The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I don't believe I've ever managed to blog my occupation all the way through November / December before.

A sample day in the life of Lectrice:

Get into work at seven thirty - half an hour before the usual start time, as I'm responsible for setting work for anyone who's away, and my colleagues feel slighted if I don't ring them in person to chat about how they're not sure what work to set and could I do it? The attention is so welcome, they even leave an answerphone message reminding me to ring them to ask about cover work - completely without irony.

I need to interrupt my registration period (aka carping at sixteen year olds about really really important things, like uniform) to go beg my manager for a board marker. Teachers are disapproved of if they require new stationery, as if, really, if we're going to do such irresponsible things as use them up, then we should pay for them ourselves. He's not in, so I use the skeleton key I stole four years ago to raid his cupboard anyway. If I had adequate supplies, I'd not need to steal, I reason with myself, like some sort of pedagogical Fagin.

The headteacher's bosses, the school governors, attend my first lesson: media. What the students really need to do is be allowed to get on with the coursework they've slaved for weeks over, but I know that the head will have sent them to me so that they can see discussion, frequent practical reference to examinations, lots of IT, and preferably a good smattering of advanced level concepts that the governors won't understand. (You get to know what you're famous for.)
The students tap their pens in irritation as I force them to discuss every possible permutation of theories about audience response at huge length, then go on to flash a lot of how-to-conduct-an-audience-survey tripe across the electronic whiteboard.
The white-bearded governors seem offended when I ask them to be subjects for the students' audience surveys by introducing them as 'plainly a different age group than we're used to in this room'.

During my marking period, I have to attend a series of formal exclusion meetings with a senior manager to deal with two physical assaults from a previous lesson. The manager is soft-spoken but extremely persuasive, and soon Jack and Mohammed are in tears and feeling thoroughly egregious for apparently making the world's most lovely teacher think twice about ever returning to work.
It's a change for violence in the workplace to be taken seriously, and reassuring, but I'd rather have gotten my marking done.

During the penultimate lesson with my top set fifteen year olds (before their mock exams begin), I rattle through revision strategies for each exam. Four boys are too hyper to shut up, so I decide to speak more quietly each time I'm interrupted. It works at first, then I have to go further: sit down, wait, give out the evils, send people out ("but I won't know how to revise?!" "yes, but everyone else will"), and finally give up, tell them to write an essay.
We question alternative coexisting interpretations of the ending of Brathwaite's Limbo. Nathan decides that the poem reminds him of Vietnam.
Jason tells me his uncle didn't like that we watched an extract from 'Roots' to contextualise the descriptions of life on board a slave ship. He says his uncle says 'Roots' is racist, and it's disrespectful to all his poor ancestors to see their suffering.
I point out that Jason's uncle is white, that Jason himself has no ancestors involved in the trading of American slaves, that actually, Jason's ancestors were politely invited to work here one generation ago, and he changes his mind.

Another marking period, so I get to type up six examination papers. The exams officer lost 2000 of them last summer, and it's taken me a fortnight to track down a copy. IT would cost hundreds to photocopy 2000 seven page exam papers, so they need to be entirely retyped to a smaller scale.
It's mindless and stupid, and if the AQA exam board didn't insist that every order takes four weeks unless I pay a fifteen pound surcharge, I'd not have wasted my time on it. Still no marking done.

At lunch and break, I work with Media students on a police drama storyboard. Anyone who can't draw well is disadvantaged by the format, so we mostly spend the time designing better layouts for each frame. No time for lunch.

The remedial class of sixteen year olds emerge late, still munching burgers, cussing and shouting. They're not evil children, though, and they eventually settle, though I have to explain to several why they can't refer to the teacher as 'some bird'.
They follow the same work as my top set (actually, they were a second set, but I decided to test teacher expectations by lying to them about being a top set for two years solid - so far it's working like a dream, all expectations raised), but at a different pace. Today, Les can't sit still or stop kicking / swearing at other children. Most of my lesson is spent 'encouraging' him out of the room to be dumped in some other unfortunate's classroom. I don't have the resources to speak to the other children while this is going on, and have to hope that the two support teachers in the room (one voluntary, leaving at Christmas; the other retiring - at Christmas) are able to get round and explain things to the rest of the class. 90% of my time is taken up in dealing with removing students from the scene of their crimes.

I have a meeting after school with my head of department, in which we decide to hold another meeting next week. I finally get to mark a set of essays - all good. Except one, whose errors are so low level, I don't have the heart to add an encouraging target at the end. I know I'll see him later and point that out, and why. I hope he'll be mortified by the contrast.

A sixth former who was meant to help me sell 65 revision guides to parents this evening turns up to say she won't be doing it. She points out that it's actually my fault, for setting her coursework deadline as tomorrow.
I weigh it up: coursework deadline missed, my results go down, her results bodged for the remainder of the year by me seeming to allow bad study habits.
Or, my managerial targets missed? One of the outcomes involves only me looking bad, the other both of us, so I agree her work is more important than my line managers pet revision guide project.

I run downstairs to beg some fourteen year old boys to sell revision guides for me. Three are ex students, so I know I can probably persuade them, but we have to set up signs, a stall, a float, a safe to store the cash after, shifts, etc. I promise them letters of recommendation if they stay all evening on the task. They start hawking the things loudly at that, and swipe my coloured pens.

Two hours of parents' evening. That means two hours of repeating almost the same thing over and over without pause for breath. You have to conserve your voice, so it's important to bribe the fourteen year olds who bring round water. I get the emphasis wrong, and end up with a gigantic plate full of biscuits in front of me, and one tiny glass of water all evening.
Ricky's brother is furious, absolutely enraged by the discovery that Ric's vocational course is vocational. He insists that higher standards be maintained.
I can't in any honesty defend the course, as I don't myself believe it's worthwhile. It's social exclusion, done quietly, without the students' or parents' full awareness, in my opinion. I don't think work experience brick laying is anything other than labelling theory in action, and if Ric were my little brother, I'd probably have the same reaction.
I can't say this, though, and be quoted, so I stick to 'I accept that criticism'. Big brother demands that Ric be challenged to gain a grade C in his exams.
I can't lie to him. It's not going to happen. "If he does everything he can, if we push him to the maximum, the top grade he can aspire to is a D, sir. Ric has a chance at a C if he retakes next year. That's only a chance."
Not what he wants to hear.

I sneak over to the last person Ric's brother had screamed at in public. "He's trying to blame someone" she assures me.
Maybe so. But he has a point. His brother's been forgotten because he doesn't look good on our results. I make a long note to myself.

My interviews are over, but the evening is under my area of management, and I have to wait until all my colleagues have been seen. I suppose I could sneak out earlier than half past seven, but it's always the tired and aggressive parents who stay past the seven pm finish line, berating staff, and it's not in my nature to leave them alone to face the music.
I edge around the outskirts of an interview between a teacher and the parent who complained about her setting the same standards for her own precious flower as the other students. Try to eavesdrop for raised voices, conflict or stress.
To make certain, I chat with the teacher afterwards. If she's upset, the likelihood, after such a long day, is that she won't return the next morning, and we'll all be placed under extra pressure as the 32 students she teaches will have to be added to our own full classes.
She's fine.

Then I walk home, trying to work out along the way what to do for my three hour upper sixth form lesson tomorrow morning. It's a full day, with no marking period or breaks (fire alarm drill through lunch), so I have to sort it out now. There won't be any other thoughtspace for two days.

I read a study once, that said that teachers do no more work than any other equivalent profession. It's just that they have twelve weeks holiday a year, so they do all the work in half the time.
Days like this, I can well see how that could be.