Hiding in Plain Sight

In war, truth is the first casualty.’ Aeschylus

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs over recent months, and enjoying most of what I read, even when I disagree with the blogger’s opinions. It’s taken me a while, and a number of false starts, but I have also got round to writing a regular blog of my own. The brilliant Pedagoo site helped me get started: here was a space where I could dip my toe into the waters of blogging, by writing about specific examples of pedagogy.

But then the day came when I had something political to say, a burning message that I wanted to communicate, because I had read an article that really, really angered me (Liz Truss and her ‘chaotic nurseries’). Pedagoo was no place for that kind of blog post. And so it was that ‘Lighting a Fire’ was born. I nailed my colours to the mast and wrote what I really thought. This is me. This is what I believe.

If you want to know about me, my ‘context’ as it were, then there’s quite a bit of information out there. You give up at least some of your privacy when you become a published writer. I left school at 16, and came to teaching as a mature student. I trained as an early years/primary school teacher. Then I moved on to work in secondary schools, in London, in Portugal, and in Bristol. I still work in the classroom as often as I can, as a volunteer, because I’m ever conscious of the danger of losing touch with ‘the chalkface’ (plus I miss being with the kids). I help to run a preschool (I’m the Ofsted ‘suitable person’ and have been chair of the committee for over three years.) Plus, I spend a lot of time going into schools to train teachers and writing books and articles. I am a parent as well.

I really enjoy reading blogs that are written by classroom teachers and senior leaders. Alex Quigley is great. So is Debra Kidd. And Keven Bartle as well. These people are completely open about who they are, what they do, and where they work. They tread carefully around issues of confidentiality, but at the same time they are honest about what goes on in their schools. They can give specific examples of what happens in the classroom day to day, examples that ring completely true because I know what the context is. When I read these blogs I gain a strong sense of the personal context involved.

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ Albert Einstein

I’m particularly admiring of those members of SLT who blog specifically about their schools, because potentially they have a lot to lose (and also because I could never be a member of SLT, too stressful by far!). Chris Hildrew is deputy head at my local secondary (I’ll be hassling him to let me volunteer there, as soon as my children start at his school.) John Tomsett even goes as far as to tell me his age. I was lucky enough to meet Geoff Barton, which is wonderful, because I can imagine him speaking and think about his school when I read his words. These bloggers tend to focus on helping other teachers, or leaders, improve what they do in their classrooms or at their schools. Where political opinions filter through, you can hear the passion in the blogger’s voice, you can sense that they simply want the very best for their students.

Then there are the blogs that I read that are written by anonymous bloggers, quite a few of which use anecdotal examples to make a political point. And herein, for me, lies a problem. As a writer, I know that hyperbole and exaggeration are very tempting. To paraphrase Michael Gove, these writing styles are the ‘enemies of honesty’. In teaching it’s awfully easy to take your own experiences, to describe what happened in, shall we say, an over dramatic way, and then to extrapolate from that to state that this is how it looks in every school.

It’s sorely tempting to take an anecdote or a single personal experience (kid chucks table at teacher) and to use that to make exaggerated claims about the profession as a whole (kids everywhere chucking tons of tables at terrified teachers). And before you know it, you sound like a Daily Mail writer, despairing at the entire profession. I struggle with the temptation to exaggerate, and to be inventive, every time I write (except of course when I’m writing fiction where exaggeration and invention are the point).

I’m lucky enough to meet and work with thousands of teachers each year, so I have a sense of how it feels ‘on the ground’. But even so, I’m acutely conscious that each teacher has his or her own unique set of experiences, that each school is at least partly a product of its context. To quote the marvellous Plashing Vole: ‘The plural of anecdote is not data.’ Or, as Mark Twain put it:

Every generalization is dangerous, especially this one.

