The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, February 28, 2005

A 360 degree appraisal, and a really nice discovery: not essential to my teaching, or crucial to my students' learning; quite simply, and irrelevantly, a nice thing to know. It turns out the vast majority of my students really like my lessons, rate my teaching as a strong motivating factor, and are happy to have found themselves in my class this year.

Believe me, these moments are rare, and do not last. But just for now, just for today, this year, this term, this week, I say: brilliant!

Friday, February 25, 2005

It's national Work Your Proper Hours Day in England.

A trade union study showed that the profession which worked the longest hours was teaching.

I have mixed feelings about this concept. I know how deeply unpopular I'll make myself to other teachers by saying this.
I get twelve weeks holiday a year. Twelve whole weeks.

I leave my house at 8.15 in the morning, and I'm generally home again by 3 in the afternoon. I rarely do work at weekends, though I often work a day or two per holidays.

My contact hours are 26 per week. That's as close to part time as it can get on a fulltime salary.

And: some of my work really doesn't feel like work, frankly. Taking sixth formers to the Imperial War Museum didn't feel like work. This weekend, I have to watch Hitchcock's Psycho and make notes on one scene. Last week, I had to read about Hunter S Thompson, and design my own storyboard for a crime serial's TV credits. I also looked up illustrations of sea serpents for a powerpoint presentation about pre-twentieth century non fiction texts.

It's not exactly rocket science.

I have to write reports, surely, but they're so anodyne and pointless as to be an exercise in tedium rather than real thought. I have to mark books, yes - that's a big time filler: but if you've put some thought into what you will be marking for, when, and why as you plan a unit, it should be more interesting than tedious.
Today, in particular, the children went home at noon, buoyed by the freezing glory of a snow day.

Work your real hours? I'd have to work up to it.

Best job in the world, you know.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

To commemorate the passing of Hunter S Thompson, I thought perhaps I'd better find out who he was. Googling gonzo journalism revealed little other than fansites which assume an overly intimate familiarity with the writings of the departed, whereas my knowledge of him was restricted to a Times obituary, several photographs of an old man in seventies drag with guns, and the urbane knowledge that Johnny Depp was after his ashes.
I digress. The context, please.

I have a problem in teaching students how to critically follow a leading argument. I find it difficult to explain. I can Tell them, surely, but I can't make them find for themselves.
When they read an editorial, they can pull its style apart, but not its structure, and certainly not its technique if it tends towards the biased.

why bother? Well. The deputy head is ever nagging me to secure my sixteen year old students a C grade, but I think they're capable of an A grade.
Ability is not the indicator for academic success - success is an equation that combines ability and motivation.
My all male class of C grade students lack motivation.

Not in class, where they're being attended to and harried constantly, but at any other point in their lives: exams, coursework, group work, homework, revision.

Ah, revision. Most of them have by now admitted that they've not ever done any.

Instead of poring over the syllabi of an afternoon, I scour the past papers, and the examiners' analyses. Whenever possible, I contact examiners to ask them what it is about X's news report, or Y's poetry essay that makes it the top grade. All responses are filtered, and within a mere ten years of initiating my study, I now possess a pretty effective matrix of how to signify you are an A grade student without having to actually become an A grade student.
(Telling students there's a cheap shortcut always works. If you've ever bought a book on how to stop smoking or prepped for an IQ test, you know this already. Wouldn't it work on you?
So, I decided that being able to identify the structure of an argument, its tricks, wiles and stages, and find flaws in logical reasoning therein would fool the examiner into awarding top marks in any reading paper. (I did once buy books that showed how to teach such an enigma, but some teacher swiped them, has had them for five years, is unlikely to start sharing anytime soon.)

Which brings me back to Mister Hunter S Thompson, and the funniest lesson I've had in years.

