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The Monday Extract: The joy and anarchy of a disobedient teacher

Education in New Zealand is obsessed with assessment and ticking the right boxes, and not doing the Wrong Thing. A new book argues in favour of positive disobedience as practised and taught by that apparent figure of authority: the teacher.

It’s late at night. Outside you can hear the hum of commuters as they make their exodus from the city. Their tyres swish through a black skin of water still clinging to the street. I’m sitting here unsure how to begin talking about productive disobedience and how it reforms the world in which we live.

In my office the light is dim. On the walls there are small objects − eclectic scavengings, the detritus of many journeys. These are gifts I’ve been given because students across 40 years of teach­ing have known of my penchant for the unusual and neglected. They are poignant things: an old felt heart stuffed with lavender, a Julia Kristeva voodoo doll, a broken bicycle lamp brought back from the ferocity of a Soviet winter, and flowers now drained of colour, grown delicate and brittle with age.

Among these objects there are two photographs.

The first shows a boy. He’s 10 years old. It was taken in the 1960s. In this picture he sits at a regulation wooden school desk looking up at the camera. The pencil poised in his hand is not his own, nor is the book in which he is pretending to write. Behind him, artfully arranged on the wall, are some paintings of mush­rooms, but these are not his either.

The boy’s father and mother were shearing contractors who worked the woolsheds of Ngaroma, Arohena, Puahue and Parawera − places most people have never heard of. At the time the photo was taken he couldn’t read or write. In fact he wouldn’t be able to do these things until he was 14. He was destined to live out his years in school at the bottom of the class. When he left primary school he would receive a certificate for being the bin monitor. Four years later he would be expelled from college. Although he would eventually enter teacher training, he would be suspended halfway through the programme. After his probation year of teaching he’d be refused certification and he’d resign.

Although he would return to teaching, in subsequent years he’d receive letters of admonishment from Education Boards and boards of governors. All of these were related to his propensity to break rules. There would be pickets outside one of the schools in which he taught and the protesters would demand his removal.

He would spend a lot of time fighting.

The second photo is a page torn out of Time magazine. It is of a man in his 50s who has just received an award. He’s a professor. In the years that follow this photograph he would be given medals for his research and teaching and his PhD students would become thought leaders who changed organisations around the world.

His trajectory would be a blaze of acknowledgement. Although he would go to the same teachers’ training college as the boy in the other photograph, he would graduate with distinction. Across his years in primary, intermediate and secondary teaching, educators would be ferried through his classrooms to watch the innovative approaches he took to developing learning. He would become one of the architects of the New Zealand technology curriculum, he would found an alternative school, and in 2004 he would be awarded the country’s first PhD in creative practice. Today he is an advisor on creativity to a range of international business and educational organisations. The films he has created have screened at Cannes and Berlin and have been shortlisted for the Oscars. In 2001, in recognition of his contribution to education, he was awarded the inaugural New Zealand Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for Teaching Excellence.

These are two very different photographs. They show two people who made life journeys through the New Zealand educa­tion system. One was a fighter and one was a negotiator, but I am not sure which of them would be better to ask about the nature of schooling in this country. Both were driven by passion. Both made unusual choices and tried to change the things that hap­pened around them.

But if you look closely, their awkward smiles and unease in front of the camera suggest something they have in common. These are photographs of the same man. And he is professionally disobedient.

cheating schoolkid in a classroom

So what’s my book Disobedient Teaching about? Well, it’s not a teaching manual or a self-help book or a treatise on New Zealand education, although you could think about it in all of these ways. Perhaps you might describe it as an arm around the shoulder of people who try to change things for the better. Perhaps somebody like you.

It’s concerned with the power of the disobedient teacher. Such teach­ers and learners are not passive or submissive, and this book tells stories about them. There are stories from the chalk face. Some are funny and some are poignant, but they all show alternative ways that teachers influence students, schools and the wider com­munities in which we operate. It argues for empowerment and demonstrates our ability to affect change virally.

Disobedience is a 12th-century French word that means refusal to “submit to a higher power or authority”. When we dis­obey we move beyond acquiescence. We assume that “authority” is an insufficient argument for the abeyance of thinking and action. When we disobey we look into the heart of a situation we are encountering and we make change because we know we are empowered to do so. So I don’t think disobedience is a dirty word. It’s simply claiming the right to see and respond to the world in a different way. Productive disobedience is an agency that moves things forward.

Disobedient teaching is what happens when you close the door on your classroom or office and try unconventional things because your professional compass tells you that it is right. It doesn’t wait for permission. It understands how systems work and it is compassionate and strong enough to take risks to make things better. It disobeys and positively changes systems. It doesn’t tell you to remain compliant while you climb the hierarchi­cal ladder. Disobedient teaching is rooted in the belief that you can influence things right now, from where you are. Beyond New Zealand’s current obsession with micro-managing teachers and students it advocates for something better and infinitely richer. It challenges our educational preoccupation with marking, reporting and accounting. Most importantly, it shows how and why highly effective educators operate beyond these confines.

Disobedient teachers are humane, passionate, creative risk takers. They are professional in a sense of the word that reaches beyond the compliant ticking of performance indicators. They ask questions and they don’t give up − and they make things better.

Disobedient Teaching: Surviving & Creating Change in Education by Welby Ings (Otago University Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.