A New Professionalism: what should a teacher look like in 2020?

Written for the 2016 Subject Specialist Conference at The University of Huddersfield School of Education and Professional Development.  Co-presented session with Charlie Deane.

What should a teacher look like in 2020 SC 2016 – Lou’s slides from #hudconf2016

Update:  Thanks to everyone contributing to the debate at #hudconf2016 and beyond, on Twitter, Yammer, Facebook, at #HudCRES yesterday, and wherever else. This is the rhizome in action:  affirmative, collaborative, provocative 🙂 

The UK education system is horrible.  That’s my starting point and my challenge by the end of this blog is to get us all to a more affirmative place.  Frankly, if I thought I’d be battling this same system in 2020 I wouldn’t be writing this now, I’d be working on a career change.  But I am hopeful.

I believe a perfect storm is on the horizon for education.  It’s coming for education as whole, but I’m concerned here and now with our contexts of further, adult and community

Beautiful image of storm clouds
A Perfect Storm Public Use Permitted. Credit/Source: NASA.

education and of what is currently referred to as ‘the skills sector’.    The ideologically-placed sticking plasters are beginning to fray.  It’s time for change. What we have is unsustainable.

Let me begin by saying where I think we are. Outside a few elite institutions, state-funded education is paved with dumbed-down qualifications, low expectations and attempts to enforce obedience to The Man. Since the school-leaving age was raised to 18 we have hundreds of thousands of young people, barely educated in any meaningful way at school, forced into a sausage-factory of not-quite-fit-for-purpose qualifications, an abattoir for any remaining aspirations they may have; a system that nevertheless makes money for the ever-growing institutions they attend – a success, in capitalist terms, maintained as such by endless goalpost-shifting.  Until now.

If those young people somehow find their way through this hope-curdling morass, they have the privilege of getting into mortgage sized debt for a University education – or, like so many, they’ll fall off the rails of life and the lucky ones may end up getting educated in rehab, at Recovery College, via Probation or in prison, alongside their children at family centres, luckier ones through their trade union, even their workplace, or they’ll wash up where I work, at The Northern College.  That journey might take 40 years.  Along the way they could be forced to work for nothing in intern or traineeships, or for next to nothing on apprenticeships. Or they may get their education elsewhere and end up marching through Rotherham with the EDL, or getting on a plane for Syria. If I was still a Marxist I’d be describing the majority of our students as inhuman labour to feed the capitalist machine. But, sadly, I no longer believe in revolution.

Two things are happening as a consequence of this situation. The first is that I observe an accelerating tendency to ‘other’ students; treat them as lesser thinkers, even lesser beings. In adult education, students have arguably less in common with their tutors than they ever had. The second is that I observe a level of acceptance of the status quo which frightens me.

Let me be clear. Brave teachers begin hopeful careers in every workplace. I believe that every one of us in this room does our best to make sure each student has a meaningful

Gauguin Self-Portrait of his disembodied head
Paul Gauguin Self-Portrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

experience. But we are operating as disembodied individuals within a profession that has terminally low self-esteem. Anyone here read Secret Teacher in The Guardian?  Last weekend’s was one of the saddest I’ve seen…a teacher actively shutting down their networks, to ensure they kept a productive bubble around themselves so they could go on doing their job. I sympathise, and I get like that sometimes…but it’s exactly the wrong way to bring about change.

We need to organise. No-one will change this if we don’t change it ourselves, because they have too much invested in it staying the same.  Obviously it would be lovely if we could bring down the capitalist machine, but that might be a bit ‘big picture’ at this stage 🙂 In the meantime, remember the perfect storm is coming. Education now is making some money for some institutions – some money for some consultants! – but this is becoming unsustainable. The goalposts are inching off the pitch, they can’t be moved any further.

I was at the TechNorth conference the other week, packed with employers from the creative and digital industries; employers who want to take on willing, risk-taking, critical thinkers, not obedient qualbots. The response from Colleges was pretty cringeworthy, to be honest. “We don’t have the funding”, they said, “…the awarding bodies won’t let us.” Well I work for awarding bodies too and if you’re determined, you can certainly find your way to do good work round the edges.  I sat on that stage doing a facepalm (and I did have a little rant when it got to my turn). You may not have found your way into it yet, but I’m telling you there are a lot of people out there who are joining their energies to affirmatively create a different education.