After defining the stylistic characteristics of gonzo journalism, finding out about the sixties escapades that could have prompted such changes, and looking at a few examples, my students were suddenly clearer about identifying objectivity.
We selected random current news events according to familiarity, and wrote unbiased, standard, inverse pyramid structure reports.
Discussed the idea that no writing, no journalism can ever truly be considered objective.

Then unleashed the mania. They were to rewrite the report in the New Journalism (gonzo) style. Super-subjectivity, first person involvement, emotional hyper reality, profanity, lawlessness were all true to the spirit of the man who'd defined the style.

Reaching the usually optimistically termed plenary of the lesson (class casualty: a mere one; Jared, and his annoying whistle. And annoying socks balled up inside annoying hat, attached to lethally weighted swinging device constructed from winter scarf.) I asked for volunteers to read out the gonzo versions.

Suddenly, boys who'd been been more or less silent for two whole years couldn't contain their giggles. Kids with rampant dyslexia begged friends to verbalise what they'd written. A deathly hush as the first piece - entitled, in execrable taste 'and you think Indonesia would offer us aid?' - was intoned in officious, newsreader style. I had to mime blushes and hot flushes to cover the unconventionality of what I'd allowed to be read.
There was profanity. There were unacceptable attitudes. There was exaggeration for comic effect, and deep, deep hyperbole.

And there were a class of boys having the best fun they'd had all year. Really enjoying what language can do to an audience.

It was great. Next week: guns.*

[* this is a joke.]

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Blackboard Jungle is in real danger of becoming one long linklog these days.
"Your child's school isn't perfect. That is a fact easy to acknowledge but difficult to accept. Your child isn't perfect either. That is a fact difficult to acknowledge and difficult to accept."
A previous headteacher of mine, one whom I had used to regard as rather a rhino-skinned bully, had a single marvellously realistic line she used on parents on first meetings, "If you try to be sceptical about every tale your child tells you about us, I promise not to believe everything they will tell me about you."

The remarkable, touchingly insightful Outer Life has spent some time on the thorny issue of parental attitudes towards 'gifted children' programmes, concluding that social pressure itself makes many of these programmes unviable for a school:
"There's a crisis of confidence at Shady Glen Elementary, a real potential for a run on the bank, as concerned parents begin to pull their kids out and send them to private schools. The cause? The principal's refusal to institute a gifted program.

The concerned parents point to their gifted children and worry they're being held back, forced to stand by in idle boredom while the teachers work with the slower kids.

The principal, surveying an auditorium filled with parents, responds that, by definition, most of your children can't be gifted."

Parents can be frighteningly counter-productive in the way they deal with the authority they percieve within schools.
A recent run of parents angrily responded to rote letters informing them their child has a detention (for kicking another child in the face) by informing me that they see no purpose to such a detention. This removes my only remaining sanction for such behaviour.
  • Actually, no, it doesn't. I still retain the power to humiliate or embarrass them, or the power to recommend they be formally excluded from school and the exclusion entered on their permanent record. Their choice.
The attitude I sometimes perceive in parents and in the media, of schools as some hellish destructive force for social ill, without which, a child would naturally, easily thrive does have a counter. A parent has ultimate responsibility for a child's well being (and will be the one who lives with the results of short term thinking and hasty undermining of authority when Junior has morphed into a lumping post-adolescent who can't quite bring himself to move out of the spare room and get a decent job).
Parents, I plead with you: if your child's school is injurious to your own undimming sense of your podgy overfed darling's wonder and awe, then: educate the little sod Einstein at home.

Perfection is an illusion. Parenting, too, is an achievement of maintaining such an illusion. Most of the education system in our country is run with the aid of smoke and mirrors.
"I blame the standardised tests, which upset the delicate balance needed to sustain the necessary illusion of educational perfection. [...] For our kids are all gifted, just not in a standardised way."
Apologies to Outer Life, whose original post does not make the same point as the quoted extracts here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

I know the axiom that the only truly stupid question is the one you're too scared to ask, but ... when you're a teacher, you're the repository for every stupid question anyone ever dreamt up.

