Poetry: ‘The Eighth Man’

The first man tried, the first man died.
The second man tried, the second man died.
The third man tried, the third man died.
The fourth man tried, the fourth man died.
The fifth man tried, the fifth man died.
The sixth man tried, the sixth man died.
The seventh man watched,
The seventh man saw,
The seventh man ran,
The seventh man soared.
The seventh man flew
The seventh man leaped
The seventh man flew from the edge over depths
That kept as a bed where the first six had rested,
Darkened by shadows and precipice crests.
The seventh man jumped,
The seventh man stretched,
The seventh man flailed,
The seventh man reached,
The seventh man tried.
The seventh man wailed.
The seventh man died.
The seventh to fail.

The eighth man tried,

-UF

Poetry: ‘My People’

All these white people
Nice enough people
Just far enough removed from white people

Who decided people
Hued like my people
Didn’t deserve equal treatment by people

Living like people
Here with my people
Post-code ascending right to buy people

Sugar sweet people
Cuppa tea people
Coupla plantations overseas people

Owning slave people
Born and raised people
Making wage and get paid by trade people

Eye-to-eye people
Turn a blind people
Just like we out to shop and buy people

We exploit people
Got no choice people
Too far away to hear their voice people

Making things that we buy with cash people
Take away our discarded trash people
On the other side of charity drive people
Two pounds a month just to survive people

Often small people
Or recent old people
Nimble fingers that stitch and sew people

Clothes to clothe people
Far away people
Shopping mall shuffling window gaze people

Bargain bin people
Hidden sin people
Worship at the church of scratch and win people

Justified people
Much to buy people
Turn a blind eye from other side people

Turn a blind eye from other side people
Learn to get by with drier eyes people

These are my people
Make you sigh people
All alive until left to die people.

-U

Becoming yourself: A teacher’s journey to authenticity

Harry Hill has something profound to say about who you are.

Right then. Let’s start with an easy one. What do the kids call you at school? I’m guessing… some variant of Mr/ Miss/ Ms/ Mrs Something-or-other? Perhaps ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’? At least to your face.

Ok, now a harder one. Who exactly are you when you’re at school? Well, to answer that one you’re going to have to read the rest of this blog post. Stay with me.

In the earliest days of my PGCE, I remember being profoundly weirded out by my given title of ‘Mr Boakye’. To clarify, my name is Jeffrey Boakye. At no point in my life had I been referred to as Mr anything and it felt odd to suddenly find myself decorated with that moniker, just because I was hanging around in a school in a professional capacity.

‘Mr Boakye’ (inverted commas entirely necessary) felt somewhat different to the ‘Jeffrey’ that I felt myself to be prior to teacher training. ‘Mr Boakye’ kind of felt like a new character I was adopting, rather than the person I actually was. Jeffrey came quite easily to me aged 26. ‘Mr Boakye’ was going to take some work.

Which, to an extent, summarises the following seven years, up until the writing of this blog post, during which time I have been crafting ‘Mr Boakye’. He talks a certain way. He definitely dresses a certain way. He has certain attitudes and behaviours, and projects a certain set of ideals upon his practice. Not to get too Liam Neesonish about it, ‘Mr Boakye’ has a particular set of skills acquired over a (reasonably) long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for people like you.

Introduce a very interesting dichotomy that forms the basis of this essay: The fact that ‘Mr Boakye’ is a crafted, craftable concept, and one that I can objectively scrutinise, suggests that there is something about teaching that is performative, if not artificial. Simply put, teachers don’t just stroll into their careers as the casual first namers you might meet in a pub or wherever; we take an active step into the role of teaching. And that comes with effort and deliberation.

See, while the crafted persona of ‘Mr Boakye’ is strong and gets stronger, the life of Jeffrey Boakye has informed my teaching at every turn. When I think about it, many of my lessons have been tea-stained by events of my life. For example, when helping my sister get her daughter into primary school, my letter of commendation became the subject of persuasive writing analysis. I once got a bunch of year 9 boys to analyse and critique my wedding speech. My love of Hiphop has almost entirely derailed my pedagogic thought processes (for the better). And so on.

