The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, May 07, 2004

I have spies in other people's classrooms. I do. I need - really need - the skinny on other teacher's iniquities, faults and negligence, just to feel better about my own.

So I keep tabs. Students I taught at age 16 are sent out into the world purely to feed my habit. I see them in the street, and they don't get away without an email address or a date to come back and deliver a talk to year ten. If they uphold their part of the bargain, I'll help them with their homework.

Yeah yeah yeah, I see how bad this looks. I'm paying them to spy for me to excuse myown inadequacies, I'm teaching them to cheat, suspect, to lie and inveigle their way to the top. Yeah yeah yeah.

But kids in rich areas have home tutors. They have extra revision books. Some of my friends write those books and tutor those children, and pretty much do the work for them. I recall one friend's outrage when a History essay recycled from her own undergraduate days was marked down to a B when submitted under her pupil's name.
So I temper my guilt over swapping coursework help for information by being ethical - advice on a simpler essay plan, say, or noticing which areas should be focussed upon. Pointing out they need to mention the play they're writing about.

And then I manipulate them. Not explicitly, of course. If I outright ask for the dirt, it will bite me on the bum somehow in later weeks. No, no, no. Subtlety is key. What topics are studied in that course? Is there a lot of homework? What's the turnaround for essays you hand in? Who's your favourite teacher?

Very manipulative. Hmm. And sometimes it pays off.
I ran into Dwayne, a seventeen year old studying Literature at a rival local sixth form. Last term, outside the supermarket, I'd asked if he was keeping up with his deadlines, and later given help with the coursework. (He'd redrafted his work to fit the question better, and raised his grade from what I considered an E to a B.) Dwayne asked if my A level course covered the same poet as his. Nope. Have I heard the awful news?
Awful news? Do tell me more. About the examiners changing the set text at the last minute?
Good lord no. Examiners don't do that. What does he mean?
Apparently, Dwayne's teachers had taught a particular poetry collection, and the examiner had decided, three weeks before the formal examinations, to switch the exam to a totally different text. In a panic to address the course requirements, the whole class were having to do extra study sessions to cover the poems that had been missed.
Dwayne's eyes bugged with the injustice of it all. How awful for an exam board to do such an insensitive thing.
I sympathised, advised him that no, I didn't think the game was up, he had just as much chance of passing if he studied hard, and sent him on his way.
Secretly, deep inside, cheering.
Examiners don't change the set text at the last possible moment. But they do update changes to the syllabus online a year before it's implemented. And they do switch the texts specified every two years. And teachers do sometimes misread the specifications.
Not many spend a full academic year teaching the wrong book, but it does happen.

I'm a craven, pusillanimous manipulator. I know. But if I were in senior manglement, you'd call it strategic exposition, and would you like any action plan with that?

Two secret delights lurk in my soul: gratitude and admiration. Gratitude at the precious, precious knowledge that I'm not the only one to mess up at the last minute with something important.
Secondly: wow. The balls on that teacher - to lie your way out of it by pretending the board did it. Wow. That's class.