The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, September 30, 2004

I try to hide my most appallingly useless moments from public view.

Yet some are so spectacularly inept they need memorialising.

Most disastrous moment of the Media course so far had to be when I, red faced, instructed students always to replace the words 'Miss says it represents a penis', with the words 'this suggests Freudian connotations', and never, ever to ask why.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Planning a unit of Pre-Production Coursework for Media GCSE after school, myself and the boss get somewhat carried away with the subject.

I started in on this subject one month ago as a beginner, terrified that I had no idea what I was undertaking ... and now I'm there with my iconography, my 'shouldn't we do a lesson on representation?', 'By what means do we classify criminal behaviour?' and so on.
I'm all, 'hey, we could fit the uses and gratifications theory in there', and 'we can't continue without some reference to control and regulation', or 'I think the target market should be the focus group's project before we create a product.' Blinding white heat of target vocabulary I thought I'd never learn.
(A sudden thought as I write: experience of B- coursework essays teaches me that someone who's just learnt how to overuse the buzz words may have advanced a step, but rarely has any solid grasp of the concepts underneath.)

We've given up on the half cocked introductory theory of film tasks, after some disastrous lessons spent trying to define the conventions of surrealism in film (talk about an oxymoron) using Le Chien Andalou. Classes are sick to death of the easy colourful poster opportunism of still image analysis.

We're fizzing over this Pre Production unit, though, putting in all our favourite theories, trying to weegie in the theoretical exploratory tasks we love to pontificate on (news simulation, anyone?). Making sure we've covered all the critical angles, and namechecked every theory you'd need to know before storyboarding the intro and credits to a tv police drama.

It's a good long while before we sit back, look over what we've written, and realise we forgot to ask the kids to a) have any fun; b) do any work.

Whoops. Still, that's another twelve lessons programmed in with ease. "Do the work."

Monday, September 27, 2004

So ... the chaos theory has me thinking. In the midst of a week of incidents of 'rushing', gang violence, spilled tempers and showdowns, I want to use this place to zip through an issue that's been bothering me. Is there a crucial ingredient in dealing with the inevitable presence of school chaos: inner city secondary school bad behaviour?
The government says the presence of advanced skills experts in your school.
(We already have advanced skills teachers - they observe me every week; we already have representatives from beacon schools - they observe me every week.)
The unions say increased rates of pay - effectively danger money.
(Subject shortages and fast tracking makes teaching a competitively salaried job these days; I get paid more than most of my inner city contempopraries in jobs with degrees and a few year's training - less than a lawyer, admittedly - but I really don't think there's a desperate need for more money.)
Headteachers say increase our ability to exclude pupils permanently for violence.
(Which ignores entirely the issue of the devastating rates of exclusion amongst black boys; or the question of favouritism. I haven't seen many schools in inner city locations where status doesn't come into play here: a supply teacher smacked in the mouth by a child will be a very differently resolved incident to a senior teacher answered back by a child.)

I say: space.

The space to calm down and treat a child as a child, to give them behavioural options, to help them manage their sometimes overflowing, unstoppable anger.
The space to reflect on the indicators - the reasons - for a fight or for the behaviour of a child who told you where to stick that homework. If we run from lesson to lesson to lesson without break, there's very little give in the timetable, which leads to very little give in us.

I can't deal with your desperate cry for attention, because I'm busy preparing for his.

A senior teacher returned two recalcitrant snarling demons taking infant human form to me this morning, still swearing and cussing, and turfed them back into my class with an explicit instruction to follow it up with a break time detention, an hour's detention on Friday, a formal report, and a phone call to parents. She then turned and marched sharply off.
My first response was unprintable. Added to the parents' evening and three meetings this week, that's five nights working later and later, becoming more and more exhasuted, because the timetable doesn't allow me the space to deal more flexibly with these boys.

