for which everyone who cares about education, both in politics and outside, must hold it to account.

New Zealand: A Education Utopia?

In my time away I’ve come to hold memories of teaching in NZ in the same way a young child might hero-worship an absent parent. It might well be for good reason, but I’m anxious that I’ve held onto an image that is utopian when the reality is anything but. I’m conscious of the danger of comparing the approaches and cultures, but comparison is in many ways irresistible and it has probably done a disservice to my mindset. New Zealand has a values based curriculum and a front half with a holistic view of teaching learning; it has a growing movement for more effective culturally response pedagogy; it also has an assessment system that can be used powerfully with flexibility and potential for personalisation. But will I find the same battles of hierarchy, accountability, and quality vs quantity? I know that I’m returning to a context which is interested in evolving, where the discussion is rich and open, and education solutions are not fixed. Maybe this reflects the communities I have found in either country – the UK is a big place. I hope the voices pushing for meaningful change in the UK get louder; though I’m relieved to now take my voice back to Aotearoa. I will miss London; but it’s good to be home.

Tortoise Education Summit

One of the highlights of last year’s lockdown was discovering Tortoise and enjoying the Education Summit. It was a relief to find a significant community that was having a conversation about the issues in education and engaging with provocative questions. In the spirit of the style of the 2021 day, I’ve found different themes of my notes and have structured them using questions. It’s a snapshot of an inspirational day.

What should we assess?

The discussion of assessment and what it should look like emerged in all the sessions across the day. It began with Tom Fletcher advocating for the head, heart and hands model of learning. However, it was acknowledged that while we assess the head and the hand, we as yet do not assess the heart. The heart refers to the ‘affective domain’ and such skills as kindness, curiosity, bravery. Until we can assess these skills, will the bureaucrats see this as appropriate drivers in our classrooms? It was suggested there are two major barriers to changing this paradigm: the parents (the easiest way to sell something in education is to say it has worked for hundreds of years – and this is new) and the universities (who are most interested in attracting the highest achieving students which drives the entire system to fulfil this). Another thread was the focus on teaching students to learn and the inability for exams to teach 21st Century skills by encouraging a factory setting without collaboration.

Have we lost sight of the purpose of education?

The session that used this question as a prompt introduced me to Aliyah Irabor-York, founder of Pupil Power and a student who has just finished her A-Levels. She spoke elegantly capturing the narrow focus on academic achievement. “The system is one-size-fits-all and it shouldn’t be that way. It very much feels like if you don’t suit it, you’re out.” The solution she advocated for was to democratise learning and empower students to use their voice and be part of the decision making process for their education. Education needs to be ‘done with’, not ‘done to’. The group regularly reflected the point that – as beautifully put by moderator Chris Cook – “schools are pretty well run for nerdy kids that want to go to University” – however, anyone that does fit into that model it is a lottery. Therefore the pressure that schools are applying is to get as many kids as they can to fit into the model that works. The concerning state of SEN education was a consistent theme throughout the day that is worth considering on this point. This lack of diversity in the system is not just bad for the people that fall outside of it; it is also narrowing the opportunities of all young people.

How can we best make up for lost learning?

This discussion addressed for the the idea of ‘lost learning’ pertuated by the media as being a missed temporal gap. Missed school is a lot more complex that just missed time. Learning can be ubiquitous, but is more ubiquitous for assessed skills for advantaged students. As Rebecca Curtis noted “our vulnerable pupils have become more vulnerable through this pandemic”. At best teenagers got a bit bored; at worst it was truly damaged and will be felt in the long term. Anna Vignoles best summarised the response we should have to situation: “stop thinking about education as a cost, and think of it as an investment”. Once we start framing things like that we start addressing the chronic under-funding and we lift the status of teachers.

What model of education should we follow?

This question was not specifically addressed, but it is one that came up from a discussion that used Hertford Principal, Tom Fletcher’s, visit to Silicon Valley to learn from their approach to education. This is an interesting opportunity to address the idea of searching for and adopting successful models of education. While this can offer exciting opportunities to be professionally inspired and reflect on practice, it is a deeply problematic approach that is often misused. On the micro-level, this often plays out as teachers adopting the blog of the week to reform their classroom (something I’ve been guilty of). Or in a wider example a practice is adopted by a leader in charge of CPD, usually in response to a new Ofsted focus with no consideration to current embedded practice or constructivism. There is real danger of seeing a model presented by a school that offers a very specific style of education for a specific audience and not understanding the nuance of translating this to a new context. Despite the outstanding results, I don’t believe we should be pressing ctrl+C on Eton’s approach to education. The model of education we should follow must grow from the community that the education is serving.

