Monthly Archives: September 2015

Reality Bites

Several years ago, a friend was offered the option of a ‘Skilled Professional’s Mortgage’, on account of being titled ‘Dr’. When the broker realised that my acquaintance was not a medic but, rather, a teacher, the offer – along with the assumption of professionalism – was withdrawn immediately. The lender concerned has since reversed the policy, and the friend has removed most of the pins from the figurine he fashioned from his own earwax. However, the belief that teaching is not skilled work lingers like an autograph hunter at a studio door.

I’ve referred, in previous posts, to recent trainees and their respective paths into teaching. Most have managed to qualify and, not knowing whether I’d survive the regime myself these days, I doff my fedora to their indomitability: thorough research and the clear-sighted understanding that none of it’s the full story seem to pay off. Only one did a runner from the PGCE – unsurprisingly, as our fledgling had been drawn to the course largely by the prospect of being paid to train, and by the guest appearance of someone from Educating Essex at a recruitment fair. The realisation that one is not ready to teach within minutes, and that training involves criticism – some of it stinging enough to leave a welt across a tender face – can hit hard. As can the obsidian fact that schools are usually more about brass neck than televisual gold.

The queue of those eager to appear in the Educating strand grows longer, and I can see why. In its world, banter is the quotidian currency between adults and children, much of it good-natured and some of it genuinely funny. Staff form a cohesive unit, unriven by discrepancies of purpose and the steely blade of ‘restructuring’, as if capability procedures had never been invented. Impact – heck, change – is, apparently, possible in the most trying of circumstances. And the editing policy that misled a young (ex-)trainee has made fast-track candidates for beatification of many participants. Which, it has to be said, is a welcome change from being characterised as the bastard offspring of Kitty Farmer and the Child Catcher.

It’s a neat reversal, given that teaching has long been an occasional refuge for resting actors. Nonetheless, I do wonder how much Educating advances the appreciation of teachers’ very specific and multiple areas of competence. I have heard of and from many who, having developed a formidable range of transferable skills, have found that the very idea of their re-employability is regarded as a hoot – not only by colleagues (a part of the unofficial job description), but also by those in other professions to which such skills are relevant. It’s a galling perception in general; for those trying to change career tracks, it’s an obstructive one too. To what extent does Educating Anywhere At All counter the misapprehensions that blight teachers’ chances of being taken seriously?

Though well-intentioned – and, indeed, the reason for many of its critical plaudits – the programme’s overwhelming focus on students in challenging circumstances arguably compounds the problem: rare is the episode in which we see lives enriched as much by subject learning as by pastoral support. Or in which teachers are not only de facto childminders but also experts in, and passionate advocates for, their specialisms. A vigilant pastoral system can, indeed, work wonders for some; but so, too, can a subject’s capacity to speak to a hitherto uninterested mind, especially when delivered with inspirational gusto. I’ve seen it happen many times, and I’m not alone.

In the hands of Educating’s editors, however, the curriculum is little more than the medium through which the ‘real’ business of schools, namely quasi-parenting, is conducted. Yes, yes, in loco parentis and all that. But it’s an approach that, while eliciting redemption narratives a-plenty, offers little to challenge the view – expectation, even – that a teacher is the same thing as a social worker, albeit untrained and even more badly dressed. The assumption is an insidious one, bemoaned by numerous teachers – including, perhaps, some of those who’ve been, or aspire to be, Educated.

We know that education is the current field of choice for really clever people, like SpAds, on the fast-track to ideological leadership. However, when the opportunity to engage in the sine qua non of actual, y’know, teaching is simultaneously extended to an ever-widening constituency that includes the unqualified, the bewildered and their imaginary friends, the conviction that the job requires no particular skill is reinforced. Centralised control, whether from government or head teacher, over what is taught and how, further reduces the teacher to a factotum: ecoutez et repetez après moi. Which may be why Cerebral, or whatever Caecilius’ dog was called, no longer est in horto. Perhaps someone should readmit him.

When other parts of the education sector collude, even implicitly, with the notion that effective teaching requires little skill, you know there’s a problem. A recent attendee at a university open day was surprised at the number of seminars and lectures delivered by postgraduate students. The GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant), a staple of American university faculties, is a relatively recent but increasingly popular import. A number of UK institutions now employ graduates to deliver front-line teaching which, at least, ensures a baseline of subject knowledge, unlike the use of teaching assistants to deliver whole-class lessons in schools. However, the GTAs’ preparation to teach varies widely: a few have the option of courses that span the academic year and result in formal certification; most receive a day or two of pre-Freshers’ Week instruction.

A few years ago, I abandoned a Masters degree because of its teaching standards. Penalised by the EQL rules for pursuing a qualification lower than one of those I already possessed, I was charged international-level fees for tuition whose quality was wildly inconsistent. Some of the professors were very competent teachers who had, clearly, spent time honing their pedagogy as well as their subject knowledge. Others had managed to reach exalted levels within the academic hierarchy delivering teaching that was, frankly, terrible. Perhaps, as a teacher myself, my expectations are less forgiving. But, had more stringent staff training and professional development been in place, I suspect that I may well have stayed the course.