In his excellent book on the history and machinations of stand-up comedy ‘Getting the Joke’, Oliver Double offers the astute and useful ‘Performer-character’ distinction. Stand-up comedians, he argues (by the way, read this essay if you need convincing on the genetic similarities between the comedian and the teacher), are on a performer-character spectrum. Meaning that they straddle all kinds of lines between who they are and who they choose to project to their audiences.

Teachers, I believe, are on the same spectrum. Who we are, who we choose to be, and who we think we need to be are all paddling in the same canoe.

Anyway, here are Oliver Double’s distinctions. I’ll list them first, then we can consider how they might apply to a teacher:

  • Character comedian. You know the type – comedians who exist entirely as a stylised character bearing no relation to the person who plays them. Think all the characters played by a Harry Enfield or Steve Coogan. Personally, I’m not sure if this can apply to a teacher, unless you walk into a classroom with a fake name and completely fabricated personality. Which, crazily enough, I actually did for a string of lessons in 2011 in which I adopted the role of ‘Poetry Man’, a Wonka-esque, trilby-hatted loon who took kids out on adventures involving balloons, biscuits, zombies and polaroid cameras. Seriously, I did that. Click the links. It was exhausting.
  • Exaggerated persona. These are those comedians who play amped-up versions of themselves, usually with stage names and outlandish wardrobe. This, if I’m being honest is where I am at the moment. ‘Mr Boakye’ has evolved into a stylised vision of my own creation. A kind of cartoonified projection of the teacher Jeffrey Boakye has chosen to be.
  • Naked self. When all pretences are dropped and the character is as close to the person as possible. Ironically, I think this naked self can only really emerge accidently. The intensity of teaching and constant proximity to audience (students; colleagues…) means that any chosen persona will necessarily slip. I’ve always maintained that the ‘real’ you will out after even a short stretch of teaching, because you can’t keep a a mask on when building relationships. I can do everything in my power to create ‘Mr Boakye’ but the kids know Jeffrey whether I like it or not.

Recently (by which I mean the last four years or so) I have been trying, intently, to forge the naked self into the exaggerated persona. I have no idea if this is a sensible idea but I’m in love with the concept of not having to put on (or take off) any masks in my professional life. I want to be ‘Mr Boakye’ at all times. I want to lose the inverted commas; I want my work wardrobe to be my weekend wardrobe.

What I really want, I think, is authenticity, and this might be the point of this essay. Teaching thrives in the relationships between teacher, student, subject, and the more authentic these relationships the better. If I’ve learned anything about developing this authenticity it’s that you have to allow something real to permeate your crafted self just as much as you have to exercise control over your naked self.

None of this comes easy. Like the comedian, the teacher is probably racked with insecurity, a sense of deficit and constant doubt. What we do is intimate, but stylised; authentic, but kind of fake, and we have to straddle all that on a day-to-day basis (minus holidays). Teaching is intensely personal. No safety buffer. ‘Mr Boakye’ is me. His competence, passion, expertise, skill, likeability is being judged all day long. Oliver Double talks of the ‘person in the persona’, a neat summation of what we wrestle with. We aren’t one person; we are a collection of choices and experiences. We choose to let some things show and we can’t prevent other things from showing. As Harry Hill puts it:

I think once everyone started doing their own material, most people are putting over… something about themselves, no matter how hidden it is.

From this understanding, it’s not so much a case of asking can you control your persona, it’s more a case of do you want to?

In the past thousand words or so I have suggested that ambiguity over the self is part of becoming a teacher. The question to leave on is whether or not (or to what extent) this ambiguity might help or hinder your practice. Teaching forces us to do what comedians and artists strive to do: reconcile our various selves. We’re so exposed, and so structured, that we have to find a middle ground. This is to be welcomed, perhaps celebrated? It’s about honesty, or the right level of dishonesty, or control, or lack of, which keeps the relationships alive and vital. The audience, the students, need to see some of who you are if they are to accept you and genuinely enter the dialogue you instigate every time you stand there with a lesson plan. To go back to the hard question at the start of this essay, who are you when you walk into the classroom? And who do you want to be? As ever, no straightforward answers, but definitely something to think about.

-Jeffrey ‘Unseen Flirtations’ Boakye

For more thoughts on the nuances of performance and persona I strongly recommend finding and reading ‘Getting the Joke’ by Oliver Double.

