Disobedient Teaching: Surviving and creating change in education by Welby Ings (Otago University Press, 2017), 208 pp., $35
I sit firmly within the demographic of Welby Ings’ target audience. I am closing in on thirty years of working in secondary-school classrooms, and have not yet outgrown my knack of annoying management upon occasion. Schools are ridiculous, frustrating places, without a doubt, yet viewed through just the right lens, they are inspiring places too. Disobedient Teaching is largely an exercise in constructing just such a lens, not so that we can forgive schools their foolishnesses, but so that we can maintain our optimism and effectiveness in the face of them. This is a book that seeks to offer a warm hug of reassurance to teachers everywhere who lie awake at night wondering ‘Why do I bother?’ – and there are plenty of those.
Although written more as a series of anecdotes and expansions upon themes, Ings is presenting an argument about the importance and state of teaching in New Zealand. His optimistic starting premise is that teachers can make a meaningful difference in the lives of their students: education matters. He further argues that to make this difference, teachers need to be trusted to take risks and experiment. Implicit in all of this is the contention that our current system is not naturally supportive of teaching excellence. As a result those teachers Ings would approvingly label as ‘disobedient’ are too often lost from the profession.
The first point, that what we do matters, is developed mostly by way of personal storytelling, and such is Ings’ enthusiasm for the profession he has chosen and the task of describing it, the effect is captivating and delightful. He tells the story of being at a teaching conference and asking his audience to each think of a teacher who made a difference in their lives. He then asks them to stand up if what they most remember about this teacher is their ability to help them improve their performance, grades, etc. Nobody stands. Then he asks them to stand if what they remember is the attention the teacher paid them as an individual, the human connection they made. At this point almost everybody stands.
Similarly, in what was for me the book’s most affecting story, he speaks of the time he was working in a school during the lead-up to the homosexual law reform (how wonderful to be reminded just how perplexingly old fashioned this debate seems to us now – there is hope). When the school community discovered Ings was gay, protesters assembled outside the gates. The reactions of the office staff and of his students, many of them from deeply conservative homes, are deeply touching. Ings uses the example of their support for him to remind us of the power of human connection. What we do is important, he seems to be saying, because in the end it is this business of human beings attending to one another’s needs and possibilities that matters. Everything else is bullshit. It is hard to disagree.
Yet this case demonstrates well both the strength of the book and its limitation. Because of Ings’ clear commitment to his case and his willingness to tell his personal stories with an endearing mixture of pride and humility, the case itself is instantly beguiling. For someone with a real passion for their story who desperately wants it to be heard, this is a canny approach. Personal engagement is a more effective means of shifting public perception than dry and technical debate. And given how closely the argument accords with my own prejudices, and how important the discussion is, there is something warming about seeing another take such licence.
That said, it must be noted that much of the case works at the level of rhetoric. Is it true that our most memorable teachers are those who ultimately made the biggest difference to our lives? I’m not sure that’s always a fair association. Yes, it is wonderful when students rally about the charismatic teacher. In the cases where the teacher has the humility and sensitivity to ensure that charisma does not overshadow the slow flowering of delicate personalities, great things can happen. Sadly that is not reliably the case. It is also a mistake to overlook those slow-burner teachers, whom one in many ways barely notices at the time, but whose example later comes to be understood as profound. And I am certain that for many students, their teacher’s capacity to light the intellectual fire, to convey the beauty and excitement of the academic material, is what they most value. (Is it too cruel to suggest that such students are less likely to later find themselves attending teaching conferences?) Teaching is a devilishly complex task, and there were times in this book when I wanted the rhetoric to be dialed down in favour of a slower analysis, where the counter-examples might, at the very least, be acknowledged.
Nevertheless, as Ings notes, it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of the system and let this wear us down, to the point where its foibles and stupidities become our excuse for no longer trying. We can be creative, disobedient enthusiasts, just as he exhorts us to be. Indeed, our students deserve no less of us. But this requires a sense of purpose and the courage to chart our own course in the face of bureaucratic intransigence, and this is the book’s second major theme.
If we do not go into teaching with a very strong sense of what it is we are trying to do, and whom we are trying to please, the system itself will provide its own pre-assembled answers, and do it with a certain institutional glee. It will feel like the most natural thing in the world to be grooming our charges for their assessment performance, giving our limited time and attention disproportionately to those with the most articulate and involved parents, and pleasing those in the school with the power to promote us. None of these things, as Ings rightly points out, are necessarily good for a child’s education. Finding the necessary courage and conviction to do otherwise, however, is not easy, and here the theme of creativity finds its place in the greater argument. Creativity, Ings argues, is essentially disruptive. To be creative is to question the status quo. What’s more, creativity is exactly the kind of skill that our students need in order to navigate a highly changeable world, anticipating and solving new problems as they go. It is when dealing with this aspect of education that Ings most plays the role of cheerleader. His own teaching background and, one imagines, his skill set, are highly creative. He both practises and champions creativity, and to some extent his urge to question and disrupt is the urge to make education a more inherently creative activity. In this there are shades of Sir Ken Robinson’s attack on the industrial model of education. Robinson is famous for arguing that schools are creativity killers, and goes so far as to suggest that Western culture, with its over-emphasis on reason, is to blame.
I’m less sold on this point, and so more keenly noticed the lack of engagement with alternative points of view. It is entirely possible to buy the problems Ings identifies within the education system without accepting his solution. Modern education is bedeviled by single-solution evangelism, and unless we develop a habit of careful consideration of all alternatives, we are in danger of bouncing enthusiastically from one well-articulated solution to the next. Few would dispute that there is value in practising and enjoying creativity, of course, and as a drama teacher I can hardly rail against it. But as a maths teacher I’d also argue that we could be doing an awful lot more to nurture the critical capacities of our charges. At a systems level, the rebellious mind’s powers of creative destruction are an important means by which dead branches are cleared away for sure, but equally it is the constructive habits of the considered, forward-looking mind that underpin subsequent growth. It is always possible to construct a case against our education system that starts with the words ‘we need more …’ (creativity, entrepreneurship, kindness, hope, self-responsibility, time in the outdoors … it’s an endless wish-list). The tricky part, as always, is in the details of implementation, and the chosen nature of the thousand little trade-offs and compromises that define the business of teaching and learning. In this regard I would have enjoyed a little less creativity in the presentation of Ing’s case, and a little more in the way of rigour.
In some sense, of course, this is an unfair criticism, for Ings doesn’t claim to offer prescriptions. What he has set out to do with this book, the championing of compassionate and creative practice within a system that often feels designed to quash that very thing, he has done exceptionally well, and the enthusiastic public reception of Disobedient Teaching speaks to this. For the teachers seeking to remind themselves just why they got into the game in the first place, this is a wonderful read, in equal measures reassuring and inspiring.
BERNARD BECKETT is a parent of three young boys. He has been working in secondary schools for almost thirty years and is currently teaching drama and mathematics. He writes for young adults and adults. His most well-known novel, Genesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), was awarded the NZ Post Book Award for Young Adult Fiction, the Esther Glen Award, is published in twenty-two countries, and won France’s Prix Sorcières in 2010.