Other random bits from various parts of the conference from my notes:

  • Financial muscle drives change. Inequality is getting larger. If we don’t learn new ways, we will elect more Donald Trumps.
  • Our system teaches students how to learn and when to learn in specific contexts.
  • The system encourages failure. It is not democratic. School makes you feel passive by design.

What Could Media Studies Be?

This provocatively titled online conference, ‘What Could Media Studies Be? 21st Century Media Learning Primary to HE’ supported by the Media Education Association (MEA), was a brief relief from my increasing pessimism to the UK education system. The voices of so many inspirational educators were captured making articulate and reasoned arguments for a forward-thinking vision of media studies. The snapshot style of the day, which featured provocations rather than keynotes, left a range of themes resonating. This blogpost will attempt to capture some of these; but in truth, this conference deserves far more dedicated reflection and follow up than I will attempt here.

What does it mean to be a media educator? Steve Connolly suggested a soundbite answer to this in his introductory remarks which rippled through various presentations in the day:

To be a media educator is to be in a permanent state of dissent.

This notion of constant questioning, critical thinking and reflection is embedded in the subject. To teach the subject is to embody these traits. While I like the rebellious connotations of ‘dissent’, perhaps a more palatable version of this idea to take beyond the conference might be a permanent state of inquiry.

A regular theme was the notion of text choice. I wrote about this recently in a board sense comparing the UK and NZ approaches. I was interested to learn the shift over the last 5-10 years where presenters recalled days before the introduction of compulsory case studies and set texts. Various speakers touched on this with a real need to be able to select texts that are more appropriate for our contemporary learners. The fallacy of effective set text pedagogy was also identified. Has teaching set text mastery become the norm? The focus should be on teaching the theoretical framework to prepare students to apply their newfound knowledge and skills into new and diverse areas. We can reflect on how we answer the question: “what are you teaching at the moment?” Is the answer the name of a set text, or is is a wider concept from the curriculum where the text is an example to unpack.

There appeared to be no agreement what specific content belongs under the subject heading of media studies – but a general agreement of what questions and ideas the subject needs to engage with. This relates to the integrated nature style of the subject working it’s way into different areas and becoming irresistible to other subjects, particularly in the humanities, arts and social sciences. The natural way the subject lends itself to cross-curricular approaches reinforces this idea. There was a suggestion that media studies could position itself in a similar space as British Values (or equally as a Key Competency in NZ). This aligns more with the idea that the role of media studies is to teach media literacy. Or alternatively is the future of the media studies curriculum to segregate itself into different strands beyond just the theory/practical divide. Could the future of media studies be similar to the way that the sciences expand into different subject areas towards the end of KS4 and into Higher Education?

Connecting both these threads of content and curriculum were different snapshots of the conversation around social media. The current subject design in both the UK and NZ gives opportunities to explore contemporary media, but it largely emphasises understanding the past to apply to the present. Putting this weight on traditional media perhaps acts as a barrier for potential students. There exists an argument that students shouldn’t be studying the media that they are consuming because they are too close to it to analyse it critically – but that isn’t giving enough credit to the students. If our focus really is media literacy and critical thinking then the context has to be relevant. Social media is one answer to this. One presenter talked about weekly open access lessons, where students brought in something to study from their media consumption. Finding room in the overpacked curriculum for this alone is impressive, but it does help to bring the theoretical framework into focus by engaging in the everyday media engagement of the students. Surely the subject owes them that much.

Lastly, a connection was reinforced that deserves repeating. There’s a really strong Venn diagram overlap between those that are calling for end of media studies or undermining the status of it as an academic subject and those that are falling for fake news and actively spreading misinformation. The biggest naysayers have the most to gain from the growth and expansion of media studies.

ULearn20 – Keynote #4 – Peter O’Connor

The final keynote of the conference was a passionate argument for the central place of the arts in education. Professor Peter O’Connor promoted a discussion that questioned the purpose of schooling and what the real meaning of success is. Below are some of the key themes of his presentation:

Imagination

Traditional measures of success take little account of creativity, but perhaps a true measure of success can be found more from the way John Dewey talked about education as a national treasure. Dewey understood that we are not just consumers, but producers and makers in the world which required our imagination. The arts train and develop the imagination.