The questions in this post are all taken from direct experience - in fact from the previous week.

  • You'll know this: what's the central river in Tokyo?
    It could be pub quiz night and your team is losing. You could be going for the high scores on your armchair version of the Weakest Link. Ask a teacher. They'll be delighted to brush off their fail-grade in geography and help out.

  • I can't find that piece of paper you gave me three years ago that had lists of poems on it. Do you have a copy?
    Never fear, my dear. Teachers have endless copies of everything. For the past forty years, indexed, filed, and directly to hand. Three years isn't too long a distance to be able to interpret a vague description of a 'piece of paper' containing 'lists of poems'. No, those books your teacher was trying to mark are not important. Pshaw! You're the head of department after all. Your mysterious piece of paper is your teacher's real priority.

  • My daughter hasn't attended any of her sixth form lectures, and she has her A level exam on Hamlet in a month. Could you give me some ideas on what she should study at home?
    You could try 'Hamlet', of course. Just a wild guess. Or persuading her to attend lectures. Didn't they tell you that at headteacher training college?

  • Could you just come over to my classroom and tell the students to sit down and start the lesson?
    A teacher never has anything other to do than answer your question, and there's no personal cost. No, no, ignore the desperately combative situation that's occurring in the room behind your teacher. They will quell the trouble by osmosis; it's respite for them to come deal with your troubles instead.

  • Where did that chair come from?
    Un moment, s'il vous plait. Your teacher will take but four seconds to whizz through their personal all-corridor surveillance system. Regardless that their own classroom is situated half a mile away, we have neural networks that cover improbable distances.
    What is more, teachers know you're not prepared to take the issue up yourself, and are entirely free to track down the unruly chair mover and make them and their families pay for what they have done.

  • What is the French for 'va-va-voom'?
    It is incroyable, my dear. Patently.

Spot the originator:
Friend in the pub, head of english teaching, secondary school headteacher, supply teacher, school librarian, Dwain aged fifteen.
[NB. Interesting that only one question is from an actual student.]

Monday, February 21, 2005

A consistently inventive blogger, Peter, has published several memories of schooldays spent in a 1951 Scottish classroom, detailing rather evocative moments:
Miss Bowers would knit, or stoke the coke room-heater. She would put the school milk beside it in winter, as then it usually arrived frozen. We liked it frozen though - pretended it was ice cream. The worst thing of all was summer milk, which could be quite sickly. Malcolm Johnson (a big boy who lived on a farm) would come in once a day and look at the thermometer, then write up his findings in a book. That was his job. He was temperature monitor. Those were early days for Public Health regulations.
I would quote further; however, NakedBlog is not wholly or even often about education ... which makes these memories, to my mind, all the more interesting.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Reading Ambrose Bierce on the train prompted me to find this:
"Education is an activity that occasions both hope and despair, people think that it will improve their life chances and so demand more of it.

This encourages politicians to give what they call priority to education; they take initiatives and spend our money on them. Then despair sets in.

Neither Government nor the people can give up the hope, so they seek to keep despair at bay by insisting that education be reformed. A period of febrile activity ensues.
It is easy to be cynical about a formal education system, but it is hard to be cynical enough."
~ Tyrrell Burgess, 'The Devil's Dictionary of Education.'

Half term break. I'm away to northern France.
Back in one week. Good health to you.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Queen's Nose has directed me to discovery of a new method of distracting the surly, or refocussing the mentally misted. I show them my fifty pence piece that has a book and a library door on one side.

Children hold genuine fascination for things in a way that adults mostly seem to have left long in the shadows of their youth.

The first child I show, Jessica, grinned impishly, rubbed the relief pillars of the library against a grubby decorated thumb, commenting happily on how the leaves of the unfurling book look at first like a morning sun.

Of course, the naughtiest children try to grab it. Lawrence, sixteen, was most disgruntled that I had revealed it to Jessica, not him. He grabbed the fifty pence, and shoved it deep into his pocket without looking, a childish grin on his face as he waited to see what I may do.

