Teachers Undefeated

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Jon Berry’s Teachers Undefeated: How Global Education Reform has Failed to Crush the Spirit of Educators is a great read for anyone who wants not only to know the problems with education but who also wants to be pointed towards a bit of hope for the future.

Berry’s book begins by outlining the historic tensions between education as an emancipatory activity and education as the reproduction of human capital that has always been at the heart of the public education system since its early beginnings in 1870s. This sets the context for the whole book where the current obsession with free market economics and the idea that education can be a liberatory experience for pupils fight each other out in our schools.

Berry gives a very clear and understandable outline of what has come to be known as the GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement. The seeds of GERM, he argues, were planted in the educational reforms of the 1980s when the drive towards “outcomes based policy” came to mean a narrowing of education to the testable and measurable. Berry talks about how this has led to the erosion of teacher autonomy, with the result that teachers entering the profession with creativity and passion are forced into more and more conformity with the various schemes and approaches deemed to be “effective”.

The regime of observation, testing and relentless data collection limits what teachers can do in their classrooms. The supposed need for regulation in education “casts children into units of production and schools as the business-like organisations that generate such products”, Berry argues. He also makes the case that GERM is not something that can be isolated to education alone. Rather it is the educational manifestation of neoliberalism.

There are a number of very powerful reports from conversations that Berry holds with teachers that throw the tension between teacher autonomy and the straitjacket of the current regime into stark relief. Testimonials from teachers give examples of when they have felt the right thing to do is to respond to the immediate needs of the class in front of them but then faced the internal battle (that every teacher experiences) of whether to plough on with the learning objective as dictated by the curriculum, or whether to explore and develop ideas that originate with the pupils.

There are examples of teachers who have chosen to stick to the prescribed lesson and then regretted it, and examples of those who didn’t but then went on to face the consequences of having missed a lesson’s objective and having to make up for this somewhere else in an ever more crowded and tightly controlled curriculum. The book is packed with conversations that would make many teachers smile, particularly those with teachers who choose to do it their own way despite the odds.

There are also stories of schools that have stood up against the “CPD terrorist” (the “expert advisor” or the “inspirational speaker” that dominate so much of teachers’ Continuing Professional Development), and instead worked with university education departments to devise training based around themes that teachers have chosen themselves. Berry points to these schools for the kind of alternative that should be built on and developed against the top-down diktat training that predominates in our schools.

So teachers remain undefeated, says Berry, but the battle to rid our schools of the GERM must be waged. Teachers’ resistance, he says, “can only be successful as part of a far reaching challenge to marketisation and neoliberalism”. Berry goes on to discuss the strike action that has been taken both in this country and in Chicago and the great Chicago teachers’ strikes of 2012.

Berry argues that the motivation for teachers taking part in these strikes was a desire for a better education system, one that placed pupil need and love of learning at its heart. He talks also of the alliances that have been built between teachers, their unions and parents and points to the need to build and develop them.

I loved reading this book. As a teacher I have become very used to working with, reading of and hearing about the horrors of the education system. Berry’s book looks beyond the horror to the daily acts of resistance that teachers build into their teaching and to the possibilities of the struggle that must be built in order to transform education entirely.