If we can’t imagine the world better than it is now, then we are doomed to live in the world as it is.

An interesting link was made between imagination and democracy. Peter talked about the way that history is made by those in power and the rest of the world is a powerless audience. But through the arts we get to make things, use our hands and our bodies and contribute. This participation is fundamental to being a connected, creative citizen. Our imagination can be used to make the world a better place: “hope is but a leap of the imagination – reimagination is an act of hope”.

Community

In his breakout Petter talked a lot about a new resource Te Rito Toi designed to support returning to school following major traumatic or life changing events. Created in response to the impact of Covid-19, it has a wonderful collection of resources and supporting research to help navigate difficult times. Teachers bind together communities; schools are the glue that pull together communities in ways no other institution can. But we have never trained our teachers to deal with that responsibility and this resource helps us to use the arts to navigate these challenges.

I was struck by the connection of this resource to the the idea of community. Returning to school is often a return to community, where trauma or life changing events are experienced more as an individual. The arts is a return to the collective, and it is the strength of togetherness that can help to process difficulties.

What Matters?

To illustrate the idea of ‘what matters’, Peter gave the example of a discussion with Dorothy Heathcote who despite her specific drama background wanted to know just two things about NZ education:

“In New Zealand, do children do things that matter?”

“In doing those things, do children understand that they matter too?”

Peter challenged the idea that the curriculum is overcrowded. When we ask ourselves what matters and interrogate our values we can get rid of a lot of the noise. Numeracy and literacy are not the only game in town; in fact he referred to significant research that shows schools with arts rich curriculums do better in literacy and numeracy. There were strong parallels here with Dr Lucy Hone’s discussion on well-being. The arts have always had a focus on well-being, and perhaps there is a correlation worth investigating between the declining measures of well-being that Lucy presented and the squeezing out of the arts subjects from our curriculum. We have to make sure regardless of the subject that children understand they matter, not because of what they have achieved, but because of who they are.

The Question of Text Choice – an argument for the ‘How’

Since moving to the UK in 2018, one thing I’ve wrestled with is the change of approach to text selection. In New Zealand our assessment system was standards based with nothing more than recommended texts or units to select from. One exam unit in English for Year 11 is titled:

Show understanding of specified aspect(s) of studied written text(s), using supporting evidence

The written text is selected by the teacher – usually teaching perhaps a novel and selection of poems which the students chose between for the exam. Over the course of my eight years teaching English, Media Studies and Drama I was able to make inventive and bold choices for the classes that I encountered. There was of course an established canon of texts and units encouraged by subject associations and internal preferences determined by the demographics of each school as well as access to class sets, but stepping outside of these – when appropriate – was possible.

In the UK I discovered the prescriptive nature of specifications in the subjects I have taught: English, Media Studies and Film Studies. Some exam boards offer a small selection of texts to choose from, but this decision is often determined by leadership not the individual teachers. The volume of the content is often substantial, leaving so little time for tangents or the hidden curriculum. Testament to this is how when Coronavirus disrupted a full term of learning, Ofqual responded by reducing assessments in various and sometimes considerable ways.

This shift in context has raised a number of considerations for me beyond just comparing the pros and cons of the different approaches to text selection. In the context of so much discussion in the media about woke-culture, black representation in the curriculum and gender inequality, the approach to text selection deserves further examination. Within their individual contexts how can teachers ensure that their text selection is inclusive and achieves the intended impact? My response to this question is to focus less on ‘what’ text is being selected, and more on ‘how’ the text is taught.


Teachers teach best when they are teaching things they are passionate about. In NZ, I was able to teach Karlo Mila’s poetry in English, Wheeler’s Luck in Drama, Taika Waititi’s Boy in Media Studies. They are all texts I love and were a good fit for the assessment context; but I also selected these knowing the students I was teaching them to. These texts were chosen with inclusion in mind; they represent diverse views in terms of gender and ethnicity.

