On the Global Teacher Prize: Doubt, trust and ambition

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This is an accompyaning blogpost to a lecture I gave at De Balie on “My idea for education” Both the Dutch and the version were streamed and recorded. You can find both streams at De Balie site. Below is the English stream. At the bottom of the post is the Dutch Stream.

Jelmer Evers – Global Teacher Prize nominee – at De Balie [ENGLISH] from De Balie on Vimeo.

Doubt, trust and ambtion

My first five minutes as a teacher were horrible. One of those moments that can wake you up middle of the night in dread years later after the fact. I was doing a practice lesson to see if teaching would suit me. Het Utrechts Christelijk Gymnasium is a very nice grammar school in the old medieval city centre of Utrecht. History galore,  a small class and I was thoroughly prepared. All the right conditions for a nice history lesson. I’d meticulously planned a lesson on American presidents and the Vietnam war. We were going to study the decisions of consecutive presidents  through cartoons. But the second I started I blacked out. There I was in front of around 20 16-year olds who looked at me expectantly and I didn’t know what to say.

After stammering incoherently for a couple of minutes I decided to do the right thing and restart the lesson. A liberating decision. The lesson went fine afterwards. The students were more than willing to let me finish the lesson, they showed empathy and were eager to learn. A lesson I’ve took to heart since which formed the basis of my teaching

Twelve years on and I’m nominated for the Global Teacher Prize. Apparently I’ve come a long way. But it was a long and winding road with many ups and downs. I’ve laughed, talked for hours, learned from and even shed tears with some of my students. Students never seize to amaze me with their creativity and sense of wonderment. It’s that personal connection that matters most.

The 10.000 hour rule? That applies to me. Practice makes you a better practitioner. And teaching is about practice. Practice as in perform repeatedly, but also practice as in my profession.

Throughout those years I have become less certain of the right approach to education. My reality is one of doubt. Not uncertainty, but doubt. A continuing search for what is the right thing to do. Doubt has lead me to question my practice continuously and to search for the “why” behind what I’m doing.

In the meanwhile a whole chorus worldwide have chimed in on the need for educational reform. Not hindered by any doubt, everyone has THE next best idea for education. The list is seemingly endless and quite bewildering: we need to have lessons in mindfulness, focus on the basics: language and calculus, citizenship,  global citizenship! autonomy, flipping the classroom, classroom management, cross-curricular Project Based Education (PBL), 21st Century Skills, 19th Century Skills, makereducation, personalisation, differentiation, more structure, direct instruction, game based learning, gamification. And everything is evidence based. Have you read Hattie by the way?

Still there? That’s how it feels to work in education. And then you still have to teach all those lessons, mark, do extra-curricular work, spend time that student that really needs your attention. That reality feels very different from all those certainties espoused by various talking heads. Schools kill creativity? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

Research informs my practice, but doesn’t drive it. What most politicians and administrators don’t understand is that practice equals research in good teaching. With experience comes intuition for what is right at that exact moment for that particular child. That moment is unique and can’t be caught in big data and averages. But to understand what you’re doing you need to delve into the research.

Sadly under the banner of evidence based education politicians worldwide stampede after one educational fad after another. In the Netherlands “excellence” has been the buzz-word of the last couple of years.

And that stampede has increased with the first publication of the PISA reports in 2000. International rankings have lead to a convergence of educational policies of which several  nefarious components  stand out: standardized testing, competition, data driven and deprofessionalization of teachers.

Teaching at UniC, a progressive and experimental school, made crystal clear what kind of effect standardized testing can have. Working at the edge of the system you suddenly get a beter sense of how those boundaries are influencing your work.

After five years I wanted to have more room to breathe, to work with students on  a one-on-one basis, allow for more creativity, use more technology, allow students the space and time to explore . Don’t get me wrong, traditional forms of education worked and work well for a lot of students and teachers. The “lecture is dead” narrative has never appealed to me. But for me the 50-minute lesson system wasn’t working anymore.

Working at UniC felt like breathing again. I was amazed by the self-reflection, creativity and maturity of the students. I was amazed at how much I didn’t know and how much I had to learn about pedagogy and working with children. Some of my colleagues are so good, I’ll never reach that level. And I was amazed by how important it was to design, teach and learn together. Teaching is a profoundly cooperative and creative profession, yet a lot teachers work in isolation with the doors closed and  follow a script written by someone else. But time and time again, rigid rules enforced by a top-down inspectorate steer you towards teaching to the test.

One of my goals is to give students the tools to shape their own lives, take matters into their own hands. But how can we teach that to students if we are seen as cogs in the machine, and sadly act like it too. If something is going wrong you have a choice. Go along or change how the system works. Working at UniC gave me the mindset, will and skills to act.

Blogging, writing, social media, researching transformed me into a different teacher. Connecting to other teachers, researchers and politicians has opened up a completely new world. The more I learned about how our educational system worked the more one question kept popping up: where are the teachers? In places where policy is decided teachers are absent. Teachers are distrusted to do the right thing. I don’t accept other people telling me what to do anymore while they clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. Teachers should take responsibility to do what’s right for their students and not outsource that responsibility to a test. The key to good education lies with teachers. And that is slowly but steadily happening in the Netherlands. Teachers taking the lead in educational change. We need to “Flip the System

That is why I think the Teacher Prize is so important. As long as people say “those who can do, those who can’t teach” we have a lot of work to do. Highlighting and honouring the wonderful, but also difficult work of teachers is a noble endeavour. Thousands of teachers have applied. And most of them probably would have deserved the nomination. There is a certain randomness to these kinds of awards, but that goes for the Nobel Prize as well. Look at the wonderful 49 teachers from all over the world and the amazing things they have achieved. Teachers make the difference and to achieve change we need to enhance the image of teaching. And we do need change. Millions of children in poorer countries are without a proper education at all and millions more endure a rigid, standardized education. Good education for all  should be our ambition

We need to acknowledge that there is no one-size fit all solution to education. Teachers need to let go of certainties and question their own practice: doubt. We need to have the ambition to achieve the best education for every child. And society needs to trust teachers to make it happen.

Jelmer Evers – Global Teacher Prize nominee – at De Balie [ENGLISH] from De Balie on Vimeo.

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