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10 Tips for Teaching Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Poetry

unseenflirt:

A neat rundown of how to introduce and cultivate spoken word in the classroom.

Originally posted on Brian Mooney:

  1. Be yourself.

If hip-hop isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it. Better to “keep it real” and be yourself. In other words, keep it authentic. Find connections to your students that are meaningful to you – but don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. If you love classic poetry, boom – spoken word is calling your name. Open your mind to new voices, cultures, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world. Your students need you to!

  1. Create open mic time.

My students love reading their poetry during “open mic” time – this is a low-stakes, non-judgmental period of 10-15 minutes at the beginning of every club or class meeting when students can share anything they’ve written – poems, verses, raps, bars, songs, or short stories. No feedback, just snaps! It’s important to develop a culture of listening and affirmation before getting to this next tip…

  1. Workshop the writing.

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What I’ll Be Writing On That Starry Night, My Brothers

A poetic response to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess, first read at 14, re-read at 33.

You know what?
Be ready to fight. Cos when Alex, Dim, Georgie and Pete, come in the night/ to ask questions of your wife and interrupt your write/ you’d better be ready for life/ -be a young man/– dumb, insensitive/ vocal and feeling plenty of/ power, rage and drive with rookers that fully clench/ and gullivers full of trouble, desire to see the red/ your swordpen cannot save you and neither can what you’ve read/– you’re either starry or not so I suggest you dispense with all the cutter and get yourself a cutter and dance among the gutter/ and shark up, my brothers/- dapper up your platties it won’t/– be very horrorshow if you act the man, he’s a boy/- you can’t reason with infancy/–he’s all he was meant to be – it isn’t indecency/– it isn’t unreasonable/ it’s entirely feasible/– the boy is unteachable but he’ll teach you a lesson/– I am suggesting that you enter the class – britva sharp – with a few ha ha haws (that’s laughs)/ -don’t be scared of a tolchock/– just go for the old rot, you’re human so use your fist to do what you know’s not impossible, just a bit unpalletable/– maybe slightly damaging but ultimately manageable/- and your devotchka? /-protect her like an animal/- all she is is groodies for glazzies to these malchicks.

What’s it going to be then eh?
A night where your DNA/ gets tested or wrested or fully bested? You be that way/– you sit and scribble your clever slovos/ – cos soon they won’t be good enough, you’ll have to use your goloss/– and when that isn’t loud enough you’ll have to use your rookers/– and if they aren’t – sharp enough a britva or a pooshka/– with which you might protect yourself at time of desperation/ the night is starry young, they’ll partly come in desperation/ the night is starry young, they’ll partly come in desperation/– for meaning/– the in and out’s obscene and/– the violence has no ceiling/– you’ll find your glazzies greeting/– until you start to steel them/ the noga to the floor/ you’re at war/ with the floor/ you’re at war/ with the idiot you were and the demons that you saw/ it’s real/– mechanical steel/- the human is peel/ so do what you feel/– just feel it for real/ like eyes glinting looking for the violence in the silent night.

-Flirtations

‘Up in the Air’ (2009) – A poetic film review

A poetic review/ critique of the film ‘Up In The Air’ (2009), starring George Clooney.

Alone.

With your sharkslick moves; dripping hubris as you cruise
With digital ease through analogue seas
Of people, places and unrecognised faces,
An indefinite trip outside of all time, high-flying
Straight by people with lives weighted down and laden
With people, places and recognised faces they’ve acquired.

Detached.
Pack light: Move swift. Use-less
Energy on useless roots and routes that shoot and shout
Down through the fuselage of your ethos.
Crowds gather where clouds don’t matter and where clouds don’t matter the crowds have scattered –
Jettisoned ballast until your chosen solitude is so close
That you are immune
To your own calloused touch.

Moon bound.
Flying round.
Two hundred thousand miles in the air, getting nowhere
Nearer than closer to somewhere.
Targets thin like skin. Thin air,
Greying hair yet still; you don’t care
Because you care about not there, or there, but the ellipsis in between
Where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Never home, never slowing, sharkslick fin slicing
Through seas of barely recogniseable faces.