The limitations of the UK curriculum does not approach this inclusion in the same way. The set texts for English Literature from the six main exam boards represent a strong bias to traditional texts that are overwhelmingly white and male in their point of view. Research has show that ethnic representation is still a considerable distance from reflecting the UK population. Continued debate about what should and should not be included has led to some shifts and changes, but these decisions are band-aids for a system that has seen minor changes in recent years. The impact of some of these changes in texts has also been criticised for potentially reinforcing stereotypes because of the impact of ‘othering’ and tokenism.

In film studies, I have similarly encountered issues with the text choice on offer. It concerns me that there is only one text in the Eduqas specification with a central queer character (Carol) and that it is possible to be a A-Level Film Studies student who only studies the work of white men. I know of colleagues who despite being Bollywood cinephiles will not teach the one available Bollywood film from the Eduqas specification, Dil Se, for fear of alienating students from exploring Bollywood further or discovering further global perspectives on film. The ability to present texts to students outside of the specification to encourage curiosity is limited due to the quantity of content demanded by the course.

Whatever text we end up introducing to students, there will be challenges in teaching it. Poor representations of marginalised communities abound through art, particularly when looking at historical texts. Teachers of English, media and the arts are regularly faced with dilemmas of inclusive text choice, but there is another possibility to this problem. Instead of focusing on changing the text, we can instead focus on changing the lens through which we examine these texts.

When faced with a text written by a straight white male, we can ask how this perspective informs the text and interrogate how this influences the form and content. Typically we investigate what is presented to us in a text, but a critical approach will also consider who is absent: what groups or individuals are omitted? We can introduce gender, feminist, queer and race perspectives that are transferable and applicable to the students’ own experiences – both past and future – of art. When things are not named, such as the straight white male perspective, they become invisible and normalised – achieving a cultural acceptance and a position of power. Students therefore need to learn a framework that doesn’t accept the patriarchal, heteronormative and cisnormative perspectives and representations found in most texts they encounter in school, and instead learn to question and challenge.

As a Media Studies teacher, this approach is natural as the subject lacks a canon and the line between low and high culture is blurred and consistency challenged. Popular texts that might be considered ‘low culture’ can produce as in-depth and revealing analysis as a ‘high culture’ text. In English, a much more traditional and conservative manner contradicts this, often dismissing texts outside of the pre-established canon.

To see this approach in action I highly recommend The Bechdel Cast, a podcast that unpacks a film each episode using an intersectional feminist lens. It identifies and locates issues of representation by analysing the overuse of tropes in films. Through their discussion they are able to demonstrate the progressive representation of Hidden Figures or Crazy Rich Asians, and unpack the problematic choices in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Love, Actually. The analytical approach here shows the value of the lens rather than the perceived merit of the text itself. In a similar vein the podcast Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood] offers analysis and a perspective that is challenging and rewarding.


We should of course continue to argue for text choices and selection that are inclusive and reflects the population. But while this conversation of what should be in the canon – and by extension the conversation of what -should be in an exam board’s specification – is important, this dialogue is often reductive. Creating an inclusive classroom is at best only supported by the text choice and selection. There is a real need to ensure that students are interrogating and challenging the hegemonic contexts of our classrooms no matter what text they are presented with.

Essentially what I’m proposing here is using critical pedagogy. This is a teaching approach that “attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate“. A next step to this discussion might be to create a more tangible framework that can be applied to teaching text to support such a critical approach. We don’t need to throw out the canon, but we do need to be careful with the way we hold it up to our students. No matter what text we present to them, students must be taught to think critically.

uLearn20 – Keynote #3 – Dr Pedro Noguera

Dr Pedro Noguera‘s sociological perspective raised such important questions about how we are serving the needs of rangitahi that have historically not been met. When we focus on the most marginalised it benefits not only them, but all of society. Dr Pedro began by acknowledging the disruption of the pandemic which he fears might be missed as an opportunity for change. Can we use this moment to make our schools more responsive to student needs? To a large degree the background of our students predict their outcomes – this urgently needs to change.

In order to change the system we have to see the system. We have to know what needs to change and what isn’t working for our marginalised communities. As Janelle’s keynote covered education has historically been used to assimilate marginalised cultures to the dominant culture. To what degree is this still occurring? The framework that Dr Pedro put forward is race neutral, but needs to be adapted to our community contexts.

