The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Aaaand, the last day of summer term was yesterday; the anxiety dreams have already started.
Trapped in a foreign building, teaching a class who don't know they're trapped, and trying to secretly show them how to get out.

A one week half term hiatus begins now, while I dream of schools worse than my own.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Ex student in the newspaper.
Chisoba has been convicted of raping children by threatening them with a hammer.


I *know* I meet ex students who are law students, who have families, who thank me for helping them get to college, all the time. But it would be nice just for a change, not to recognise the twelve year old beneath the face of the guy with the blanket, the police van, and the press corps following.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

I asked fellow teachers what they think about while invigilating examinations.
(It's exam season, and the UK has placed an embargo on current teachers invigilating, so it's a passing luxury / burden.)
Summer holidays.
A stiff gin and tonic.

Sex - ?

I used to try to get assigned to exams late in the season, so I could stroll up and down trying to read the graffitti left by the bored and desperate. Until the students cottoned on to what I was doing.

One time I tried gingerly leaning against the edge of a particularly full of graffitti desk, to rest my weary feet (you can't sit or stand still in invigilation, it's against the rules, so trainers are a must to pace up and down), and the entire thing smashed into tiny pieces beneath my weight, leaving me flat on my bum in the centre of the exam hall, and the examinations officer rolling his eyes heavenwards as he realised he had to enter the incident in the official record.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Reading the discussions online about gifted children lately, I come to realise that the children we define as gifted in my school are not the norm. They're not the top set children, necessarily, or the middle class children. Often they are the ring leader of a gang of tough guys. Often many of their class teachers have no idea of their elaborately hidden abilities. Often, they spend as much time out of school on exclusion days, as in it.
These children are often referred to in descriptions of GT children, but rarely do I find practical material for them. Reading up on the blog analyses of GT kids in (american?) schools, I'm reassured that perhaps it's because there is none.

The topic makes me reconsider who has been classified as gifted in just one of my non-academic classes?

My immediate thought turns to Joel.
Joel is six foot one, at fifteen, but has the maturity of an eleven year old. He's physically very boisterous, but his imposing size, demeanour, and his immature 'naughty kid' habit of ignoring or staring teachers out gets him into scrapes where people get hurt (students and staff) several times a day. I have a soft spot for him, and recently asked for him to be transferred into my pastoral group, but I've also been kicked or slapped hard in the mouth twice since Easter by Joel. That's from a teacher he gets on with. Imagine those he doesn't.
In Science and in English, Joel averages an 'A' grade, at a point in the course when the expected mark is 'D' or 'C'. This isn't matched by attention in classtime, though.
It's hard for Joel to keep up with deadlines, as well, as he's so often excluded from school for violent incidents which he often still hasn't realised the seriousness of. Joel's parents are confused and conflicted by the reports the school sends home - tales of brilliance, interspersed with stories of woe. They are ambitious for their son, but some teachers seem to be picking on him. They choose not to believe the incident reports, and demand substantion; each time they verge closer towards accusing the school of institutional racism.

Kiendra gets lousy grades. All his teachers can see he's bright, and misplaced in the E stream classes he's found himself in. Kiendra is late to school, wears the wrong uniform permanently, wanders about instead of going to class - low grade rebellion. Including never ever doing a scrap of work.
Kiendra has a mild speech impediment. He travels a long way to get to school, from an even rougher area than the estates here - as he matures into a young man, his journey takes him through areas where he risks attack in gang territory. He's a quiet, affable kid, who likes to be liked. He lacks any perceptible ambition, and only a long series of guilt trips from me and his mother have resulted in his majority attendance this year. On IQ tests, Kiendra is at the top of the scale.
Kiendra's dad died last year. We've been gentle with him, made the rollickings for not trying at all less regular (down to a few times weekly now), to acknowledge this. His family think the school is wonderful because they view us as having cherished and nurtured their boy, focussing on his wellbeing and happiness. They are unconcerned about his grades.

I've chosen two nice ones for you. We have much more difficult able, GT students.
These two are bright, misguided boys, and typical of the type of GT kid who, if left unstimulated and off course can cause riots in their final year.

I'm all ears.

Bearing in mind the sort of school in which I teach, what GT strategies would you use to access the potential of these two young men?

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

It's been a really bloody hard two weeks before half term, but days like today make it all worthwhile. You'll have to forgive me a post of self congratulation, because the day I've had was unbelievable.

