I’ve never really been one for tradition. I don’t mean birthdays or Christmas traditions, I’m all for Christmas; I have the antlers and novelty jumper to prove it.
I’m thinking more about tradition in education.
You know what I mean, that comfortable way of doing things that you just stick with because that’s the way you’ve always done it. Or because that’s the way everyone else does it. These are the snuggly cardigans of your practice- comfortingly familiar and maybe a little worn out at the elbows from overuse. Maybe they aren’t even yours- often these are handed down by colleagues or issued to you at the door on your first day by the head teacher- ‘there you go, that’s how we do things here’.
Everyone has their ‘aye bins’. And we need them too; in order to get good at something, you need to practise, and when you practise, you do the same thing over and over again until you become proficient in the skill. The problem is though, if you do this for too long, you stop practising and it becomes just what you do.
And if you only ever walk the one path, you’ll only ever see the same things.
My point is, you need to shake it up a little. Look in the wardrobe of your practice- push the cardigans along to one side and what do you see? If it’s just more cardigans you need to ask yourself why that is. What’s missing here? Just like a well-stocked wardrobe, you need a mixture of old favourites and new things that change each season. What’s just arrived in your practice to challenge you and your learners? In other words, where’s the new in what you do?
What did I last try in the classroom that took my learners by surprise?
What do I do now that I wasn’t doing a year ago?
Not all new is good. I made a particularly bad decision once with a lively P5 class when I introduced table points using round, flat plastic tokens. I couldn’t get them to listen to me after that as they were too busy playing tiddly winks with the tokens and fighting over who had won. It was a total disaster and I had to think again.
That was the teaching equivalent of an impulse buy- I saw the idea and implemented it without really thinking through if it would work or suit my learners. These are the wet-look leggings of what you do; ill-fitting and likely to result in crying.
So you don’t want too many cardigans and you can’t avoid a few pairs of dodgy leggings, but what about the rest? What should your teaching wardrobe be filled with? Sensible staples that change over time. Ways of doing things you have thought about and considered if they will suit you, if they will help you be your best. Sometimes the only way to know is to give it a go; try on a new idea and see if it suits you, if it does, great! If not, consign it to the back of the wardrobe; at least you’ve tried it and you will have learned something from the experience (like not to use tiddlywinks as table points). Aim for a mixture of safe, risky and somewhere in between.
I’ve been lucky to work for leaders who have been fine with my eclectic fashion sense- leaders who have allowed me, encouraged me to take risks and experiment and try new things, to see if they suit. I have been give the time and space to become the kind of teacher I want to be, learning from the choices (good and bad) that I have made and moving my practice forward accordingly. Most important of all, I own everything in my teaching wardrobe- I put it all there, it belongs to and it is unique to me. And this you must guard fiercely, for the alternative is very grim indeed.
Leaders and schools that shut down your creativity, that shout ‘do it this way’ or ‘that’s not how we do it here’ have a devastating impact on quality teaching and learning. Insisting we all do things the same way ensures nothing new will ever happen. When we all do things the same way, we all begin to look the same, we lose our uniqueness, our creative right to lead our own practice. In short, it’s pupils who should be wearing the uniforms, not the teachers.
So have a look inside your teaching wardrobe and find out what’s there. I hope there’s something lovely with the tags still on, ready to be tried on this week. I hope you, like me, have been given the time and space to put together things that really suit you and help you be your best. And if not? If you just see the one uniform that you are expected to wear every day? Or a whole rail of comfy cardigans, perfectly serviceable but not likely to excite or inspire? Then go shopping, my friend. Find something new and try it out. Challenge anyone and anything that wants to take away your right to lead, shape and develop your own practice.
Because deciding what to wear every day may be much more difficult than just shrugging on the same old uniform, but it is the only way to ensure that you can be you.
And no one else can do that.