Inching.
Ten million miles closer to that home of your imagination
That dream made real by corporate corroboration,
A scene that means as much to you as two recent teens saying I do,
One small step closer to the landing site called home.
Ten million miles flown,
Each first class seat a throne,
The Emperor’s New Throne in fact,
Weighing just as much as your emptying soul.

Travelling.
With no destination. Outward bound, outward facing,
What exactly is gestating in that sharkskin case
Of you-shaped templates and hollow replacements (of holiday luggage)
Permanently escaping the one place you came from
That is so far away that you finally cannot place it.

But yes, you feel it, for beneath the calloused skin and
(Now slightly dipping) fin and silent, chrome wing
Is him: that collection of people, places and changing, aging faces
That initially flew you in.

-Unseen

‘The Accidental Bubble’

The accidental bubble that popped into existence completely overshot expectations by floating out of the window into the cool summer air. It floated happily upwards and outwards into the skies beyond and caught gentle currents that took it far beyond it was ever meant to go. Due to an impossibly unlikely combination of breezes, temperatures and subtle pressures of air, the tiny bubble survived for years adrift, circumnavigating the globe in bobs and lifts. Had it been aware, it would have marvelled at sunsets, oceans, forests and mountain ranges that shone in majestic beauty and vertiginous awe. But as it was, it was just a happy bubble, completely overshooting is expected trajectory.

Eventually, long after the demise of our own civilisation, the unexpected inevitable happened. The bubble responded as a bubble would to forces beyond its control and beyond its capabilities of resistance. It popped. There was no sadness or pathos in this event. No anxiety or build up of fear. No atonement before, no mourning after. All that can be said is that the bubble was exactly as it would have been at death after eons as it would have been at death after seconds. It had experienced existence and it had not experienced change. And when it was gone it would be gone for more forevers than it could ever realised it had missed.

Us vs Them vs I: Another look at Differentiation

Before leaving his post as Education Secretary, Michael Gove left as a parting gift, an assessment regime hinged entirely upon examination. By eliminating coursework, students are now expected to demonstrate their academic progress in a series of exams, just like the good old days. The upshot of this is that teachers are under increasing pressure to steer learning away from a shared experience. Now, this blog post is not the place to debate the pros and cons of exam-centered assessment, but I do wonder if the wider debate over collective learning (and collective assessment)  has been woefully overlooked.

The current educational landscape has made the exams game almost aggressively individualistic. High university fees, competition for places and reliance upon exam performance means that students are fighting the world to get their place in the world. It’s no surprise that the number of EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) applicants has doubled to 35,000 this year since 2010. Students are realising that they need to stand out; they need to be different. You can blame Capitalism – a free market approach to education will always tend towards individualism.

Now, there’s a fairly long list of things that can take a teacher from nought to inadequate in 60 seconds, and differentiation is fairly high on that list. Nothing can quite generate those nauseating feelings of guilt like the realisation that you haven’t quite taken into account the varying ability levels of your class – one of the reasons that differentiation continues to be a hot focal point in teacher training and performance management. The underlying logic is clear; the best teaching will be tailored to the specific needs of individual students, as opposed to a ‘best fit’ approach that might overshoot subtle nuances.

In my time as department lead, I have, every assessment interim, been required to analyse data and offer commentary as to the progress of various cohorts. And at the end of it the desired action was always clear: sit down with each teacher in my department and work out a strategy for each ‘Red Alert’ student in their class (as identified by the data crunch).

Again, the underlying logic is clear; the apex of good differentiation is personalisation. It then becomes the job of the teacher to work out the specifics of each student’s needs, which, of course, leads to huge amounts of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

As a so-called ‘middle manager’, I have felt it my responsibility to ensure that, anxiety aside, proper differentiation takes place. So, after every interim I would diligently schedule an action plan meeting with each of my colleagues and work out how best to meet the needs of students X, Y and Z. Which, of course we never really followed up on. We’d have the meeting, the next interim would roll round, and I would, with a little knot of guilt, start the differentiation dance all over again.

None of this, I think, makes me a bad middle manager. There’s something about differentiation which is mirage-like and almost ephemeral. It seems doable in theory but in practical application quickly spirals into poorly tweaked resources, or ad hoc minutes spent during lessons.

Which might explain the evolution of my lesson observations during the year. A few half terms of drifting in and out of lessons to observe practice and identify examples of good teaching resulted in the following list of questions:

How do your students know when they are doing well?

