From 2015 – 2017 I completed my Postgraduate Diploma in Education which included two years of teaching GCSE English. It wasn’t the easiest of two years and I often struggled with the classes I taught. I was certainly no Mr Keating from Dead Poets’ Society. Ironically, I fared better at the assignment work I had to do as part of my course. During the two years trainee teachers were encouraged to reflect on our experiences.
In my second year a reflection on education, coupled with my disillusionment with teaching at that time, led me to write a fable by the name of The Tree of Knowledge. It was the first piece of creative writing I had done in more than two years. At the end of my course when a final reflection was needed I turned once again to creative writing and out came The Tower of Wisdom.
They called it the Tower of Wisdom and it stood in the heart of a vast wasteland, beyond the reach and influence of towns and cities. Those that came here sought enlightenment; they came to complete a journey and only with ascension to the very precipice of the tower would they find the illumination their hearts and souls desired.
The tower was cylindrical in shape; each carefully laid brick seemed to differ in colour to its neighbour. One could have assumed this disparity of colour pointed to hasty construction but as you moved closer it was clear everything was deliberate. For the colours were not constant; they were in perpetual motion, moving from shades of red to green to blue to black and so on. It was as if each brick was reflecting a changing mood or demeanour of unseen travellers.
Inside, the architects had divided the tower into countless circular floors, each joined by a spiral stairway heading all the way to the very top. The tower defied the logic of other buildings though. How many floors one climbed was not predetermined. You faced few or many; the number came down to not blueprints but to your own personal journey. For most, it was a long climb.
Those that ascended the tower and couldn’t make it to the peak did not have a long journey back down the stairway. Side doors in the walls of the tower would lead them back outside. Whatever floor they left the tower, be it the middle or close to the top, the weary travellers would emerge at ground level once more where they could begin the lonely journey home.
Approaching the highest floor, the student stopped to catch his breath. His ascent had begun two long years ago. At the beginning he had been clean-shaven with no trace of grey in his hair but now his head hung low, his face beset with unkempt hair. With aching legs, a heavy heart and weary eyes he climbed the last few steps and entered another chamber, hoping that this time it would be the last.
The circular room seemed bigger than the ones he had faced before. The chamber was empty though, save a candlelit crystalline chandelier hanging from the centre of the room and the stairway that had aided the student’s two-year ascent now came to an end. He had reached the peak of the tower. The journey was over.
As the student approached the core of the room, a puff of purple smoke appeared and from within came an old man in long white robes and clutching an oak staff.
‘Welcome, traveller,’ he said.
‘Don’t I know you?’ the student asked. ‘Aren’t you the old man I wrote about in my last reflection – The Tree of Knowledge?’
‘Well, this is your story. I could be that same man or maybe another. Only your words decide that. You’ve written many stories before. I assumed you would know how it works by now. Shameless plug of your previous reflection by the way.’
‘That was pretty condescending.’ The student frowned. ‘This does feel like one of my stories.’ He shook his head. ‘So, my two years of teacher training has become a metaphorical climbing of a tower, then?’
‘It would seem so,’ the old man said. ‘There are worse ways for a story to go. At least this one isn’t all going to be a dream.’
‘Good point,’ the student replied. ‘I hate those cliché tales.’
The student looked around the empty chamber. ‘So, what happens now?’
‘Your training as a teacher has come to an end. It’s time to reflect one last time on your journey. It’s been a long two years after all.’ The old man approached the student and nodded to him. ‘Walk with me and let’s look back on everything.’
As the old man and the student walked, the empty chamber began to fill with an assortment of items and figures. The student immediately jumped to one side as a cyclist came by. He had thinning hair, a big smile and wore a shirt and tie.
‘Who’s that?’ the student asked.
‘Don’t you recognise him?’ the old man replied. ‘It’s Kolb.’
‘Why is he on a…’ The student shook his head. ‘Kolb’s learning cycle so he is on a bicycle. That is as bad as a dad joke.’
‘You wrote it. This is your story and these are your words. Dad joke comparisons aside, the only one to be criticised here is you.’
‘Okay, I get it, though I shudder at the thought of what other images will come up.’ The student watched as Kolb began another circuit of the chamber. ‘Kolb’s reflective model was the first one I used. I started with just diary entries of my teaching practice, the highs and the lows, mostly lows. They meant little until I started applying models.’
‘How did you find using Kolb’s model?’ the old man asked.
