The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, January 31, 2005

Monday, final period. A class of eight sixteen year olds. Remedial. There should be three support teachers, but they've left or retired and we can't find anyone to replace them yet.

Lawrence is dancing from chair to chair, his elbows held tightly against his body, hands splayed and flapping oddly, as he hops and skips like an overgrown extra in the dance of the sugar-plum fairy. Having a whale of a time, he caps his excitement by diving under the table to hide between dance routines. I'm not sure what has created such jollity, but the Maccy D milkshake smuggled into the room with two shrivelled cold cheeseburgers may well be under that table with him.

Wes has come in late, and decided that today, any interaction or question will be greeted by a loud aria.
Once he's started, he sings to the end. We shall simply have to wait if we want to say anything; wait till the song is done.

It isn't the same song that Lawrence appears to be dancing to.

Behind all the inanities and chatter, I iterate easily digestible soundbites on American inequality, on Caribbean immigration, on manifestations of dislocation for any migrant community.

Hyen is playing with her computer, Jessica and Rick flirt quietly, their pens at rest.
Jose has taken a break from his usual routine (one of wandering about to release a flatulent request for attention from any pretty girl), and is trying to do some real work in-between bouts of paper pellet throwing and sneaky sips of orange fizz.
James is silent, well-behaved. Soon, Nat and Matt will turn up thirty minutes late from the fast food outlet down the road, and distract him.

As Wes's aria culminates, he looks down to his worksheet, adds a diligent line or two on poetic expressions of identity. Finishes his worksheet. Lawrence scuttles backwards from the secret burger stash beneath and pirouettes crazily towards the projector.

I'm trying to deliver a lesson on cultural dissonance.

I wonder, as I speak, how I'd describe this: my own simultaneous paradigm shift; how I'd tell it, on this blog.

Friday, January 28, 2005

A post on survival at Remote Access has set off the free-thinking ruminant inside:
"I really wonder how a lot of people survive. When I read the blogs of teachers like Ms. Frizzle, hipteacher and others I wonder how they get up and march into the classroom every morning. [...] So how do you face 100+ kids every day who you don't know? Who you will never know? How do you deal with thugs in your building, with the dangers of going to work everyday?"
I teach at a school with over 1700 students. The average number of students a teacher at my school deals with in a week is approximately 250. Should the timetable be a bad one that year, this could double to cover classes split between two teachers.
(This year's particularly bad; several classes are faced with five teachers per fortnight for just one subject.)

I live one mile away from where I teach, and see students all the time. It's a pleasure to see them - especially to see past students. It was only years ago when I lived further away that I would have any problems; as I would speed off to my swanky pad in the city, leaving the rough tumbledown estates where the students live, a feeling that I was holidaying in their lives would materialise, as they reminded me through thuggish behaviour and sour faced snarls of the more brutal aspects of their upbringing.

Living round here, it feels as if we're all in the same boat. Those students I see at the weekend, who I chat with in the local park, are always, without fail, better behaved in class for it. They know I gossip with their parents in the supermarket, and are more reluctant to put a foot wrong.

I like teaching such a wide, multitudinous range of children.

  • Nobody in my job gets bored.

  • Nobody in my job stares out of the window wondering when the clock will hit five. It's rare to find someone's words or responses predictable, to assume before meeting it what the day will hold.

  • If I have a bad class, another, more energetic, more enquiring set of minds will be along within fifty minutes.

  • I don't spend my day surfing blogs and pretending I've been getting on with making money for some faceless corporation who do nothing fruitful in the world.

  • I enjoy facing unanswerable questions on an hourly basis, or figuring out just the words, the attitude, the psychological mix of interaction that will make your toughest student crack, give up the ghost and risk his self-respect by trying something new.

  • I'm not couched in a meeting room with a surfeit of tea, flipcharts and biscuits to distract me from auditory torpor.

  • It's rare enough for a teacher in the inner city schools to even sit down.

Not knowing students in such a large school can be problematic, but I have taught there for nearly ten years, so if I don't know a child, I often know a brother, an uncle, a cousin, and one day I'll know their parents, too. Meeting such huge numbers of people on whose lives you've had a positive benefit has its own rewards.

Kids aren't born thugs, and it's a very small minority who stay thugs. They often seem to be happy with the choice to act like a thug as a defence, and are waiting for us, the adults, to open an opportunity for them to find other ways to behave.

It's our job to make those other modes of being safe for them, in a world that sometimes patently is not safe.

I don't know the answers.

Yet I'm mostly optimistic.

These are children, after all, not lifers in a high security institution. We have to be able to see the positive potential in a child, if we're ever to winkle it out.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

By request, an anecdote from my previous school, whose intake included a large number of recent arrivals to the country.

Families gain extra credit when applying for leave to remain if they have school-age students, so there can be somewhat of an age disparity in the classes you teach.
An apparently fourteen year old student shows you pictures of her white wedding last weekend.

A twelve year old writing his family biography assures you that yes, every uncle does work in the kebab shop, not a one of them works for wages, though.

A supposedly thirteen year old six foot boy (average height: four to five feet) who sports full beard and the physique of a boxer is sent out of class for acting immature.
You try not to question too harshly.

A public exam revision class for thirteen year olds includes this latter boy, Hasan. He's areputation for being easily bored, disinclined to do work, and a tendency to tell teachers to f*** off if challenged about this.

And the Head of Science, a dour, brittle, no - nonsense squat lady in her late forties has had enough of Hasan's intractibility, and silliness. She tolerates it as long as she can, till she lets rip with the retort "what are you doing here anyway? You're thirty six years old with a family of three kids, aren't you?"

