As we attempt to navigate the latest path out of the pandemic some of the residual anger and resentment that we saw build up during the lockdown has stayed with us. Lockdown forced everyone to become reflective. World events shone a spotlight on systemic inequalities, and that slow burn anger suddenly ignited, sending people out onto the streets demanding change.

Of course in reality that call for change had been ever present, but a series of events amplified the voices to a level that they just couldn’t be ignored. From BLM, to safety for women right through to ‘freedom marches’ there was a protest for everyone to get behind, whatever your own political beliefs.

The ripples of all those protests have been found in schools and colleges across the UK (and no doubt world). Students empowered by movements and causes that they can get behind have all vowed to make us a better, more equal society. For those of us that can easily remember the 80s it’s quite a throwback. I was training during the student occupations in the late 80s, hell I even took part in one, we thought and indeed had to believe that we could create the change that was so desperately needed in the world.  I was raised by an ardent trade unionist who taught me to always stand up for what was right and to fight for injustice. In other words I’m all about radical change, but now a few decades on, I realise that meaningful change takes time, and we owe it to our ’cause’ to have the conversations that will lead to systemic changes, not just quick fixes.

In our industry various institutions and organisations have been called out for historical wrong doings. Drama colleges in particular have been called out for poor behaviour and inequality.  So many intention statements have been issued around what changes certain institutions are going to undertake in order to wake up to this new order.

I think that a sad by-product of these important discussions though are the amount of teachers no longer wanting to work within the drama college framework. I’ve spoken to so many people recently that are literally too scared to teach as they feel that they’re now unable to get things wrong.

Now before you jump on this blog and shout that it’s a good thing that ‘those’ teachers want to leave, and that people who can’t evolve and change should be kicked out, yadda yadda . . . hear me out, as I don’t actually think that it’s the ‘problematic’ teachers that are wanting to leave. After all, those sort of teachers are never reflective on their own practice, and will simply dig a trench of their own belief system and hide in it for a while until it’s safe to come out. “Those” teachers will find other jobs in other sympathetic organisations that won’t require them to even give ‘lip service’ to the systemic changes that are needed.

No I believe that we’re losing the teachers that are desperate to get it right . . . all because the sudden hunger for change does not give them the right to get it wrong. One dumb comment, one thought provoking question can result in a social media backlash, or an official complaint needing weeks of investigation in order to follow protocol. Their confidence is being eroded, and a teacher consumed with self doubt is never a good one.

Whatever happened to nuanced discussions, discourse, learning from mistakes?

Again before you jump on this there are clearly some things that are just ‘wrong’ eg wilful mistakes that could and indeed should lead to a legal prosecution. However that’s in a different league to a teacher just having a bad day and saying an unthinking sentence in the spur of a moment. As educators we should not be expected to get everything ‘right’ straight away. Like our students we have to learn how to exist in this brave new world too.

The teachers that I’ve spoken to feel like they’ve lost that freedom to get it wrong. One wrong word, one stupidly phrased sentence leads to them being called out as an ‘ist’. However it’s important to remember that teachers are fallible humans too. The thoughtless sentence that’s hurt a student can’t be assumed to have been said with a premeditated intent to hurt or damage. There’s so much more to the issue than that moment. A context, a nuance, an understanding. . . a conversation.

Teachers are expected to take into account the wellbeing of their students, to acknowledge and make allowances for a ‘bad day’, to attempt to stay curious about why somebody reacted in such a way, as opposed to writing off that person for their actions in a single moment. We hold in high regard the ability for somebody to learn from their mistakes, we encourage ‘daring to fail’ as a mantra for learning. Yet teachers are now expected to just get it right straight away. 

We are all living through the pandemic, as angry and frustrated as students are for the slowness of change, teachers are also burnt out and spent, as they too attempt to navigate the change that is so sorely needed. However I believe that we also have to give teachers the right to get it wrong. Once again for clarity I’m not talking about things that are illegal, I’m talking about regular things where they just get it wrong or handle things badly.

Teachers should be afforded the same luxury of learning from their mistakes, being held accountable and also making right where necessary.

With the recent cases of school teachers being trialed by social media we have to be wary of these things as it’s important to remember that one person’s account is not necessarily ‘the truth’. It is ‘their truth’, but we don’t know what else was going on for them when they had those experiences. There is always another truth or another side to an event, and it is those two things that come together to create ‘the truth‘.

I spoke about this before having seen a friend be put through hell and back when somebody chose to lie about them on social media. As the person on the receiving end of the lie you have no recourse to defend yourself, as seemingly the first account of a story that people read is now considered to be the gospel truth,  after all, who would knowingly lie about ‘such a thing’? Yet the thing is. . . people do lie.

I’ve had this experience countless times myself. Even quite recently on one social media platform somebody commented under one of our videos that they’d been to the college and had been physically beaten up by a member of the faculty during the audition!!! A ludicrous statement on so many levels, the person making the claim had never stepped foot in the college and other than this troll post had had nothing to do with us at all – but people were prepared to believe them, after all . . . why would they be lying?  I mean this is an extreme example and I called the person out on it, but you get my drift. Social media is as dangerous as it is brilliant. There was another case recently where somebody posted a wholly inaccurate account of a situation that they had been involved with, now for sure that could have been their experience of the events, but by missing out huge chunks of really important and vital information, their sense of injustice read true, however those missing chunks actually painted a very different picture. Again though – social media is not the place to try to defend actions. There’s just not the space.  In an ideal world you’d call out these things, sue for defamation and have your day in court and a sense of justice, however the reality of that is that you have to be very rich to fight even the most basic of defamation cases. So you’re forced to just leave it out there and hope that nothing comes of it. In the meantime, as in the case of my friend though, these wild accusations can lead innocent people down a dark path of despair. A huge price to pay for literally doing nothing wrong.

So what’s the answer, as I really worry that we’re going to lose a lot of brilliant teachers who really care about their students/pupils, and in truth I don’t know. I guess we all have to keep striving to create workplaces where difficult discussions can take place, without fear of retribution when heavily edited accounts are posted online. Students need to be heard, but equally teachers need to feel confident with their voices too.  Is it more staff training? Is it more discussions in town hall type meetings within organisations?  We’re well past the age of ‘the teacher is always right’, but equally we shouldn’t be in the age of ‘the student is always right’. I guess that it’s mutual respect, constant conversations and an openness to change, and that change can sometimes come from getting it wrong, and both students and staff have to be supported and indeed granted the right to ‘learn from their mistakes’.

Tis a brave new world, and one that we’re all striving to belong to. It just takes time eh?