Bob Bibby, former Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and English Advisor for the West Midlands borough of Dudley, died on June 6th. Another former Chair of NATE, Shona Walton, has written an obituary on the NATE website here.
Bob interviewed me for my first job as an English teacher at a ‘new school’ in Dudley (that’s all it said in the job advert). My training with Tony Adams in Cambridge had prepared me for the teaching of texts and the use of computers in schools (bloody big old useless ones attached to cassette recorders) but it was Bob, through his leadership of the borough’s English, Drama and Media advisory team, that gave me opportunities to develop as a teacher that were, I now see, literally priceless. It was the way that Bob worked with heads of English – such as the legendary Pat Montgomery – that created the conditions for the rest of us.
Bob’s Dudley team involved me in the National Writing Project (advisory teacher Chris Morris), the Language in the National Curriculum project and the National Oracy Project (advisory teacher Rachel Robinson). Through this involvement, I extended and deepened my knowledge of pedagogy – the art and science of teaching, at the same time both a practical and deeply intellectual activity. The children I taught (I think) benefited from increased attention to rhetoric and process in my teaching of writing; emphasis on the relationship between varieties of language and power, grammar in the proper sense of understanding and manipulating a meaning-making system; oral language development, the relationship between narrative and the development of higher level thinking. My students’ work appeared in books and reports and, horrifyingly, I appeared in Common Bonds, the Oracy Project video. I wasn’t special. You will see the work of lots of Dudley English teachers in these projects’ publications.
As an approach to teachers’ professional development, Bob’s style might be described as that of an organic intellectual who sought to transform the activities of the teaching profession by getting them to articulate their own scientific knowledge. These days a sentence like that can sound like a fine example of Blob-ism or simple wanker-dom. And that’s a problem with the times we live in and their dominant discourses. It’s not Bob’s problem or, dare I say it, mine. (OK, it may be mine).But an English advisor like Bob didn’t think that an MA would save your soul as a teacher. He didn’t indulge in cack-handed liturgies about epistemology and ontology and your ‘stance’ as a teacher-researcher. First and foremost you were a teacher – one word, teacher, that was good enough. You were given opportunities to read things you hadn’t read before; talk to people interested in the same questions; try out some new ideas in the classroom; reflect and engage in some robust dialogue. You learned new stuff; you grew as a teacher; your students were joint beneficiaries.
That’s an important point: they were joint beneficiaries, meaning you as the teacher benefited too. It wasn’t only about the students as data, their test scores, your performance targets. The assumption was that if you were enabled to flourish as a teacher it was more likely that your students would flourish and also do better in measurements of their progress.
Bob was one of the last, great English advisors, people of great expertise, close to the practice of teaching and with a license to help teachers improve it by understanding its complexity. There were quite a few stellar English advisors in the West Midlands alone. They are now virtually all gone. First, they were required to become inspectors. Then they were required to pursue a ‘school improvement’ agenda. By then, they were mainly handlers of ‘data’, meaning numbers not words. Finally, they were retired early, given voluntary severance or employed on fragile contracts subject to the political whim of councillors. If they survived, they focused on leadership and management – running NPQ franchised tick boxes, pandering to the narcissism of ‘future leaders’ who wanted to know everything about ‘leading’ and sweet FA about teaching.
If there were two positive aspects of the recent Labour Party policy review, for me they were the explicit proposals for regional connections between schools (Labour being unable to use the word ‘local’ after what they did to local authorities with the academies programme) and the tacit acceptance that CPD in England has focused too much on leadership and not enough on pedagogy. Advisors like Bob were the real experts in developing teachers’ pedagogical knowledge across networks of schools in a particular geographic area. That kind of person is now all but gone, human infrastructure lost in the service of a political goal. Professional knowledge and wisdom purposely evacuated from the system on the basis that we should always look to government and the political class for guidance..
RIP Bob. Thank you for everything you did to start us all off and for helping me enjoy the job so much. But how can we plan for a new generation of locally-embedded pedagogical experts such as you?