It’s unlikely that the aforementioned aspiring student will apply to the institution she visited: her preference is for another that boasts a megastar academic. May it be that a single lecture per term is contact enough for those, like her, drawn to the university by its professor’s high profile. For, while he harnesses the power of popular media to disseminate a bit of knowledge and secure publicity for his employer, it’ll be the faculty’s graduate students, with a single day of training under their belts, who’ll be delivering the teaching load.


Cast No Shadow

Once a year, the good folks of Pennsylvania watch a woodchuck emerge from its burrow. If there’s enough cloud cover to prevent it seeing its own shadow, spring is imminent; otherwise, it returns to the hiber-hole, trailing in its wake the belief that winter will last for another six weeks.

To those who do not work in schools, Results Day is little more than a fixture in the calendar of Silly Seasonality. Press photographers cajole students into throwing their grades in the air, like they just do/n’t care. Middle-class blondes, refugees and twin geeks* are deemed equally telegenic for a day. (N.B: * must have spookily identical grades in the spookily identical subjects their schools/parents/schools, most probably, encouraged them to take, having caught the distant scent of publicity on the wind). Heads and ministers congratulate everyone on securing them their next pay rises or, as it’s publicly known, “a job well done”.

For teachers, however, it’s a day that divines and defines the character of the forthcoming school year. At a “rapidly improving” member of an esteemed chain, a department head, who received scarcely a word of thanks for overseeing a marked rise in results last year, was summoned to the Principal’s office as soon as it became clear that this year’s porky-pie-in-the-sky targets – drawn up, as the HoD had repeatedly emphasised to deaf ears, with no reference to the cohort’s ability – hadn’t been met. For students, too, the stakes are high. At the same institution, those with the loftiest grades were handed their results in envelopes a fetching shade of Camera Flash White; others were ushered through a side door and, like bit-part players in a Hal David lyric, instructed to carry on walking – a mere two weeks before the start of a new term. I guess “rapidly” is spelt with a ‘b’ in these parts?

We know about the prominence given to students with unbroken strings of top grades and places at approved universities. And, unless they’ve behaved disgustingly to all and sundry – a genuine rarity – no-one I’ve met begrudges them those moments of glory on the school website, during which they pretend to know who the head teacher is, while s/he pretends to give a damn. But most of us have, simultaneously, felt a stitch or two of guilt about the other students we’ve taught whose achievements are less enthusiastically vaunted but just as hard-won: the students who’ve worked their derrieres off to rise from predictions of G to actual grades of D, finding at the end of it that their efforts merit not a millimeter, never mind an inch, of a column.

In common with many teachers, I was every bit as proud of my ‘alternative curriculum’ students as I was of those in my concurrent top set. With their heady cocktail of social, behavioural and emotional needs, and target grades at the bottom of the scale, the former somehow emerged from two years of GCSE with a maturity that offset their humour and vivacity the way gold does the brilliance of diamonds. All of them achieved grades significantly above those predicted – several of them, the magic Cs – and not one failed to proceed to college for further qualifications.

That includes the student who was awarded the school prize for English Literature, and the one who agreed to be tutored by post in the months leading up to the exams, when her pregnancy took a turn for the difficult. As the head teacher rattled off pass-rate percentages to eight, congratulatory decimal places, our faculty was advised that the school was unbothered about the primigravid “and her like”, all of whom had been advised to seek other institutions in which to continue their education. Unsurprisingly, none of them made it onto the website – which is as predictably rum as yours truly after several mojitos and a Jean Harlow.

This year, however, it’s another group’s fate that’s proven vexatious: the GCSE candidates who all but burned themselves out, in their efforts to move to other sixth forms. Who’ve exceeded target grades and met the general entrance requirements but, having fallen slightly short of those for a proposed A level, have been prevented from taking the subject – even though their cases were easily explicable. One, for instance, who dropped a grade in Further Additional Science, had no subject teacher for Year 11 and resorted to teaching himself. (Indeed, with an entire class facing the same predicament, his school did as it knew best and renamed the problem. Thus was its uncanny ability to send staff fleeing for the antipodes no more: one person’s escape from a hell-hole of a job; another’s “independent learning opportunity”.) He’s opted, at the last minute, for a different sixth form altogether, where he’ll be able to take the subject he needs, and of which he is more than capable.

I’m not unsympathetic to the enforcement of entrance criteria. Not when I’ve worked in a school where senior staff held the door open to anyone who fancied a pop at a subject, regardless of their grades. With faculty heads banned from enrolment days, even prospective students who fell miles below minimum requirements were told that “It’ll be fine, I’m sure” by one bloody idiot or another. This might have been less of a problem if: a) faculties hadn’t been subject to 100% retention targets, with student losses resulting in financial penalties (that Merc isn’t going to pay for itself, you know); and b) all comers hadn’t been promised that, if their teachers were doing their jobs properly, passes at certain grades were guaranteed. This is, I believe, what’s known as the “Seat! Quick! Bum!” principle of recruitment. Or “Two bums”, if feeling ambitious.

