I spent this morning singing with teachers on a pier. As a trainer, I was paid for this; the teachers were also paid, in that the work they would normally have done at school was covered by other teachers. We were led by a wonderful vocalist through a series of exercises and activities in voice, rhythm, posture, presentation and performance. The vocalist was paid, too.
I’m chanting this mantra of remuneration for a slightly perverse reason. Creating a site-specific jazz riff on ‘Row Row Your Boat’ may or may not immediately help students hit their government-mandated targets in maths, literacy or other subjects. Discovering the wonders of diaphragmatic breathing may not correlate directly with better classroom behaviour. In fact, if I’m completely honest, it is possible that today’s session in all of its singing, vocalising, rapping, snapping, clapping glory–all in promenade, beneath the glorious summer sun, on a wooden platform stretching into the sea–might have no effect at all, other than to have been an awful lot of fun for those of us actually doing it.
It is perhaps reckless to say such things at a time when school budgets are being slashed, teacher pensions are being pared back, and indeed the entire public infrastructure is under siege. Better to keep quiet, perhaps, about such blatantly joyfully, possibly not terribly ‘practical’ work, right? Wrong. Now is precisely the time to talk about sessions like today’s. The adage says to sing when you’re winning. That’s easy. But to sing, loudly and without fear (and in public), when everything you feel is valuable in society is under threat? That is something else entirely.That is a statement of rebellion. A statement of value.
And that value is this: teachers, and everyone else who toils in the public sector, deserve their opportunities to leave the classroom behind for a morning and revisit joy, laughter, enjoyment, and emotional wonderment. Strangely, we do not begrudge these things to the private sector so worshipped by our political masters. I know plenty of folks in business who, despite being under the media microscope more than ever, still have their ‘away’ days playing paintball or their lavish end-of-quarter bashes on the continent. Such things aren’t considered perqs or frivolities. The private sector knows that loosening up, playing and celebrating are essential components to unlocking camaraderie and creativity.
We don’t apply the same standards to public sector employees. Teachers, in particular, feel a tremendous burden to make every second of their working lives visibly and measurably ‘count’ in the service of boxes ticked and targets attained. For lower pay and longer hours, we work them harder and harder. And if they’re let out of teaching duties for professional development, well…it had better produce results.
I’m confident that today’s session will, in fact, produce results. The teachers left our session humming and smiling. They were talking about how to bring music and rhythm into their classrooms as ways of engaging children. They were talking about planning more trips to the seaside and the pier in the still-warm months of the early autumn. They felt good. They were energised, excited about life and work, and feeling creative and full of ideas. And that, of course, is pretty much the general ‘person description’ coveted by any private company worth its stock shares.
If the government really wants the public sector to be more like the private one, they need to put their money where their rhetoric is. It’s not about tests, targets, cuts, threats and half-baked restructuring. Instead, we need to loosen up and let teachers, and perhaps everyone in the public sector, sing a bit.