TESS Article: “Them” + “Us” = “We”

This is a draft of my next article for the Times Educational Supplement Scotland.  It’s based on a previous post with a good dollop of ideas borrowed from my good friend John Connell.


I reckon one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way in which people use the third person plural in a negative sense.

Listen to any conversation about education and very soon “they” will emerge as the problem. So teachers will talk about “them” (management), management will talk about “them” (teachers and the local authority) and those in the local authority will talk about “them” (schools and the government).

Of course there are many others groups who can be characterised as “them” – children, parents, IT managers, unions, finance departments, politicians, social workers, doctors, HMI, the media – “if only “they” could do their jobs properly then all would be well”.

By externalising the problem we strengthen our allegiance to our own group – “we need to work together or “they” will ……….” Yet what is fascinating is how it’s possible to move (i.e. through promotion) from being one of “us” to one of “them” and also start to think about those whom were recently your colleagues as “them”. I’m not suggesting here that such language is always used in an adversarial sense but that it demarcates and emphasises the differences between groups.

In many ways it’s natural to refer to any group beyond our own as “them”. So much of our own self-esteem is wrapped up in our social identity where we categorise others and ourselves – often comparing ourselves favourably towards other groups.

Perhaps some of the key drivers for this allegiance mentality are the hierarchies we have built up in Scottish education. Over the years we have evolved rigid and deeply layered hierarchies generating precisely the organizational mindset that promotes the top-down divisions of ‘us and them’

The ‘us and them’ attitude is therefore merely a reflection of the reality faced by most unpromoted teachers in the classroom, for instance, when they look at the phalanx of ‘managers’ piled high above them, both in school and beyond the school.

There is another critical element in this, and that is the almost total disempowerment of classroom teachers that has taken place over the past two or three decades. Teachers simply, in Scotland, no longer have any control over their own destiny to any extent that genuinely recognizes their skills, knowledge and commitment to what they do. People who feel disempowered cannot but help see those who have taken their power away as ‘them’ – no amount of care over use of language will change the structural fact of the situation that teachers find themselves in.

Yet there is hope. Two unique opportunities have aligned themselves in the firmament to challenge the dominant hegemony of multi-layered leadership structures and the “learned helplessness” of the profession. I am, of course, referring to our current and on-going financial crisis in public service delivery, and the Curriculum for Excellence. These two apparently disconnected events provide an imperative for change that has dramatically changed the landscape. In some of my more esoteric flights of fancy I see this moment as our equivalent of the cataclysmic events which wiped the dinosaurs from the face of the earth.

The challenge for us will be to see if we can evolve to survive in our new world. Or will the big beasts attempt to maintain their dominance? Striking out wildly in their titanic death throes at anything or everything within reach?

But what sustains me is my faith in our capacity to face up to reality. To see this as an opportunity to do things in a different way. To create a system which provides people with freedom to make informed decisions underpinned by a mutual interdependence.

Certainly the status quo is doomed. It may take one, two, three, four years or even longer but things are changing. I foresee a time when schools shift back to being rooted in their own communities. Where teachers are interdependent and where we challenge the dominance of “them” and shift to “we”.

Yet before I get too carried away in this euphoria of visioning it’s important to recognise that reality is tempered by a hesitance from all of us to embrace “real” change. Perhaps I should just sit it out for a few years and see if things really do work out as bad as they say things are going to be? Why should I give up the power that I’ve worked so hard over my career to attain? And in a similar fashion why should teachers accept the responsibility for the curriculum which has now been foisted upon them. Why not complain about “them”, sit on their hands, and wait until someone comes up with the great idea of telling them exactly what to do?

4 thoughts on “TESS Article: “Them” + “Us” = “We”

  1. What? Not even a mention of “them” at SQA?
    Seriously – as a former HMI I always found it embarrassing that teachers should be so deferential instead of affirming their belief in the efficacy of their own actions and decisions. So yes, these ‘hierarchies’ appear to be ingrained.
    Doing some work in England recently I noted that the curriculum changes that give their schools the power to make fairly significant changes to school organisation and curriculum delivery has found teachers so disempowered by the previous regime of a national curriculum that they are unable or unwilling to make changes. Perhaps that’s because there will be no one else to blame if they get it “wrong”?

  2. As head of a very positive thinking and lively department I would like to respond to Don’s comments. I think I speak for all my staff when I say that C of E does not frighten us and we embrace the possibility of having more control of what we are allowed to deliver in our classrooms.
    Craft Design Technology at Musselburgh Grammar has always strived to be ‘cutting edge’. Over the last 15 years we have constantly adapted our courses bringing in new approaches where ever possible. In addition to this we have always been strong advocates of introducing Pupils to using ICT to enhance their education.
    We do have a problem with the direction this new initiative is being led by certain parties. Especially if the latest offering on the LTS website showing good practice is anything to go by. http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/curriculumforexcellence/buildingthecurriculum/engagingwithparents/secondary.asp
    This sort of technical project would set progress in my department back 20 years.
    If I am totally honest I would say that the one and only thing that does worry me is the thought of failing our pupils by taking a wrong decision with curriculum planning which leads to a dis-jointed and meaningless education for all.

  3. Walt

    It’s great to hear from someone who has experienced it “from the other side”.


    Thanks for your comment. You describe my greatest fear about centrally generated examples of so called “best practice”. It reminds me of some feedback I got from one of my most respected colleagues when I said at a staff meeting that I didn’t believe in “Best Practice” – for such a term immmediatly suggests that there is only one way to do something properly and that if you didn’t comply or conform that your practice was in some way inferior. My former colleague – Michael Hill – was one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen, but his practice was unorthodox, exciting and absolutely effective. However, if it was to be compared with what constituted “best practice” in his subject area of RME he would have been excluded from belonging to that category.

    As a member of one of an exceptional department I know you have created an environment where you and your colleagues are exploring what is known as next practice.

    See this link for more info https://www.edubuzz.org/donsblog/2009/12/13/next-practice/

    I think that’s why I’m so keen on the concept of subject learning communities where we create a dialogue with colleagues but studiously avoid trying to describe anything as “best” practice. For what works brilliantly in one school will rarely translate effectively to another environment.

    So I’d encourage you and your colleagues to continue to innovate – take confidence in your work and model to your colleagues in other departments to follow your example – not in “what” you do – but in “how” you approach the task of teaching.

    Good luck.


  4. What would happen if every member of staff embraced real change as whole-heartedly as our students do?

    What attitude change will transform our staffroom into a next practice adult learning environment?

    Why do we crave to be told what to do and then complain when our line manager actually does just that?

    Let us be leaders for change in our schools, a voice of positivity and encouragement, open to feedback and with the confidence to try new things.

    I’m with Don in saying “Give change a chance”. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surpised with what we learn from the experience.

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