Day 5 – 5th September 2014

Post a picture of your classroom and describe what you see – and what you don’t see that you’d like to.

There are some lovely questions in this 30 day blogging challenge from @teachthought – and some where I think, ouch!  You assume I’m a school-teacher!  So of course my mind is running along these lines, about the invisibility of further education teaching, about the artificial silos which divide and diminish our profession.

I’m pulling myself back to ‘place’, one of the Ten Components of a Thinking Environment.  Place matters, says Nancy Kline, because it says back to you that YOU matter.  Place certainly matters to those who study at Northern College.  It matters to those of us who

Staff celebrating the 2014 Ofsted result outside the Old Library.
Staff celebrating the 2014 Ofsted result outside the Old Library.

work there, even if they are heritage philistines like me!  We’d miss the grand old house if it was gone.  The place is the star; it impresses all who visit. Somehow, for somewhere so grand, it provides a welcome which is warmly genuine and a reputation for academic excellence which is growing in reach. I say ‘it’ and yet that’s one of the things that annoys me about working there, successes being seen as somehow innate to somewhere so beautiful, to the bricks and mortar, rather than the graft of those individuals on its staff.  And yet…argue as I might, there is something about the spirit of the place, something in its very substance, that inspires us all.

That’s what I’d like to try and capture this morning, as I potter around the kitchen on an autumny day.  As I take the teacher education programme more and more online, with enthusiasm, how can I ensure that the spirit of Northern College is transmitted to those digital spaces? 

What is the Northern College spirit?  Above all, it’s innately political, exemplified by the oppressive history of a building funded by (different kinds of) slavery now existing for the purpose of transformational education.  The College’s political traditions attract many of our students, particularly those on Trade Union and political studies programmes, but these are by no means in a majority, these days.  Many of the people who come through the door would describe themselves as ‘not political’ (representative, in my view, of a depoliticised working class, but don’t get me started).  And yet they can easily see the irony of the grand house being ‘theirs’.  Our job – if we don’t shirk it – is to get them seeing how this is in itself a political transformation and one full of hope.

But I have a challenge to that.  The Northern College was founded in 1978 by movers and shakers (all men, I think #justsaying) from the Trade Union and Labour movements in West and South Yorkshire.  I honour them and nothing which follows diminishes that for me but we are in a changing world and one in which it’s possible that traditional identity politics doesn’t have all the answers.   Geographically, we draw many students from surrounding Labour “heartlands”; these are also areas with low political engagement, high cynicism, lack of political aspiration and faith.  And yet one of the slightly more forgotten traditions of Northern College is the space and facilitation we’ve provided to community activists down the years, to organise, plan and challenge their campaigns.  Not all of these people would have described themselves in traditional political terms (some would); indeed, community activism was sometimes seen as an alternative to ‘Political’ engagement.

As social media increasingly provides a vehicle for social change (including campaigning against its own containment) we can take these values of change, transformation and growth into the work we do online, deepening the explication of values through the sort of easeful reflexion that rarely happens in the buzz of the classroom.   We can use our online work to change things, and to support one another when we try to change things in more physical ways.

If you’re feeling squirmy around this, ask yourself what you’re assuming.  Most of the people we encounter buy into our message of social purpose education, of individual and community transformation, of education for social change.  This is out there – and it’s inescapably political.  Not party political, but world-changingly political.  And I’m wondering if the constant pull I sense, towards emphasising our work around individual transformation is sometimes, perhaps unwittingly (perhaps not) about diminishing the work we do with the collective, the potentially powerful transformation of communities, which is not safely contained in stories of individual achievement.

All that from a question about the ‘classroom’.  What do you think?



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