First, I hit all my deadlines.
I sent off the last of the five classes's worth of coursework I had to grade and moderate - each one using a different new syllabus, and needing every i dotted and every t crossed to ensure I was following the examination board's specification exactly. At one point, I was grading the same piece of work out of 6, out of 9, then out of 18, out of 27, 54, out of 67, then again out of 20, and then again out of 3. Then the averages.
I'm not a natural at the more mundane paperwork part of the job, so my relief from this burden has to be to throw myself utterly and enthusiastically into my classroom teaching.

Today it paid off, because in a week where all our staff have experienced real pressure keeping students of all levels in their seats and in the room, let alone focussed, a week where the sickness and stress leave is depleting my colleagues as fast as I can think up a half organised cover task, my classes enthused.
Every single class I taught ended with that lovely drainage effect, where children crowd around you at the end of the period, anxious to know more about the topic.

  • I'd tried to ignore the croaky throat that threatened to give way to use drums, legs, desks and student's best sense of loud, repetitive rhythms to sing a poem to my first class. I tried to ignore how stupid I felt to injext some damn enthusiasm into the dry stale exam texts we're forced to study.
    They fizzed about after period one, fifteen year olds wanting to know more about slavery (we were studying a Kamau Brathwaite poem, and had supplemented their free association poetry analysis lesson with some background research on Alex Haley in the form of clips of Kunta Kinte), an African student trying to translate the usually ignored swahili asides.

  • Period 3 had fourteen year olds who'd been learning to draft their creative pieces as a real writer might, while studying some of Stephen King's quieter, more reflective pieces on childhood nostalgia. I'd finally relented and let them read one of his miniature horror tales, 'Chattering Teeth', and we'd read right up to the point where the young mugger causes a car accident, and the set of walking plastic, wind up teeth begin to 'click'. The bell came at a crucial moment, amidst wails of 'finish the paragraph at least, miss!'
    Cruel as ... as ... as a teacher, I shushed them out of the room, to make way for a class of thirteen year olds whom I'd volunteered to take on to give some respite to the teacher whose lives they'd made a total misery all year.

  • I love teaching thirteen year olds - they're the year that time forgot, the year everyone ignores, and so any extra effort on planning is repaid a hundredfold. Having studied Dickens' ghost stories a fortnight ago, I'd promised something special this week, and they'd heard some clues of what was in store from previous year's students, who remembered this lesson as an old favourite.
    The curtains were drawn, spooky music played through the speakers, low, tables pushed back, and a circle of chairs formed. The point of the lesson is to talk to each other, to tell each other ghost stories - the proviso being that they have to sound real - to think about how ficiton exploits the little unexplained mysteries of life, and to vote on the student whose tale was best told. It's magic.
    The end of the lesson, and roughly fifty percent of this bunch of little hard nuts hung back to tell me more of their stories, excitedly. Wonderful.

  • The afternoon, and an unspecified number of sixteen year olds were due to come back into school from their study leave for an optional two hour revision class, the day before their formal examinations begin. They would begin with the most difficult paper, and the powers that be had decided early evening and Saturday classes were a good idea not so good they're willing to pay me for doing them, but still). The maximum attendees could be 356, and there was me, one room, and my wits to deal with a bunch of kids who were by and large strangers to me.
    We raced through eighty examiner-set poems, playing memory games, teasing each other in poetry races, and picking straws to find which essay title we'd won. Chocolate biscuits and Pringles for a five minute break, and onto the structural patterns in the examiner-set novel.
    I took advantage of the lack of upper echelon support to eject five students who'd reached their limit of time they were able to focus - four went willingly after I pointed out that managing seventy five minutes of an intensive lesson in a subject they weren't keen on wasn't all bad, one refused to budge. Dominic has never dealt well with public reprimands, however quietly and calmly delivered. But it was crunch time. I told him that until he did budge, my lips were sealed. The other forty students crammed every which way into the stifling sweaty but purposeful room decided en masse that my company was proving more useful than Dominic's, and kicked him out for me.
    The lesson ended five minutes overtime, students thanked me on the way out, and six students stayed an extra hour for some intensive coaching on comparing a Shakespearean sonnet to Robert Browning's work.

  • Walking past a parent-teacher interview evening on the way out, five students stage whispered 'that's my teacher!' to their parent before waving like a kid off on a tour of the world's best theme parks.