These boys who were acting up because they'd been asked to write, and were afraid. Who feared getting off to a bad start with yet another adult, so found it easier to behave in a way that guarantees my behaviour is predictable, guarantees my rejection. Who had forgotten books and were angry with themselves, didn't want to waste their work, or mess up a book that looked too clean and white. Or who felt understandably aggrieved and concerned about their brother's court case today.

A detention or a pink formal referral slip doesn't solve these things.
Instructing me to lose all the gaps and corners that currently fuel my energy for the day doesn't solve these things.
In fact the loss of whatever tenuous hold on reality I still retain only serves to put me into the foullest of moods and become ever more draconian, ever less sensitive, and more confrontational.

One fifteen minute break in the horrifically dramatic boom-and-bust cycle of moving groups around the building for no real rhyme or reason is enough to stop this.

To allow me to place a calming hand on the arm of a child who's shouting or bullying rather than bite their head off. To speak softly to the eighty students beating a smaller child, and allow them a minute to remember to be individuals. Or kneel to speak to a furious boy who needs to calm down. I need space, to be calm enough and wise enough to give them space.

Ultimately, behaviour in inner city schools can only be improved by a flexible, responsive combination of the solutions listed above. I know which one I choose.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Chaos Theory. The science of organisation within a complex, dynamic system. The idea that apparently pure randomised systems still operate within rigid laws.

I once tried applying the principles of chaos theory to my lessons - stopped assuming I could outlaw poor behaviour, recalcitrance and moments of fury - simply decided perhaps these outbursts were inevitable, and planned my response.
It was the best lesson I'd taught in three years, and it taught me that while working in an inner city school, certain things within the rigid system can be permanently relied upon: namely, the presence of a deterministic, controlled rebellion, that is actually quite the opposite of 'chaos'.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Each autumn, I get told to do a dinner lady duty for two weeks. The fact is, the school can't process through their dinner halls the amount of children who attend the school, or even a fraction of the amount of children who attend one of the largest schools in Europe, so for two weeks, we abandon the pre-lunch hour period and the teachers have to make like dinner ladies.
Only we've no idea what dinner ladies do - if you've ever been in a school dining hall full of screaming burping gulping teenagers mid food frenzy, you'll have a rough idea why staff avoid the spectacle. So we stand around, looking useless, and feigning horror at each other.
Should a child hurl limp pizza in another's face, for instance, we'd be fairly certain that this were wrong. But should they sit five to a table, hold their bag with them in a queue, serve themselves, get free drinks, dump their dirty trays in the head's office, or eat their own lunch at a yellow desk when there's an 'r' in the month ... who knows if these are part of the standard social structure?

This year, I had the misfortune of enduring the intermittent dinner lady farce (it only lasts two weeks, because we depend upon the children discovering the hole in the fence and sneaking to the local shop for a reheated salmonella laden burger, like all the other kids do) in the same week as going to see the fast food satire 'Super Size Me'.
The images of the so-called reheated processed food sold to American schoolchildren were identical to the food sold in Britain, where compulsive compulsory competitive tendering means food contracts are sold to the lowest bidder, with no relationship to behaviour or nutrition assumed. Chicken nuggets, pizza slice, sausage roll or chicken dipper, with a chocolate chaser and a fizzy drink? If anything, the food I see for two weeks every September is far worse than the products on the American documentary.

I really cannot see any reason beyond money that we fail to sell to children any foods that aren't orange, microwaved and crispy. That we assume their nutritional needs will be properly supplemented by a Mega Blu Frosty Ice from Kwik Shopper.

Frankly, I take more time, care, and spend more money on my pet's diet than we as a community take over children's food. Given that children are the most precious commodity any society has, why are they relegated without choice or option to fewer edible foodstuffs than your average HM Prisoner?
And where are the nuggets on a chicken, anyway?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

By week three, a certain gallows humour sets in for both teachers and parents.