How do your students know what good work looks like?

How do your students know what a ‘well’ classroom looks/ feels like?

When do your students have Autonomy?

When do your students have Relatedness?

When do your students have the chance to show Competence?

Does your class have a culture or sub-culture?

The interesting thing about this list is that it refers exclusively to students plural as opposed to student singular. Somewhere in my understanding of performance management, it had become apparent that a holistic approach to classroom analysis was somehow preferable to reducing a class to a selection of individuals (despite consistent pressure towards individualisation).

In his New Scientist essay ‘The Death of Individuality’, Alex Pentland offers the idea that individuals learn better in a social context. In what he calls ‘social physics’, a community actively feeds off the actions and implicit lessons offered by own members, to the benefit of each individual within the group as well as the group as a whole. Far beyond simple peer pressure, he argues that individual incentives are dwarfed by social networks – citing ‘patterns of communication’ as key to decision-making in small groups, as opposed to the characteristics of individuals.

At this point, if you’re a teacher, you’re probably right now thinking something along the lines of “Well, duh.” Teachers know the power of ensemble. It’s what we spend our weeks, months and years building with our respective classes. It’s why we continue to utilise group work as a pedagogic strategy, despite the rugged individualism of solo examinations. We understand that a class of kids is greater than the sum of its parts. The problem is that traditional assessment models view the individual as the greatest unit of rationality, and this can far too easily bleed into how learning is structured. If it is true that we learn through community, then why not follow that stream into the estuaries of shared assessment?

At times, education gets this right. Drama teachers understand the power of ensemble in assessment; whereby individuals are judged on their contribution to a shared outcome. The (currently trendy) concept of Project Based Learning invites students to develop individual skills through the shared creation of a product. The dialogic classroom, by definition, relies upon communication to even function.

No neat conclusions to this one but if it’s obvious that classes learn well (or best?) collectively, it seems equally obvious that we would do well to prioritise communal learning. Yes, there are arguments against collectivism in education, but I feel these arguments will always be rooted in negative assumptions of human motivation; that some people will coast, or that some will piggyback the work of others. In reality, classrooms can be far more collegiate. Evidence? See below for a selection of practices garnered from my department based on the questions outlined earlier:

  • Using student work for modelling
  • Using marking as an opportunity to highlight specific student’s positive outcomes
  • Creating class booklets of work to celebrate outcomes
  • Rewarding positive class behaviours as well as work
  • Developing tasks that rely upon individual participation for a desired outcome (all students valued equally)
  • Ditch the seating plan
  • Developing a culture of valued individuals

As ever, something to think about.

-Unseen

Underplanned and Fully Prepared: Let’s Teach

I remember when I was a new teacher, thinking that I would one day reach a point where I wouldn’t have to plan lessons. Years later, I’ve realised I was chasing a false dream, a mirage panacea; I still do have to plan. Extensively. But not necessarily in the way that I thought I had to. And in fact, all of my planning might have already happened, even if I haven’t realised it.

Now let me try to unpick these somewhat cryptic assertions.

At the time of writing, I am currently in that phase of the summer holidays where a little knot of anxiety is starting to form at the realisation that I am not fully prepared for September. Despite years of honing my craft, there is still a part of my teaching brain that doesn’t believe I am fully prepared until I have crafted a scheme of work, worked out my assessment points and generated resources to be used by kids in the classroom.

Which is fair enough. Years of experience have taught me that being prepared is extremely helpful. Knowing, roughly, what is going to happen or at least what is supposed to happen, can help alleviate the stress of… well, of what? And in that ellipsis is the first sticking point in our understanding of and approach to preparation and planning. Consider why teachers plan. Is it:

  • To ensure that curriculum needs are met?
  • To minimise risk of divergence?
  • To ensure that lessons have a structure?
  • To ensure schemes of work have a purposeful direction?
  • To focus the mind?

In all of this, it could be argued that planning is ultimately for the benefit of the teacher. Students routinely amaze me at their lack of concern over what is coming next in a learning sequence. No matter how active we make individual lessons or activities, the fact remains that students are largely passive when it comes down to curriculum design. When, if ever, has a class gone up in arms over a strange turn in direction during a scheme of work? When has a student ever demanded to see a mid-term plan to make sure what the teacher envisaged is actually happened? They just don’t care and it just doesn’t matter. So why do teachers agonise over planning?