Tired of Lawrence acting the three year old, I simply retaliated (I know. How infantile of me. It's end of term. I'm running out of options) by taking his pen.

He shrugged. So I took his essay too.

Jessica sighed heavily. "You don't know nothin', Miss Lectrice." She casually reached over and took his cola bottle.
Lawrence became highly agitated, jumping about in his seat, demanding the return of his precious fizzy sugar substitute.

It became a freakish re-enactment of Reservoir Dogs, in my mind.

Slowly, the three of us stretched out our contraband, ready to dodge hands back at the first sign of underhand impulses, hoping to swap treasures at exactly the same moment. I with my pens and essay, Lawrence with the library fifty pence piece, and Jessica with the pop bottle, a three pointed formation of distrust.

Changeover succeeds as Lawrence guzzles at his pop bottle, grunting for all the world like Lennie Small petting a dead mouse.
"You shoulda known what he would go for, Miss," smirks Jessica, pleased with her masterly arbitration skills.

Me and my asinine assumptions.

Another tangent: Colin Gregory Palmer's teaching practice continues to make addictive reading.
An excerpt:
Monkeys, Dogs and Intestinal Parasites

"No need to worry," said one of the religion teachers at my new placement school, 'Errol's Academy For Boys', "they're just a cross between monkeys and dogs. Monkeys because of their intelligence and ability to get into trouble but also dogs because of their reliance on the pack. Classroom management is quite simple really. All you need to do is kill the leader and you shouldn't have any problems."

This was typical of the encouraging advice teachers gave me about working in a boys school, but which had the opposite effect.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

An email from a friend in marketing (german products to UK consumers) asked about teenage boy's language in London:
I have a small but timely favour to ask (I need to think of something by tomorrow pm). I need to basically say the following phrase 'for sharing or just for you' but talking to 14 year old boys. How do they speak?? How would you give them this message so they wouldn't think you were an idiot, but also sort of the right language?
Firstly, 14 year old boys are hugely competitive - the message would go down better if you played on the idea of not sharing. They're interested in cars, social success, football, and playstation/xbox games on rallying or war strategy games. I can't underestimate how important football and playstation are.

Having the right mobile with downloadable stuff is dead important, too, but mostly to impress girls. They pretend to be interested in girls, but aren't really up to the challenge yet. They're more motivated by getting one over on their mates.

The sort of thing they read is Sky Sports and Gaming Cheats sites, as well as the gruesome bits of the Guinness Book of Records.
Things that are funny or unexpectedly outrageous are hugely popular.

You haven't said what it is that is for sharing - an object? A food? Again, I think saying that something's too good for sharing is the best way to get this lot interested. They don't know the intrinsic value of things, and look to peers to validate whether something's good.

As for slang, words of which a teacher is aware are probably out of date already.
Something good is 'raw', or possibly 'dark', though not always. 'Wicked' still exists, but as an intensifier only, not as an adjective.
In London, it might be 'true-true', but that's probably only in heavily integrated afro Caribbean cultures. I think 'da bomb' is possibly too female.

'Blatantly' is a good superlative. If you're good at something, you have 'mad skills'. A party that's good is 'banging'. Your friends are your 'crew'. Girls are 'fit', unless they're known to be easy/sexually active, then they're 'slack'. If you like a girl and chat to her, you're 'sharking' her.

The use of slang is a way of circumventing society's taboos, and children's choice of slang phrases reflects their concerns from within a closed environment.
Threat is perceptibly a large influence on young men's lives. Bullying someone is 'taxing', thieving is 'tiefing' someone's things. Insulting them is 'cussing'. Physically intimidating someone through closeness is 'fronting' or 'getting in yo face', rather than actual violence, which is when you 'bust up' or 'bang up' the victim.

