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.
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.