However, so fearful have sixth forms now become at the prospect of anything less than assured outcomes, there’s little appetite for taking a punt on a promising student who, having had a scuppered year, landed a little wide of the required mark. With that and sparky originality deemed too risky, schools are, instead, admitting only those conscientious enough to write down and repeat almost every word their teachers utter. The folly of which becomes painfully apparent when coursework is submitted for marking, bearing phrases such as “toilet parts to fore and aft” divested of the inverted commas in which they were originally delivered.

Time will tell how accurate Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions were this year. Indeed, in only a few months, we’ll be ready for his next annual attempt at clairvoyancy, after which he’ll return to his abode in Gobbler’s Knob for another year. No inverted commas required.


Crime And Punishment

The tea-tray on which I began my descent of the slippery slope (at the bottom of which we now lie) was a detention a friend and I received for damaging institutional property. So record-breakingly long was it by our school’s standards that, on running out of cruel and unusual curricular punishments, the deputy head resorted to lobbing dusters at us, along with instructions on how to clean the bookcases in the panelled library. The topmost shelves were out of reach and, though our last grains of social responsibility howled “Nooooo” at the order to do so, we realised we had no option but to remove our shoes and stand on chairs.

And what of that? Well, in order to identify the most disgusting of our number, several of us childebeests had spent the preceding weeks competitively wearing unwashed socks. Indeed, with laurels not yet bestowed, some of us (fellow detainee and myself included) remained actively involved in this medically-inadvisable research. There are people for whom revenge, carefully planned and executed, tastes sweet; for us, it was unintended and smelled horrific. As we loosened our laces, a stench filled the air – the olfactory equivalent of a time-lapse movie charting the decomposition of a rat’s corpse. Those hitherto ignorant of our co-curricular efforts didn’t remain so for long, and the library was cleared long before it was cleaned.

Obviously, this occurred in so other a time that it may as well have been another place. Shoe removal would, today, be considered a paltry nod indeed towards Health and Safety; without an embarrassment of carabiners and the kind of immovable wedgie that can only a hyper-enthusiastic belay can achieve, it Just Wouldn’t Happen Now. Nor is a sock war, to the best of my knowledge, among the challenges in which young people of a competitive bent engage these days. Those, I am told, consist largely of death threats even greater than an acquaintanceship with my hosiery, delivered via etherweb and comprising punctuation, misspelling and smiley faces. LOLZ :o>

What dates this tale more than anything, however, is that it harks to an age of sanctions, also known as the Mesozoic era. Back then, doing something wrong resulted in punishment. The foolishness. As schools now concern themselves primarily with headline figures, things would be much easier for my teenage self in the current climate. I detach a page from a textbook weighing half a Zeppelin; my target grades, and proximity thereto, are established; staff are obliged to prove that they have done everything in their powers to ensure that I am ‘realising my potential’.

And thus is my act of vandalism transformed from a clear example of Selfish Little Shittery that fancies itself an ingenious solution to a carriage problem, into a symptom of disaffection induced by teacher incompetence. For, in the way of things like sunrises, the teachers’ efforts, however assiduous, will be deemed insufficient. As copping-out management goes, this is great, being equally applicable to the naughty-lazy daft, the naughty-lazy bright and their distant lazy-naughty cousins. Those cries for help, cunningly disguised as igniting each other’s hair extensions for fun, are just waiting to happen when Miss and Sir fail so comprehensively to meet their students’ needs.

We know that poor behaviour is one of the reasons for which teachers often leave their jobs – nay, profession. We know this because departing teachers tell us so, though they often go unheeded. Having created the category of ‘low-level disruption’ for the purpose of calibration, we now find that it is tantamount to an excuse, enabling senior staff so inclined to pile all responsibility for behaviour management onto the shoulders of classroom teachers, whose requests for help are re-interpreted as admissions of incompetence and logged in big, black folders of evidence.

The construction of improbable façades also leads many schools to believe they can ill-afford the appearance of any crack. Misdemeanours may go unpunished to ensure that no paper trail attests to behaviour issues. Line managers, rather than supporting staff by tackling the miscreants who prevent others from learning, hide in alcoves or barricade themselves inside meeting rooms. So dedicated are some to replicating those awful ‘living statues’ in Trafalgar Square that I’d have a fair chance of scot-freeing my way through fashioning a Camberwell Carrot from a textbook, lighting it off a classmate’s hair and partaking of its vapours in the playground.

Or, proving that the Yoda garb is nothing but a costume, some turn what should be opportunities for behavioural sanctions into rocket-booster sessions in which – defying fripperies like exam board regulations and gravity – grades already achieved may be…erm…revisited. So, yet more lunchtimes/after-school hours/weekends/holidays are given over to catch-up (or copying, as it’s also known) for those not yet hitting the mark; or, for those who’ve already done so, an expectation of “stretch and challenge” only achievable, in truth, on the rack.

As Meatloaf, junior lecturer in the Life Lessons Faculty, almost said, one out of two ain’t bad. My sock drawer may still smell apocalyptic but, in the light of the punishment inflicted upon me, I’ve not defaced a book since.