When I read the classroom stories of anonymous bloggers, I am missing the context. And with that context comes the promise of honesty. If you know who I am and what I do, I’m much more likely to tell you the truth. If I hide behind anonymity, or a pseudonym, I give myself permission to say what the hell I want to (as trolls right across the internet prove). It’s easy to exaggerate for effect, when no one knows your real name. It’s easier to be disparaging to colleagues, or about students, when you don’t have to look them in the eye and say ‘yeah, that’s what I really think’. It’s tempting to make sweeping claims and generalisations that, if we were able to shine a bright light on them, might not stand up to scrutiny.

When I read blogs, I like to know about the experiences of the person writing them, because that helps me understand why they say what they say. Sometimes I read an anonymous blog and think: ‘If you feel so angry about what’s happening at your school/in education, then why are you writing this, why don’t you go and do something about it instead?’

Obviously, if a blogger wants to ‘tell the truth’ about what happens in a school, and they are going to describe their school in a negative way, then anonymity is a good idea. From the blogger’s perspective, perhaps it comes down to a choice about whether you want to keep your job or not (although again I often find myself thinking just move to another school why don’t you?). The whistle-blower deserves protection, or the whistles will fall silent. But there’s a difference between blowing the whistle on bad practice, and saying practice is bad, while staying hidden in plain sight.

There has been much tragedy in my life; at least half of it actually happened.’ Mark Twain

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8 Responses to Hiding in Plain Sight

  1. missmcinerney says:

    Thing is, it’s much easier to write a blog about your school when you are SLT, than otherwise. Particularly if you want to critique certain types of management style. That there isn’t a teacher blogger who is named *and* blogging about the detailed day-to-day lives of kids or grumbles with their slt likely highlights that it simply isn’t possible. Even now, when I use examples of students in my own writing, I am terrified someone will figure out who it is, and as a consequence I sometimes must disguise the situation (e.g. change genders or names). I can therefore end up writing something “less true” because I am trying to obfuscate for the sake of the child rather than if I wrote something anonymised where I could put the truth bluntly. This seems right though; surely it wouldn’t be professional for a teacher to be writing about the lives of students if that student was going to be easily identified?

    And while you’re right that because one person in one context thinks something it does’t mean an entire system is that way, it’s also true that if enough people recognise their own school experience in that blog – and they agree with the person – then we have evidence that something is going on. Maybe that thing going on is just that certain people read certain situations one way, and many others see it differently. Either way, those feelings and perceptions really do exist and it’s worth reflecting on their cause (unless you believe anonymous bloggers just entirely making things up – which seems unlikely).

    On the “why don’t you just move school” thing – many of us will have faced situations where it wasn’t that easy. Maybe you live in an area with a teacher deficit, maybe you can’t move because your own kids are at that school or a local school, maybe you can’t drive due to a disability and this is one of the few schools you can reach on foot or public transport, maybe you are on a training programme that means you must stay for a few years, maybe you really love some things about your job (like an extracurricular activity you run) but just your slt drives you daft.

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    • @debrakidd says:

      I think anonymising the children is right and proper and ethically responsible, and I can understand situations in which it is fair to be anonymous – whistle blowing on negligent practices and so on. But I do think there is a culture in anonymised situations, such as comments pages, and blogs, where the anonymity simply allows nastiness to thrive. It is also perfectly possible as you have Laura, and as I hope I do, to make balanced, fair and potentially challenging observations without crossing the line. I suppose I’m lucky in that I’ve never been so stuck in a job that I would have had to stay with an SLT or school I hated, but if that is the case, then perhaps you shouldn’t write about it. In any case, I think Sue’s point was more about people using anecdotes about children or other colleagues which are potentially hurtful and damaging and not being prepared to stand fully behind the story.

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  2. Sue Cowley says:

    Of course Laura, every point you make here is true, which is why I edited and edited this piece all day until it reflected only my personal point of view, and how anonymous blogs make me personally feel, rather than taking any kind of political or pedagogical slant on the subject.

    That’s not to say that I don’t agree with what some of these blogs say, just that I prefer to know who is telling me these things.

