The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, May 13, 2005

An english language examination question asks sixteen year old students to imagine they are writing a letter of application for a summer job fruit picking. The answers reveal a startling lack of understanding of power structures at play in the world of jobseeking. The vast majority of students believe the process to be thus:

  1. Find a job that pays "well" (many remarked upon how generous the minimum wage seemed from the vantage point of a world inhabited by twin forces of pocket money and illegal underage skivvy jobs)

  2. Arrange an interview by picking up the phone

  3. Go along to the interview but do not be scared - this is where you should closely look at the job - see if you like the look of the place you will be working

  4. If you are satisfied that the place is good, and they will not make you wear a uniform, then the job is for you

  5. Once this decision has been made, collect and fill out an application form for the job

  6. The job is now yours

So: what have we taught them?

Luke has been driven into apoplectic fury yet again by the demands of his english teacher. Miss N has high standards, and will not allow students to bend them into underachievement. She's a skilful teacher, and a stickler for careful manners and consideration. Luke is facing real difficulty in meeting such standards,in a world where, previously, alternating wild uncontrollable rages with high test scores has stood him in good stead. Miss N speaks to me at the end of the week, suggesting that perhaps the teacher pupil relationship here has degenerated to the point where it becomes irretrievable.I agree to switch Luke's english class within the next week.

Luke's mother telephones the school first thing Monday morning. Her voices screams inthroaty roar from the handset.
~ Where's that bitch Miss N? I want to speak to her!
I explain carefully, in modulated tones, that Miss N is teaching and cannot leave thirty students to come to the phone.
~ That's not fucking good enough! I want to talk to the head of department! NOW.
My voice oozes deeper, sicklier honey, the more abusive she becomes. The head of department isn't in today. I'm afraid she'll have to take her complaint to another member of the senior staff. Everybody here is busy. Teaching.
She misses the sarcasm but takes the hint. Slams the handset after a few choice insults about whose job she's going to 'destroy'.

So: what have we taught Luke?

The Blackboard Jungle has been bordering upon the preachy of late. I do apologise. Diatribes have always been intended to be very much secondary to the stories formed by real life.

Yet one post I've read has crystallised many ideas at once. I must just take one slow Friday out of the tales of teens inspected to note what has been said.

I've been reading the words of Edward Hyde for two years now. A recent post both chimes and grates against some ideas I've kicked about lately, on how we really teach those in our care about our responsibilities in the world.
A woman came into the bookstore today looking for a book greater than 500 pages in length, and the audio version (preferably abridged) of the same book. The contents of the book did not matter -- fiction, non-fiction, genre, topic, all irrelevant. The sole criteria was over 500 pages, and an abridged version on CD or tape.

The reason for this was because her teenage daughter was assigned to read and write a report on a book at least 500 pages in length. This report is due tomorrow. Child kept putting it off, and putting it off, and putting it off. If the child does not turn in a report tomorrow, child will get a failing grade. So mom took time off of work to go to the bookstore to get something the kid could listen to tonight and pound out a report on, and the book to show the teacher.

Note that there is nothing wrong with this child. There was no family emergency, no vacation or time away from school. Kid. Just. Didn't. Do it.

Now, if this were my child, she'd take eat the failing grade. She would be grounded for so long she'd forget there was a world outside of school and home. She'd forget what a TV looked like, what telephones looked like, what the internet was, what video games were. She'd certain know what books were, what homework was, and what household chores were. She'd be subjected to daily, sometimes hourly, lectures on the importance of education, personal responsibility, time management, and, oh, any other topic I could make relevant.

Under NO circumstances would I drop everything to help the child cheat. I would not be teaching the child that listening to a book on tape is the same thing as reading a book, that taking shortcuts is an acceptable alternative to doing actual work, and that if you screw up it's okay because someone else will bail you out and immediately and unquestioningly pick up your damned mess.
We as adults rarely look critically at ourselves when we truly believe we are already setting a good example. No doubt this bookshop customer truly believed that by insisting her daughter meet the deadline, she was taking responsibility.

Edward Hyde sees it differently, and when phrased in such terms, I have to agree. Time and again children show us that we teach them by our actions, not by words or by crumpled principles. They do not listen to what we say. Children unfailingly look: at what we do.

If we swing life by the seat of our pants, we teach them not that it can be done, but that we clearly believe this is how it should be done.

In fairness, I recognise fully how often do we all do this: assume some of the responsibility, and cease questioning ourselves about the rest.

I can't honestly say I haven't been in this bookshop customer's shoes and reacted similarly. I can't honestly say I'd have spent too long questioning myself about the moral framework of what I believed at that moment to be a 'good' action.

But the process of reflection, or self criticism is crucial. Self knowledge is the automatic by-product of neither action nor intention.
If we stop asking ourselves what it is that we already model to the youngsters in our care, then we no longer control the aspects of the world that we want them to revere.

In an email conversation with James, I suggested that although generic workblogs have previously been somewhat complaining and venting in nature - a sea change could occur.
Blogging is a medium through which a process of critical reflection could act as necessary future tool for workers in professions and in public service. Particularly the latter: in public health, the army, policing, teaching, and social work, a target-driven top-down culture combines awkwardly with frontline service - situations characterised by real, unavoidable outcomes for the people you work with.

These cultures do not lend themselves to occupational or professional reflection - time is a high pressure commodity, as is energy, when crisis control is your daily bread. The majority of teachers I know spend their evenings and weekends simply attempting to recharge frazzled nerves, rather than musing upon what makes children read, meet deadlines, challenge authority?

Yet these are the very cultures which most need critical reflection to take place, continually threatened by the push and pull of the general public's hour of need, balanced on a knife edge of governmental under-funding and over-targeting.

If we don't reflect, pause, and take a moment to see ourselves in a self-critical light in these public service professions, then we, like Edward Hyde's bookshop customer will inevitably fall guilty of preaching but not teaching. We are judged by what we do. We must therefore assume less about what we do - open our eyes, look, judge, reflect - to see perhaps what damaging roles we too are playing in shaping young people's sense of the world.