Monthly Archives: October 2014

Baking Bread

Bread. Staff of my life, fire of my coeliac guts. At a push, trope for the metamorphic power of education – if you substitute pupils for flour, knowledge for water and inspiration for yeast. Follow the analogy and the baker becomes a teacher: encouraging the absorption of water by introducing it carefully to the flour; repeatedly stretching the resulting glutinous mass; adding the yeast and then patiently waiting for it to rise.

So yes, there’s a Breaking Bad-shaped void in my life that I’m trying to fill, unsuccessfully, with a half-baked (ha!) homily about the genesis of a crusty bloomer. Thanks to its eclectic intertextuality, Breaking Bad‘s treatise on the possibilities and horrors of transformation has, like little else in recent times, enabled me to declare it the best version of Macbeth I’ve seen in ages AND bang on at my long-suffering other half about the metaphorical import of chemical equations. “How is that covalent bonding? It’s ionic. Obviously: just look at his sodding hair.” Which is not really that scientific at all. There is, nonetheless, more – much, much more – where that came from. Just so you know and can exercise the option of crossing the road if you see me.

Unexpectedly, I find myself in mind of Walter White at this frantic time of year, made more so by requests for help from KS4 students at other schools. From the bits of their eldritch keening audible to these forty-something ears, it emerges that every one of them has been given half a term’s notice of entry for the IGCSE in English Language. Should they not pass with adequately high grades in November, my private students will have to forego preparations to sit the English Literature paper in order to focus their attentions on one more summertime shot at the Language exams so integral to their school’s headline figures. Lest you’ve been duped by its reputation, reports of the exam’s intellectual rigour have been greatly exaggerated: with more spoon-feeding than lunchtime at a kindergarten, and an exclusion zone around imaginative activity, its questions resemble the kinds set at KS3 a decade ago.

The principal at the school attended by one of my private tutees is a former colleague. I don’t know whether he’d remember me or would care that I recall his involvement with NATE, the National Association for the Teaching of English. NATE used to – and, apparently, still does – advocate the centrality of literature to the English curriculum, as a vehicle of creativity and wider thinking. Yet students at his increasingly-lauded school are robbed of all of the above by a culture so focused on 5A*toCgradesincludingEnglishLanguageandMaths that little else matters. Certainly not the fact that, in literature, we find an extraordinary record of human thought and feeling with which it may be worth cultivating an acquaintance.

So, where does Walter-on-his-Heisenberg fit into all of this? Forget the fact that he starts off as a teacher. It’s more that, having embarked on a journey with a specific destination in mind, he finds himself very far from home, in a bleak and sometimes hostile place. And that, mostly, by his own hand. A long time ago, when I knew him as a ‘senior teacher’ (remember them?), the aforementioned principal was a thoroughly decent man, with a passionate interest in his subject and a rock-solid commitment to passing on to his students what he had been fortunate enough to receive from others of similar magnanimity. I suspect that person is still there, somewhere beneath the sharp suit and the hair transplant. But, over the years, it seems that he’s been compressed into a very thin sheet indeed by accumulating layers of expectation and political appeasement.

I wonder if, like Walter, he got caught in the momentum of doing what was needed; whether, having achieved his initial goal, he found that he was compelled to go further – which is what happens when pursuing someone else’s definition of success. Does he catch himself, on those long dark nights spent tweaking the latest school newsletter, musing for a moment on how far he’s come, perhaps with some justifiable awe or congratulation? I hope he also wonders at how very distant it all is from whatever prompted him to get involved in the first place. Does he still relish the taste, or does it pall now, lying dull and slightly metallic on his tongue?

Last summer, on the day of the final GCSE, I walked past my ex-colleague’s school which had been a construction site for months. The buildings erected to accommodate its expansion were complete and a new name-board charted the principal’s professional odyssey through a series of post-nominals: BA (Hons), PGCE, NPQH, FCollT. No sign of NATE, though. Perhaps it was beneath one of the fistfuls of dough that Year 11s had lobbed at the board, as they celebrated the end of the exams that have dominated their school lives for the last couple of years. And, because I know it can be a tenacious mixture, when the chemistry’s right, I watched with a little surprise as a lethargic lump of the stuff rolled slowly off the board.

Maybe someone forgot to add the yeast.


Here Comes The Science Bit

If you believe that there’s safety in numbers, take notice or, possibly, flight: a man working as a teacher will, probably, find himself in a minority. This is less likely to be the case in a secondary school; more likely, perhaps, in an arts department. I speak from a position of knowledge, as one who has been mistaken repeatedly for The Only Gay In The Faculty on the end-of-term night out.

So, how should the profession set about recruiting more men? And is it necessary that it should do so at all? The ‘role model’ argument, often cited as a reason for employing more men, may have something to recommend it. I taught in a school serving high proportions of single-parent families, many of which were so on account of the incorrigible wanderlust of some fathers. Men in the classroom, casually weaving examples of responsible parenthood into the fabric of school life, is one example of how schools potentially wield a quiet power for good. Still, role models aren’t always found among those who most resemble us: a lot of people, more imaginative and perceptive than this thesis allows, find reasons to admire, or even identify with, those far removed from themselves.