Some of the key themes that emerged for me, roughly bulleted pointed out, from his presentation:

  • Complacency is the biggest barrier to equity in schools – blaming parents or students. Like a chef cooking good food; teachers have to take responsibility for their teaching.
  • We have to immerse ourselves intentionally in cultural practice.
  • Empowerment is key – not only for students, but for communities that surround the students. Whānau need a voice just as much as the students do.
  • Our job is to dismantle the structural hierarchies that limit the potential of our students.
  • Disengagement can be viewed as a progression: from task to subject to school and structural. Intervention needs to come early to avoid this trajectory of marginalisation.
  • Reforms are too often fads; the response should be creating sustained conditions that promote security a safety in a community of learning.
  • Holistic views of rangitahi, not limited to the school context, are needed to ensure we are developing the whole person.

Dr Pedro’s presentation was a board consideration of various considerations that are pin-balling around education discussions at the moment. While not rooted in the New Zealand context, it felt relevant and vital. The key shift he was promoting was to move past technical and logistical considerations and ask adaptative questions to allow deep reflection to create meaningful change.

ULearn20 – Keynote #2 – Dr Lucy Hone

Reimagine learning: What do we need to learn for lifelong success?

This keynote tackled the terrifying poor performance in various well-being measures of our rangatahi. The image below captures the need for action, showing concerning increase in different measures in the Youth2000 survey series with recently gathered data from last year. It provides a compelling argument for why well-being must be a central focus of education. Dr Lucy Hone’s keynote made a strong case that social and emotional learning should be just as – if not more – important as academic learning.

A first step in this journey was to ask how our education system contributes to these feelings? There were strong connections here back to Janelle’s keynote where the way we frame success is creating a harmful environment. Enforced competition, comparisons and priorities reinforce feelings of helplessness and creates little opportunity for student agency. Educators need to take responsibility for this, and give students a wider perspective on what it takes to succeed.

Kia tu Rangatira ai

“To stand like the chief we were born to be”

To achieve this Lucy introduced us to appreciative inquiry, “a strengths-based, positive approach to leadership development and organizational change“. It challenges naturalised deficit thinking with mana enhancing principles that focus on the positive and the constructive.

The message was simple: bring these five principles of appreciative inquiry into your Kura. Focus on social and emotional learning and help our rangatahi to be successful.


Final thoughts:
  • How might appreciative inquiry be used as a model for a community, not just a school?
  • Familiar debates sit underneath this discussion. To name a handful: assessment reduction, authentic leadership, inclusive education, minimising high-stakes testing, and access to learning.
  • While I didn’t touch on it above, Lucy powerfully interwove her story into the keynote – captured here in this TED talk:

ULearn20 – Keynote #1 – Janelle Riki-Waaka

Wāhia te tahā | break the calabash

Reimagining success, one of the themes of uLearn20, was explored by Janelle Riki-Waaka in the first keynote, illustrating in particular the failure of the education system for Māori. A familiar foundation was laid: ‘if we do what we’ve always done, we will get what we’ve always got’. What was built on top was challenging and provocative. Here are three things that stayed with me afterwards along with a few thoughts:

Who is defining success?

When Aotearoa was colonised, education was used as a tool to assimilate Maori into the dominant culture. In this process, success was defined by Pākehā for Māori, and not much has changed since. Recognising who is defining success is an important part of deconstructing and “flipping the system on it’s head”. Some suggestions that emerged included challenging the values of literacy and numeracy which are commonly reported on before identity and culture, and letting the student define what they are reported on. We need to ask when this dialogue is happening: ‘who is there?’ ‘Whose voice is missing from the conversation?’ Greater awareness of who is defining success will enable us to be more cognizant of the system, and better prepared to dismantle it.

Failure

The statements teachers make about ākonga are usually based strictly on the context of school; yet the ripple effect can be massive. A more holistic view of a child would challenge a lot of the comments we make in formal reporting and would challenge the perception of ‘failing’. This is word that Janelle vowed to eliminate, citing the damage on students who believe they have “failed high school” or words to that effect. This discussion challenging the idea of failure reminded me not only of Carol Dweck’s work but also Karen Boyes’ breakout on the Thinking Dispositions and the way we frame effort and success. We need to reframe the perceived failure of students (not ‘I failed’ but ‘we failed you’). I’m interested in how we model the acknowledgement of that failure to ensure we are holding ourselves to the same standards as students. How can we use our failings as educators to help change what the word ‘fail’ means to students?

