Behind Disobedient Teaching

August 2017


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DR WELBY INGS provides an insight into his inspiration for writing what has become the most popular book in education circles at the moment, Disobedient Teaching.

Disobedient teachingIt was a Wednesday night and raining. I had driven into town with one hand wiping the interior windscreen and the other anxiously trying to manoeuvre the steering wheel as I navigated the oncoming traffic. My ute is so old that it doesn’t have a demisting facility.

I had been asked to do a presentation about my book Disobedient Teaching at an after-school session for teachers. During the day they had all been through wet lunch hours, assessment deadlines, staff meetings and seven hours of teaching, but 120 of them showed up.

Some came from early childhood centres, some from primary and intermediate schools and some from secondary institutions. It struck me when I walked into the room that this kind of commitment never makes the papers. It never appears in the analysis of schools’ rankings based on NCEA results or in politicians’ speeches. It is invisible, voluntary – and ubiquitous.

As I fiddled around trying to get the sound working on the amp, I kept glancing back over my shoulder at a room full of lives I didn’t know. The only thing I knew for certain was that we were all teachers and, if I afforded myself a modicum of audacity, perhaps, I thought, for a lot of us teaching was more than our profession – it was our calling. After all, it was cold and dark outside and we could all have been at home with hot soup and our families.

In situations like this I always feel proud to call myself a teacher. It is not a term I use lightly, because it permeates my whole life. I bore people at parties by telling them about the students I am working with; I get swept up in the enthusiasm of their ideas and breakthroughs and I despair when regulation and fashion damage the structures around them that would help them to reach greater levels of potential.

I feel the same way about my colleagues, many of whom are gifted, highly educated professionals who are forced to become micromanaged performance providers. These are people whose insights tell them that we need something more as a nation than a second neo-liberally constructed generation of kids who have learned strategy and risk aversion instead of creative

I am not trying to beat a drum here. The situation, it seems to me, is very simple. Attempting to lock learners into an anxious regime of comparative testing against presumed standards or the performances of others results in a terrible squandering of potential.

We are a small country. Innovation is not a god-given cultural gift. Such a thing has to be consciously grown and it falls to us as teachers to be part of this. Without the ability to originate, innovate, fail, recover, and uniquely position, we can’t compete with nations that politically and economically have far greater resources. We edge our way towards a very powerless place in the scheme of things.

But growing creativity requires space and teachers and learners need time and flexibility to do this. This situation worries me very deeply; as does the under-critiqued obsession we currently have with measuring performances when they are not the substance of learning or teaching. Learning and teaching are processes, not products.

So, out of concern, I wrote Disobedient Teaching. The book took me a career to develop and four years to craft. It doesn’t set itself up as an ideological bible; it’s just a thinking tool and perhaps an arm around the shoulder of teachers and principals who try to change things for the better. I have huge respect for people who refuse to give away their professional agency.

When I began writing the book, I tried to imagine that I was in the staffroom with 10 minutes left before the bell. I imagined a colleague I admired – perhaps someone like you – who was slumped into the seat beside me with a cup of tea. I suspected that, undeservedly, you felt isolated. Then I wrote in short chapters, which meant you could put the book down and pick it up again when you got a moment to do so. I also tried to illustrate the book with real stories, with all of their rough edges, failures and sometimes heartrending beauty. These were real situations that we all recognise from our own teaching – stories that come from our intimate working relationship with other human beings.

So the book became physical, but what happened after its release I could never have imagined. I thought perhaps if the first edition got into the hands of 1,000 teachers, that would be a great thing, but within two months it was already into its third reprint. The publishers had orders coming in from the US and Europe and I was being asked to open conferences for international defence forces, leadership forums, teacher unions and, perhaps more touchingly, local communities of parents in small places such as Kāwhia, on the North Island’s west coast.

The book went crazy. But the thinking was not new. Educational reformers such as John Dewey and Neil Postman were talking about such things decades ago. But Disobedient Teaching has deeply New Zealand roots.

I tried to look at why we have ended up where we have. Drawing on autobiographical experiences in diverse organisations, the book celebrates teachers who, instead of settling into passive-aggressive cynicism, go daily into their classrooms and do something to make things better – even when they must operate against the tide – and in so doing, disobey. Their disobedience may be as small or as huge as helping a student recover faith in themselves, showing kids how to survive schools as organisations, tenaciously finding ways to limit the damage of testing, or strategically supporting other thinkers like themselves so they don’t become isolated and are rendered incapable within damaged hierarchies.

I respect such teachers. A long time ago, one of them saved my life. She saw potential when a regime of comparative testing had convinced me that I had a learning disability and couldn’t read. I am proud to follow in the footsteps of such teachers because they creatively reassert the humanity and flexibility of learning, not as a trite aspiration, but as a living priority.

I wrote this book for them; for every teacher who questions micromanaging and tick-box reporting, who charts learning intuitively without a roadmap, and who helps others persistently to navigate the complex journey to an authentic identity. If this is you and the book helps in a small way to reinforce your strength and conviction, then it has served its purpose.

You are the most precious resource we have in education. Kia kaha, and for what you do – unacknowledged – every day, thank you. 

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