When you contradict someone, you say 'nahman, nahman'. Someone who's casual about authority or lives outside the law you'd describe as 'breezin', or 'breezin through', right until the law catches up with them and 'caps' them. Someone who's a nerd is a 'boffin'.

This dictionary of teen slang is pretty accurate, though slightly Americanised for the children I teach:

From the list there, I've heard boys use: 24/7, all that, fool, busted, fine, homeboy (yeah, really!), ho, kicking, keep it real, skanky, phat, rude bwoy (not rude boy), skater, slacker, tight (as in loyal), tripping (as in imagining things or over reacting), whatever.

'Butters' in England means someone deeply ugly with a nice body, though, not the positive spin it has in the US.
In fact, most London kids take their lingo from Jamaican culture, not so much American: therefore words like 'rass' or 'bambaclart' are beyond the pale swearing in a way that US teens probably wouldn't recognise. Likewise, 'batty' is a widely used phrase (as in 'battyman' or homosexual - or actually, 'batty riders' are just tiny girls shorts), and to call something 'gay' means it's stupid or it doesn't work, rather than sexualising it. 'Innit' and 'ain't' endure horribly, and a majority of London kids will have a sprinkling of understanding of cockney rhyming slang, though actual use of it varies widely, and is rather an antique, parentally influenced idiom.

Urban Dictionary is a brilliant slang info site, but is probably more adult, and more sexual than fourteen year olds might be familiar with.
Other decent sources are the Peevish dictionary of British slang, Wikipedia's listings of hip hop slang.

Of course, move twelve miles down the road, and it'd all be different again.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

I thought about narrating some moments from the day, but events overwhelmed me sufficiently to punish readers with the whole of the day.

Apologies for that.

Objectives: Harry thirty sixteen year olds into adjusting their uniform.
Outcomes: I managed to mark five essays. I patently paid much attention to the pastoral needs of my students, here.
Objectives: Media Studies. Define 'conventionality' and ask students to note unconventional behaviour or controlling behaviour in 'Thelma and Louise', for a textual analysis essay (that will compare treatment of wayward females here and in 'Psycho').
Outcomes: I keep mixing up which one is Thelma, and which Louise, so all the notes are garbled beyond belief. It's forgotten in the fifteen year olds' sheer horror at having to witness Brad Pitt's langorous love scenes, anyway.
Objectives: Set up a formal letter writing task for a remedial class of fourteen year olds to complete their initial study of Macbeth for the standardised exams, and to encourage development of language by modelling Shakespearean usage.
Outcomes: To make them take it seriously, we prepared by 'ageing' manuscript paper, for the final drafts. My room utterly covered in old tea, coffee granules, crumpled brown paper, and exploded tea bags. And blood. They thought it would add realism if someone stabbed Tommy with a pencil, so we could add droplets of blood.
Break time. Console two small boys whose football I confiscated this morning. The fourteen year olds have stolen it. I recommend they come back tomorrow, when I've had a chance to do some interrogation.
Objectives: Despite an the presence of an inspector in this lesson, a top set of sixteen year olds have five essay deadlines to meet this week, plus I need to interview pairs as part of a formal examination on pre-1914 sonnets.
Outcomes: No cover available, so I have to examine the paired discussions in the same room as the students working on their essays. The two inspectors insist upon taking students out in pairs and interviewing them throughout about whether I'm a good teacher or not. Which is quiet, unintrusive and helpful. Not.
Objectives: Ask eleven year old remedial students to deliver formal spoken assignments, in a news bulletin simulation, using powerpoint slides of a fictionalised road accident involving the US president (whom some students have heard of), and Cilla Black (whom all students have heard of).
Outcomes: The classroom assistants supporting the class keep rotating without warning, then give me dirty looks if they don't know what the students are doing. (I'm simply relieved not to have back the insane teaching assistant who starts infantile rows with students and ends up actually preventing them from working.)
New TA sits on a table, legs crossed arms folded for thirty minutes, while I frantically try to do an amanuensis for around twenty different kids, until in desperation I order her to go help the crying child two feet to the left.
Crying child complains that he doesn't understand when Miss helps, and can't I help? Surrounded by eight clamouring children, I explain patiently that he is allowed to ask her questions, and he cheers up.
Lunch. Deal with two small boys who've been throwing each others' calculators in the school bins. End up telling them they're horrible and they're to go away and leave me in peace.
Objectives: Marking period. I'm shattered. I'm meant to write home to forty five sixteen year olds about raising their grade average by three points in time for Easter, plus devise a staff timetable for pair grading, and regrading, and more regrading, and then standardising of exams.
Outcomes: I eat an apple. Stare out the window at the mist setting across the distant palace. Answer random organisational questions from colleagues. Sit down with a copy of 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' and a coffee. Feet up. Brain disengaged.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Friday afternoon, an intruder wandered into my Media class of fifteen year olds, who all suddenly took on a much younger appearance than usual, in contrast to a surly and obstinate stranger who refused to leave.