  • Crossing the road outside, I winked at an ex-student on the crossing. He leapt back through the traffic to chat to me, delight on his face at being able to tell someone how well he's been doing at his new college.

It's the last week of term. It's usually mental here. If you come out unbruised, you're generally doing well.

I apologise if this sounds like bragging, and for going into the minutiae of my day - but dammit, it worked. I'm so, like, cool.

Monday, May 24, 2004

The estimable Boyhowdy of Not All Who Wander Are Lost presents this fascinating yet terrifying summary of Kerzner's theory of education's increasing Sisyphus Syndrome:

"Time deprivation disorder and stress: Impact on parent, child, and teacher resiliency," led by Arnold Kerzner, a physician and child psychologist who co-authored several books on child-rearing with Berry Brazelton. In his overview, Kerzner described our schools as fast-paced, where we set high expectations for teachers and students, while providing little in the way of support. In such an environment, our ability to manage stress is destroyed. Learning is impaired, and our physical and mental health are jeopardized. Kerzner used the phrase "cultural post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome" to capture the devastating effects on all aspects of our well-being.

Especially sobering was Kerzner's observation that boarding school administrators, teachers, and students are particularly vulnerable to this disorder. It is not enough merely to use technology, he said, we are also seeking to emulate it through "multi-tasking." Our concentration is diluted; we lose the sense of accomplishment because we never quite finish anything. Administrators, students, and teachers, moreover, are expected to excel in a number of areas, without appropriate institutional support. By taking on too much, by multi-tasking our way through the day, leaving too much undone at the end of it, we develop what Kerzner called "time deprivation disorder."

As a physician, he mapped the effects of "the Sisyphus syndrome." The Greek gods understood human nature when they doled out their punishments. Sisyphus, you will recall, is forever doomed to push a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll down again before he completes the task. The Sisyphus syndrome describes how one feels waking up in the morning, tired, stiff, with weight on one's shoulders. The fatigue lasts all day, as if one can't get a second wind. One has headaches, digestive upsets. We know that stress increases cortisol, and the effect creates a particular kind of anxiety: the belief that despite our best efforts, something will go wrong. One lives with a constant sense of "consternation," hyper-vigilance; as he put it, "waiting for the other shoe to drop." Too busy, we begin to feel isolated - does anyone understand? We develop cognitive rigidity - we see things in black and white - "Give it to me straight, what's the bottom line?" and make administrative decisions that reflect this.

Reading up on Kerzner's online work, he's a sensitive professional who does much to protect adolescent psychology from the assaults of government, educators and parents alike, by pointing out their similarities.
To quote an entirely different sort of a source "the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain." (Source) Kerzner seems to believe in studying the corrollary emotions required of everyone encumbered with an adolescent, to rise to the challenge of those infinite paths.

But I digress.
Let me repeat that single most frightening line: "It is not enough merely to use technology, he said, we are also seeking to emulate it."

How true.

Friday, May 21, 2004

C has a disorder that makes him dance a complicated, fast paced, ethnic folk dance.

It's on his statement of educational need. 'Will be hard to prevent from dancing when experiencing stress'. I laughed when I saw it. We should all be so blessed.

On Thursday, I witnessed C's dancing for the first time. In a group activity, designed to shift responsibility for learning and structuring class work onto the children's shoulders, C had decided to vote himself 'team leader'.

The prime responsibility of a team leader, as C saw it, was to discipline his workers.
The errant children had incurred his wrath by working quietly without response. (They've been steadily and thoroughly trained not to encourage C's outbursts - it's the only way to cut down on violent outbursts in the classroom.)
C's version of being team leader involved practically goose stepping around the classroom, beating his team viciously about the heads with his work booklet, and screaming at them, eyes and neck bulging, that they should stop doing all that work, because they simply weren't working as a TEAM, and WHY would they not stop to listen to their leader?
(Privately I was convinced the lad would go far - I can't see much else he needs to become leader of a political party.)

Things came to a head, however, and C needed to dance. Of course, this is not a simple proposition - he has to dance to the correct music, and we all have to watch. By the time I and the class support teacher had almost drained the poor boy of the energy to continue screaming by calmly asking him to say the magic word, he was desperately in need of release.
Folk music at the ready, we stopped the class, to watch. It's part of his problem that he does need an audience - and it was the end of an almost decent lesson anyway.

