The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

This spring I took a number of my classes back from student teachers moving on to their next placement.
In many senses, I was lucky - my student teachers were enthusiastic, intelligent, responsive, and most importantly thoughtful: willing to listen to feedback and act upon it - a rare skill.

However, the rowdy, lively, questioning and enthusiastic class of twelve year olds I left my student with have transformed. They've been altered by the experience of a stranger's inconstancy, by eight weeks of pale attempts to ask for co-operation rather than assume co-operation as a given.
They are of a sudden transformed into a resentful, wilful, grouchy and hard done by bunch of wild children.

The battle to reclaim a class I've loved teaching for two years is something I find it hard not to resent. This is even as I see that my student has not done badly , as I recall that not everybody is born with an innate gift for teaching (hell, I wasn't), but that it is, given enough desire to do so, eminently possible to learn the skills required. Given the time and space to do so.

The subtle, ill-tempered resentment of discipline that has slipped makes me question my own mentoring of teachers who are in their second and third years of education (I'm paid an hour a fortnight of meeting time to keep three teachers on track, prevent them from dropping out of the London education system in disgust and horror at the privations therein).
What I question in this post is my own inability, so far, to impress upon a beginning teacher the concept of responsibility.

Any parent knows the responsibility of having a child.
Good lord, anyone with a family, anyone with a pet knows something of the meaning of responsibility for the well-being of another creature.

I don't mean feeding and clothing, I refer instead to making the harder decisions. I refer to those adults who live the day to day slog of being willing to accept the unpopular role; not the bringer of weekend breaks, or the giver of fun outings.
Those adults who are willing not just to reward, but also to punish, to mete justice, to be unpopular in the longer term cause.

Yet beginning teachers, again and again - and often the weaker teachers throughout their careers - see themselves in a pure delivery mode . They deliver the lesson, it is the child's job to assume responsibility for the actual learning.

Life, as I see it, here in a London school, is not like that.

Life will not play ball with a passive delivery view of an educator.

The flaws in this thinking are transparent when staff without the means to be self-critical repeatedly, loudly, bleatingly decry the appalling lack of responsibility of their charges. Of the troublemakers. Of the bullies. Of the silent majority.
They lament the low standards of the parents. Of the school governors. Of the school management. Of the chain of command. Of the government. Of the police, social workers, god, journalists, the general backsliding low nature of idle humanity as a whole.

All to avoid the moment where one takes actual responsibility for the child in one's care.

Year after year, I'm amazed by the desperate, blame casting steps people will take to avoid scrutinising their own role in a disaster in even a constructively critical way.

Increasingly, I become bluntly explicit in my feeback:
~ Sitting listening to you drone on is not inherently interesting for a twelve year old. Give them something to do!
~ When you speak to them, you look like you hate them. Would it hurt you to look pleased to be with them for an hour?
~ You don't like being shouted at for four minutes, yet you want them to be happy about an hour of that treatment.
~ Your voice is louder than theirs. What does it take for *you* to be quiet in class?
~ That child is going to keep misbehaving as long as you let her get away with it. When are you going to ask her why?
~ Okay, so it was a thoroughly planned lesson on prefixes. But was it fun? Did they smile?
~ Yes, it turns out he's truanted for ten weeks. Have you thought about how difficult it is for him to come back into your class by now?
~ If the whole class have failed to give in that Shakespeare essay, then you're going to have to teach it again. And teach it better, this time.

Ad infinitum. Repeat and fade.

Students, for five long years at least, are those whom we live with, those whom we grow through, those whom we owe the dignity of holding to account all actions that affect.
Yes, indeed, children and parents do share responsibility for their educational progress. They should be held to account for their actions, need to be made aware that when they disrupt, others suffer.
Within an inner city school, however, the pressure valve is already faulty - this all too rapidly becomes a tautology, everyone blaming the other team for the inability to move forward.
At these points it's the professional in the circle who needs the ability to shift perception, to squint quizzically at what is occurring and detect patterns that can be broken.

To take responsibility for engineering a change.

No, it's not inherently part of the role of in loco parentis. Ethically, I believe it should be, but I can't truly claim that it is.
A teacher can - and often does - survive an entire career telling off parents and children for a poor exam result, for weak motivation, for a plagiarised essay or a short tempered outburst.

I find it challenging to persuade grown adults that there's another way of viewing the situation. If this child were your child, wouldn't you want the teacher to do anything they can do? Wouldn't you want the teacher to also take their students' performance personally? To be able to look critically at their own teaching and see if they've failed?

Memory burst.
In my own second year, I recall another teacher passing me in the corridor, as I dashed, exhausted and tearful from one awful class of horrors to another, worse.

"You know, you can keep passing these kids on to [head of department] forever, and it won't make a damn bit of difference," she muttered, scowling, as I passed.

Excuse me?

"...Nothing will make a difference." She turned and eyed me disdainfully. "Until one day you come into work and decide you're going to deal with this situation yourself."

I thought her patronising and idle at the time. A shirker. Trying to weasel out of her role in supporting the difficult children in my classroom.

Now I see what she was trying to say to me.

Take responsibility.