Classroom Differences

“In order to become irreplaceable, one must always be different.” Coco Chanel

Difference and identity are hot currency in the modern world. As we approach a new decade, barely a day goes by without me reading about the rights of so and so to express their identity, or such and such a group to be respected for their difference.

And yet, when it comes to choosing our teachers, it’s surprising how we are tend to train them to fetishise consistency and conformity. It’s becoming quite dangerous to trumpet eccentricities, let alone allow them to roam unchecked in the classroom. Despite a desire to introduce free schools and academies, in an effort to promote distinctiveness and ‘choice’, I suspect many lessons up and down the country are delivered in a very similar manner, with similar resources, with similar methodologies.

I think this could be a shame.

Yes, it is comforting to know that all staff are following such and such a curriculum, that it is neatly packaged and recorded, that lessons are delivered following a careful and well-planned sequence which pupils are used to; that pupils respond to the same cues and instructional frames; that routines and rules are enacted in synch across the school; that knowledge organisers are carefully and strategically placed in all classes to support the learner. And so on.

It is comforting to know that control has been exercised and teachers are following the rules. They are ‘on message’.

Trouble is, life isn’t like that, is it?

My boys are becoming part of a wider world, at university and beyond, studying at home and abroad. I think they are comfortable with the fact that people are very different. That places have remarkably different cultures (less so that when I was growing up, but still hugely different). They have realised that the world does not control you by cloning your responses to everything, (though some countries are trying hard: take the witness stand, my Chinese friends.)

Nor should it be this way. Especially in education.

We remember our teachers for their differences and eccentricities, for what motivates them, for their talents and their individuality. We don’t tend to remember the fact that they followed the assessment policy exceptionally well, or that they used a green pen very consistently when giving feedback.

No, we remember their compassion, or their humour, or their voice, or the fact they hummed all the time, or swivelled on their chair, or laughed with a deep throaty resonance. We remember the fact that they were different, they had a character. We remember that they loved painting, or lit up at the thought of volcanoes, or could play the guitar with such joy. We remember their love of cross-country running, or that they almost cried when they read us the most beautiful stories.

We remember that they were human. And above all that they cared for us. That they had fire in their belly. That they wanted to make… well…a difference.

We often talk of ‘British values’, rather ironically given our demeaned political life where lying and subterfuge are common place. I think that a distinctive feature of British life, a true British value, is that of eccentricity, of personality, of character. We celebrate it.

Yes, leaders must make sure that certain policies are adhered to – safeguarding, behaviour etc etc. Conformity is not a dirty word at all and leaders must ensure there is conformity of approach to many aspects of school life.

But just remember that children are formed, not processed. Education is about a personal and spiritual development. It needs people of great character and personality, and yes, at times, eccentricity.

So let’s celebrate difference in our teaching profession. Let’s face it, it would be boring if everyone was the same.

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