The Community of Praxis and Democratic Professionalism
This is Stella Lewis. Stella works in the sausage factory, in which unlikely place she carries out a quiet revolution. In the eighteen months since she started her Cert Ed at Northern College, Stella has had three jobs. She has worked for a national charity, which has found a way of filling its coffers by running apprenticeships for young people with learning disabilities, apprenticeships which lead nowhere. She has worked on a literacy production line, with young non-English speakers, cramming enough English in them so they can sign for their (barely living) wages. And now she works for a private training company where the kids that no-one can teach run wild every day.
Stella started her newest job two weeks ago and was taken a back by the undisciplined culture of her new, established groups. She has been taking to Yammer each day, to strengthen herself. Yesterday, she wrote:
“I had my most challenging class today. We were looking at CVs and how to write the personal statement. I got them to do an exercise where they had to write a good quality about each person in the room on a post-it note. They were so keen to read the comments that they asked if they could just have half an hour’s lunch rather than an hour! When I picked myself up off the floor, they insisted that they also wanted to write things about me. I laughed and said I wasn’t sure I was ready for that, but let them do it anyway. The comments about me were:- ‘caring’, ‘open-hearted’, ‘talkative’, ‘good leadership skills’ and ‘good teacher’. Later, one of them asked why I didn’t shout and swear at them like the other teachers.”
Stella has reached these young people in just two weeks and for some of them, her brand of no-nonsense compassion will be life-changing. Others will remember with fondness a teacher who believed in them. Compare this with a ‘behaviour management’ training session at a huge local further education college recently, where the message was, “Don’t smile until Christmas.”
Stella teaches social purpose education.
At Northern College, our mission is the transformation of individuals and communities and this infuses everything we do, including our teacher education programme, which offers rigorously assessed standard qualifications delivered in a whole new way. Everything starts with values work and nearly everything that is learned is learned via reflexive practice, ensuring that the learning is deep and really meaningful. The element of win/win/win means that it’s all about wider impact: on families and communities, on what the student will do with what they’ve learned. And we want to change the world, which we perceive as a deeply unequal place, therefore embedding diversity has got to be something real.
This is the context for Stella’s learning, and its where she takes (and contributes) her strength. Ours is a blended programme, where online spaces supplement the work we do in class – work that has transformed radically since we first went online. We learn together, in class and in Thinking Walks, we share our reading, thinking, successes and frustrations on Yammer – in cohort groups and in the whole network where graduates, tutors and critical friends continue to hang out. We co-create knowledge: writing, blogging, devising and funding new projects. We hang out with those thinkers who are our friends, such as Paulo Freire, whose notion of praxis – action and reflection on the world in order to change it – helped us find our name. We honour these thinkers, and stand as their equals as our own thinking emerges and gets out there.
We meet for real, whenever we can, TeachMeets at Northern College, summer picnics, planned and impromptu. And whenever we meet, we do rounds of incisive questions which are about not just teaching but about the world: what do you assume that is stopping you getting more involved in politics? for example. We listen to diverse voices, getting to know them via Twitter, for example, and inviting them in to join us. That way, we broadcast, rather than narrowcast – we challenge and change our own thinking too.
On the face of it, this is how the Community of Praxis has influenced my work as a teacher educator:
- Improved grade profile
- Reduced email overwhelm
- Transformed classroom culture
…but that’s seriously selling it short. In fact what’s happened is that the community itself, centred around Yammer but drawing in new and diverse thinking all the time, provides an opportunity for rhizomatic learning, as we facilitate one another to learn what we need to.
Rhizomatic learning is a messy, complex, uncertain stuff. It happens all the time, when people get together in a genuine community of inquiry. It can be facilitated, but not managed. The metaphor comes from the sort of plant that you can never dig up, something like ginger or couch grass: it’s invasive, persistent, subversive. It can be manicured – like our snow day rhizome where the whole Certs class, tutors and critical friends went online when we couldn’t get in, or like the huge, international #rhizo14. But it has a rich and powerful life of its own.
And so you see where I’m going with this. All these individuals who have a passion for social purpose education are nodes of the rhizome. We connect in multiple ways, all the time, pooling their energies, regenerating ideas. The end of a course doesn’t mean the end of thinking, for social purpose educators who give a toss about what they do. And we are changing things. Geography, austerity, managerialism, groupthink – none of these things can stop us combining, separating and reforming online. We are growing around this notion of transformational, social purpose, values-led education, and we can ‘meet’ when and where we like.
And this is where the Dancing Princesses comes in. Originally a book title, designed to subvert the standard, demoralizing metaphor of the “Cinderella service”, we’re not even published until May 1st but our joyful and real caravan of further education is on the road and people are coming to join not a party or a federation, but a movement.
Like the Tolpuddle Martyrs under their sycamore, we are combining and organizing. We are inviting adult educators everywhere to find their own spaces to dance and then – crucially – to tell us about it, so we can learn and in turn support you, until that change has to come and education is about people again.
David Powell calls this democratic professionalism and he’s right. It’s not the professionalism of “agree with everything the IfL says”, or “keep your Ofsted file up to date.” It’s the professionalism of an intense and transformational pedagogy, kept in fresh by dancing alongside everyone else. Here’s how I think it works and it’s a pretty simple recipe: in go values, diverse views, different spaces, a kickstart of facilitation and that Dancing Princesses identity, it’s all mixed in with critical appreciation and who comes out of it is resilience, resistance, energy and solidarity, faith and inspiration. An opportunity to teach differently.
We are leaders. We might not be at the top, but as long as we tell ourselves that we have no power, nothing will change. We do have power, but it’s not the traditional power of withholding our labour during oppressive times. It’s the power to work in transformational ways, to influence strategy, policy and operations, to dance instead of plodding into work every day. Nothing will change, if we don’t change it. And if you want to find out more about this way of being check out distributed leadership, ideas leadership – both concepts being driven out there by the ETF – and Richard Wilson’s book, Anti-Hero.
And so, back to Stella. She is changing herself, from someone who ‘can’t do’, to someone who can. She’s changing her students’ perceptions of themselves and of how the world can be. She’s changing her organisation. And she’s putting all of that change energy back into the community, for next time. She’s had a good old moan in the last couple of weeks about the culture of this new workplace and how challenging the groups of students are. But that’s not stopped her trying out the good ideas she’s been hearing about, in the context of her social purpose values. And that’s why Stella is a Dancing Princess.