The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A brief codicil to end the holiday period, for which I'm still drawing a wage.
Over the summer I was drawn back to memories of my last occupation in three ways.

Firstly, in being offered a position in every single country I visited. There is a teacher shortage worldwide, it seems.

More interestingly, my old life resurfaced in the form of trainee teachers. One good, one bad.

Pamela was a young Scot fresh from teaching in Guatemala. Her introduction to teaching had come in the form of a voluntary programme - one of those new sorts of "eco-tourism" whose ridiculously steep 'mandatory donations' / fees translate as a cheaper, slightly more purposeful form of a package holiday. For the snip of one and a half thousand GBP ($2500), she was dumped in a classroom of 33 children of all ages from 8 to 15, and told to 'teach them something'.
Teach what? she'd asked.
Oh, Geography, History, Maths, that sort of thing.
Is there a curriculum? A syllabus?
No. And you have to teach in Spanish.
Pamela didn't speak a word of Spanish.

None of the volunteers at the programme did.

Eyes wide, Pamela describes to me how she'd, without a scrap of experience in teaching or child care, bought textbooks from her pocket money, tried to devise comprehension quizzes for the students, to find they could read but not retain or locate information.

I think, but stop myself from commenting: Yes, it's called Level 3 of the National Curriculum in Reading. It's one of the difficult leaps in cognitive development for children who missed it the first time around; I recall failing at it myself.
I used to refer to it as Not Understanding What the Teacher Wants You to Do, quite frankly.
In fact, I don't know what to say to Pamela. 31 students all at the same level are too many for most experienced single subject teachers to handle. All at different ages and abilities? All attending part time when not needed in the fields?
The set up is a mockery. An insult to the people it pretends to help. The 'volunteer programme', as described, leaves me fuming to the degree that it's better to say nothing.

Instead, I ask Pamela about her own education history. Expensive Scottish private school, top ranking Highers, pressure to attend Oxbridge colleges, her family's pride in her good degree. She flushes with pleasure at the memory.
She doesn't at first make the connection.

I want to ask her how many of the students of her Guatemalan school ever go to Oxbridge. How many graduate. How many can read to a level we would regard as literacy in this country. Does she know that the skills she describes even are considered illiterate in Britain. Whether the statistics show that children keep on attending the school, long term. What they go on to become.
I bite my tongue.

Over a sashimi lunch at a luxury resort in Rarotonga, servile and pompadoured staff scraping to earn their anticipated handsome tip, we talk of other things.

Eventually the wires connect and fuse.
"I guess we weren't doing the students much good, were we?"
Eventually, the experience redefines itself for her as part of someone else's life; a malleable factor in a spectrum of lost, discarded opportunities to do something. Not just a worthy sounding holiday.

The food suddenly tastes sour.

Having worked for eleven years in some of the highest turnover schools in London, you develop a sixth sense about new teachers: you need to. If they're not going to make it, you need to work out why, if it's salvageable, how soon to prioritise the students' progress above the teacher's learning curve regarding their own skills.

One of my duties had been to comfort the crying kiwi / aussie teachers when they couldn't take the english system any more.
I was generally ordered to make them stay at any cost; lie to them if necessary. With Australasians faced with a system where a student's word is sometimes taken at face value against a teacher's, as if confrontation were some sort of power transaction, I generally found it paid more dividends to be honest about the problems they were going to face.
"You can't hit them. And you can't swear at them. Yes they can swear at you. And they will. They can probably hit you too, if they're cunning enough about it. But you can't react."

I met Cal on Atiu, a five by seven kilometre, remote, rural Cook Island. With his wife and three year old child, he had undertaken to do his teaching practical placement thousands of miles afar from his home town of Wellington.
He chose Atiu island's only village school, and listening to him speak about it while exploring ancient makatea coral caves, I had that same feeling of instinctive appraisal.
It was nice to see, from a country who appear to train their teachers to higher standards than we do, the heart and spirit that mark a good teacher just beaming out from this guy.

Later, I tried to work out what it was that had resonated so clearly that this was a keeper, the sort of guy you want on your staff.
And it was simple. So very simple.
He had talked - and talked, and talked, and talked; with honest, bubbling enthusiasm - about the students, not himself.

The next author to write at the Blackboard Jungle has finally agreed to blog intermittently during her trainee year learning to teach mathematics in Wales. I wish her every bit of luck, love and success.
And that writing about teaching helps her in the process of doing something worthwhile as much as it did me.