Grades

Aligning with recent reading from Yuval Noah Harariwhere he traced the introduction of measurement systems to the industrial age, a system we continue to maintain – the limitations of grades is a key part of reimaging success. Janelle suggested a range of different approaches to reporting that avoided labelling students with negative effects. Comparing a child to where they should be is dangerous – whose worldview are these judgements based on?

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way”

Teaching in a Post Lockdown UK: Week One

There came a moment during the induction process with my new tutor group when my resilience momentarily caved and I felt completely overwhelmed. It wasn’t one thing, one unanswered question, certainly not any particular decision that had been made by either my school or the department of education. I have a huge capacity for work and I’d like to think I’m highly flexible, but this was something different. It was a feeling of defeat as this hopeless situation unfolded, as we once again shoehorned groups of young people into small spaces for their education while a global pandemic rages on.

I think my school has done a pretty remarkable job putting in place the processes and systems, despite the contradictory and late notice of much of the Government advice. This includes going Google in order to streamline a blended learning environment, one way systems through the buildings, installing hand sanitisers at every turn and dividing spaces in classrooms with hazard tape on the ground to keep adults and students separate. I’m now expected to remain in my box at the front of the room to ensure I’m socially distanced from students. This is all very well in theory, but the reality of my first week with students raised many difficult questions and complex emotions.

Only a couple of hours after I was reading this article about the burden of avoiding the second wave of infections, I faced my first classroom with 23 students. They were silent as they entered and sat in their traditional rows facing the front. Many wore masks, very few wore them properly, but in the air was something more than just usual first day apprehension. One survey response to a getting to know you task plainly asked “why can’t I be socially distanced from other people in the class?” The difficult to decipher Government advice to schools says “Minimise contact between individuals and maintain social distancing wherever possible” but also acknowledges this is not possible in classrooms, so what reassurance can we give them?

Number of new cases daily in the UK

As the week wore on, and the reported cases began to rise to levels above what had put us into lockdown back in March. I was having daily conversations with staff struggling with the accelerated change as we attempted to make the school safe and implement new systems of teaching & learning. In the background our Union representatives were regularly discussing issues with leadership and the varying levels of staff anxiety created a air of tension that made it somewhat uncomfortable to venture out beyond my office to other parts of the school.

I struggled to follow the guidelines, as my natural instincts consistently took me outside of the box to support and help students. I felt more disconnected than ever from my new students being unable to get beside them and get to know them as learners. For some classes, such as lower level classes with significant learning difficulties, it would simply be impossible to be effective and remain in the front of the class box. Questions around the role of teacher support staff in classrooms are also troubling as the compromise between staying safe and being an effective educator just seems like there is not way to win.

I’ve come to terms with the reality that if students in my classes are infected, then more than likely I will be too. I’m young and healthy enough to assume I’ll likely be okay, but there are many more vulnerable people being faced with the same situation. I’m disappointed, angry, conflicted, and confused. But I’m not sure where to direct those emotions. We have been failed systematically at every single level throughout the last few months and it really hurts being near the bottom of the chain.

Why I Should Not Have Directed a School Production of Hairspray

We secured the rights to Hairspray at the end of 2015 for our annual school production. Previously we had produced shows such as All Shook Up, Spamalot, Wizard of Oz and Little Shop of Horrors. Of the three school productions I directed, I was most proud of our Hairspray. It was the production where I felt like we got closest to the alignment of school values and the text’s purpose as well as being proud of the quality of what we created on stage. Over the past few months, my personal learning and reflection has led me to reevaluate many of the decisions I made during this time.

Hairspray

The decision making process undertaken each year to determine which annual musical we staged was complex. A consistent production team existed for the eight years I was involved, and often the process meant a group of us in a room after school on a Friday shortlisting options sourced from our individual musical knowledge, student requests, and online lists. The criteria was diverse. The chosen musical needed to have potential for a large chorus (so not Avenue Q), a number of lead roles for all genders (not The Producers), achievable music for student participation (not West Side Story), appropriate for the school community (not Rocky Horror Picture Show) and achievable design (not The Lion King). Not to mention that a production we were going to spend six months living and breathing needed to be liked by the teachers and students involved (so not Cats).