Hasan storms out, furious. Science teacher is rather perturbed - un-PC comments like this are not well received by the borough who employ her.

"Ooh, miss," the other children say, "you shouldn't have said that. You've really upset him now. He's only thirty two."

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The meta-blogging trend continues apace: after a year of precious little blogging about the actual chalkface, we seem to hit a tsunami of edu-posts.

I've often wondered about putting Billyworld on the sidebar, as an ex-maths teacher. However, not knowing at the time his reasons for the prefix, I feared it may upset, avoided doing so, not wanting to invite repercussion in the form of long and thoughtful Montaigne-style essays entitled 'On Never Teaching Again'.
Yet, meta-blog strikes again, and Fridgemagnet's Why Teach? post (meta-referenced here below) has led Billyworld to respond by reminiscing on the process that saw his own best teacher downshift to a job collecting supermarket trolleys.

After ten years in statistically, London's worst schools, I'm really not about to denigrate the idea of downshifting.
(Thankfully for my career, I still recall the horrors of being a toilet cleaner in Athens. This could be the only thing, on occasion, that keeps me from the park ranger application form.)

Billy's post reminded me of an intermittent, unfinished series that stalled on this blog, as I memorialised my own best teachers. I ran through what I remembered to have been special about them at the point of contact, what seems valuable only now, in retrospect, and finally, what I could learn from their good practice, high standards, and ability to inspire.

My biggest dilemma at the time of posting, as I recall, was whether or not to reprint their full names. In embarrassment, I decided not.

Bumping into one of these vital and energising individuals at the theatre last year I was embarrassed by my own debt of gratitude: shy mumbled 'hello' before furtive ducking into the crowd.

However human and desirous of validation I know I and my colleaagues to be, somehow one's own teachers hold a special, permanently elevated rank in the world; a rank that seeks no assurance, that must, certainly know its own value.

Perhaps not.

Yesterday, I spied a familiar face while refuelling at a local garage. A cherubic boy's grin wrapped tight inside the plump features of a good looking young man.

Risking it, I waved. No recognition.
It couldn't be the ex-student I'd thought I'd seen.

He and his neon-jacketed buddy tramped on towards their van, waving lunch baguettes and talking animatedly, when suddenly the taller man zigzagged back, ran towards me. I waited, petrol pump in hand as Grant's pleased eyes unfogged to work out who I was, happy that - unusually - I could put a name one of the past's many familiar faces.

Holding my spare hand out in greeting, I used his name, wondered if he remembered the five years he'd spent in my form group. I was interrupted by a hand that gripped mine, pulled me towards him, and wrapped me into strong bearhug followed by big crumbly baguette laden kiss.
Boy, was it good to see me.

A little taken aback, I asked Grant about himself, wondering if perhaps I'd intervened in some more memorable way than the morning and afternoon attendance lectures I recalled.
Grant ummed and ahhed a little, and finally spilled his story: a drugs bust at seventeen, the threat of imprisonment, narrowly averted by one spirited witness who'd stood up to be counted for a stranger's sake, how the experience had burned him, how he'd turned his life around.

I suggested that perhaps a near miss so young had actually helped him find a better path in life. He knew what I meant; his face recognised the memory of a million and one tutorial lectures on staying out of trouble, and he proudly recounted how he'd found himself good work, was satisfied to have earnt himself a future where his main worry was keeping off the beer.
There's a feature I often perceive in the faces of ex-students become adults, but not in all.
Where you find it, always ask about it.
It has its own ceaselessly cyclical story, has perpetually been earnt.
Real utterance of thanks is rare in education - so rare that I've noticed one comment, deeply meant, can provide up to two years of subterranean satisfaction and secret pride. As Boyhowdy has just discovered, a note from a student, unbidden, rewards uniquely: with praise for what you do, and not for who you are.

And its because of what Grant has said, what Billy has remembered, and what Boyhowdy has received, that I feel obligated to thank my teachers in the form that bloggers understand best: linking.

I link to My Best Teachers no longer via blank pseudonym, but by name. They did not merely teach me, they inspired . Thank you.

Patrick Stack
Juliet Skedge
John Hurst
Phil Leslie
Perhaps what we all need, here at the jagged chalkface, is a teacher of our own. Someone to say 'well done', 'never mind', and to give us a tacky back star once in a while.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The incomparable and also local onionbagblog took his primary school charges to the dance studio (to be observed in a natural habitat by the architects designing the new playground ... ? ) this week:
"Swings and Roundabouts

A short coach ride back to the ranch and I was counting my blessings on the chunder front. A full day and no sign of the sick bags being used. The two usual puking princesses were strapped in safely at the front of the coach, sick bags bolted to their mouths like horse feeding bags.

I was sitting next to one of the more mature ten year-old who wanted to share with me her Tracy Beaker magazine. I would have preferred my copy of Private Eye but she told me I was 'more boring than her dad.' And believe me, that's going some.

The quality of journalism on offer wasn't that great, but that's still no reason to retch up her Ribena all over my chinos. The stains from last summer were only just starting to wash out as well."
Fear of the cockerney swear-count compels me to warn you that this is an eighth of the fantastic account posted. Suffice to say, if you 're not as amused by little boys who say "titties" as I am, don't click the link.

Monday, January 24, 2005

"Miss, why did you say Sammy hit you? He never hit you. You lied about it."

A month ago, a terrified thirteen year old boy whom I don't know ran into my classroom. One look at him and I knew why he was there: Witness. Adult. Protection.