The complicated truth of the matter is that planning has more to do with teacher well-being than it does to do with student attainment. And this, I think, is because planning is not the same as doing. A neatly packaged scheme of work acts as a safety blanket for that daunting walk in the woods that is teaching. Planning offers the perception of control and mastery over events that haven’t happened, and we therefore stick to the plan in a bid to exercise control over the uncontrollable.

This very blog post, I am writing unplanned, in a bid to prove this point to myself. Yes, I have thought hard about what I am typing and rolled around in my own ideas for about 48 hours now, but the construction of meaning that is coming from these paragraphs is unscripted. I’m communicating in real time editing, on the fly, planning at the same time as writing, an ice cube fizzing on a hot iron plate.

Teaching, essentially, is more like a conversation than a playscript. Conversations demand reflexiveness, spontaneity, agility and cooperation. In a conversation, one must respond in real time to what the other person is saying. Yes, you might have an agenda and you may know what you want to convey, but you can’t simply say a string of perfectly planned statements in a perfectly planned order. If you did, it wouldn’t be a conversation; it would lack integrity. We don’t plan our conversations and this, ironically, is what makes us very good at having conversations – the high risk of live performance hinging upon not rehearsal, but real-time interaction.

So does planning hold any relevance at all? Of course it does. In his excellent essay ‘Stand-Up or Fall Down: Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room’, academic and stand-up comedian Kevin McCarron suggests that the stand-up comedian uses the same mental agility that a good teacher should employ in order to respond to and and work with audiences (students) towards a shared outcome. He writes:

…just as comedians can move material around in the set, or drop it completely, depending on the response they are getting, or spontaneously improvise on something somebody has said, so too teachers should be able to shift their material, or drop it, depending on the response of their students.

In this, McCarron argues that extensive planning is potentially at the detriment of improvisation. It takes us out of the moment, out of the conversation. However, the ability to improvise is linked, inextricably to experience. To return to the conversation analogy of a few paragraphs ago, the only way you know how to slalom the twists of a conversation is by relying on experiences of other conversations from your past.

Perhaps, then, we should redefine ‘planning’. Perhaps we should eschew the concept of planning and replace it with the subtly different concept of ‘preparation’. Perhaps preparation is closer, semantically, to ‘living’. We don’t plan the moment-by-moment experiences of our lives, but we continually prepare for them, through the process of living. We plan through our experiences, our various moments, our conversations of the past that inform our present. I haven’t planned this blog post per se (apologies for its meanderings), but I have prepared myself to write it through seven years of teaching and 48 hours of thought after reading an engaging essay. In the classroom, a teacher’s wealth of experience should be enough preparation for the learning journeys ahead. McCarron writes:

It is not necessarily the case that teachers prepare far too much for seminars for the sake of their students; it is just as likely that this excessive preparation is done to protect themselves from their students.

A powerful idea. Students, like comedy audiences, ‘[value] interaction more than information’. And while you can prepare for interaction, you certainly can’t plan how it will go. Planning is too often used as protection from the risk of the unknown, and this is,, ironically a risk that we must embrace, just as we do every time we enter a conversation.

Rather than worry about what we can control through preparation, perhaps teachers would ultimately do better to reflect on their experiences and concentrate on staying flexible in the classroom, at the time of teaching, in the moment of dialogue and interaction with the students we learn with. Definitely something to think about.

For further insights into the links between teaching and stand-up, I strongly recommend reading ‘Stand-Up or Fall Down: Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room’ by Dr Kevin McCarron. 

Teacher Training: Where’s Mr Miyagi when you need him?

The mentor and the mentee

In the 1984 cult classic coming of age hit movie, ‘The Karate Kid’, Mr Miyagi begins Daniel’s training by instructing him to paint fences, sand wooden floors and endlessly wax massive American cars. In the 2010 remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, this is updated to the continual taking off and putting on of young Dre’s jacket. The point in both movies is clear: before the protagonist can begin to learn his martial art, he first has to learn discipline and the foundational muscle memory necessary to acquire basic skills.