Thinking back to various news stories, I listened to instinct, reasoning that if I didn't know him, and they didn't know him, he could easily be armed, and what kind of adult starts wandering around children's classrooms on a Friday afternoon anyway? I challenged him, and demanded he leave the room.

To which he replied with the loudly stated intention to 'f*** up yo face' and began trying to physically intimidate me.

I'm still a little outraged at the casualness, the automatic insouciance of my response.

It'd been a hard week, I'd met every damn deadline, I'd dealt with every damn fight, I'd been inspected twice, and have three more inspections to endure next week; I was the only person with any seniority on the whole floor, and as nobody teaches English on Friday afternoons, possibly the only adult in the department at that moment.
I became angry, really angry, that this dweeb thought he could intimidate me.

Like a fool, I taunted him, laughed in his face, said "oooh, you've so scared me." Touched his arm repeatedly until he moved away.

Blustering, he pretended to be a sixth former (outright lie: I've taught all the sixth formers at my school, and none of them have beards, or look nineteen), then segued into angry retaliation, shouting that I had "no right" to touch him.
I pointed out that as an intruder in the room, I had every right to touch him as much as I liked, until he actually left.

He decided an appropriate response was to grab and shove me backwards away from him.
Still, it didn't serve as sufficient warning to cool my ardour. I recall thinking, bizarrely, "as if that doesn't happen in any normal week at school here."

This anonymous thug somehow triggered my instantaneous madness response - who in the world is so pathetic that they have to while away their day by threatening to facially scar a skinny woman in front of a class full of children?

He didn't appreciate my continuing lecture. As he pushed me back again, I noticed the grubby bandage on his arm, the old scar on his neck above a heavy gold necklace.

The presence of twenty wide eyed witnesses - including, luckily, five or six exceptionally pretty teenaged girls - eventually cowed him, as his righteous indignation began to seem increasingly thin before an unhelpful audience. He retreated to the door, stood there to rail about what dire vengeance he would wreak upon me, how he was going to cut me and hurt me, and "f*** up" my face.

I didn't feel scared - stupidly - for one minute. As he mooched off down the corridor at the afternoon bell, I wandered over to the sixth form offices, checked every photograph - reassured by the familiarity and wide eyed youth of the pictures, then scooted off to check the building's CCTV.
It began, finally, to occur to me that a stranger could quite easily make good upon those threats. Don't be a Philip Lawrence.

The CCTV footage shown me revealed that there were two intruders, wandering about the school to scrawl local gang 'tags' upon any quiet corridor walls while waiting for teenaged girls to chat up. The deputy head who pieced this together couldn't identify my asasilant, but did pinpoint the other intruder, who seemed less combative.

He was recognised as an ex-student of the school, fifteen and fresh out of an institution, and a member of the local 'Cats' gang. "They're bad news", Dick announced to the crowd of idle CCTV scrutineers forming around the bank of screens. "Local pussies, more like."
"Yeah?" interjected Mike, the newest deputy head. "You're going to say that to their faces, are you?"
Dick paled a little. Suddenly I noticed the wrinkles around his eyes, the thinning hair, the way he'd sat heavily instead of standing to view the tapes. "Err ... no."