I swiftly stood between him and the door. A boy whom I later learn is called Sammy stormed into the room, all furious steam and maddening colour rush, gesticulating wildly and aggressively. He began to do what's known locally as getting in the other boy's face.
It's all hot air and gesture, rapid swinging jabbing forefingers striking down towards a face but not making contact. It's what's known around here as 'fronting' someone. Carefully targeted aggression, designed to intimidate, but also a way out of a fight.

I can't take the risk: one response from victim, one word that inflames ego or ire of aggressor, and those hands could make contact. I insinuated myself between the boys. Stand in the way.

Tom, first boy in, turns his face away, protests, refuses to give up eye contact to Sammy's growled assertions that he has hit him in the mouth, has cut his lip and drawn blood. I looked quickly at Sam's lip. It's unmarked, and it takes little time to understand from which direction the bullying is occurring.

Raising my hands palms outward before me, I repeated in a low tone "leave the room now."

I know exactly how much force the law permits me to use. Children are perennially convinced that teachers are not allowed to touch them. Not true. If I perceive danger, I am allowed to use reasonable force to restrain.
I intend not to admit such force into my classroom.

Standing, legs apart, palms facing Sammy, I repeated it. "Leave the room now."
Calm, controlled, low, emphatic. Take one step forward.

My intention is to walk, step by step, towards the door, with Sammy in front of me. The consequences of his bullying or touching me are far worse - bizarrely - than if he bullies or beats Tom.

Sammy did not respond, stood his ground. Leant around me to jab his finger at Tom and continue to shout imprecations.
His eyes and head were about the height of my upperarms. I made sure my palms were consistent with the level of his chest. The noise as he screamed what he's going to do to the other boy, was riotous, thought-deafening. My low tone is the only way to undercut the high pitch, to resonate at a level below the rage. "Do you see how close you are to me?"
He didn't respond.
"Leave the room, now." I moved forward another step.

Sammy shoved forward into me, pushing me backwards a step.

There's an invisible barrier around teachers, even in schools where violence against staff is commonplace (as all my schools have been). A crackle of electricity tells everyone in the room when the barrier has been crossed.

"You have just pushed me," I informed him in the same low, measured tone. "Leave. The. Room. Now." I paused, move forward another step. Made contact. My hands were on his chest. He sprang back: "Don't you touch me! You're not allowed to touch me!"

Now he's admitted that contact has been made. That's quotable, when I inevitably have to write this up and pretend it's unusual. I stood stock still. "I am standing here, with my hands raised, telling you to leave the room. If you run into my hands, you push me . Leave the room. Now."
Sammy was practically clinging onto me, trying to twist past me to get to Tom. He's screaming about what he will do to Tom, how he will beat him. Who will be waiting for him on the way home. How many boys will be after him.

I kept walking, and enunciating. Till Sammy was backed up to the door. His friends were stock still, in the doorway, too shocked by the situation to enter. Sammy, still screaming, suddenly gave in and left.

Following him into the corridor, I shouted in urgent tones to another teacher - who turns out not to be a teacher, but a schoool visitor: could she stand beside me? Two adults are a hardier force to be reckoned with than one.

Sammy erupted down the corridor amongst his shouting, brawling pack of boys - but in the other direction. Explaining to the visitor that I simply needed her to stand beside me for one minute, I thanked her, and tried to offer an apology: it's not always like this.
I had no idea who the poor woman was, but right now I need to find out what just happened. Sammy has stormed off down the stairs.

I shut the door behind him.

Turned to see Tom, frozen in an attitude of defeat over the table, face reddened; eyes red, damp, impotently angry.

Sammy exploded into the room for another try: shouting, cursing, raving. I repeated my previous mantra, repeated my previous raised palm walk, repeated it all until he's out of the door.
His last scream around my waist was "sorry Tom!" As if this somehow absolves him, a legal technicality that confers less seriousness on his attack.

I slammed the door on Sammy, locked it shut. Tempting a third attack is too risky.

Tom tells me he's been a school refuser for two months, and this is his first day back. That a third boy had started the row, who hadn't come into the room. That it's always like this, day after day after day.
That he's a young boxer, that the other boys know this, know he's learnt sufficient self control not to respond, make a game of trying to provoke him, trying to make him lose it and hit them, hard.
It's happened, once, and he had knocked the other boy from his feet in one blow. Tells me how much that had scared him, that they could make him forget himself like that.

Sammy is hauled over the coals by the authorities, eventually. I have to write three pages of report, corroborate Tom's evidence, draw two diagrams of students' positioning during the attack, have two meetings to repeat my assertions, defend myself against Sam when he decides to accuse me of trumping up fictionalised assaults in the corridor, demolish three faked witness statements that 'see' me beat Sam and lie to save my own skin.
He eventually confesses the truth, is suspended for some time, and his parents decide perhaps boarding school is a better option. These last facts are private, not the business of the school at large, or of Tom.

It's three more weeks before Sammy's pals stop accosting me in the corridor, in the street, on the road home, to ask why I've framed Sammy when they were all witnesses. To be on the safe side, I try not to make it too noticeable which is my car; the school doesn't have a great track record of following through crimes against property.

Tom's accusations are taken seriously. He continues to attend school. He, a stranger, never speaks to me again.

In exactly this way, those five quiet minutes after another Thursday morning class mutate, turn swiftly into moments that change people's lives.

Friday, January 21, 2005

I've read many thoughtful insights into how the general public perceive the attractions and detractions of teaching on the web in the past week.

