July 13, 2024


Education, What Else?

Phil and Me, The Final Chapter: Toward Redemption

7 min read
Phil and Me, The Final Chapter: Toward Redemption

“After you’ve put the pens down, insist that every face is looking at you.”


I’ve posted twice this week about my journey through the valley of darkness after Phil Beadle got me in his crosshairs. Sure there was a brief high when I realized that of all the people in the world he could have foisted a shallow ill-conceived and hypocritical attack on, he’d chosen me. Me! But mostly it was tough sledding; days of doubt.

Redemption, though, could only lie in a journey inward, yea, as to glimpse myself. And truly there were dark hours of the soul as I parsed the sometimes paradoxical words contained in the master’s lessons. I wrote about those sagas here and here.

But sweet is pleasure after pain, and gradually I began to emerge from the darkness. First, I realized there was hope for me.  When I revisited that hard to watch interview with Tom Rogers for the thousandth time I noticed that he had been sending me a message of hope the whole time! I had just failed to see it.

Watch this moment from the beginning of Rogers-gate, before things went south between them. What do you notice?


Well, ok, sure there’s the deft critique of my monochromatic palette. But when asked,  Phil says:

“What do I do for transitions? I say, ‘Pens down and look this way.”

This is to say, he manages transitions by asking for students to track him. [To cap it off he also starts with a clear observable What to Do direction (textbook Technique 52, Phil!) ]

Yes, that’s right. He is providing an example right out of TLAC- using Habits of Attention (the technique in which I discuss how important eye tracking is to attention). He is “controlling student’s bodies” even in the midst of telling us how wrong and inhumane it is.

Here’s what I say about that in the passage I actually wrote on the topic

Habits of Attention also implies asking students to track us as teachers at times. [In addition to tracking each other] There are people who will tell you this, too, is a form of tyranny, but telling children they needn’t pay attention to adults is a cheap version of freedom to trade an education for.

I also write in the discussion of this technique, how important it is that such behaviors are a habit. There’s a section about how to establish the habit as a default but also how to “turn it off” when it’s not appropriate, but the idea is that if we can make it simple and consistent students will do it reliably and we can move on without having to talk about it much.

I think that’s implicit in Phil’s answer. He is saying that he believes in making a habit out of asking students to look at him when he gives a crucial direction because the direction is, well, crucial, and he knows that if students look at him they’ll attend to it better.  That’s his routine. Tracking–SLANTing if you will–is part of Phil’s repertoire.

Needless to say there was some cognitive dissonance to work through there. After all, in his blog Phil had written this about the idea of tracking:

“Track the teacher.” This is ridiculous. I must look at the teacher at all times. I must do what I am told. I am a Dalek. I am a Dalek. I am a Dalek. Obey. Obey. Obey. Dissent will not be tolerated. You will be assimilated, or we will exclude you. 

[Side note to just Phil: actually it’s really important (IMO) for students to track each other, too. So tracking is not exclusively about the teacher but rather community … but maybe a topic for another time. But seeing as how we’re chatting anyway, What’s a Dalek, mate? I know this is my inexperience talking again!]

It was at this point that I began to conceive of the idea that he was just being ironic with all the invective about my “totalitarian, dehumanising… imbecility” being a form of violence and oppression! Maybe he had secretly wanted me to see that he actually used the ideas.  But why??

I went back to the videos from Phil’s series How to Teach: Tips for New Teachers that I had found so instructive- but emboldened now- I knew something meaningful was near. This moment afforded yet another epiphany:


Opining on how to manage a transition, Phil notes that when students have their pens in their hands, their “focus point is on something other than the teacher.” They are probably not listening that well! So Phil advises “Step one is to ask for pens down.” He’s channeling more TLAC there–concrete, observable directions to eliminate gray area, baby!

“When you’re a managing a transition, the focus has got to be on you,” he continues. [Say it again louder, Phil, for the people in the back!] And then it all comes together. Phil says:

“After you’ve put the pens down, insist that every face is looking at you. Having got every single child’s attention in the room, you pause,” he goes on. To make sure. 

In the soundtrack to my journey of self-discovery there are thunder claps here. Phil is all about Tracking! He’s a master in disguise.

From here my reconciliation was rapid. Maybe more of the things he had said were a test. Maybe the master had constructed a trial for me. I went back to the blog post he’d written, blazoning–it seemed at first–all my errors and crimes.

Sure he had said that no one with as little teaching experience as me could possibly have credibility in the great discussions about education, but that very same blog post was literally littered with the words of people who also had never taught! He’d leveraged the arguments of so many who shape classrooms from the aerie retreats of the tenure track to wage arguments about my deeper motivations and hopelessly middle class values. Was it hypocrisy or was it a message? Part of the journey?

Even the genesis of the master’s SLANT tantrum (SLANT-rum?)– Why had I not seen this?— had apparently been brought about by his reading and being inspired by a piece by… wait for it… Warwick Mansell!

I had always, wrongly of course, thought that Warwick was the most shameless of hacks, trafficking in shrill outrage narratives about schools for his own visibility and profit, showing up when an institution was in crisis–or even inventing a “crisis” when necessary by finding one disgruntled parent or teacher–to enable a bit of self-congratulatory virtue signalling for his coterie of high-minded visionaries and dissenters.

But no. I had been wrong. The master was asking me to ask myself: Why would he embrace Warwick’s insights, utterly untempered by any classroom experience of any kind, but not mine? 

And then late one night as I was flipping through a copy of Outline of a Theory of Practice [at first I thought referring to Pierre Bourdieu was a bit of an affectation but progressive intellectual Twitter seemed to love it when Phil did it and I really need some love from that quarter… so I am hoping they will dig my allusion to le Roi too!]…

…As I was flipping through my well-thumbed Bourdieu it came to me: I had no credibility because I tried to deal in facts. But if i created myths, if i could just get my head around the idea that facts serve ideology and not the other way around, then I too might gain the master’s ear. If Warwick Mansell could do it, by god, surely so could I. In the words of one philosopher, he was telling me there was a chance.

Reader, I will leave off the tale of my journey here. I am partly ashamed to have taken the time to share such petty satire. My policy on the foolishness of the internet is mostly to ignore it. I have violated my own rule and I am humbled by that. I mean that seriously. Plus Phil has asked–after his attempt at hearsay-based personal attacks–to have “a more friendly discourse.” Now that this is out of my system, I will perhaps be the bigger man and say yes. Ironically he’s pretty serious about the details of classroom practice and that sets him a mile above most of the ranters out there trying to claim that its wrong for adults to tell young people to do something and that all authority is oppressive etc.

But I find all the hypocrisy a little hard to bear.  Maybe that’s what got me going. Call me what you will friends, but you are all looking in the mirror when you say it. If you teach well, if you change life outcomes for students, you are inherently causing people to do things they would not otherwise do–that they sometimes don’t want to do. In the classroom, Tom Bennett points out, it is impossible for everyone to do what they want all the time (if they are you are doing it wrong). That’s the point. We ask them–yes, sometimes require them– to do things with their bodies(!!! )like pick up a pencil or look at someone to better pay attention–because it changes and elevates their minds. It’s hard work. Let’s be a little more truthful about it.


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