‘Terminology aside it was useful,’ the student replied. ‘Concrete experience gave me visions of bricklayers but it helped me to isolate key moments and think of them in a different way. I do think I became a better teacher because of my reflections.’
They walked on passing a man with white hair, holding a giant lens before his face. It showed the image of a lone teacher in a classroom. He then flipped the lens and the image became the students in that same classroom. Another flip followed, this one showing men and women in a room drinking coffee and eating bananas. A final flip showed a group of individuals deep in thought but over what was unclear.
‘Brookfield?’ the student asked.
‘Of course,’ the old man replied. ‘Did you use his critical lenses model?’
‘I don’t believe I did but I appreciate its value. Teaching isn’t just about one perspective; it’s about multiple viewpoints. How I see myself, how the students see me, how my colleagues view me and, finally, what theories apply to my practice. It’s a maelstrom.’
‘Thanks. I like to get that one in from time to time. It always livens things up.’
‘Makes you look like a smart arse as well, I presume?’
They next came to a man with flowing white hair, an unshaven face and wearing glasses. He stood deep in thought, scratching his head and observing something beyond the naked eye. In an instant he went from standing to sitting at a table. He was still in deep thought but this time was writing down his ideas. Moments later he was back on his feet and lost in contemplation once more.
‘Is he okay?’ the student asked.
‘Of course,’ the old man replied. ‘He’s an action man.’
‘Action man? Like GI Joe? He doesn’t look militaristic.’
‘No, no. He’s reflecting in action and reflecting on action. If that’s not an action man I don’t know what is.’
‘Schon? The other Donald. The good Donald.’
‘Who else? Did you find his theory useful?’
‘I did. Written reflections always came some time after my classes but I found myself thinking over incidents as they occurred. I might say or do the wrong thing and I would reflect on that immediately after. I’ve found it hard to balance my use of sarcasm and humour in class. Often I’ve made one joke too many and I can see in the learners’ expressions that what I’ve said wasn’t apt.’
‘Reflecting in action?’
‘I guess so.’
‘Did you continue to use reflective models throughout your training?’
‘I used them throughout the first year but in the second I stopped after a couple of months.’
‘Why do you think that was?’
‘I began to change as a person. I focused on separate incidents in the first year but as the second year unfolded my reflections grew bigger and captured more generic issues with education. With that change came a more creative approach to expressing my feelings. When I look back at those reflections from the first year they don’t have the same meaning anymore. I do appreciate the reflective models and used many of them: Atkins and Murphy; Johns; Boud, Keogh and Walker; Rolfe, Freshwater and Jasper; Gibbs; and Tripps. However, they didn’t seem to apply as much when I reflected on bigger issues affecting my practice. I think by that point I had embraced being a reflective practitioner and only my own thought process could make sense of what was now happening to me.’
‘What were the bigger issues?’ the old man asked.
‘I guess I should start with my subject,’ the student replied.
‘Ah, yes. You taught GCSE English. That must have been rewarding?’
‘I thought it would be. When I first began teaching I wanted to help students improve their literacy. I had these foolish dreams of being Mr Keating from Dead Poets’ Society and inspiring students to achieve great things, maybe the odd one stand on a desk and bellow, “Oh Captain, my Captain.” It breaks my heart to see literacy failing so badly in the UK. What happened to our love of books? Don’t get me wrong, I use the Internet and social media but it could never replace books.’
‘Times do change. The digital world is expanding.’
‘That doesn’t make it right. I have faced dozens of learners who find reading one page akin to climbing Everest. That appals me.’
‘English is a passion of yours, History too, so how have you passed on that enthusiasm?’
‘I have tried. The first year seemed better. The curriculum had more variety, more room to experiment. There were more ways to engage the students.’ The student looked down. ‘The new curriculum brought in is dull. I had an observation where I was told it was a boring subject. Other English teachers have not enjoyed it either. It’s all exam-based, meaning a full year of revision. How can you sell that to students if you yourself are struggling with it?’
‘You must have had some good moments in the second year though?’
‘Of course, at the start of the second year I felt both the subject and my teaching were going well. In September I was allocated two classes in the Engineering department. Colleagues looked at me with sympathy but I found a way to make those groups work. I was firm but fair. In one group nearly every student called me “Sir.” I never once asked for this but it validated my efforts with them. I had built respect. The subject was going well too. I actually felt energised teaching it. The students seemed to respond in kind.’