Firstly, Light from an Empty Fridge analysed the new Teacher Training Agency advertisements, which seem to invite applicants to compare the torpor of an office job with a career in an industry where 'the people you work with don't need coffee to be buzzing in the morning', and ask whether your colleagues have 'made their minds up about everything already'. A thought provoking post in itself, in suggesting that this was the first TTA advertisement to address the real rewards fo the job, it also elicited some lovely varieties of response from commenters who disagreed.

Personally, I agree with this approach of seeing the sheer invigorating energy of undeveloped minds grappling with new concepts and bringing new perspectives to old subjects - it's exactly what I enjoy about my job.
(I don't merely say that because Fridgemagnet was nice about The Blackboard Jungle, either: students may appear to be set in their minds about everything and everyone, but this is a thinly constructed social veneer that they are desperate to lose for something deeper. It's a pleasure to be able to assist in asking someone to question the world about them. (Sometimes, listening to colleagues, you wonder if that's possibly the last time they ever will genuinely question things. (I digress into a jaded freefall of anti - teacher colleague cynicism. Enough.)))

The week's other, truly remarkable, piece of writing from a non-educator can be found at a consistently provokingly fresh blog, Outer Life, and consists of the most apposite rejection of the maxim that 'those who can, do; those who can't, teach' [forgetting the final line: those who can't teach, teach geography], weaving together startling anecdotal evidence to illustrate sharply how remembered learning progresses at a different pace than actual learning. It's so beautifully rendered that I cannot do the piece justice, and am forced to quote at length:
"When someone kills herself, the first question you ask is "why?" We need to explain to the inexplicable. Like everyone, I wondered why, but unlike everyone, I didn't know. Everyone else knew why she killed herself. She did it because of me.

I heard it in whispers in the corridors, I saw it in people pointing at me, glancing away when I turned towards them. Friends kept me informed, sharing the painful details as the story worsened, my involvement growing deeper by the day. I heard I was an unfeeling monster, a grading demon, gleefully puncturing my students' self-esteem with barbed comments and pointed suggestions. And after a few days absorbing this kind of talk, I started to feel it. I lost my appetite and clumps of my hair, my stomach bled and I often trembled. A dark cloud followed me wherever I went, blotting the sun from my life.

During those dark days, I reviewed the semester over and over again in my mind, trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I could have done differently. I reread my comments to her papers, wondering which one set her off. I interviewed my few remaining students, grasping for any insight into my pedagogical flaws.

All this taught me a lot about my teaching, and much of it wasn't good. I did not instil an interest in the subject, assuming the students would find it as interesting as I did. I was blinded by their inability to work at my level, failing to acknowledge many of the little improvements in their work. I connected only with the best students, incapable of seeing my class through the eyes of my poorer students. I took it personally when my students failed, and they knew it. I ignored their concerns, assuming I knew what was best. In short, I expected them to be just like me, and they weren't and would never be.

After a few weeks the news trickled out that her husband had left her a few days before the suicide and that she'd married him against the wishes of her parents and that they'd disowned her and so on, a troubled tale of a troubled young life having nothing to do with her classroom experiences. The whispering stopped, my appetite and most of my hair eventually returned, my stomach healed and my tremors steadied.

And I listened to what I'd learned, I changed my methods, I started to really teach, I began to appreciate how difficult it is, I discovered I have no talent for it and, as I saw myself flailing and ultimately failing at something I once thought I'd been good at, I began to loathe my weekly teaching sessions almost as much as my students did. I vowed to find something else to do with my life, thankful that I figured this out before I'd inflicted further damage.

And that is why the phrase "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" is so stupid, for in denying that teaching is doing it leads idiots like myself to think anyone who can do can teach without giving any thought to the reality that teaching is doing of a different sort."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

One of the many really great things about my school, is that twice a year, we receive a day off timetable simply to mentor some of the kids we teach.
Given the turnover of around 150 kids per day running through lessons (not literally; at least, mostly not literally), on several occasions it can form the only opportunity to speak on a one-to-one basis with a quiet student.

Staff always moan about the disruption to the timetable, the imposition upon their marking and assessment time, the pointlessness of qualitative, rather than quantitative targets, myself included. But a day spent simply speaking to students is so rich, so interesting, that it's only an hour or two before I recover from my coffee-fug, and remember that this is actually what the job is about.

I ask my mentees to meet in groups, and try to form a buddy system between children of similar ability bands. We look at their assessments, consider the reliability of sources, compare across the group, analyse whether teachers' predictions were correct, which results are important, and which not so, contrasted against the expectations of the outside world into which they will be pushed in four short months' time.

We finish up with a suggestion box: what can the school do - or stop doing - to help them achieve the grades they need?

Rin and Nat are comparing notes on their progress.
I want Rin to calm down and modulate her efforts at school, allow herself to breathe; whereas Nat, a nice kid, a bright kid, is allowing himself to coast through his final year without getting wet.

Ms L: How much pressure do you feel like the school is putting you under? How are you handling it?
Rin: Waaaay too much. My mum goes mental at me every single day. If I buckle, she's always on at me, saying she's going to send me back to Jamaica till I make up my mind. I get pressure from everywhere, all the time. It's too much.
Nat leans back in his chair, crosses his ankles: No way. To be honest, I don't feel under pressure at all.

I ask if they'd revised for the exams last term. Rin had, Nat, not at all. That is, he'd revised for Religious Education, and his grade had gone down, so he'd decided any revision was a bad move.