What we have to do to make it happen is to be our best selves as educators. I don’t mean ‘best’ in Ofsted terms, I’m not interested in that (1). I mean professional, digital, switched onto our pedagogies and the transformational power of education. My message to you today is that if we teach differently, and if enough of us do that, then education will change. It needs courage and energy. It needs a different skills set. We will have to fight our own institutions and assumptions along the way.  And we will certainly have to work and think differently.  But it’s doable…it’s more than doable, it’s already happening.  We are the critical mass.

2020 demands a new professionalism from us:

Democratic Professionalism – Educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively to maintain the integrity of the profession.

Four Cambodian dancers in solidarity
Royal Ballet of Cambodia Source: Google Images under Creative Commons license

You’ll note I’m talking about organising from the middle. Education’s future relies on a collective, distributed leadership, a leadership of new ideas and thinking.  I’m certainly not leaving it to those fewer and fewer people who pop up everywhere, controlling things from the top to keep them just as they are. Teaching is leadership, teaching is research, teaching is social responsibility. The structures we work within don’t just happen to be that way, they are actively policed to keep us in our place and to keep our students in their place. I was very struck by something I saw in a TV thriller recently – anyone see The Night Manager?  The work of a senior civil servant was described as, “…preserving the status quo, whatever it takes.”  That is absolutely the case for education. Tait Coles, a hero of mine, wrote something profoundly important in The Guardian a couple of years back:

Education is produced for and by the white middle class to help maintain the social and economic status quo. It deliberately fails to consider the values and beliefs of any other particular race, class or gender. Young people who enter the educational system and don’t conform to this vision are immediately disadvantaged by virtue of their race, income or chromosomes.

We can dismantle these structures by stubbornly, affirmatively, refusing to buy into them, in any safe way that we can.  By subverting what we can.  Of course, it’s safer when we do this collectively; organising nationally through our trade union to resist the extremes of Prevent, for example, or working as a team to worm critical pedagogies into our curricula. Making time for the collegiate critical friendship of a Twitter chat or other social media space. Drinking from the well, as our students call it, when they return as graduates to our Community of Praxis. Read too, for inspiration, but not the boring stuff, not the old farts.  All dead white male psychologists can tell us is what dead white male psychologists think – and we already know that. Read bell hooks, Spinoza, Edward Said; read what excites you on Twitter (2), read what makes you cross and then talk to your networks about it.

Don’t put your faith in institutions, put it in each other. We have somehow acclimatised to the ‘fact’ that the world has to be about making a profit, that education is about the financial bottom line, but it’s institutions that demand that, not teachers and students. Question everything. Some of the images you see here are inspired by my involvement in a book

Tutor Voices: National Network for Further, Adult, Community and Skills Educators
A Perfect Storm Public Use Permitted. Credit/Source: NASA.

called ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a book that has legs – 24 of them! – because the energy we generated there, writing collectively about democratic professionalism, has translated into Tutor Voices, a rhizomatic network of campaigns, projects and people, all fighting for education to survive and transformationally thrive into 2020 and beyond. Join us. Join us on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, over a cuppa, at a conference. But join us (we don’t cost anything :-)).


Dialogic Professionalism – Educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.

Dialogic engagement, as described by Richard Sennett, is about equality and it’s about

A dancing Qajar Princess
Dancing Qajar Princess Source: Google Images under Creative Commons license

exploring the middle ground, rather than defending binary positions. It’s about thinking critically and differently. Yes, we enter a power relation with a student when we mark their work, but we can be honest about that and still be equal as thinkers. I hear a tone, increasingly, when tutors talk about students (worse still when students are referred to as ‘learners’, but that could just be me). It’s an ‘othering’ tone. It’s a tone of oppression and inequality. It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’. That has to stop.

Our Community of Praxis approach involves all of us – theorists (dead or alive), students, tutors, graduates, critical friends – in co-creation of learning environments, on and off line. We curate and transfer “content” – the stuff that inspires us – discuss it, pull it apart. I no longer have to be that ‘false expert’ who is expected to know everything about stuff that bores me, like behaviourism, just because it’s on a reading list.  We seek out all the histories of our subject, as Trevor Gordon will exhort you to do tomorrow.  We defy the #whitecurriculum, systematically constructed to maintain the status quo that Tait Coles wrote about (3).