Bat Boy James tells me conspiratorially that his mum doesn't believe that he likes English this year. He'd told her he was good and his teacher thought so too. James asks "is it true, am I good? If my mum were to ring up now, right now, what would you tell her?"
"Well, James," I say, "you're really an expert on this book we're studying, what with the snail torture and all. And apart from the drama lesson where you threw yourself at the window, ran over the chairs screaming, and -"
"And had a fight with Levi, Miss."
"- and had that fight, yes, and threw a chair at Lennie - well, yes, James, I think that's the only time this year you've been bad."
"That was the lesson when I climbed up to the ceiling and jumped," he whispers, his eyes glowing at the memory.
"That's right. But look how good you're being now." James nods, pleased with himself, and with the attention he's getting.
"Because I told my mum that I'm good in English, and she just laughed and said 'oh yeah right', and she said she was going to see if I was lying. She said she was going to ring up today. Ring up now. Right now."
"Well, then, that's what she'll hear."

Back in a staffroom, I tell the boss about James' exploding snail experiment.
"James? I taught him last year. He's doped out of his brains an awful lot of the time, you know. He smokes a huge amount of dope."
With a weary smile, "yeah? Nowhere near enough, apparently."

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Studying Lord of the Flies with my bottom set thirteen year old boys is rapidly degenerating into a real life dystopia.
They're eager as rabid squirrel-babies to do well, but haven't twigged whereabouts the didacticism in the text emanates. While reading the first chapter, the boys decided that if they were stranded without adults on a desert island, they'd like to vote autocratic Hitler figure Jack as leader. Narrowly avoiding a sizeable vote for the Mengele-like charms of Roger. Ralph was obviously boring.

Today, pint sized James, who leaps about the room with the exact facial expression of a hyperactive Bat Boy, warmly enthused about the joys of chapter two, when the boys stole Piggy's spectacles to make fire, accidentally burning up little Percival Wemyss Smythe in the tribalistic ritual.
James had investigated the technique, utilising a magnifying glass, strong sunbeam and a large snail. He was most proud to report back to all his eager listeners that when the sunbeam was steadily focussed upon said snail, his hypothesis was more than equalled: as the snail turned black, then exploded.
"It is true," James squeaked excitably, "I have the black snail shell in my pocket! It's all slime!"
The other boys' gleaming eyes and gasps of delight told me all I needed to know about what homework they'll choose to do this afternoon.

I'm beginning to really fear for the potential response to the murder and mutilation of Simon and Piggy's characters.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Drunken conversation with a colleague about the modern lie: the increasing advertising of a 'functional' purpose of education.

(If the point of education is to get a job, why am I teaching anyone the power of metaphor? Why bother reading Orwell in such graphic detail? What job bears any relationship to the intimate knowledge of religious symbolism in the poems of Wilfred Owen which I demand?)

He pauses, and recites, sarcastically, a speech he'd given to sixteen year old boys, in one day a week on a literacy programme, having been farmed out to 'vocational' (read: building) apprenticeships at age 14 in an attempt to keep them from rioting in the corridors. The speech said it all, exposed the lie in full chiaroscuro:

"Listen lads, stay in school, study hard, and the world is your oyster. Eventually, if you go to college, you might just get to university, and then you can do anything you want to do. If you work hard enough, you could be standing here, in five year's time," thumbs hooked in lapels of cheap junior management suit, and heels rocking, "you could be me."

Friday, September 17, 2004

... Having said that, I can become quite weary of picking some crumpled individual off the floor, catching their red rimmed eye and saying "Did he hurt you? Badly?"

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Good intentions of the new academic year always start to crumble around now. We're human, we try to be that great person who does their best, works their hardest, aces all the tests day in, day out, but we just can't keep it up.
So last year's daily fights have started up again, grubby fists are testing uniforms to the limits of destruction, and there's little I can do about it but forgive them for being as human as anyone. If even the teacher is sick of wearing a bristly, confining suit on weekdays by now, they must feel pure irradiating white hate for those acrylic blazers, ties all too actionable as choking weapons, and shoes that aren't quite broken in.

