Is anyone listening? Is there a real, living and breathing person in my immediate working life who has the time, inclination and genuine interest to help me get my voice heard? This is not a post about spouting off our emotions on twitter and hoping for some heated reactions, nor is it a plea for help; rather, it is about what it is like to be a professional and experienced teacher, trying to get the job done as one only knows how, and finding that one has lost one’s voice.
Listening is fundamentally linked to voice; when the active intention of listening is there, and the safe space is created for it, one feels that one is able to speak. This is not the first time I have written about voice; in fact I have been preoccupying myself with it for quite some time now, as a teacher, researcher and as a colleague and collaborator in different networks. What prompted me to write the last post on this blog on teacher voice, published as a working paper for CollectivED, was that I have realised over time that not only do we need to focus on student voice, something also close to my heart, but we need to firstly take a look at the teachers. How can we guide students in ownership of their own learning, exercising their agency and learning resilience when we are are stuck in the starting blocks ourselves? Surely these times are indeed a sign that we need to start helping each other to take those first steps that might help us to get over the line, whatever and wherever that line may be? I am however in fact starting to worry that those that are sailing easily down the track are not pausing often enough to look back to check for those that are stumbling. If we are a teacher at the start of our careers, or if we are on training placements and have mentoring structures in place, then it is normal to talk about how we are coping and it is normal for others to listen. However, if we are years ahead of that, then somehow we are expected to cope on our own.
There is a gap in our knowledge about all of those professionals who are working against all odds, carving out their niches as they know how, working one-to-one with students on their own personal learning journeys, making a difference somewhere and somehow, and simply doing what it takes. So many of these voices are however not heard; they are silenced before anyone could even have had the chance to listen. Do we keep quiet for fear of exposing ourselves? Are we afraid of rocking the boat and coming into conflict with others? Are we weak if we are not used to shouting? Do leaders only listen to those who are the loudest?
We are in particularly extraordinary times where we need to use our professionalism to think quickly, react to changes, learn new skills and adapt to new ways of working. We need to feel that we belong to a community of people who are working towards the same goals, and who look after each other in our differences and individualities. We are all unique and we all need just that one person who is prepared to understand what it is that makes us tick, and how to help us to do our best in our own way. Not everyone shouts over others and can hold her or his own in a crowd. Not everyone feels brave enough to say what is on her or his mind. Not everyone feels comfortable going into a meeting not knowing what to prepare. Not everyone finds it easy not to care what others think.
In the end it is all about power. How can we raise our voice if we are feel we are silenced? How can we get our message across without shouting? Are we meant to shed our principles of moral and just behaviour in a bid to be heard? What we need is a system that nurtures our voices rather than blocks them. Such structures break down and dissolve hierarchies and consist of spaces that invite openness and honesty, welcoming constructive criticism without judgement. I can only compare it to sitting down with a warm cup of tea. When the teacups are out, the tea is brewing in the pot and the chairs are pulled up, I feel safe, at home, and ready to engage in a conversation. Anyone putting on the kettle for me is inviting me into a comfortable, trusted and welcoming space. This is how I envisage dialogue and authentic listening to feel.
There are of course several models that could work as potential frameworks for thinking about voice. Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen participation, as adapted in figure 1 above, has for example been used to inform and suggest different models of democratic or participatory education that recognise and work towards breaking down power relations. Roger Hart’s adapted ladder (1992), focuses in particular on student and children’s voice, and is divided up into valid and non-valid forms of participation. In my current preoccupation with teacher voice therefore, I wonder to what extent different types of teachers in different types of roles have access to the various rungs of the ladder, and how school leaders would explain the workings of their institutions in these terms. Do they recognise the type of people who they can manipulate and placate? Is their listening simply tokenistic? Finding myself as a teacher faced with such a metaphorical ladder, I would have to recoil at the idea of having to shout my way up there. If that were what it would take, then I would rather forget it. Bring out the teacups please; I will have a conversation my own way.
Arnstein, S. (1969) A Ladder of Community Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35, 216-224.
Hart, R. (1992) Children’s participation: from tokenism to citizenship. Florence, UNICEF International Child Development Centre.