Everyone in the room looked a little older, a little less the staunch authority figure. A little more vulnerable.

Friday, February 04, 2005

A post on Hedgetoad reminds me of the nefarious practise of teacher confiscation of irritation-provoking goods. I'm fairly lax about confiscating things - I'd rather not have to pay for a replacement once I lose whatever it is the students shouldn't have brought in to wave around before the inevitable thieves in the first place.

Yet I've found that some confiscated contraband promises more than most in encouraging children to either cease / desist behaviour x, or to actually turn up at the appointed time to apologise - one non-regulation coloured trainer, a single card from a deck of fifty-two, the local second team's practise football, a winter coat, the earpieces from an mp3 player, the battery or sim card from a mobile phone, the funkiest street headband (ie sunshades) in the class, or at the very least, the student's planner, held in lieu of good behaviour ... the list of evil-doing on my part stretches till doomsday.

Like Hedgetoad, however, I still haven't scored an ipod as yet. These annoying little plastic pop culture desirables began to appear in real numbers after christmas 2004, and the very visibility of expensive earpieces makes the wrongdoing of listening to mp3s during class all the more obvious, and therefore, all the more important to publicly foil.

I had a plan.

I've started explaining to students that as I'm such an awful teacher, I don't get paid very much. I can't afford an ipod, not even if I saved up for a year. I could try to get more money from the boss by teaching better, but that won't happen till my 'best class' (wink at students conspiratorially) take their exams, because then I'm sure to get promoted.
That will be ages and ages away. And I really really want an ipod. Deep, theatrical sigh.

And so, when I see a student's smuggled ipod winking at me from beneath a collar, my mean shrivelled little heart beats a little faster, my mean, covetous, claw-like fingers twitch a little greedily, and a mean craven voice inside of me whispers that if I confiscate the thing, I could have an ipod for just one day.

Just ten hours, an ipod of my very own.

It always works. Apparently, teenagers who cannot coutenance co-operation with an openly rule-based culture can utterly relate tounfairly applied rules, as long as they're based upon the politics of envy.

Perhaps we *did* spend too long studying Macbeth...

Unfortunately I still haven't had a chance to play with an ipod.
I can wait. I do wait. Claw-like fingers twitching.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A close friend, an engineer, has signed up to do a Maths PGCE in the coming Autumn, and emailed me some questions about her new career.

Inbetween marvelling at how consistently A Socially Useful Job appeals over and above the temptations of the corporate life, I did try to answer rationally:

Everybody says it's awful, and the kids are appalling?
No it's not. It's actually really fun.

Will I be poor forever?
No. Teaching's properly remunerated these days, especially given the twelve weeks off a year.
Work in an inner city school and if you push for rapid promotion (instead of feeling some outdated leftist desire to break yourself on the wheel of socialising the masses by staying in the classroom, as I have), you should be hitting £35K within three years, £45K within five. That's if you push, and push hard for it. Teach in a 'nice' leafy suburban school, and be happy doing it, and you may be penniless longer.

I'm told the first two years will kill me or give me a nervous breakdown?
A twenty one year old university graduate who can't say yet no, who hasn't yet learnt to be assertive, and has little life experience may well find it so. It's not inevitable, however, and anyone with fifteen years of business-end experience of tunnel engineering will probably find it easier to juggle.

After a brief stint observing in the classroom, she wrote back with some observations.

Teachers whine and whine and whine as if their lives depend upon it.
True. Everywhere. All of them. And always have done.
It's a Stalinist hangover from the days when there were few teachers, a population explosion, and a nice middle class job for life.
Plus lack of knowledge of real life conditions in the rest of the jobforce. We *all* work harder and longer these days. Only teachers think this a personal insult. Ignore them, and don't get dragged into the sniping-culture of negativity. They'll die off one day.

