“Rory! You’re back!”
Venice in the winter, with a broken leg, and I spent my time just hanging out with a few guys in their social club. They accepted me into their friendship group – which comprised a boatbuilder, a butcher, a customs officer, and a nightwatchman. At the end of the week they tried to get me to stay in Venice and said they would find me a job. I thought about it, and it was an emotional farewell to them all – but I had other plans at the time. Fast forward 3 years, and I turn up in Venice with a couple of friends looking for the social club (which was in a basement with no sign on the door – somewhere along the canalside..). My friends thought I was crazy dragging them into Venetian basements after midnight, but I somehow found the right door, knocked, and was greeted by Mauro with a “Rory! Sei tornato!” (Rory! You’re back!). This became one of my favourite stories, and one I told my wife as we planned our honeymoon another 3 years later. We went to Venice and were laughing about the story as we stopped off in a cafe to buy a bottle of water. As I paid at the counter, I half turned to a character sitting by the bar, and heard once again “Rory! Sei tornato!” It was Mauro – I had found him, randomly three times in nine years and we hugged and laughed and talked about my first visit and what had changed in the city since then.
It is now over four years without Twitter, without blogging, without TeachMeets or conferences… Off grid, off the radar, offline for a lot of the time, and almost four years now in the Middle East. If I had planned it more carefully, this would have been an interesting social experiment or action research project! “What impact does cutting professional social and learning networks have on teaching practice?”
Why did I leave the twitterverse, the blogosphere? Two reasons – family and pedagogical. The online world was becoming very detrimental to my family life, meaning I lived online a lot of the time, and sought approbation and connection through retweets and Youtube views. The family reason is simple, and there is no doubt that my time off the grid has been a radically positive change for my family – I am more attentive, patient, present… The pedagogical or professional reason for going cold turkey is more difficult to explain.
What did my time on Twitter, blogging, doing the Teachmeets and conferences bring me? First of all, and I have written about this before, it brought me into a professional community where I felt that I was not alone in what I was trying to achieve. It was very motivating to connect with people who are pioneers in their field, outstanding teachers and trainers, and I started to feel that I could join their ranks – indeed I considered moving towards consultancy and away from teaching. But in terms of pedagogy what did I gain from these connections? I am not sure. There was definitely a vast amount of information available through blog posts, presentations, conversations, but it is hard to quantify the impact that has had on my classroom practice. I gained in confidence, but that is not necessarily what improves student outcomes. Rather than any particular trick or tactic, I believe that my time online gave me the courage to experiment and innovate, but this, again, has not necessarily had any mesaurable impact on my students. Blogging allowed me to develop ideas in real time, with feedback from comments and from conversations on twitter, and the process of writing was very much part of the process of developing my thoughts. I enjoyed writing, and even started to write more creatively and reflectively on a personal level at times, with posts about my childhood, family in Ireland and other posts that were even on their way to becoming short stories.
What then? Did it have a negative impact on my teaching? Did it distract me from the main task of planning, delivering and reviewing lessons? To some extent, the answer is possible yes it did take me away from the classroom. Although I was undergoing some seriously powerful professional development, and my blog writing, networking and presentation skills were improving, I think that my teaching was on a plateau, and needed some more direct intervention to jumpstart me off the flatline. Rather than moving out of the classroom, I needed to move back in, to attempt to apply some of the wealth of knowledge and ideas I have accumulated in those years online. Teaching is not just about pedagogical knowledge just as it is not about subject knowledge, and holding a Doctorate in your subject, or a Masters in Education will not necessarily make you a better classroom practioner. I was in a bubble, both professionally and emotionally, in an echo chamber where I had fallen into the traps of confirmation bias, of the Semmelweis effect, of emotional bias. I was guilty of narcissism, pride and selfishness.
So what have these four years offline taught me? That my classroom teaching was good in many areas, outstanding in some, but lacking in many others. When we moved out here to the Middle East, I went from teaching years 9-13 to teaching years 3-13 as the relatively new school grew and established its Sixth Form in my second year here. Teaching year 3 is a radically different experience from teaching year 13. Well it was for me, at the start, until I realised how much I had to learn from the year 3 and 4 teachers in terms of pedagogy and classroom practice. It was the best thing that could have happened to me, and put me back where I needed to be – as a learner, as a trainee teacher and as a completely open mind. Teaching more Spanish was an excellent experience and was another move from my comfort zone of Senior School French. My favourite classes now are my A level Spanish classes – I am working hard every lesson to improve my own subject knowledge and as a result of this research and planning, my lessons are better in terms of pedagogy. I still sometimes walk into a year 12 French lesson relatively unprepared and know that I can teach the day’s content, but it is not the best I can do – teaching year 3 I did not have that luxury.
Why am I coming back now? Because as I develop new ideas and progress in my career, I feel I need to have that exposure to research, to feedback on my projects, and, yes, to the support and help of my peers. How will I manage the work/life balance? How will I remain myself? How will my family react to this decision? I don’t know. I will simply try to be the best I can – first at home, then at work.
Merry Christmas everyone – I’m back!