Do we need more mavericks in education?

Sometimes the gods smile upon disruptive nostalgists. It’s not every day you are invited to attend a gathering of maverick teachers, for example. It’s even rarer to be invited to attend such an event in another country, indeed, on another continent. Especially one you have never visited, and have always wanted to. Be prepared to indulge me a little on this post’s journey to enlightenment.

Agastya
Agastya

In this case the god in question was Hindu, Agastya by name. Though to be more accurate Agastya was more of a siddha, guru, sage or maharishi than a god; but for a mere mortal he had some impressive god-like Vedic powers – like drinking the seven oceans dry. And latterly, inspiring an educational foundation with the aim of spreading learning throughout the villages of rural India. The Agastya Foundation is a truly inspiring organisation, mixing education with practical ecology and spirituality, and I was delighted to have the opportunity of visiting them, joining the Maverick Teachers Global Summit, 2016, and seeing their work at first hand.

Now the very concept of a global summit of maverick teachers I found very appealing in itself, wherever it was to be held. I was once accused, disparagingly, of being a maverick at a senior leadership team meeting – a verbal badge I wore with pride for the remainder of my career. I like mavericks, and like being one.

Brett Maverick
Brett Maverick

Having been raised on a weekly diet of cowboy movies at York’s Rialto cinema (now a bingo hall, of course), I thought I knew all there was to know about mavericks. Weren’t they the more enterprising cattle on the open range who ran wild, refused to be part of the herd, and went their own way? An image reinforced by the character of the loveable rogue in the eponymous TV series, Maverick, in which James Garner played a gambler constantly getting into scrapes, but always emerging triumphant? So working with a group of maverick teachers sounded just up my street.

Then I realised that I was meant to be ‘facilitating’ a group of these maverick teachers! Which suddenly sounded rather more challenging. Mavericks are the ones who refuse to fit in, who go their own way, who won’t run with herd? Suddenly I was seeing myself in a different era of commercial TV entirely, some 50 years later, and ‘herding cats’ seemed more likely to be the order of the day. All cats are mavericks, it comes with the genes and evolutionary history. But maverick teachers, hopefully, might not be quite so challenging?

The outcome was a glorious week facilitating a delightful group of teachers who not only lived up to their billing as mavericks, but reinforced for me the thought that the profession as a whole could maybe do with more such mavericks. Articulate, passionate, committed… and full of ideas and opinions, which certainly made for some lively moments. At one point someone from another group turned to me and said “Maverick? Our group has gone positively feral”. An irony here being I later realised that feral is a more accurate description of the original mavericks, whose main attribute was being born in the wild, away from the herd, and thus avoiding being branded, rather than being headstrong or difficult as the term is now more commonly used.

Like all summits, the event had its moments, with occasional invited keynote speakers who did not always live up to their billing. But in my experience relatively few events then see a teacher rising from the floor to challenge the content and quality of the keynote they have just sat through, politely pointing out that it failed to match the description on the agenda, and demanding to know why their time had just been wasted! Though I can think of SO many conferences where that should have happened, but didn’t.

Another local maverick announced to the whole summit that he resented the language for the event being English, which represented for him the language of colonialism and oppression. Though even he recognised that with the plethora of languages on the Indian sub-continent it was probably the only viable choice – especially for an international event with delegates from all over the world – and having made his point, happily carried on arguing in a beautiful and lyrical English. No easy rides with mavericks, but never a dull moment.

That evening I sat in the twilight gloom of the outdoor terrace with both these outspoken mavericks. I listened in awe as they discussed educational pedagogy, philosophy and spirituality in a way that helped me realise why so many turn to this sub-continent for spiritual enlightenment. Another of the group sang regional songs, which in one way seemed totally alien in their melodic and harmonic structure, and yet which had the power create the most powerful emotional response even in those unfamiliar with the music. And for a brief evening I understood the word transcendental, and how people fall in love with India, even though I know exactly just how pretentious that sounds now as I write it back in London. Hey ho, indulge me a little, and if you’ve been to India, you’ll know what I’m talking about?

UN Sustainable Development Goals
UN Sustainable Development Goals

The summit itself was looking at the challenge of making the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals more accessible to school curricula all round the world. How could 17 diverse objectives be transformed into educational activities that would encourage their adoption into the local community? The mavericks went to town (I do love a mixed metaphor) and produced a myriad ideas and approaches. My group of mavericks, looking at the climate and ecology goals, came up with three superb curriculum ideas, but in the end focussed on the disappearance of sparrows, triggered by a remark from one of the children we were working with at the event. I hope you’ll hear more about that later. But where better to explore such ideas than the grounds at Agastya’s campus in Kuppam, where there is such a focus on restoring the local habitat and helping the children in the surrounding villages recognise the practical value of a balanced ecosystem as well as gain a love of learning?

As I flew back from India, I thought back over my own educational career, and some of the other educational mavericks with whom I had worked. Like the maverick Head of History in my first teaching job, who got his classes to write reports on his teaching, whilst he wrote the obligatory reports on their learning. The Head of English in Bradford, who got 15 year old boys from the more challenging part of town writing the most moving and intimate poetry by telling them that it was just the voiceover for their multimedia presentations. The headteacher who gave his senior leadership team new and original job titles every time the team restructured, so that everyone sounded important, no-one from outside quite grasped the hierarchy, and every member of the team had a chance to do that which they were really good at, rather than what went with a routine job-title. Mavericks all, and hugely successful as educators.

When the National Curriculum came in, in 1998, and 1990, it had a huge impact on creativity, and particularly on the mavericks amongst educators. Whilst its introduction was allegedly about entitlement, rather than orthodoxy, the result did appear to shift the emphasis towards teachers who, when asked to jump, wanted to know ‘how high’, rather than ‘why’? Lots of creative and innovative educational thinking was lost as creeping standardisation became the order of the day. I understand the value of that entitlement, and of the levelling of the playing field, but still mourn the loss of some of that maverick creativity and innovation. And yes, some mavericks did weather the storm, and kept the creativity going, and the picture is not all doom and gloom. Meeting a group of international maverick teachers underlined for me how important it is that we try to get even more of that maverick mojo back and celebrated in UK education.

Maybe the real challenge is that by their very nature, selection and calling, the majority of today’s teachers are reasonable people. With apologies for the explicit sexism involved in quoting George Bernard Shaw (but it is from Man and Superman, so already I’m on dodgy equality grounds from the title alone): “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” A good point, though I should also hastily add that 50% of the maverick teachers I had the chance to work with at Agastya, and who helped shape these thoughts, were women.

Maybe what UK education needs right now are a few more unreasonable mavericks that persist in adapting the education world to the needs of children, instead of trying to conform and adapt children to the needs of an unreasonable world? And maybe helping put the progress into progressive while so doing?

Maverick Teachers Global Summit 2016: http://www.agastyamtgs.org/
The AGASTYA Foundation: http://www.agastya.org/
About the guru Agastya: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agastya
Maverick (TV series): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maverick_(TV_series)
Herding cats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_MaJDK3VNE

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