And we talk. We talk endlessly and we process and we create our own ways of being, our own ontologies as social purpose educators. We use processes such as the Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy and Restorative Practice, to ensure that we continue to engage in every one of those spaces as equal thinkers, whatever our identities, starting points and places of pain. When we are scrutinised by the powers that be – and I’ve been through that twice in the last two years and may well go through it again this year – we come out like shining stars.  Because they have stolen our words for their rhetoric, they can’t then claim that what we are doing is wrong. Our grades are the best, our behaviour superb, our widening-participation reach meaningful and enviable. This stuff works.

Digital Professionalism – Educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical education.

The Frog Princess, dancing Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

And now we get to the crux of the matter. Not the philosophical crux, that’s our old Marxist friend, hegemony, us unthinkingly colluding in our own exploitation as our profession implodes around us.  This is the practical crux. The resistance right here right now to digital pedagogies. (I’m guessing that, by the way. I’d love you to prove me wrong). I am no longer apologetic about what I am going to say next. If you don’t go digital, you shouldn’t be teaching. And this is not about laptops in classrooms and state-of-the-art whiteboards. It’s not about lending iPads. It is about broadband reach and the digital divide, but there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about the latter which is really just about educator/institutional resistance.

#FELTAG spelt it out and others since have clarified and refined the message. Jisc are really getting into their pedagogical groove, promoting the digital and physical blended together, helping us “…see the digital as a set of spaces, not just a set of tools.” We can work with this! Instead of sitting sulking with folded arms, because you think you’ve been asked to do something ‘extra’, get over your ego and get down with your students in figuring out new ways of learning and being. Why? Because they are leaving you behind and you are doing them an ethically unacceptable disservice by under-skilling them for life and work, particularly in terms of keeping themselves safe and effective online (4).  And the bigger why? Read David Price‘s ‘Open’. Open education, open media, open research…this is how the world will transform.

These are the skills you need in 2020 – so you have four years to get them in place.

  1. ›Creating dialogic, restorative, philosophical Thinking Environments
  2. ›Growing digital Resilience, Creativity and Curation
  3. ›Participating in Open Education (research, journalism)
  4. ›Amplifying diverse voices, through Communities of Praxis
  5. ›Being a democratic, dialogic, digital Leader of ideas (whatever your place in the hierarchy)
  6. ›Dismantling the #whitecurriculum

›To paraphrase the Mental Health Leadership project I’ve been involved in recently, ‘Break the Rules’ (5) – affirmatively, this is not about whingeing – in any way you can, with the support of the rest of us out there. If you don’t buy into new ways of being, it’s not just that you’ll get left behind.  There won’t be anything left, for you to be left behind from.


(1) And I maintain that the main practical problem with Ofsted is the narrow way many senior managers interpret their requirements.  For the philosophical problem with Ofsted, see Finland.

(2) Check out the Twitter list at the end of @kaysoclearn’s thoughtful blog on PREVENT to bring diversity to your thinking.

(3) Much of the post-#hudconf16 debate has centred around #whitecurriculum and the dismantling of privilege – or rather the dismantling of denial of privilege.  It’s a painful process and the first step towards it is the hardest.  Trevor Gordon prefers the term #monoculturalcurriculum but I think that tries to hide from the pain and that’s impossible.  What do you think?

(4) See @helenbeetham’s work on Digital Wellbeing.

(5) Check out #Breaking_Rules



Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

7 thoughts on “A New Professionalism: what should a teacher look like in 2020?”

  1. I really love your juxtaposition of dialogic and digital professionalism. For me a huge challenge in people making effective use of digital in education as teachers and learners is precisely “Educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.” If the [digital] educators are those working with students [colleagues] who fear digital, how amazing would it be if they could meet together as equal critical thinkers. I have been a ‘Learning Technology Fellow’, an ‘e-learning champion’ and an old-fashioned enthusiast, and since I retired, I have come to see advocacy as a double-edged sword. I don’t think we should promote digital education in a critique-free zone, and your ideas could help to produce dialogues outside the deficit model. Thank you.

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