C began the most complicated, precise and skilful dance, the speed and rhythm increasing far beyond the point when we all thought he could not possibly continue.
Fascinated, a gaggle of eleven year old boys congregated behind C, trying to kick as high, trying to keep up. They - in common with most eleven year olds - jumped and leapt much like well meaning playful monkey-children.

Somehow, the contrast between C's steely, driven determination heightened everybody's awareness of the sheer skill inherent in his footwork.
We ended the lesson, and in doing so, ended our own slower, more ponderous dance.
C happier, the children admiring, and the staff more sympathetic.

No longer just an annoying attention seeker, now we realised how focussed, how driven C must be to master such a dance.
I doubt, in any area of my life, I could say the same.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Snowed under with work. Posts may be a little late in arriving at present.

I asked my immediate superior which of all the myriad 'dreadful urgent oh yeah, panic panic' assignments I'd been given was the most important. He gave me back a sheet of paper explaining that anything he gave me, or that his good name was reliant upon was more urgent than any assignment given by anyone else. Funny that.

I wandered out of my room, eyes bleary from assessing exams, coursework, student grades, etc (see, it never sounds so damn urgent when you phrase it like that, does it?) at half seven in the evening, ready to admit defeat to the boss. I couldn't even see straight any more, let alone get it all finished.

Weird. The place was empty.

So who's the mug? Weekend off for me, I think.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

There's one in the corner of every staffroom of every school. The chap with the dully glazed grey watery eyes, the slack expression, the clothes dusted with chalk, although we stopped using chalk in '93. The man the job defeated long ago.

He's the bad smell in the staffroom who tails a conversation about the room hopefully, unable to join in. The dreaded bon vivant who flounders and fumbles until even the nicest staff assume a glazed stare, slightly to the left.
He's the one who survives forty minutes plus of glazed stare, slightly to the left, before taking a hint and bumbling stage right.
It's more than mere annoyance-reluctance-boredom on the petulant listener's part - it's at least in part a strong, natively instinctual superstition.
He's a broken ladder. A black cat, a spilt salt cellar.
A broken mirror which potentially reflects us all.
This man is a pedagogical Ancient Mariner. It's seven years bad luck to be trapped by his tale of woe.

He's the Permanent Cover Teacher, the supply staff for nearly thirty years. He's the teacher whose sheer volume of indiscipline creates more problems per minute than you can believe, the one you can't help out, as the senior manglement stopped responding to his distress calls ten years back on principle.
Along the school corridor, you spy him by his lumbering gait, the galumphing stride when aroused to fury, the alternating between gruffly impenetrable meandering mumble and ineffectual roar, more volume than content.
The one with no marking, no planning, no reports to write, and no responsibility or status. Moved onto the supply roster fifteen years ago in desperate attempts to find something to do with him, somewhere to go. Something, anything, to put him beyond disaster's reach.

He's the one, in fact, who put in thirty full, hard years in an inner city school, and lost his mind.
He's not pretty. But he will get his carriage clock soon.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

This is where I and my department have to draw our drinking water, and wash coffee cups out using bare fingers.
I find it reminiscent of a squalid third world jail, rather than a government funded organisation staffed by professionals, but it's saving you some of your taxes.

Except for the food poisoning inspired sick pay, of course.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Returning to a cramped empty classroom after absence, I find the traditional pile of dog eared paper, and the following on my whiteboard:

"As I passed the Kwik E Mart, I knew in my heart there was no link between Ray Brower's death and Denny's accident, however desperately I wanted to have a reason for my tears. Just as surely as I knew that Denny's death had knocked me right out of my family - as swiftly and violently as that train had knocked Ray Brower out of his Keds."
This one taken from the cover materials of the lesson I had set.

"crib, yard - home, house (US)
gaff - cockney for house
wha' gwan? - what's happening? (Jamaican)
boyed - embarrassed
pickney - child (Jamaican)
sick - can be crazy, or good
allow it - let it go
dope - good
cuss - insult
ill - good
safe - hello
bare - lots"

But I'm boyed that this one seems like a bare good lesson. I'd have loved to hear the discussion that put this ill vocabulary on the 'educational objectives' board. Allow it.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

I had asked my seemingly friendly, easygoing, slightly hippiefied, dynamic and youthful principal a fortnight ago for one day off to attend a funeral. She avoided the question for days. For two weeks, I haunted her door thrice daily, seeking a moment of face to face contact.
I felt like a recalcitrant fifteen year old, queuing in the hall to atone for misdeeds I had not done.