Ms L: Okay, let's deal with the future. What colleges have you applied to, Nat?
Nat: Erm. The local one. That is, I picked up a form.
Ms L: You haven't been interviewed yet?
Nat: No. I thought I'd give in the form next week sometime. My mum was meant to find out when.
Ms L: Well, what grades do you need, to get onto your courses?
Nat: Erm.
Ms L: Rin, what about you? Where have you applied?
Rin reels off the names of seven well-known academic colleges, and adds in the local one as back-up: The Brits is my favourite, though, but they want two A's and five B's, whereas I'm one grade below that; also I don't specialise in the classical dance they prefer, so I'm not too hopeful.
Ms L: When did you put your forms in?
Rin: About a fortnight ago.
Ms L: Nat. How do you feel when you hear something like that? All those colleges that Rin's already applied for.
Nat grins sheepishly, stretches in discomfort. He shakes his head: Not too good.

Ms L: Let me ask you a personal question, if I may?
Nat: Okay.
Ms L: Rin needs to calm down. She's putting herself under way too much pressure. There's still four months to go,and she needs to sustain herself, not burn out. Do you see that? How she's responding differently?
Nat: Yeah. I don't feel that at all.
Ms L: My question to you, Nat, is when will you feel the pressure? Will you start to feel the pressure tooday, tomorrow, the day before the exam, or the day after everyone else has got into college? A little pressure is no bad thing. When will it scare you into to starting to do some work?
Nat: Yeah. I guess.
Ms L: When I talk to you about school, Nat, I get a particular impression. Things are happening to you, and it's as if you're a passenger in your own life. If your grades are down, it's because the teachers don't like you. You're a likeable kid. Nobody dislikes you to that extent. When your college applications aren't in, it's because your mum didn't warn you. Is that fair?
Nat: They don't like me! Miss Book won't let me go in the art office, and she lets Elizabeth every day!
Ms L: Nat, forgive me for saying it: you're a passenger. I'm trying to explain how what you say feels to hear. I want to know when you're going to be in the driving seat. When will you make decisions for yourself?
Nat: True.
Ms L: Nat, you are going to learn this lesson, one day. You are going to feel the pressure, because that's the way the world works. What you need to work out is, how many times will your life have to teach you this lesson, before you respond with a decision?

It may not trigger a response. But to hear that in front of a peer has at least some power, for a sixteen year old.

Our alternative route is systemised, paper-driven - is faceless five minute parent teacher interviews, is angry letters home from subject staff, is twice termly detention, and a report that consists of a list of numbers, spiralling steadily downwards.

Mentoring may not ever work for Nat. Yet I feel some pride that, here, twice a year, we give ourselves the space and time to try.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"You're not strict, Miss" Jamie informs me, as he colours in the pencil drawing of a murdered King Duncan the Meek.

"Am I not, sweetheart?" I'm writing out sub-headings on the following page, to help him catch up on work he missed in the five weeks he didn't come to school.

"Nahman, miss, nah!" Jamie's incensed at the idea. "If you was strict, I'd shout at you."

"Surely not!" I feign mock horror. Jamie's all of three foot tall, and enjoys doing well, given a task he has a chance of doing at all well in. "Even Ms G? Would you even answer back to Ms G?" I invoke the usually petrifying, whispered name of his head of year.

"Yeah!" He pouts, insistent on his own tenacity. "I would too. I was bad last year, Miss. You don't know."

"Golly." I move onto the next page, scribbling down random events from the Shakespeare play we're studying. "I can't imagine you ever being rude to a teacher like that." Fingers crossed that this statement of a reputation wiped clean will be prophetic. Of course I can imagine it. But a new leaf is a tempting thing for a student to treasure.

"Nah, well we work for you, don't we? 'Cos you're not strict." His eyes stay concentrated on the symbols of authority and kingship he's drawing, in a stubby pencil that's been snapped in half to create part tool, part weapon.

I shrug. Not knowing whether to grin, or to groan.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I'm apt to drown beneath a sea of pointless administrative tasks.

I've just attempted to measure how many inches of random, unimportant pieces of paper wash over my desk today. Inches wouldn't cut it.

Three feet.

Three feet of memos, of lists to be filled in, of data requests, worksheets, memos, lists, instructions and circulars. Of ocean detritus, riming the room with their foamy useless muck.

They've piled up like bloated corpses, all within the last three days.

Given that my central occupation is to teach, is contact time with children, and the planning and assessment of progress therein ... why does this extra flurry of white leaves of broken, fallen nothingness appear? What possible justification can there be for three feet of extra tasks, of trailing wake, of pettifogging, on top of the job I do equally well without?

I'm extremely tempted to bin it all, and see if anything comes of it. Dump the lot back in the formless deep from whence it came.
Even that one single important piece of A4 that will be hidden somewhere between the folds.

Monday, January 17, 2005

In conversation with an ex-colleague yesterday, she dropped the following anecdotal gem while recounting a chat with a first year teacher up north:
"You can discontinue the search for the perfect worksheet, you know. There isn't any ideal lesson plan that will always work, there's no brilliant plenary task that solves all your classroom management woes.

There's just you and them, and whether they think you like them or not. Get that right, and the rest will follow."

Friday, January 14, 2005

Just as I'm whining about the huge disruption encountering a student teacher causes a class, just as I'm finally easing out of the darkest days with my group of utterly lawless thirteen year olds, I find another student has been allocated.

I know full well I'm being unfair. They will have a teacher with far more time, resources, energy and commitment while they have him. Is it so unhelpful not to want to see them break a new teacher's will to live through pure misbehaviour, to be pained by the possibility of watching them break their own good habits, so recently and so dearly bought, or to feel threatened by the subsequent term which sees me break my spirit in trying to rein them back in once he's gone?

