Phil Beadle is a teacher, education consultant, public speaker, author and broadsheet columnist from the UK. Earlier this year, Beadle spent a month in Australia conducting one-day workshops to share his expertise in literacy and behaviour management with Australian educators. In his first contribution for Teacher, he shares his response to the question he was asked most while on tour.
During my time in Australia, I worked in independent, Catholic and state sector schools with teachers and students from Sydney, Adelaide, Mount Gambier, Ballarat and Hobart. I was also gifted the profound privilege of working alongside the New South Wales Executive team looking at solutions that communities and systems might want to examine with my two areas of specialism: literacy and behaviour management.
The question I was most often asked generally qualified various complimentary statements. ‘That's the best PD I've ever seen, and your expertise is not in doubt, but how do we systematise this?' – a reasonable question affected by an assumption.
Teacher training done to the highest level is, or should be, exactly the same as teaching done to the same standard. It is essentially the role of a writer performer: a marginally overwrought comparison with a singer songwriter is a borderline useful analogy here.
What tends to happen with master practitioners is that their performance becomes so manicured and effortless; they are so completely able to engage and control an audience's emotional response – that audiences are blown away by the virtuoso nature of that performance and will fail to note the hard yards that have gone into writing the song.
There is a sense that the better the performance of an expert, the less seriously you are likely to take what he or she has to say. I draw the grim analogy here of Mick Hucknall whose tubes were so elegant no one properly noticed that Holding Back the Years, for instance, was a stone cold classic piece of writing.
How then, do you go about systematising the views of the ‘maverick' expert? And how, also, should you view the person who broadly sits outside of the system chucking rocks at the mainstream? There is a feeling that if the expert is not of the system, they cannot properly comment on it. ‘You cannot possibly know the pressures we are under. That stuff is all well and good, but you could not do that stuff with our kids.'
In answer to the first question, the beauty of an outsider is that they are not bound by convention, are not tied to statutory behaviours, are not necessary affected by the small ‘c' conservatism of the workplace. It is their job to tell the truth, and this does not have to be filtered. And if that expert has a genuine track record of improving student results, then their truths are worth examining to see if they can be profitably implemented systemically.
The second question occurs from a statement I've encountered quite regularly, be it in downtown Melbourne or rural England: the absurd and clutching belief that ‘our kids alone amongst all kids, would not respond to that kind of stuff.'
Egotism can be reductive, and this variety exists to place systems and schools beyond the need to embrace the creditor of change; in situating themselves in this location, they might write off the possibility of transforming the horizons, enjoyment and social destinies of their students by implementing ideas that stand apart from ‘how we've always done things around here'.
When this errant statement is sent in my direction, I patiently explain that, ultimately, in terms of behaviour, we are dealing with the psychology of humans and whether those humans are from a well-funded school in the independent sector or a less well-funded school in the Western suburbs, they all (sometimes eventually) respond to kindness, to teachers who understand that the only person they are able to change is themself, to teachers who go into difficult situations holding a version of script that works, to teachers who understand that there are effective and less effective ways to challenge behaviour.
In terms of literacy, again, the acquisition of high order skills is a process of learning the rules, then practising to the point that you are playing with those rules. This applies whatever and wherever your starting point is. It is my job to present these truths; it is your job to see what cultural barriers your environment has that must be jumped. But do not think that the basics of human behaviour and literacy acquisition verge wildly dependent on what hemisphere you inhabit.
The truths that I discovered on my recent trip are that, broadly Australian schools do not really have a behaviour problem, but that in terms of literacy, and despite the fact that the Australian English Curriculum is a wildly nourishing piece of work, there are some quite profound issues and that these would be partially solved by teachers focusing on the syntactic elements on writing that are difficult to learn rather than the semantic elements that any four-year-old can make a decent fist of.
‘How do we systematise this?' Ultimately, that's your business, but a system that is able to embrace critical voices from outside is a system that will not only learn more than insular truths, but which might also be prepared to take the risks that lead to real improvement.
Phil Beadle says it’s his job to present the truths; and your job to see what cultural barriers your environment has that must be jumped. Think of a recent example of when you’ve tried to implement change in your own school environment. What barriers did you face? How did you overcome these obstacles?
He adds that all students, regardless of their school, respond to kindness from their teachers. How do you ensure that you are being kind to each child every day? In what ways do you encourage students to be kind to one another?
Phil Beadle will be presenting in Australia again in March 2018. Visit the website for more details.