After the first week, I started leaving notes. The woman was patently very busy. Two days before the funeral, much too late to be able to purchase travel tickets, or a hotel room, I left a note asking her to respond with a convenient moment when I could ask for her response.
I assumed nothing. I cannot be refused permission legally, but it is still the head's prerogative to decide upon payment. I'm not in any financial position where I could take a day unpaid.

The principal has spent months speaking loudly to staff about the work-life balance. So far, it has proved hot air, as staff asking for, say, leave to attend a child's play, have been asked to take time unpaid. Contrastingly, to parents the principal makes a great deal of presenting herself as a long hours, workaholic. Good PR, or clues to her real sense of the responsibilities of the job?
I don't like working for workaholics, generally - it seems to me a fault on their part if they cannot get the work done (aka prioritised) in the time allowed, and it's a fault that fans out like a virus through an organisation, infecting all with the reduced health and embittered low energy levels that workaholism causes. I'd far rather work for a shirker than someone who cannot manage their time. I have no idea whether the principal falls entirely into this category. Others have been more strident in their assessment.

Myself, I do try to reserve judgement. Teachers can be a capricious, malignant lot of gossips, and it's my experience that there are two sides to every office politic tale.

Yet when I had to hover at the principal's door fifteen minutes before I needed to rush to the other side of the county to beg a free ride to the opposite end of the country, only to be told with a conspiratorial smile << the decision has been made weeks ago >> and << why hadn't X or Y relayed it to me? Those slackers in the office >> I did begin to wonder how much of the aforementioned performance had been a power play, acted out for my benefit.

No posts for a few days, until I return from the frozen wastes of the north.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

I'm an inveterate re-arranger of library shelves.

I come from an area where the concept of libraries has been radically overhauled - the local library looks more like a Tower Record Store - comfy chairs in funky bright colours, cake and cappucino shops, check books in and out yourself on your computerised card, huge web access areas, separate partitioned off youth areas, free papers and periodicals. Late return fines have been slashed till almost non-existent, ensuring, oddly, more books actually get returned. It's sited deliberately next door to a street market and a supermarket, with the result that many folk actually drop in just to laze and relax in the cafe area, or browse the papers without charge.
Security guards replace the need for dull library staff to patrol the shelves, and allows them to get on with the actual tasks of librarians.
Indeed, you have to delve quite deeply into the library to find the books.

The area I teach in is vastly more impoverished in its vision of what a library should offer its community. They still invite an author in once a year to speak to eleven year olds, but children over thirteen gain the distinct impression that their custom is not wanted. The librarians run to the classic white fifty something spinster or bachelor hippy, who become flustered by their own very simple systems, and take thirty minutes and much discussion to come up with the (incorrect) name of a book that may possibly have won the Booker prize this year.
The dusty books line the shelves in a labyrinth which forces an adult fiction reader to go to the furthest corner to find material. Top shelves are empty for displayed books - usually empty or containing what I'd term a battered, dog eared pensioner romance.

This is where I can't resist embarking upon my busybody project. The actual collection of books is quite forward thinking - a fine mixture of trendy, movie influenced, forward thinking, esoteric, generic and classical literature, showing that somewhere in this mausoleum is a decent librarian, whose decisions at least as regards stock are brave and effective. So does one copy of a Jean M Auel bilge filled tome appear as the only text on display?
I set to, sneaking the better looking books onto display. I pick books from this year's prize lists. European literature, writers experimenting with form. I make sure the funnies about single mums or harrassed weekend dads are placed up there next to brightly coloured attractive covers, not caring what's inside. Next to those, a few genre novels - Iain Banks, Pat Barker. On the graphic novel shelf, a copy of Watchmen replaces Buffy. Trollope, Austen, Tolkien - these are all in the movies at the moment, so they must be out on display, reminding people that all the best movies start out as books.
It's a laughable sight - Local English Teacher Caught Sneaking Books Out Of Alpha Order. I do every single fiction shelf, and that's a lot of fake quizzical looks at a Stephen King with a nice cover while a librarian in grey flannel and navy jeans bumbles past.