I anticipate a more forceful “Yes” to increasing the recruitment of men from those who claim that a greater male presence in schools would help to reverse boys’ under-achievement. We should remind ourselves that this phenomenon, when looked at from another angle, testifies to girls’ improved performance. And that one of these has been more swiftly identified as A Problem than the other. Having witnessed numerous boys profess greater respect for some of their female teachers, I remain unconvinced that academic achievement and the sex of school staff enjoy anything more than a correlation. Apologies if that seems at odds with an earlier post on ‘race’; if you transpose my concerns about hierarchies in schools, and who occupies the more senior posts, you’ll see that it isn’t.

Recent surveys have shown that stereotypical ideas are among the main deterrents to men joining the profession: about the type of men who become teachers; about the character of female-dominated work environments; and about the gender-appropriateness of working with children. Teaching the very young, in particular, is still seen as the handily unintellectual work of women. One suggestion in response has been to challenge such perceptions by inviting male prospective teachers to work-shadow male principals in primary schools. Because that, apparently, will prove that the signifiers of masculinity – biggish bucks and besuited authority – can still be yours, even if most of your clients are wearing Teflon-coated trousers from Ladybird.

Many years ago, one of my in-laws was reading for a PhD in psychology. Her study involved tracking a group of children over several years, to chart the long-term effects of a particular variable. It was around that time that the discipline itself was attempting something of an overhaul, placing less emphasis on touchy-feely lines of enquiry, and more on whether findings would be expressible as statistics. My relative’s study was caught on the cusp of this shift: although deemed fine when she started her research, within a couple of years it was declared in need of fundamental reconstruction, to fit the new quantitative paradigm. Since then, it’s been buried beneath thickening layers of dust but may yet be disinterred, now that the field has revolved enough to accommodate the project’s methodology once again.

Over the last twenty years, there has been a not-dissimilar shift in education, which is still seeking ever more ways to masculinise its culture. Statistics; spreadsheets; clipboards; suits; job titles purged of the feminine taint of teaching, and reshaped into bowdlerised notions of directorship. No wonder the profession seemed an attractive option, for a whole five minutes, to desperate city boys fleeing the financial crash like teenage smokers running from a burning building. And in case that all seems as superficial as a makeover, don’t forget the science – lots of it, noisily grasped and quietly jettisoned when it turns out to have been bogus or wrongly interpreted.

Neuroscientists, in particular, have been keen to point out how their findings have been been misread and, consequently, misapplied in classrooms. One need only consider the biases that operate in the world of academic publishing to spot the necessity of treading with caution. A study claiming a positive or possible link between two phenomena is more likely to be published than one that concludes that there’s no provable relationship either way – even though there may be twenty-five of the latter in existence and only two of the former. And you know what’ll happen then…

Senior Leader (always upper-case, my friends), mindful of need to evince whole-school impact, reads digest of report. Unfortunately, Senior Leader possesses neither requisite level of scientific understanding, nor time to develop it in-between fabricating target grades, to engage critically with findings. High on his/her own credulity, Senior Leader cribs or creates acronym based on ill-proven theory, and sets up after-school CPD sessions on ill-researched topic.

Senior Leader delivers CPD to lower-case captive audience, compelled to spend hours watching content-light Powerpoint presentations that could be whipped through in minutes. Royally pissed-off, captive audience surreptitiously passes around loo paper mock-up of Senior Leader’s evaluation form. Unanimous agreement that most mind-blowing part was five-minute window allocated for instant coffee, urination and surreptitious investigation of (own) nostrils. Nostrils win by a hair’s breadth. Naturally.

But then, thanks to inclusion of graphs and numbers, Senior Leader starts to feel like real scientist! In bid to rival Pinker or Greenfield for neuroscientific chops, Senior Leader giddily concludes presentation with Clip Art brain scan taken from squirrel, mistakenly believed to be image from inside Year 7 cranium. (Actually, scratch the last sin from the list: I’ve confused the two species myself, occasionally.) At end of session, departments issued with new lesson observation pro forma, on which aforementioned acronym zigzags across page like Kevin Bacon in Footloose. Or Lewes High Street, judging by the mobile phone ads that now pay his bills.

Much of teaching may be a science. Or it may not. I don’t know and nor, I’m pretty sure, does the new educational establishment that insists on flour-bombing us with this guff at alarmingly regular intervals. It is, possibly, an art and, in many respects, a craft that can be shaped and refined over time, like exquisite stonemasonry. That view, admittedly, leaves few opportunities for snake-oil vendors to flog the profession their latest Big Boy Now wheezes.

I’m not sure I’d want my child to be taught by someone so in thrall to tired tropes of masculinity that he can only contemplate entering a profession that runs on them. But a man for whom the content of the job, in and of itself, is as nobly upstanding and productive as the Cerne Abbas giant’s willy? He’s worth recruiting.