The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I'm frequently in a state of utter amazement at how fast institutions do what they do best - institutionalise.

While I meet clever students every day, it's rarer to encounter young people with genuine, native intelligence and quick wit. Students who look at the world with fresh eyes, and see what's actually there, what's real, and what's fake.

Students who are precocious in this particular sense can be a real problem in the classroom. In the overstuffed hothousing 'A' streams of a school where all focus is upon material reward - upon gaining those 'A' grades - then the classroom becomes a tool for mass control which often literally cannot cope with the wayward spanner of innate intelligence thrown in amongst its unthinking engines.

Case in point. Aisha stormed out of her English lesson yelling twenty minutes before the end of school yesterday. Knowing that she'd be sent to me eventually, to repent of her sins and be made to recant, she stormed up to my classroom herself, wanting to be represented properly. She told the truth about what had happened, about how she'd yelled back at the teacher who'd yelled at her repeatedly to stop talking, reasoned that she was unable to ignore a social transaction designed to humiliate and quell, and wanted an ear for her sense of powerlessness and injustice at having felt so without recourse that she walked out.

I let Aisha rant for a while, then tried to make her see the interaction as a conflict between two fallible people, rather than between authority source and authority subject. Her point, essentially, was that the teacher had lost it, had wigged out, had lost her cool, and lost her rag, and lost her professionalism with it (the latter was Aisha's phrase).
As a human, she could understand how to react to this, without taking on board the negativity that had been projected towards her. As a pupil, she had no way of dealing with the base inequality that defined her teacher's hunger for conflict as acceptable, and her own shaky form of conflict avoidance as beyond the pale.

Aisha calmed herself by outlining to me her plans to stand for Young Mayor next term, explained what she saw as wrong with the parents, schools, government and facilities of the surrounding five mile catchment area (her instinct was unerring in all cases), and acted as advocate for another pupil who'd recently been sent to a juvenile detention centre, arguing how we might rescue his GCSE exams from his incarceration.
Calmed further, Aisha was persuaded to formulate the obligatory action plan for how she might deal with future conflicts. She accepted that she talks constantly, when she's thinking something through, and is unable to deal with public reprimand comfortably. She reasoned that a 'time out' facility that allowed her space to calm her own temper would be useful.
I agreed. By now, Aisha had spent forty five minutes after school, working to resolve the problem.

One of my roles is to mediate between furious teachers and perhaps falsely accused/perhaps intractable children. It always involves pointing out that there are more ways for adults and children to interact than through dominance, conflict, and obeying.

I discovered today student teachers who have no idea that UK schools without spine-crumblingly strict and pointless rules exist, who've never even heard of Summerhill. Who assume that children are naughty because they're bad, rather than bored by what we're putting in front of them.

I arranged a meeting with the beleaguered teacher - a talented, dedicated, strict teacher, whose relationship with the class as a whole was under threat by constant conflicts with the popular and articulate and frankly uncontrollable Aisha. She has been teaching two years, and is mature, deeply empathetic; politically a committed socialist, a person with noble ideals, and a strongly philanthropic instinct for helping others.

Explaining the situation, and Aisha's suggestion of a time-out facility, Beleaguered Teacher's response was this: "Aisha's problem is that she doesn't know how to shut up. If she just learns to shut up, we'll all be happy."

What flashed through my mind on hearing this was the certain knowledge: Aisha will never shut up.
Aisha is way too intelligent to shut up.

I understand the frustration and anger that prompts the odd cynical outburst from staff.

What amazes me is that in just two years, the institution I work for can so beat the patience and dearly held principles out of an adult that they begin to believe that we, as teachers, are here to make children shut up.

The longer I stay in the mainstream education system, the more skewed my sense of reality becomes. This type of institution cannot benefit any of its participants, surely?