‘What changed?’ the old man asked, clutching his staff tightly.
‘Management,’ the student replied. ‘They changed the timetables in January for all English and maths teachers. Few, if any of us, asked for it but the decision was made regardless of what we thought. Of the five groups I had, four were settled and progressing well. After these changes, I had six groups in different departments and not one student in those classes had I taught before. Other teachers in the department had more luck. Many of my students were not happy. In Engineering my groups collectively voiced their disapproval; they wanted to remain with me but it was not to be. I had looked forward to seeing those students through to their exams but all involvement for me ceased.’
‘How were the new groups you taught?’
‘All of them were difficult. As well as facing complaints about my lessons and English being dull, I had to contend with unfavourable comparisons with my teaching predecessors. I understood their frustration but it did little to assuage my feelings of failure. At no time did these new classes feel like my own. I lost “my” classes in January. Those I worked with last year and up until January in the second year were achieving, but I don’t feel I have had the same impact with my new groups.’
‘Is this when you feel you lost your way as a teacher?’
‘I was losing my way before then to be honest. My Engineering groups kept me going but once I started going over the same material in English again, my love of the subject subsided. In a nutshell, GCSE English is reading some extracts and answering some questions about them. The writing questions are still interesting but many students struggle to write anything, even an introduction. Stephen King once said that writing well involves reading well. Right there is why UK literacy is failing. We are so driven by product curriculums that achieving results is the primary goal rather than learning for the sake of learning. It’s an issue beyond my control, for how can I achieve in one year what secondary schools have failed to do in five years?’
The old man and the student walked on through the tower chamber. They stopped to observe a small group of students watching a GIF on a PowerPoint. The Aims and Objectives of the lesson were listed but the GIF was sparking more interest.
‘Tell me about this?’ the old man asked.
‘I used images and GIFs to make my PowerPoints more creative,’ the student replied. ‘Learning styles seem to have been largely debunked. I used VARK in the first year but ceased embracing it in the second year. I felt visuals are still important to students given their penchant for television and the Internet so transferring this to PowerPoints was designed to make them feel more appealing and innovative, hopefully keeping the students’ interest.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Sometimes. This group were bricklaying students. I was teaching a lesson on structure in texts so used a GIF of a figure building a wall.’
‘Good idea. Very apt.’
‘It was. The students discussed that for some time and told me a little about bricklaying as well. I felt like we had connected. In other classes those visuals, be it still images or GIFs, opened up opportunities for conversation alongside what I was teaching. It wasn’t always appropriate what they came out with, of course, but being asked if a shark had its penis on display was better than 20 students falling asleep…just.’
As they walked further, the old man and the student came to a table where a moustachioed man sat in deep concentration. He was working with a pile of LEGO bricks and building a structure in the shape of a pyramid. Each of the levels were carefully cordinated in different colours.
‘Maslow?’ the student said.
‘Who else?’ the old man replied. ‘Why did you think of him?’
‘Think of him?’
‘Yes. You didn’t think these figures were appearing randomly did you?’
‘My words, right?’
‘You know the drill.’ The old man looked on as Maslow placed the final brick and beamed with delight.
‘I like Maslow,’ the student said. ‘Of all the theorists, I can embrace his ideas. I’m a Humanist at heart. I aspire for a positive environment for my students and for them to be the best they can be. The Constructivists are okay but don’t get me started on the Behaviourists.’
‘Not a fan?’ the old man asked, raising an eyebrow.
‘No. Watson and poor little Albert; Skinner and those pigeons; and Pavlov with bells and salivating dogs. I’m not sure what the RSPCA would make of it all. Bizarre. I hate this idea that we can be controlled by certain triggers. We have to reward good behaviour to make sure we get it in the first place? We punish bad behaviour. I don’t like the idea of a classroom environment where control by fear is paramount.’
‘Yet, Behaviourism is something you have utilised in your teaching practice. You could say society itself follows some of its principles. We do punish really bad behaviour with fines and prisons. Laws are there to keep us in order. We need control in society otherwise we’d be playing out Lord of the Flies on a colossal scale.’
‘I think that’s why I hate Behaviourism because I am compelled to use it. I want to be more of a Humanist but that’s more of an idealistic theoretical venture. I want a safe and welcoming environment. I want all of my students to have what they need and be able to achieve their potential. Equality and diversity is key. I really believe that. I push for a democratic environment and challenge anyone that threatens to disrupt this harmony.’