It is. And such cynicism doesn't become me. The boss decides to level with the student about the difficulties presented by the class, and give him one hour to observe and decide if this class are a challenge he's up to facing.

Today, Mister Cory came in to see how my beloved horrors deal with their first attempt at deducing meaning from Shakespeare's language.

During the lesson, we took twelve words out of context, and divided them into families: words that consider relationships (pronouns, to be specific); words with abbreviations, or that build a sentence (verbs); words that tell us motivation (largely words related to death and ambition).
We practised spelling, saying, reading, and making sentences from these disconnected words. Huseyin threw some pens, Tommy shouted out a few swear words, Sherry tried to truant, Lenny practised four different ways of secretly listening to his ipod. It was a far far more organised and well behaved lesson than usual.
At the end, we looked at the way Roman Polanski had depicted the three witches, and wondered if their powers (and thus their cursing Macbeth) might be as real as the bloodied finger they bury beneath the sands of time in the opening scene.

Mister Cory was impressed with their energy and interest. He could see that their ability was weak, and that they had developed strategies to avoid work, or at any cost, writing. I explained the reasoning behind some of the activities in the classroom:
  • Children who can barely write don't want to spoil a page by marking it in any way, as any mark done by them is of necessity spoiling. Therefore, it helps if you write the first line, 'spoil' the page for them.

  • Never to let them take books home. They disappear. Forever.

  • Always provide pens, but count them, as they will be thrown at someone if you turn away.

  • Be aware that interaction is loaded with meaning - 'I don't care!' is always, but always not what it seems. (Translation: It's a request. I want to care. I turned up to school today. I care a bit, but I can't do it on my own. Give me a reason to care.)

  • Focus on achieving the achievable, and avoid taking personally anything that, realistically, is not.
Mister Cory nods, grins, throws himself enthusiastically into talking animatedly with the children, nagging them gently to keep going, working on their level.
As far as being a sensitive, responsive guide, he's got the knack, I can see.

He returns to base, and boss, confidently asserts that he can cope with the challenges set by this class.
I think about John's first words as he entered the class.
"Are you a student teacher, sir? Is this your first day? Are you going to take the lesson in a few weeks, and then we can all muck about?"

Grit my teeth. Hope.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

I asked a set of eighteen year olds to tell me if they saw any evidence of a greater reality in William Blake's poem 'A Poison Tree'.
What's a 'greater reality', asks Rebecca?

We define the crawlspace gap between agnosticism and atheism, and suddenly a thought strikes. What do they believe in?

Rebecca doesn't believe in anything. She qualifies this: she believes in the Big Bang and evolution, but that's all. She doesn't see a pattern, a higher purpose or a greater reality.

Sarah concurs, but adds that she finds it incomprehensible that creatures of such complexity as us could be alone in the universe. She posits different dimensions.

Phoebe suggests that there is something that created the Big Bang, but she doesn't know what, and would not necessarily call it God.

I ask Sarah if perhaps in one sense complexity itself could be called god? She isn't sure but agrees that God does not have to be a grey bearded man in the sky, who determines our fates. She thinks, and tilts her head to one side. Yes, perhaps complexity coud be a kind of God.

Jon posits his theory of parallel universes, and that our species' dominance relies on very small evolutionary advantages. He suggests that the insects could be part of God's plan. That perhaps man is some viral accident delaying the true progress of the insect species. We chat for a while about what would happen if water crystallised, or if spiders learnt to act in unison, until Sarah decides that perhaps there is a God for each species.
Jon builds on this: perhaps there is a spider God?
Sarah runs with it: perhaps God is a spider?

It's getting out of hand. Alex, the only churchgoing christian in the group, remains silent, appears uncomfortable.
I shift the conversation, ask what they make of Blake's representation of the individual's relationship with God. It's only their second lesson on Blake, and brows furrow, as they try to encompass what they know and what they detect.

Sarah suggests that for Blake, nature itself is God.
Phoebe pipes up: no, Blake's not saying that. God is within us, is an examination of our soul.

Alex finally speaks: Blake goes further than that, though. God is complex thought. The ability to see into nature, see into our selves, and to apply thought and reason to natural impulses. That's what separates us from creatures, she says. Conscious, rational thought. It's a potential within us, but it's not inherent. That's what Blake thinks is God.

And the others pause. Think. Nod.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

My particular strengths in teaching are as follows: using IT, non-confrontational management of students, introducing purposeful spoken activities in the classroom, literary knowledge, teaching final year examination students, taking over difficult classes mid term, teaching remedial students, teaching gifted students.

The combination of all but one of the above strengths means that almost every year, I end up with three final year examination classes, (where other staff feel stretched with one, oddly ... ?), two of which will have been inherited from another teacher who left in a huff and didn't fulfil any of the coursework criteria; of these three classes one will usually be a top set, one a bottom, and the third what is known as presenting emotional and behavioural difficulties. It can be vexing, as there's little preparatory overlap in this combination.

Passing trial examination grades back to students in the remedial set is always tricky. Historically it's a crushing blow from which some never recover, and this is the moment where real, determined truancy often begins for sixteen year olds with severe literacy problems.

Yesterday, looking at a set of results which stretched from E to G, with a concentration in the F grade, I was nervous about the reception. I allowed students time and space to absorb the information, and asked them to select three targets from my comments on individual pieces to set themselve over the coming term, then let them talk informally about how their results made them feel.

It's the first time in years I've been genuinely surprised by an examination year classes' response.

They were *delighted*. Every single one wanted a photocopy of the full breakdown of their grades, to take home and show proudly to their parents. Every single one had improved upon the grades they achieved (with another teacher) last year.