Earlier this year, I watched the 2010 Karate Kid with my coaching group as part of a detailed well-being programme of my own invention. Essentially, we tracked the journey of Dre and used it as a lens through which to explore various aspects of well-being. I used the jacket sequence as a springboard to discuss the concept of commitment, starting that particular session in the same way as Mr Han (Jackie Chan) by asking the kids to:

Take off your jacket.

Put it down.

Pick it up.

Put it on.

Take it off.

Put it down.

Pick it up.

Etc.

Obviously, I didn’t tell the kids why I was asking them to repeatedly remove and replace their blazers until after we had watched the scene; it was a blind starter into the discussions over commitment and willingness that would follow. Here are a few of the questions we explored:

How does it feel to do something that seems pointless?
How committed are you to a process that has not been fully explained to you?
When you agree to be taught, how willing are you to do what is asked of you?
What is your level of commitment to things that you do not readily enjoy?
When are you most or least willing?
What affects your ability to commit to a given situation?

Skip forward a few months to last week, where I’m delivering an INSET session on the teaching of well-being language through meta-cognitive textual study. I use the example above to explain to my colleagues how the concept of commitment could be explored via a text (or film). And because they weren’t wearing blazers, I made them take off and remove and replace the lid of a pen numerous times. Which, of course, drew mixed responses.

All of this got me thinking about teachers and the thorny issue of capital C Commitment.

Needless to say, teachers are an extremely committed bunch. We frequently go above and beyond the extra mile and other cliches. It’s an intense vocation that requires high levels of commitment. Recently, our Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced that teachers should not be expected to work into evenings on things such as marking and lesson preparation, in a bid to make the profession more attractive to prospective teachers. This is in light of an ongoing recruitment crisis, whereby schools are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain new staff. While I can see where Ms Morgan is coming from with these assertions, it must be said that the workload issue is something of a red herring in regard to teacher recruitment.

In previous essays I have suggested that Initial Teacher Training (ITT) should focus on encouraging new teachers to enter the profession in a spirit of enquiry and innovation. This (perhaps naively) assumes a certain level of commitment. In reality, just like the protagonists in the Karate Kid movies, teachers have to want to train before they can be trained. In this light, capability and experience become dramatically less important than willingness. Teachers, new and developing, need to have the attitude of willing students.

Which of course leaves one vital, massive missing piece: the mentor.

Mr Miyagi in Karate Kid 1984 and Mr Han in Karate Kid 2010 prove a very simple, but easily overlooked point – good training comes from good trainers. In both films, the wayward, inexperienced protagonists have the depths of their own potential revealed to them by mentors who can see so much more than their mentees can fathom (until the end, anyway). So does teaching need more Mr and Mrs Miyagis? Maybe. In 2014 the then Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, floated the concept of ‘master teachers’ in the UK, a tier of Mr Miyagi-like expert practitioners who would lead the way in developing best practice, guiding the careers of newer teachers along the way.

At the time, I distinctly remember scoffing at the idea. It seemed to me to be a reductionist view of teaching, trying to clumsily emulate a culture of reverence, respect for experience and wisdom that is deeply embedded in Eastern culture. It also seemed to be attempting to incentivise dedication to classroom teaching through some kind of status reward scheme, as opposed to the intrinsic motivation of simply becoming a better teacher.

I still hold these reservations, but I’m starting to re-evaluate my scoffs of 12 months ago. An apprenticeship model of ITT requires mentors who, like Mr Miyagi, are committed to the development of their mentees. And also like Mr Miyagi these mentors can’t be career driven cogs in the teaching machine. Like Mr Miyagi, they probably need to be reclusive master craftsmen (and women) who have eschewed traditional routes of success. They won’t be polished advocates of teaching as prescribed by the TDA; they might not even be affiliated to a school; and they definitely won’t even want to be a mentor until genuine need arises. And like Mr Miyagi, they’ll probably have demons in their pasts that they will need the help of their mentees to overcome.

Which leads us to something of an impasse. If ITT needs committed mentors more than it needs capable mentees, then perhaps we should be focusing more on how to find and recognise Miyagi-esque qualities in the existing teaching population, rather than trying to make conditions less daunting for the Danielson teachers waiting in the wings. Something to think about.

-Unseen