‘Do you make a conscious effort to put equality and diversity into your classes?’ the old man asked.
‘I try to let it come in naturally,’ the student replied. ‘One thing I have learned is that forcing something like numeracy into a class is not the way forward. Students see through your methods and cannot make sense of what you are doing or why. I find the process frustrating. All the boxes we have to tick for a so-called perfect lesson. It’s too much. By the time you’ve tried to squeeze all of that in what is left of your lesson? Where is its identity? Where are the elements that make it quintessentially your class? That said, I do still value all of these things. I see why they’re important, especially equality and diversity. I find many students are oblivious to the wider world. “Refugees” and “Muslims” are not labels, they are people, people that transcend the one definition some of the tabloids and politicians seem to give them. I try to highlight their situation by mentioning them in activities. In persuasive writing, for instance, I might mention charity appeals for children facing famine in Africa or, more recently, in Aleppo. I once used the example of hyperbole in newspapers by talking of their front page headlines, claiming hundreds of thousands of immigrants were coming into the UK every week. It offered a platform to discuss this topic; even though it may have been brief, it was mentioned. It was real and the students were given a different angle to consider it.’
The old man and the student began a new circuit of the chamber, stopping to watch a young man with short dark hair. He was standing knee deep in a river and reaching out to a girl who remained hesitant on the banks.
‘You can do it,’ the man said, ‘take my hand and I’ll help you reach the other side.’
‘Okay,’ the girl replied, ‘I’ll give it a try.’
With a trembling step, the girl took the man’s hand and he lifted her gently over waters Simon and Garfunkel might have sung about one time, before placing her safely on the other side.
‘There you go,’ the man said. ‘You did it.’
‘Thank you, Vygotsky,’ the girl replied, with a Cheshire Cat grin.
The old man smiled as the girl skipped by. He then turned to the student who was watching Vygotsky intently.
‘I think Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development encapsulates what I always dreamed teaching would be,’ the student said. ‘I had such high hopes that I could push the boundaries of my learners’ knowledge and skills. I did that in the first year. I helped some students over the line. Most were adults but around a quarter I worked with all passed their English. It doesn’t seem a lot but at the time it meant the world to me. This second year I have felt broken by the lack of support and my autonomy as a teacher has been chipped away. A part of me gave up and although the journey has been worth taking, my path is changing now.’
‘For all your doubts, you have touched the lives of your students,’ the old man replied.
‘Those don’t feel like my words.’
‘They’re not. They’re the words of others that you refuse to acknowledge; your susceptibility to Impostor Syndrome. It isn’t just about passing English, it’s about what the students think of you. What your Engineering students felt for you should eradicate any reservations about your teaching. You’re close to the end of your transition now. You’re ready to cross the river to the other side. Vygotsky may have helped you across once but you don’t need him now. You’ve done it on your own.’
The student recoiled as an opening appeared in the ceiling. As if by magic, a glittering stairway emerged that led to the heights of the tower. The student approached the first of the steps, hesitating when he found the old man was no longer by his side.
‘Is this the end,’ the student asked. ‘Is my training over?’
‘In this guise it is,’ the old man replied. ‘Beyond those steps is the start of a new journey though. A teacher you now are but what you will do with it is your decision.’
‘Is my time here over because I’m truly ready or is it the word count for this reflection?’
The old man looked around sheepishly. ‘Let’s go with the first one. It sounds better.’
‘Will I see you again?’ the student asked.
‘That’s up to you,’ the old man replied. ‘I’m the sum of your thoughts and words after all.’
‘Then farewell, until we meet again.’
The student climbed the glittering stairway and left the interior of the tower behind. He emerged on the rooftop and found the night sky was filled with twinkling stars. He gazed at them for a long time, weighing up the next steps on his journey.
As the student looked across the wasteland he was surprised to see hundreds of other towers had now emerged from the earth and were waiting expectantly. Each one represented a new challenge. The student knew his days of teaching GCSE English were over; too much had happened to stay on that road, but he would take his teaching skills forward and use them in other forms. He wasn’t sure where yet but he held no fear of what the future now held. This two-year ascension of the Tower of Wisdom had shaped him beyond recognition. He was a different person to that one that first ascended the tower two years before, but what wasn’t in doubt was the student was a better person for the experience.