The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, December 17, 2004

The last lesson of the year, and I have to sub for a music teacher (collective groan; any cover lesson involving equipment usually descends into nightmare within seconds - this one is the final hour of the final day, immediately after 600 screaming children lost it, hilariously, at the school talent show).

Walking into a room with a bank of keyboards attached to workstations and students sat quietly attached to their headphones, it occurs to me how many features of today are wildly different to when I was at school.

I don't recall substitute teachers, much. In my childhood, teachers weren't off sick with stress so often, and they didn't have such a thing as long-term cover when a member of staff leaves and can't be replaced for months at a time.
Generally what happened was that teachers would go on strike, students would be left at home, staring helplessly at the three books their family owned, trying desperately to swot for exams.
No such strikes today, or if there are, they depend on what union controls this or that school's agenda, and last no more than a day.

If I had had a substitute teacher, they probably wouldn't have been carrying an electronic register to call up the class details, and so wouldn't know instantly for what reason each child in the room were late or absent. They probably would, however, still have had to walk over to a portakabin outhouse / temporary classroom in the streaming rain. So schools are still ramshackle remnants of a rundown building, twenty years on.

Of course, the banks of computers, the casual interface of multimedia by teachers who - by rights - aren't expected to have gotten up to speed with programming a VCR yet, the electronic interactive whiteboards - none of those were around.

The computers in my school were limited in distribution to the head of maths' classroom alone, and consisted of six huge plastic BBC machines, topped with blinking olive miniature screens, a little like the early Atari consoles on top of some sci-fi monstrous imagining.

Yet, hundreds of classrooms here still contain a rows of desks and children sat with paper and pen.
There are no blackboards left in British education.
I had just about the last one, I think, four years ago. Even 'dustless' chalk would create a white powder exclusion zone of five feet from the board. Today, the low tech classroom uses a whiteboard, and marker pens. Marker pens that continually run out, or get swiped, or leave a dark circle of fuzz on the ball of your right wrist, but less dusty than chalk, at least.

Perhaps an overhead projector, a tired old fashion come full circle, is in educational vogue again. Fortunately, though, none of those blurry blue repro worksheets from the 'banda' machine.
Photocopies contain images, colour, and are run off at a moment's notice. The corresponding rise in quantities of useless piles of paper makes me wonder if perhaps the world wouldn't be a better place if photocopies cost £200 a copy, rather than £0.02, but still.
Nor even handwritten worksheets - instructions are typed, whether you have access to a network or not, and the prevailing fashion is for instruction delivery to be verbal, and support printed.

My job as a classroom teacher seems to involve as much confiscating of mobile phones (notable not just for ringtones and calls, but for when children have decided to download a streamed beheading from the net in the middle of class) and ipods, as actual generation of intellectual thought. I can't remember what it was that bugged my own teachers to distraction about our sub-curricular concerns - probably bubble gum, tippex, and badges.
No videos, CD roms, or dvds in classrooms back then - an educational programme worth watching had to be screened by one of the three UK channels at exactly the time of day the class convened, and watched as a live broadcast. So we no longer see the 'schools' clock counting down onscreen, but we have vastly more visual resources to choose from.

For actual lesson content - the fashion during my childhood was to enthuse students, and not worry about where the lesson was going.

Grammar instruction didn't exist (I had one grammar lesson ever, which I do recall was a substitute teacher, who probably hadn't heard), and 'encouragement' the dominant philosophy: I didn't get an actual grade on my work until I was seventeen, (even then I doubted its reliability and argued for it to be reduced, as I recall).

In the classes I teach, we grade every single piece of work, and publish in all rooms the level descriptors to explain what those grades mean. Students are given number grades for effort and for achivement every ten weeks, and an average, which determines their access to privileges in the school. This is cross referenced against IQ scores (Yellis and MidYis tests), and teachers are questioned harshly if a student fails to achieve the score they've been set as their potential.
"But his mum just died" is given short shrift, as the teacher's bi-annual performance bonus depends upon these statistics, but only in raw, statistical form.

Grammar is now the main focus of the governments' literacy strategies in schools; although students here are still stymied by what a subjunctive clause is, rest assured, they're supposed to know.

Enthusiasm and interest are dirty words we sneak into the lessons once we've thought up an official sounding objective to justify it in terms of government testing schedules.

Ahh, yes, external tests.

I endured seven 100% closed book GCE O level examinations.
My little sister sailed through eight 100% coursework GCSE exams.
My own students have formal public examinations at age 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. The first two, nominally, judge the school, not the student, but this line has never worked on a nervous child walking into an exam.

It's standard to take between 10 and 12 GCSE exams. Subjects without mandatory GCSE status tend to fold. (Which is a little worrying for Languages departments across the UK, after last year's dropping of the modern language requirement - based on what? The whole world will speak English?)
So: revision classes, pay-revision guides, cohorts of glum faced kids trooping, dejectedly into the halls every four or five weeks - a far more common sight.

Extra classes run by teachers correspondingly means fewer clubs and activities run by teachers - but as there's a seven page risk assessment for each child we take on a trip outside the school gates, and trips still remain unpaid, I'd assume out of school activities are plummeting from the radar in most establishments.

This is matched by a growing parental culture of fear and distrust about children - it's a tricky thing to get children away from their solitary playstation after dark, as most parents (more absentee / working than in my day) assume murder/abduction/worse awaits on every darkened streetcorner for any school aged child.

Better to shut them in with a satellite cable or a net connection.

Oh dear, I think I'm depressing myself.

Merry Christmas. See you in the bright New Year.