There is a established cannon of productions that work in a school production environment. Rights holders like MTI and Origin Theatrical have online libraries to peruse. There is buried treasure out there (like when we found the little known but school stage ready All Shook Up) but most of the time we come back to the well trodden cannon based on availability and the potential cast we are catering to. If we have some strong male performers we might look at Guys and Dolls or Jesus Christ Superstar; if we have strong female performance we might look at Chicago or Beauty and the Beast. A particularly talented group might call for Les Miserables (school edition) or failing that we might come back to Wizard of Oz or Grease. There is a shared shorthand of what shows work in a school environment and the longer you spend involved in these conversations the more the cannon becomes a natural reference point.

Hairspray was the most popular student request. Unusually for a modern original musical the music was already ubiquitous and well known, and the student knowledge of the text was already thorough thanks to the 2007 film. It came available for schools in NZ in 2016 and we were one of the first NZ schools to gain the rights.

In the perusal documents, Hairspray’s creators make it clear that in order for a wide number of communities to see and perform the show that “colour blind casting” and “suspension of disbelief” could be employed. Our student body was diverse: 42% Pākehā, 12% Māori, 9% Pasifika and a very small percentage of African descent. We knew we could cast in a variety of different ways and direct and design the production to make the ethnicity of the characters clear. The production documents also included a letter to the audiences that could be used:

Hairspray Licence

Over the summer holidays I led a process with some of the key production personnel to unpack a vision for the production. We started by examining the heart of the show, and exploring its messages of diversity and acceptance. As the vision developed we applied it to designing the process and the production. This included following the guidance of the Hairspray’s creators with colour blind casting. I tried to challenge the team at this point with different scenarios and identify how our biases would impact this process. One change that came out of this process is we identified the issue with the white saviour narrative and underhandedly reallocated some lines in a key scene so that Little Inez would be the character encouraging her black family and friends to protest injustice, rather than the white character Tracy Turnblad. We unpacked our approach to gender and what a male actor in drag would mean for our community. We examined what our approach to the size of the characters would be (what does ‘plump’ mean in the script?) and how costuming would approach the use of padding. At this point our decisions were highly derivative of the direction given to us by the creators of Hairspray, but the thing that feels very uncomfortable as I remember this process is that the people in the room were all male and white.

Ultimately our lead cast was consistent with our previous productions where the majority were students of colour. Some ‘white’ characters were played by students who were Filipino, Indian, and Pasifika, and all the lead ‘black’ characters played by ethnic minorities. I foolishly called this colour blind casting, but there was obviously unacknowledged prejudices behind these decisions. Our diverse chorus were randomly split and the colour scheme of the costume used to show the race of the characters along with clear direction largely through blocking. Over the course of the production process I made an effort to use the opportunity of teaching civil rights history with our 90 strong cast. This involved a lecture component to the first rehearsal where no script was touched, and significant time in other rehearsals committed to sharing contextual information mainly with the leads. This extended beyond the cast as well, as social studies classes in Year 10 looked at civil rights in America as a special topic – many of their projects were displayed in the foyer during the production for audiences to engage in. Furthermore, when advertising in assembly students learnt about blackface and heard about the real history on which the musical is based:

The Buddy Deane Show was not integrated. This means that white performers did not feature at the same time as performers of colour. In fact, only once a fortnight did we see black performers in their exclusive segment. This reflects the time, 1962. In this time racial segregation was common across America:

  • Public spaces had signs like “no colored allowed”, these could be seen in parks, beaches, cafes
  • Movie theatres and buses had separate spaces to sit
  • The NBA had only just begun allowing interracial teams a few years earlier, previously there was a white league and a black league
  • In several states interracial marriage was still illegal.

This is only 54 years ago. 

The Buddy Deane Show, in its 5 year run on TV attempted integration, by having white and coloured performers dance together. But the show didn’t last long after this decision was made. It was cancelled by 1964 because the audience and sponsors fell away. The Civil Rights Movement was yet to really take off, and this effort to change the culture was unsuccessful.