At least for two weeks of the year, they really really tried to be the best they can be. There's a whole surfeit of adults who haven't tried that in a decade.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

An open evening next week demands I spend all my time hectoring children to make wall displays. Of course, with hindsight, I do see that striving to pull a set of gold foil posters about 'what the future holds' from a class of remedial fifteen year olds was always going to produce such laminated witticisms as 'watching pornography'.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Aeons of counting dead chickens should have taught me never to speak too soon. Simple commonsense dictates that should I publish a post bragging about how effective I am, the next day I shall be inundated with examples of my own ineptitude. Just the lowlights

Words I regret hearing
"Miss has a nice arse, eh lads."
"You're the team leader for the performance related pay assessments."
"We want to be in Lord of The Flies, and I'd vote Roger as leader."
"I was only hitting the ****head because he laughed at my hair. I'll hit him again, too, get out of my ****ing way."

Words I regret saying
"Nathan, I seriously don't think it's appropriate for you to goose the teacher in the vitals as you come in."
"I've had enough of talking to you lot, you're sitting there throwing things at each other, I can't be doing with it, and I'm giving you permission to go home three hours early."
"If you fall out of that window I should be incredibly upset, Chesney."
"How in hell could he reach round far enough to stab you in the bollocks with a ruler, Jared?"
"Yes, Jon, technically, pornography is a sub genre of non-fiction, but it's still not appearing in your damn GCSE exam."
"If I see another ****ing child before I see hell itself it will be too soon."

Gems in the mire of swill
"It's stupid, I really wanted you to be my teacher this year."
The nineteen year olds in the local streets who stop the gangsta act, beam, and give you a sudden shy wave, when they recognise you.
"Miss, do me a favour, yeah? Don't stay in all lunchtime marking those books. It's a nice day, and you should be outside, getting yourself a nice meaty MacDonald's burger or something."

That's it. Sod the curriculum. The little* buggers are all doing lines till I regain some sanity. For their own safety.

[* most of whom are six foot two and already halfway through a building apprenticeship.]

Monday, September 13, 2004

I know inner city British schools are scarily short of teaching staff. I know the paucity of trained adults willing to break themselves on the wheel of being tried, tested and found wanting by a jury of their peers inequal youths had been spiralling to the degree that even untrained classroom assistants were becoming difficult to resource.
It seems that now the drought has spread to maintenance staff. In particular, cleaners. I've had to spend six days getting in early not to mark, grade, prepare or cogitate, but to vacuum my room and pick up litter. This is so not progress.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Continuing the story of deadly dull data: I sneaked a look at my school's baseline data on last year's GCSE results. Although the results overall were good, apparently, I'm the only teacher in my area whose students improved beyond the level all their IQ tests and YELLIS nonsense predicted was possible. Yay me and up the team, and so forth. (Interesting that only industrial espionage allows me access to this knowledge.)

It wouldn't even have become important, except for a particular anniversary that occurs this December. Ten years.
Although nothing's been finalised yet, the paperwork still not submitted or the ink dried inside the head which thought it up, this is the year I decided I will be needing a career break. This, as a matter of absolute fact, is the term that I'd decided to leave. All plans progressing, I should be in Other Climes by spring 2005, doing Other Things.

Damn. Damn this sudden indecision.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

A strange thing happened in my school last year. With a new head teacher, we were instructed not to try to get good GCSE results from the current final year. Apparently their behaviour records were too deviant, their attendance too slack, their baseline data (for which, non-industry readers, substitute the phrase: 'IQ test', or to accord them their proper validity: 'horoscope').
As a new head, it was thought that we could get away with one year's poor results, and blame it on the outgoing incumbent. The subsequent year's data was far more impressive, their attitudes more in line with new boss' thinking - we would focus on those children, and 'write off' the kids who would be leaving compulsory schooling with a nigh on inevitable shockingly low grade.

