‘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