You could have knocked me down with a feather.

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.

Monday, January 10, 2005

In a particularly arid English examination on the use of persuasive language, fifteen year old Kimberley suddenly discovers her metier:
"For too long, students have been left, and their opinions gone unheard. Why should we have to put up with purile* conditions whilst teachers laugh it up in their fancy staff rooms? Students use the same halls for eating and doing exams while the teachers get their cafeteria that has all the food us students could only wish of buying in the halls.

How can we concentrate on out work in class when we've got holes hanging over our heads? Work that the builders started but didn't finish, the jobs that didn't quite go right. The drab paint on the walls almost making you nauseus* by the end of the day. Walking down the dreerily* beige painted corridors and walking past the heads of years offices, and the head mistress' office that stand out with nice carpet and decent wall coverings.

The conference room with it's nice comfy chairs and almost gleaming new tables.

So many pictures and displays in the offices, photos of trips the years before. Why does only our work go on the walls in classes? Haven't we seen it enough? Why can't we have photos or pictures and posters?

The curtains look like they have been attacked, a bit missing here, a bit ripped there! Curtains should block out the light not make spotlights all over the room through holes that have even started to take the shape of a pattern.

The hours seem to drag on when the clock has stopped, sometimes you'll sit there and think 'Finally only 5 minutes to go' but the pips still haven't gone 15 minutes later. You ask for the time and realise the clock is fast.

The teacher hands out paper, and tells you what to write. You're not sure where to start your line because some of the paper doesn't even have margins, but that is merely picking at little things.

Why should students have to sit in such depressing conditions? In cramped classes? In a building with the worst colour co-ordination no-one could match? It is our future, our education. We deserve more. We need more stimulation whether this be in the class or not, the drizzly school conditions do not help. We need better conditions and we need them now!"

[* sic]
I can't express surprise at the force of her well-deserved ire. State school buildings tend unerringly to fit the hideous behemoth end of the spectrum; her current school is worse than most, already earmarked for destruction, in twenty years' time 'just as soon as funding comes in' for the rebuild...

I always find it both fascinating and a source of nostalgia to see what the pivotal topic is; the impetus for that moment when a once bland writer suddenly finds his or her fire and spirit, when a once passive student begins to wake up to the world and cast about a more critical eye.

Friday, January 07, 2005

I'm slowly coming round to the idea that my 'worst' class is also proving to be my most rewarding, in the long run. It seems I blog more about this bottom set facing their first real public examination (in the spirit that looters in the Dark Ages might have faced the Enlightenment) than any other class*.

I'm blown away by how satisfying teaching 'Macbeth' has been, to this class of thirteen / fourteen year olds who have difficulties reading modern English.

So are they. Tommy - so far, the most exacting, difficult student of the previous week's lessons - stops me in the print room to say how surprised he is that the play is fun to study. Fazio and Thali surprise me when they wait at the end of the lesson to ask if I think Lady Macbeth more evil than her husband.
We discuss moral guilt versus actual guilt, and they begin to analyse whether perhaps the witches share the blame, or if Macbeth should be considered master of his own fate.

I worry about just how much blood and gore I add to the play, as I basically teach them the story and the age, rather than wading through the antiquated language as directed (it's a recurring habit: it's gotten to the point where I teach Romeo and Juliet as an example of how gang violence and war can consume a generation, without ever really mentioning the piffling, minor love story coexisting there).

The support teacher, too, stops a moment longer at the end of a lesson: explains that she's never enjoyed supporting Shakespeare lessons before. That - apart from the students' obvious enjoyment of the tale - I'd managed to bring it allive for her in a way she'd never seen before.

Hurrah. Some successes. Not too many. But enough to keep you going.

* For further tales of my Minor Ninth class, see Lennie, Huseyin, James, more James, Thali, and Ashley.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Doc from Doing Less Harm has been guestblogging at The Report Card, in an entertaining series about his old schooldays, called The Good, The Bad, and The Bully.

The Good is a brilliant description of the sort of offbeat, off-message physics teaching that used to actually bring ideas alive to children. It's a million miles away from the intransigent, stuffy - switch activity every twenty minutes / do as we say not as we do stuffiness of the government's literacy and numeracy strategies.
My favourite teacher at school was "The Doc" who taught us Physics. He was one of the meanest and most beligerant teachers in the school but he was only being hard on you for your own good. I ended up doing Physics A-Level and getting an A in it so I guess his magic rubbed off on me.

He had some strange ways. He used to teach us the syllabus for, say, five lessons and then on the sixth, he'd go off on a complete tangent and we'd spend 40 minutes calculating:
  • what thickness a 6 foot tall spider's legs would have to be to support its body,
  • the distance away and size an electron would be if a hydrogen nucleus was a pound coin on his desk,
  • the amount of current running down each strand of electrified chicken wire
  • and the chance of inhaling an oxygen molecule that Caesar exhaled in his dying "Et tu Brute" breath. (Which is surprisingly high!)

We'd also have to do Oxford and Cambridge standard exam questions when studying for GCSE. "The best way to train for a marathon is to run up Everest with a sack of bricks on your back."

He was also very strict. He used to make you lay out your calculations in a specific way. If you deviated from that way then you would get comments like "DROSS!" and "DRIVEL!!!!!" written across your homework. He also insisted that all homework be done in the brown homework book. If it wasn't done in that book, it wasn't marked. When the, in his words, "snivelling little toad", J, handed his homework in on a piece of A4 paper, Doc got a book of matches and set it on fire in front of the entire class.