This learning was positively responded to by the cast, and many made mention of this aspect of the production process in the post-show review. For the director’s note, I adapted the creator’s message and tried to capture the vision that we had approached the text:

In producing Hairspray, the production team faced the challenge of casting for roles written for particular racial identities. In consultation with the writers of the show, we went into auditions blind to colour. We looked instead at the characteristics of each performer and found the qualities of characters in students where their racial identity did not match what was written. As a result with have a Filipino Tracy, an Indian Penny, a Tokelauan Motormouth, and a very diverse chorus. The clues on the race of the characters are in the costume, the direction and the language. We want you as the audience to view our production of Hairspray within the culture and values of Newlands College which align with the play’s messages of acceptance and not judging a book by its cover. The annual musical is an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our community, the range of talents in the student body and most importantly the joy of collaborating together in a fun-filled musical theatre performance!

The response from the community and audiences that saw our production were overwhelmingly positive. But, I now understand with the benefit of hindsight and personal growth that approaching the production this way was complicit with systematic racism.


About a month after our production closed, an article was shared with me: ‘Race row erupts over Christchurch performance of musical Hairspray‘ written after a theatre critic rightly called out the lack of black actors in the cast. The professional production “cast actors of Maori, Korean, Polynesian, Filipino, African and one of European descent in the African American roles”. The comments below the article defending the casting are terrifying.

In the discussion that followed I was congratulated by colleagues for leading the production proactively so that we did not face controversy. I no longer accept that praise, because now I recognise that I was leading a process to help justify and make myself and everyone involved feel comfortable with our approach. Enabled by the creator’s capitalist approach to selling the rights to the musical, I had avoided the tough questions that would have been too uncomfortable to address.

Black characters should be played by black people. The practice of allowing white people to portray people of colour in art is whitewashing away the diversity that we too rarely see in our theatres. I had ensured we conveyed the key messages of the heart of the text, but in doing so I perpetuated the dangerous myth that black erasure is acceptable.

Earlier this year, in response to the increased awareness of the black lives matter movement, the creators of Hairspray updated their guidance in the production materials. It now reads:

The authors’ artistic vision requires that, in order to clearly and appropriately tell that story, the cast members in the show accurately reflect the characters as written. As such, this Production Contract requires that the cast members in your production of Hairspray accurately reflect the character descriptions contained in the script…In the past, performance licenses for Hairspray did not include this provision. However, the authors have determined that expressly stating this requirement is an important component of ensuring that licensed productions of Hairspray accurately reflect the authors’ intent.

The guidance is the same for professional and school productions – as so it should be. School and amateur productions should be held to the same standard as professional productions. We have to teach and model appropriately. The consequences within school and outside of school are different, but racism is still racism whether it is a school or a professional production.

I used the context and the importance of sharing the story and message of Hairspray to justify our production. Teaching students about civil rights in American through Hairspray was powerful, but would teaching students why it was not right for our student body to produce a production of Hairspray have been more powerful?

Colour blind casting is an act that is rooted in systemic racism. It is akin to the claims of “not seeing colour” or “we live in a post-racial society”. Another approach that is becoming more popular to employ is colour conscious casting. This we could have investigated, but claiming this approach with Hairspray would be disingenuous within the limitations of casting from a school body. Furthermore, colour conscious casting is not possible if the people doing the casting are all white.

There are plenty of musicals that exist where the race of the characters is not part of the story and these are much more appropriate for most school productions. Otherwise, unless it can be cast with students who reflect the race of the characters on the page, it isn’t an appropriate text to select. Because our lead roles were played by predominantly people of colour, our approach did not draw the questions that it should have.

On a related note, I question what content we are providing our talented Maori and Pasifika performers that are edging towards careers in the arts. Is playing Belle and Danny really the best experiences we can offer these students? How can we support the creation of content to meet the real needs of New Zealand school productions?

I have worked alongside some outstanding colleagues in performing arts who are doing admirable work decolonising the curriculum and making changes to their practice. My fear is that this exceptional practice is not common practice. Who is calling out teachers like me that plow through their blind spots without question? I think there is a real need for a layer of support to exist that could help teachers like me who were responsible for so many important decisions to help make better ones. School productions are wonderful features of the cultural life of the school and have so many benefits for the institution and the individuals involved, but they are so reliant on the goodwill of a handful of teachers. Most schools do not have the resources to hire professional support. Is there a role for the arts community to help support these individuals that are stoking the fires of the next generation of artists?

While I am guilty of contributing to systemic racism, writing this is no absolution. The process of reflecting on this is helping me to uncover my own prejudices and learn more about what it means to be anti-racist. By openly talking about this, I hope it helps spark reflection and means that in the future less people will make the same mistakes that I made.