A third of the library's space is taken up by free web access areas – yet this is near the door, uncomfortable and clunky looking, with no actual interaction between the computer users and the book areas of the library itself. The need for milk bottle lensed biddies to watch over the mouse balls to prevent theft surely isn't so acute that the public be actually discouraged from walking past a book on their way in to surf for low grade porn?

While waiting an age for the one biddy with computer access to finish dealing with an enquiry (necessitates human interaction) to check out my book (doesn't), I stare at the Surfer's Lounge, and wonder why it looks so municipal, cold as a hospital waiting room, somehow. I visualise myself sat at one of those uncomfortable office chairs, not more than five inches away from the next user, and know full well I'd rather pay internet cafe rates.
Still visualising, I turn around, and peer about the library from my imaginary seat. All I see are word processed posters, telling me off, repeatedly warning me about printing charges.
One thing teachers eventually learn is that if one bright poster doesn't get the message across, seventeen dull ones won't help transmit it further. It becomes visual debris. Cluttering up your ability to space yourself somewhere inside your mind to think.

I hide behind the music and self help stacks to see how my displays are working. Of four adults who make it over to the labyrinthine fiction section, all pick up and leaf through at least two of the books on top shelf display. Result.

Why on earth aren't there book display racks by the computers? Surfing the web involves hours of idle waiting for a page to load. There are by now plenty of fiction books involving technological conspiracies that could be stood on end by the mouse mat for the stymied surfer to flick through. The 'for dummies' series of PC self help books is far more likely to be worked through than the posters advertising 'learn to use Word for £3.50' at some improbable hour of the day. If not one text is borrowed, it still at least establishes the library as a home for books.
Books. Not posters about how you press the wrong button and you'll be held responsible.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Walking home from work through the local suburbs of London, I notice a concurrence - the rise of the grocer's apostrophe goes unchecked, yet a further horror awaits me - the deliberate mis-spelling has become the norm. I see shops named 'PrEZEnce', a beauty clinic offering 'free sunbed 2 U', street advertising for a night out 'In Da House', a pub named 'The Two Half's', and most horrific of all, a local government sponsored drop centre called the 'Naborhood Centre'.

If there are few books in a child's home, few newspapers beyond the red tops (average reading age = 12), and young inquisitive eyes search out texts and examples to emulate ... and read the signs littering the walls around them every day of their lives ... is it really surprising they end up dropping into mobile phone 'textspeak' in the middle of an examination essay aged thirteen?

Perhaps the English that I teach is already a dead, outmoded tongue?

Monday, May 10, 2004

Moving on from the last post's schadenfreude, I don't often dwell on my own abysmal track record in the classroom.
You see, I don't remember much of the lessons I sat through at school, myself. I can remember hours of pointless detail of the social structure of school, the hierarchies, the hidden rules of the playground, the million myriad ways to incur peer displeasure or humiliation - but of actual lesson content, only about three are memorable, and all took place after age fifteen.

Trust in this teenage amnesic fog of lethe provides a certain level of absolution for my own pedagogical miscalculations. "Don't brood on it," I reassure myself, after any particularly disastrous chalk talk, "they won't remember a word of it until 2008, anyway."

Yet students do remember concepts, however transient your actual face will become for them. I relish that brief few seconds of anticipation on an ordinary dying fly buzzing over heated classroom skull session, the feeling of power wielded just before you imprint, before you utterly mess with their minds by explaining to them what infinity is.

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.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

I decided back at Easter this term's aim for my presence in the classroom: to become the calm at the eye of the storm.

So no matter what is happening in the room, whether Matthew is punching Jake, whether Craig is telling the classroom assistant to fuck off, whether Joel has forgotten that he's six foot two now, and has picked up a first year and swung him round his head, striking me in the mouth with the poor child's feet, whether Kru and Arif are playfighting with their texts in row four, whether Alison has decided to liven up the lesson by screaming and dancing a jig, whether the class have decided to foreground ethnicity today and spend their time calling each other 'white boy' and 'black girl', whether Christopher has pulled out a roll of carpet from his bedroom at home, and is lying on it sucking his thumb and pretending to bark like a puppy, whether challenging or babysitting, exceeding targets or missing them, dealing with paperwork or humanwork, the too tactile drama queen boss or the silent eleven year old girl who hasn't spoken all year ... my response will be the same.


Wednesday, May 05, 2004

A series of events, good and bad, prompted me to think about the questions I use, good or bad. Not educational questions - behavioural ones. The ones that really make a difference to an interaction.