I don't know for sure if the injunction was double speak, reverse psychology, whatever. I'm not clued up enough on conspiracy theories of any sort to detect such things. I suspect it was an honest admission of defeat. Regardless, the staff acted as one in Taking Umbrage of The Highest Sort. It actually became a way of pointedly defying a new boss to work harder with these kids.

The national average of A-C GCSE grades is something along the lines of 55%. The London average is somewhere along the lines of 44%. The school's average is usually mouldering in the 30% region, with the occasional leap towards the dizzy heights of 34%.
These kids took a mock GCSE exam last Christmas, and achieved a woeful 19% A-C grade. The head's pronouncement seemed to be bearing fruit.
Cue mass rebellion of teachers. Cue huge amounts of unpaid extra classes, innovative intervention programmes, sheer bloody minded effort.
This summer, the year group we were formally instructed to give up on achieved 37%.

Yay them. Go the team.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The ever compelling Hip Teacher's staunch (and necessary) message of commitment, 'I've Had It With My Fourth Period Class, has prompted some great comments about the nature of school itself.
The idealist in me loves to worry about what we actually ask of pupils in the quest to have them sit silent and ready to receive the great course of wisdom flowing from our never ever everboring mouths...
"Maybe its time for teachers to say 'no' to an educational system that isn't set up for learning? How can we expect any given group of teenagers to 'behave', to 'sit in their chairs', to follow rules, when clearly it is not what they want to be doing? What would they rather be doing? Playing sports or video games? Learning how to make their own movies? Doing nothing? What can we do as educators to change this archaic system of education that is in great conflict with the instrinsic factors of motivation in young minds? Why should they be forcefully isolated from what truly interests them?"

Aaron Campbell

"Guess, what? Teachers do it, too! Grading papers, talking, passing notes, going to the bathroom--all instead of listening and following along. It's just a human thing--we resist doing what we haven't CHOSEN to do. [...] We have to live with the fact that a lot of teaching is moving groups of human beings from one activity to another, often without their consent."

Blah Blah Blog

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The twelve year olds I teach have been very earnestly and seriously discussing how to run their ideal school. The old predictable favourites are there - remove traditional means of punishment, abandon pointlessly restrictive rules, reintroduce enjoyment to the curriculum (yeah, how about that, Mr Blair?), reverse the power relationship with authoritarian figures. Some are new. And I have to say, Alisha's one about free food on Fridays is such a nice idea that it's only beaten by Kimberley's left-field observation that all teachers should find a new career at the age of thirty.

The Ideal School for a twelve year old:

• Own clothes, but in school colours
• A tie should still exist, but wear it round your waist, like a belt
• Teachers are there to help and serve the kids, not to rule us
• Only the 5 nice teachers can stay, the rest are sacked
• Teachers are paid, but only a little
• Teachers have to leave when they hit the age 30
• While at school, teachers are hypnotised so they will be our slaves / waitresses or cooks
• Teachers can relax because there is only one homework a week
• We need a leisure centre with a swimming pool and a gym to stop our teachers getting so stressed
• No homework
• No detentions for kids, only for teachers
• School lasts three or four hours, and lessons are only 30 minutes
• School to start at 10.30am, and finish at 3pm, with a half day on Fridays
• We only have the lessons we want
• Breaks to be much longer
• Free lunch on Fridays
• Everything at the tuck shop will be 35p
• Kids can bring mobiles to school, and use them to text during lessons, but not to make calls
• No violence allowed
• No snobs or snitches can come to our school
• Someone needs to guard the gates and all the doors of the school all day
• School is full of fun
• Kids are allowed to bring pets into school
• Vote on who runs the school
• Tell the teachers it is a science experiment, to trick them into going along with the plan
• Don’t let teachers go home until they are on our side

