Opening Pandora’s Box

In the early spring of 2007 I was about half way through the main piece of research that would eventually become my PhD thesis. I was working in an infant school at the time, where I had done about 1 term’s work in the Year One classroom and was now planning to move onto Year Two. My work had consisted mostly of observation, though some participation is inevitable when you are working around children this young, their curiosity would not allow otherwise. I had got on very well with the class teacher, which can sometimes be a difficult relation for me to manage – unlike many educational researchers I have no background in teaching, so there is not that common ground there, in fact, I always had very strained relationships with teachers, and I guess I have a bit of a neurotic history when it comes to school in general, so I’m always afraid there is some baggage there. Then there is my subject matter – challenging behaviour – it’s an emotive topic, there’s panic about what some see as alarming rises in levels and frequency of such behaviour, lots of explanations passed around and lots of blame, much of it aimed at parents and teachers, but the truth is, no one knows what is going on.  The fact that I am critical of much I see in the world of challenging behaviour, doesn’t necessarily make me popular with teachers, although I do see myself as being ‘on their side’ if we can speak of ‘sides’ without driving binaries further apart. Teachers I have spoken to just want to teach, they don’t want to have to spend all their time disciplining and maintaining order – one of the consequences of this is that scapegoats tend to get excluded in the interests of the rest of the class getting on with their work. And that is exactly the problem; that level of analysis which people might not be accustomed to having their everyday work made visible by, can be the cause of much tension.

One of my strategies in this school was to try and be as open as possible, I wanted teachers and I to develop relationships as critical friends – both able to speak openly to the other’s opinion and engage in some kind of collaborative way on the everyday issues around ‘problem’ children. A central part of this strategy was for me to share my notes in full with the teachers in the classroom where I had collected those notes. This may not sound like such a big deal at first. However, there is almost a certain mysticism around the ‘fieldnote’. In the classical model of anthropology, the researcher went into a community of which he was an ignorant outsider, he would live as a member of this society, but there is an abiding image of the ethnographer scribbling his notes from the door of his tent, alone, in private, secretively. While much as changed in the conventions of ethnography, such images are not always so easy to shed, and there are pragmatic reasons for this. Fieldnotes are a strange, muddled, improvised record of just some of the things seen and heard while in a particular situation. They contain detail upon detail of the most mundane sounding facts of everyday life, that an insider in the situation might have long since stopped noticing, because it is just ‘the routine’. This is precisely the point of them, they take an outsider’s view, they ask, ‘what is happening in this situation?’, ‘what is making this work?’, ‘what are the rules of engagement?’. And they are detailed. Long and detailed. One day I wrote over 5000 words in a single day while I was in the Year One classroom. I was there twice a week for a term. That’s around 20 days in total, so at that rate that’s 100,000 words. Considering an entire thesis is expected to come in within 100,000 words, that is a lot of words. By the time I had completed all my data collection I had around 5 times as many words in data alone than I was expected to produce for the entire thesis, which tells you something about the work of selection and presentation that goes into academic writing. But that’s another story.

So, back to this story. I have completed my work in the Year One classroom, and I go in to meet the teacher, with whom as I said, I was on pretty good terms with, and hand her this ‘occult’ document. The fieldnotes. It’s about 70 pages long. ‘Wow’ she said, ‘you’ve been busy’ or something along those lines. I could already see there was some concern in her reaction. I can’t remember what I said at the time, something reassuring, and off I went with my heart in my mouth. I don’t remember when exactly it was that day that I was walking down the corridor which contained the Year One and Two classrooms as well as the reception area at the end. I think I may have been on my way to speak to the deputy head about something, who was also the reception class teacher. Anyway, the Year One and Two teacher were both stood outside the Year Two door in close congress over some document. My document it turned out, as I approached they looked up and seeing me immediately started throwing accusations at me – ‘what is this you’ve written here?’, ‘why have you written that?’, ‘why did you think that?’. And they had not got beyond the first few pages. The Year One teacher was almost in tears and the Year Two teacher was now saying that she did not want me in her class if this was the sort of thing I would be writing. Again, I cannot remember in the moment what I said, I was so taken aback by this reaction. But I took the Year One teacher away, alone, to talk. I apologised to her and said I should have warned her that there was a very great deal of detail in them. I remember clearly her looking at me and saying that she felt ‘betrayed’ by me. That stuck. I asked her to describe what exactly it was she felt I’d done. She talked about what she had read, about the starkness of some of my opinions, and what she saw as the quickness of my judgement, particularly of her actions in particular situations. I reasoned with her that in the earlier notes I was really just feeling my way around the classroom, and what she saw as snap judgements, were really just honest early impressions, and they would be treated as such when I went back to try and make sense of the whole thing. Eventually I persuaded her to keep on reading, even to just get half way through them and see if she felt like that tone changed at all. She agreed to do this. When I next spoke to her about it she was much calmer. She said she had read on and felt like overall I had reached very balanced and justified conclusions over what I had seen and heard. This was really fantastic, although I knew that she was still reeling a bit from that first encounter with the notes, and she would obviously take a while to settle this emotionally within herself. She very kindly agreed to go and talk to the Year Two class teacher and make sure that things would be ok for me to start work in there the following week. She was definitely an ally – our previous good relationship perhaps carried us through, but this was pretty much the end of our close and confidential relationship, it was like she sort of went into a bit of a shell after this, and though she remained outwardly friendly towards me, I felt like she had closed herself off somewhat.

So, this situation was partially resolved in the end by me persuading the teacher to continue reading, which she did. But they could just have easily taken these notes straight to the head teacher with a major grievance, and I could have found myself turned out. The potential fragility of my situation was really brought home to me that day, and that was a very important lesson to learn.


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