The Teacher as Host
by Geoffrey Court

(Reprinted from Gatherings, London Borough of Redbridge, Autumn 2003)

'Administrator, social worker, coat finder, arbitrator, government directive reader, curriculum implementer, artistic director, form filler, language specialist, pencil sharpener, accountant, musician, fundraiser, report writer, nose wiper, public relations officer, petty cash clerk, examiner, surrogate parent, walking encyclopaedia, scapegoat but you can just call me a teacher.'

I took these words down from a mug I came across in a primary school staffroom. An actual mug: I can imagine what you're thinking, but I do genuinely mean that the words were printed on a cylindrical drinking vessel with a handle.

It's an over-long list; that's the whole point of it. Even so, there's a temptation to add yet further words. Some of these might put the emphasis on what a teacher does ('pencil sharpener', 'form filler'), while others ('artistic director', 'scapegoat') would have greater feeling attached to them, and say more about what it means to be a teacher. I certainly have no interest in giving teachers extra things to do, so it is a word of the second kind - the kind that I take to be closer to the heart of 'Gatherings' - that I want to propose for the list.

The word is 'host'. Because this may seem strange, I will explain where it came from. Twenty years ago, on a hard-pressed east London estate, my class and I took part in a psychodrama and sociodrama project that transformed our view of classroom life. In particular, I understood for the first time how good the children were, given the chance, at empathising with and learning from each other. My eyes were opened to the potential of the whole class group itself as a source of understanding, inspiration and encouragement for all its members, including of course the adults.

This led me to a way of working that many other teachers besides me have discovered, or perhaps invented, for themselves. The class and I introduced regular times when we met as a community to share experiences and compare notes. Such sessions are familiar everywhere now, usually labelled 'circle time', though I know one Redbridge teacher whose children decided on the name 'Speakeasy'!

The best description I have found recently of the spirit of circle work is in Rowan Williams' book, Lost Icons. 'A good educational institution,' he says on page 89, 'would be one in which conversation flourished'. About 'conversation', he has previously said (p 76) that it is 'not the co-ordination of actions of different individuals, but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action. It is of a kind with the dance of a group.' The circle is a place in which, in some way, the class becomes one, and 'I' becomes 'we'.

In the same essay, entitled 'Charity', Williams constantly uses phrases like 'a reciprocal and egalitarian community', and 'a subversive egalitarian ritual'. All this talk of oneness and equality is all very well, and no doubt true to the democratic spirit of the circle, but it poses a big problem. If everyone is equal, what is the teacher there for? Who's in charge? Aren't we in danger of abdicating our professional responsibility, and entering the territory of 'Lord of the Flies'?

If running a circle really meant just becoming another one of the kids (which would be inexcusable) then of course the answer would be 'yes'; but that would be to confuse 'equality' with 'sameness'. In the special setting of the circle, it's not that the teacher is no longer in charge, but that she is in charge in a different way. If communication is to flow, and children's voices are to be heard, then the job of the teacher is to keep things safe by making sure that everyone feels comfortable and looked after - and that is also the job of a host.

Being a host is a good thing. It means creating and holding a space; greeting people and welcoming them in; being attentive; maintaining an atmosphere; offering sustenance; taking care over detail. Just like being a good teacher.

The Circle Works, a small organisation based in Bethnal Green in East London that has recently established itself as a company, aims to give people space to think. It addresses this problem by creating settings that encourage people to make better sense of their experience through a process of reflective dialogue.

Geoffrey Court
The Circle Works,
6, Temple Yard,
Temple Street,
London E2 6QD

Tel: 020 7729 9671

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