Ranking as the day's most dreadful question must surely be the overused and indefensible "is there anyone here who didn't understand that?" (kid-speak: put your hand up if you think you might be stupid). I wish wish wish I didn't ever use this, but it must occur in my classroom at least on a weekly basis.
When I can remember, I try to translate it to "did I explain that properly, or does anyone think I need to try again?" or "do you guys need me to write out an example to show you?"
Left unamended, it becomes rhetorical. Subtitled: shut up and don't bother me. Way to go, Miss.

When Toye wouldn't do any work, I asked him if he "needed to visit the library to buy himself a pen to write with." The sarcasm didn't miss, and created the same response sarcasm typically provokes: protectiveness, rudeness, part of the kid armoury. "I don't really care."
Taking Toye outside, I asked another bad question: "You used to always gain praise in my class. What's changed?" It works in the sense of reflecting and shaming, but it doesn't get an answer.
Seriously, how could it? How could you say to someone in authority that dad's come home from prison, or mum threw you out, or your last foster home didn't work out to an enquiry like that?
Sensing I'd lost the sympathy vote forever, I changed tack to brusque question/ brusque answer. "There's a problem here. Something needs to change. So which is the problem, you, me, or the work? Let me know, and it will change." I like this question - it focuses on results, and allows a fair right of reply if you have been over zealous meting out the scorn of late. Unfortunately, there'd been so many hopelessly confrontational questions preceding it that both I and Toye knew not one more word would pass his lips. I sent him back in the room, with an impotent "be good, this time".

Better was the question to fifteen year olds: "what movie would you like to study for your second media unit?" It took a lot longer than my simply deciding for them, but they weighed the pros and cons, argued with each other about whether Scary Movie really allowed them to analyse layers of meaning in the way that Chicago would. (I bit back another question, here. It's their choice. Makes a mockery of it if I then take the choice away from them.)

Godwin was leaping all lesson like an electrified eel. We went through the whole gamut of questions, commands, responses, wheedling, tears and declamations, ending in a state of blind fury on both sides where I needed him out of the room for 30 seconds simply to be able to formulate a reasoned response to him.
He responds randomly to my requests. "What should you have done when I asked you to close the door? Should you have barged back in shouting every ten seconds?" Godwin shakes his head.
I'm too slow to respond, so - eager as a puppy to please me and get back inside the circus ring - he decisively nods yes, then smiles, expecting praise for the right answer.
Sigh. "You're not even listening to the question, are you, Godwin?" Nod. Shake. Nod.

Eventually, my questions reached rock bottom: "Do you want me to skin you alive, Godwin, then spatter your blood across the windows? Because I have a sharp knife in my drawer that has your name on it."
Yes, I really say those things.
At least the humour defused the situation, but it comes to something when my questioning technique is so awful that only by threatening to tell his fourteen year old sister can I get him to remove the contraband clothing and stop cussing the others.

Walking out of school, three and a half hours after the final bell had rung, I see Godwin slumped upon a wall. Question: "Are you waiting to be picked up?" Nods head.
I take in his hunched shoulders, the failing warmth of the day dissolving into the spring chill of grey dusk. Wrong question.
This is late, and there's no-one else waiting. Godwin isn't buzzing any more, and I know from experience it takes more than a few hours to let his internal jumpy bean fizz itself out.

"Have you been waiting for a long time, Godwin?"

Right question.
Nods head, as mouth turns down at the corners. Poor kid. Should have eaten his tea by now.
I send him inside to use the telephone.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Monday was a bank holiday, here, with no school. It also rained for six hours solid, hard, cold, fast and grey. Thanks to global warming, the April showers come a little late this year.

I dread to think what temerity would have been needed to teach a day under such conditions. Wet bags, dripping coats, teachers radiating steam and frazzled nerves from covering break duties inside one large hall where 1700 adolescents who need to exercise their jumpy beans have been corralled.

Tomorrow the SAT exams start. While the gardens need the rain to mitigate a fine, too warm spring, and August will see us grateful for the growth, what of the kids who've spent all day harried into darkened corridors, denied even the limits of the main hall during a wet break? Where can they direct the natural energy that rips books, shreds pens, throws dictionaries, pulls hair, and tips ink over another kid's white shirt? Where does that downpour find it's outlet? Bouncing off the walls of my lesson, I suspect.

Are teachers the only grown adults who find themselves praying to an outdated rain god?