    The point I was trying to make is that what worries me at present is that many of the anonymous blogs I read are so blatantly designed to make a specific political point about education, rather than simply talking about how stressful teaching kids or dealing with SLT can be. Also, that anonymity does make it awfully easy to make sweeping generalisations without having to give any of that (much vaunted) evidence stuff.

    I’m totally with you on ‘keeping children anonymous’, which is why I base all case studies in my books on random combinations of traits, rather than on any specific children. I was very unsure about the 7 children in 7 days blogging concept for that very reason.

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  3. chrishildrew says:

    Thanks for your kind comments Sue – and you’d be welcome as a volunteer any time! My blog is focused on best practice and I agree that my position in SLT makes it easier to write in that way. I would never refer to specific children or even specific staff (unless, in the latter case, highlighting particular best practice and even in that case only with their consent). However, I absolutely loved the “7 kids in 7 days” sequence precisely because the children were rendered as recognisable “types” picking up particular problems in our education system. Redorgreenpen was quite specific about anonymising them and Laura has written really well about the sequence here: http://lauramcinerney.com/2013/05/17/the-redorgreenpen-problem/
    I also don’t have a problem with anonymity to level criticism at poor leadership or policy. A case in point was the demolition of the Vivo Rewards system by redorgreenpen picked up really well by Tessa Matthews in her anonymised “Galaxy High”: http://tabularasaeducation.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/should-all-have-prizes/
    Whilst I don’t agree with all that Tessa or redorgreenpen say, I respect the honesty of their writing and recognise the scenarios they describe. I also think, for them, obfuscation of identity is the right choice. In my context, with the things I want to say on my blog, it isn’t necessary. For them, it is. Where bloggers or tweeters hide behind anonymity to fling brickbats, that is cowardly. But some bloggers can be brave and anonymous…

    Thanks for writing this Sue – really thought provoking!

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  4. peter blenkinsop says:

    I agree with you both. I am retired from headship and I run my own educational consultancy company. (I’ve worked quite a lot in Bristol, by the way.) I only joined Twitter and Facebook and blogged once I was retired. It is difficult to say exactly what you think when you are in-service. I had not really thought about *not* doing these things, blogs and Twitter. It did not occur to me. But as a head in a local authority that was swapping political colour across elections I always had to act in a professional, meaning somewhat restrained, way. Everyone knew my political leanings but I also had, essentially, my employers to work with. I nudged in the educational direct I felt was best for my children and for education generally. I don’t think I could have put into print my unmodified views and not lost out for me and for my school. As a head it was quite easy to avoid doing things, or accepting innovations, that I (I mean my staff, usually) was/were not interested in. I usually got my/our way and I never felt pressured, beyond that which I could manage quite easily, by the external forces – and I include Ofsted in that group. But if I were critical of the school and I were not the head then … Well if it were one of my staff being openly critical I could not countenance what I would have seen as disloyalty.

    No school is a democracy – well I visited one that was, so I had better say that the majority of schools are not run democratically. I don’t think they can be. I listened to my staff and discussed with them what we were/might be doing and why. I think they had a great deal of freedom to do what worked. The rules were quite simple, provided what you did was morally acceptable, fair etc then you could teach, plan, assess in almost any way you wanted provided children did as well in your subject as the rest of the school. The rest of the school did really well. If you could do better then we would want to know what you were doing!

    So, if you were critical, and publicly critical, it would have been very difficult to accept. Given we were very open and you could speak to me at almost any time, or the deputies or, anyone you wanted, and we would listen to what you wanted to do, or moan about, or point out to do that publicly would have been dreadful.

    But the evidence base provided by anonymous, anecdotal bloggers should be taken as that. I don’t think the ones I follow are, but who is to say they are not rubbish teachers who just have a bone to pick with authority. Or they might be the best teachers ever and stuck in a really poorly led school with fools for SLT – or more likely a fool for a head.

    I walk off, balancing precariously on the fence…

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  5. Pingback: Why I Blog Anonymously | Scenes From The Battleground

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