But he was fair. I remember once when he set us a test about radiation, conduction and convection. I wrote about how a silver surface reject heat. He marked that as wrong and I got some comment like "IDIOT!" written on my work, until I produced his own photocopied notes which hadn't copied the word 'reflects' correctly and made it look like 'rejects'. So he gave me a mark for learning what he had given me, even though it was incorrect.

He was also very harsh on my friend C and about 5 other people. He suspected them all of cheating and took them one by one outside of the classroom and into his office where he grilled them over the cheating. Of course none of them were daft enough to admit that they had cheated. They thought they could get away with it.

Well at least until The Doc pointed out that they had all calculated the distance between the Earth and the Moon as being about 100,000,000 miles.

Once again The Doc proved he was the best.
Halcyon days, eh?

Compare and contrast to the flexibility QCA allows my classroom:

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The school participated in the European three minutes' silence to pay respect to the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami.
One twelve year old at the school has lost his entire extended family back in Sri Lanka to the great wave, and was brave enough to give an assembly to all 350 children in his year about how that felt.

It was a spectral thing to go from the noise and randommess of life in an inner city performing arts school, morph into the the calming down of the countdown to twelve noon, the reverberating and suddenly subdued tannoy announcement at noon, to the echo and emptiness of the silence.
I opened the classroom door, and we listened to the quietness enter the room.

Two boys in my class of twelve year olds were tempted to snigger - one look quelled the impulse. Unlike the picture presented (by the media) of the adult world, there were no questions or impediments to the silence. No political wrangling over whether it's a secular form of prayer.
We didn't speak about it. We just looked down and thought.

The students are divided on how else to respond. The British public have raised £90million in private donations so far, and there have been daily collections.

The student body wants a 'mufti' day (a non-uniform day) to raise money, though the head disagrees, citing a confusion of principles that cover her real reason - intruders - in her defence.

Speaking to my form of sixteen year olds, they favoured a pay-tournament of football, pitting year against year, with gambling options laid on for students who don't play (Nathaniel: What? Miss? But there's nobody who doesn't play football?!!).
The eleven year olds want every child at the school to send a postcard to Indonesian children. And the chance to pay to throw wet sponges at their head of year. (My form opined it would be worth more money if they could throw bricks.)

The team of sixteen year old prefects will sift the options and decide. Debate continues.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Another school term begins. Good lord, but these munchkins have energy.

Scene 1: Two students doing some preliminary Shakespeare research within hearing:

Danielle - Shakespeare's really boring stuff that nobody understands.
Ranj - No, this is Romeo and Juliet. I did that at primary. It's great. I played a tree.
Danielle - Oh yeah - it's about a boy from a poor family and a girl from a rich family.
Ranj - The Montargs.
Danielle - Here, see, I've found their names. This one. Merqueesh. Mer--
Ranj - Merqueesh Montarg.
Danielle - No, you idiot, Merqueesh Montague.
Ranj - Oh look, they all die in the end.
Danielle - That's really funny!

Scene 2: Remedial set of thirteen - fourteen year olds, beginning to study Macbeth for their public exams:

Lectrice - So Macbeth was the bravest warrior in Scotland. The second bravest, though, was not his friend. And confusingly, he was called something very similar to Macbeth.
Lenny - Spongebob Squarepants?
Lectrice - No, Lenny, he was called Macduff.
Sam - Macduff the Meek?
Lectrice - No, King Duncan was Duncan the Meek.
Lenny - I'm still going to call him SpongeBob Bob the Bob. Squarepants.
Chesney - The Meek.
Huseyin - Was Macbeth a girl?
Lectrice - Erm, no, that would be his wife. Lady Macbeth.
Charlie - These names are stupid!

Scene 3: The new deputy head visits my last period class of eleven year olds:

School principal - Let's all be polite ot Mister Mack, and show him what we've been doing in English, now.
Carmella - Hey, dude. (blows huge bubblegum bubble till it pops) What up?

Scene 4: Final year (sixteen year old) students have been asked to devise a campaign on an issue they feel is an injustice. After the very public reprimanding of Joel, who has been removed him from the room for too much giggling (no lesson of mine is that much fun, unfortunately), the discussion of what constitutes injustice suddenly becomes localised.

Lectrice - Before you decide if an issue is a definite injustice, a wrong committed that must be redressed through action, you need to decide what action you want your reader to take.
Roy - Was it an injustice when you sent Joel out?
Lectrice - If it was a wrong that needs redress, then yes.
Chris - Yeah it was, miss, you went proper too far then.
Lectrice - Well, if this injustice is what you were to campaign against, could Joel seek legal redress through the courts?
Roy - Like Claims Direct?
Jared - No, you couldn't sue. You'd lose.
Lectrice - Has Joel suffered significant loss through my actions?
Roy - Yeah, he has to work harder 'cause you sent him out.
Lectrice - Correct. Is that something for which the courts would compensate him?
Chris - Nah, 'cause it was his own fault.
Jordan - Is that like when people do things and you sue them 'cause it's 'cause you're black?
Lectrice - Suppose you couldn't succeed in legal redress in this case. What other types of redress could you seek, for this injustice?
Jared - We could get everybody to strike until the council agrees to sack you 'cause you're too strict, miss.
Roy - Yeah!
Jordan - You were proper hard on him miss.
Lectrice - Oh - kay ...
Roy - I'm going to tell Joel to ring Claims Direct.
Jared - We could go up London and march on parliament.
Lectrice - Let's just go to the library and get on with this, shall we?
Jared - Get the Queen sacked while we're at it.
Roy - [shouting] Joel! You should sue her! Joel! Joel!