Monday, September 06, 2004

New Term, new start. Several days to prepare classes, stock, classrooms. To move yourself into The Zone.
The Zone where eight-two piece of differently coloured paper, 15 sticks of glue, 17 stencils, 32 books, and 64 small hands are not even a remotely daunting prospect.
The Zone where should a problem arise, any problem, of any magnitude, you remain still, calm and centred, and respond as if this happens every day.
Robert threw my pen in the bin. Lester packed his bag for the wrong day, so he brought all the wrong books. Ashley said 'dickhead'. Joe broke his finger. Sam has wet himself. Tom hates English. Levi can't write till the cast comes off. Lester is eating his crisps and won't stop. Xhin wasn't here yesterday. Rami can't remember what happens in chapter two. Ugo needs to see the head now. Lester has had enough and is going home now, right now, so stuff your English lesson you stupid teacher.

The Zone is where all of these incidents are like flies buzzing around your statue, around your implacable knowledge that all this has happened before and you know all the answers.

So it was a great start to lock myself accidentally into the empty school building last thing on Friday evening.
I set off the motion activated burglar alarms, yes. I found myself, about seven o'clock, looking longingly at the sofa in reception, true. Spent an hour on hold to the local police department. Contemplated jemmying a basement window I know is loose. Caught sight of scrupulous CCTV coverage and realised I'd be immortalised in celluloid doing so, and still have to scale an eight foot fence to the street.

What a start. What a year this promises to be.

Friday, September 03, 2004

To the reader who came here searching for "lord of the flies+essay+it's jack's fault" - you're wrong. It's not Jack's fault. If you doubt this, bear in mind that Golding himself was a teacher. He would sit during break times and watch the boys in his care. What he saw then and what he saw in his time with the Navy during WW2 chimed.

Look at what happened this week in Bezlan.
Golding knows that we created Jack, our society created him, and continues to create him. When things go so badly wrong as this, we're all at fault.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Success: the class the boss had said would all gain grade G (to finish her sentence, 'what, are you going to raise them from a prospective grade G to a grade G? That won't affect your Performance Related Pay. Give yourself a break, you shouldn't keep on with so much effort preparing or working with them') - who collected 5 D's, 11 E's, 3 F's, and 3 G's at GCSE this summer.

Unfortunately, these hard working over acheivers are not the crop-top beaming private schoolgirl thoroughbred sorts who will have made the front pages of the dailies over the summer.

And that's the newspapers' loss, you know.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The night before the last day of the holidays, and usually the stress related dreams have reached a peak. But no.
Yes, I dream that I'm teaching, all very regular. But in my dreams this year, I'm teaching German. A language I remember loving for it's clarity, regularity, and logical rules, after nine years of turmoil in failing to understand French.
The dream was lovely. No attempting to explain onomatopoeia only to find all your examples are somewhat interpretive at best. No grading people on their sensitivity to a writer's imagined moral code. No public censure and blame for every child in the UK that misses a capital letter.
Just Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, Freitag, Samstag, Sonnabend.
Fact based, right or wrong, rhythmic and repetitive. Just lovely.

The night before the last day of the holidays generally prompts one other annual panic: my realisation that for the third year in a row, I've forgotten to photocopy 600 sheets of the GCSE examination's Frequently Asked Questions. A glance at my A level course blog (used for class reminders, extra study hints, and homework assignments) reveals I only ever posted the feedback to last summer's mock AS level exams in draft form, and they went into the final examination without my ever reminding them that they were misreading the vague term 'presents' or forgetting to factor Victorian values into their assessment of Rossetti's use of oppositions.

Ah buggerit. It happens every single year. Perhaps I have stress dreams not because the job is stressful, but because it doesn't stress me sufficiently to do it well?

On the theme of stressful Septembers back at school, this is the one thing I want to carry with me into the staffroom this year. A poignant reminder for current teachers of the panic new teachers carry into the classroom just next door. If you hear yelling and uproar, do go in and offer a cup of coffee, just to break the pattern, won't you?