The children are hideous! All lumpy and strange shaped - tiny boys with high pitched squeaks, and gruff voiced girls, hulking four feet above them.
Teenagers are endemically physically hideous. Youth in and of itself is only beautiful before and after the age of fifteen.
On the receiving end of pituitary outbursts, everyone is frightening looking. Year after year, I used to photograph my graduating class, too used to their faces to recall the danger. The photos were developed (doesn't that sound old fashioned, now?), only to cause an involuntary recoil of 'holy mackerel' response as you see a perfectly nice young person depicted at the least physically attractive moment of their life.
Still, it all helps. On your worst days, with your worst classes, you can rest safe in the knowledge that at least *you* don't have to go through puberty again.

Tales of teaching, via an outsider's eyes. You get it *all* here at The Blackboard Jungle, don't you?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

You're not supposed to admit it but I will.

Inner London state school teachers don't have much respect for others in our profession.

We regard them as living some sunny daisy filled existence which knows nothing of the weary warrior glory of the brutalised classroom, the out-of-control mass riot, the early retirement - early death syndrome, or the staffroom mental breakdown roster.

We keep it to ourselves, naturally, but we tread the mean streets with some careworn pride in our sturdy ability to outlast the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

There are some cities whose teachers, though, we do bear some grudging respect.
According to all the horror stories, their schools are practically as teeth-clenching an ordeal by fire as ours.

Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester. (It's a moot point whether we allow the pretender, Bradford, into the ranks, but it's certainly on the waiting list.)
These are cities where staff turnover is high, student emotional / behavioural problems are rife, social expectations and support are low, and only rapid promotion - and thus a path out of there - seem to attract teachers of any real calibre.
(Temporarily. Two to four years is the standard drop out zone.)

Given this, it's an absolute pleasure to find a no-frills, honest teaching blog that hails from Liverpool. The author, Bloom, plays cards close to his chest, but the Joycean and Miltonian references suggest clearly an English teacher.

The writing is sharp, the wit steadily steaming, and my delight at discovering an English education blog utterly unfettered by policy wonkage, by pseudo social-engineering platitude, is unbounded.

Tales from the Chalkface.
Go. Read.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

My previous school spent part of their annual budget on daily security guards to patrol the perimeter fences of school at the close of the school day.

As the roughest school in the district, this was wise: students from rival schools would turn up in gangs, or with weapons, looking for individuals on whom to mete some misguided tribal sense of justice.

Despite the clear value and function of such a visible authority figure, I was never totally sure whether, in the end, these neon jacketed men were keeping children out, or keeping us in.

All London schools ask their deupty head teachers to patrol the gates at the close of day. Not merely the school exits, but the local train station, the sweetshop down the road, and the traffic lights half a mile away. It's a fast way of diffusing the fights and turbulence that erupt after a day cooped up doing things these children don't want to do, in places these children don't always want to be.

During lessons, a staff member is deputised at all times to run a 'sin bin' for holding recalctrant students who cannot be contained in the classroom. Heads of department are charged with executing a corridor duty at the beginning and end of lessons, leaving their own classes to wait. A deputy head is also always on duty during classtime, to collect students from teachers who have telephoned to alert them that a child is beyond control.
They don't always arrive. One person is not always enough.

I sit here, in a better-than-rough London school, writing sixty five-hundred-word student reports that no-one will ever read (I'm not allowed to write anything honest or negative, so the document becomes a worthless fiction, which ensures, in turn, that it will not be read), listening to the thrash and churning of lesson changeover.

A supply teacher opposite who possesses an unfortunate, sarcastic turn of phrase, has held some students back. There's a screaming, banging, ruckus outside as a young voice screams as if being stabbed. "I don't like you! I'm going to kill you! I don't like the way you talk to me!"
Another voice, a teacher, calmly repeating to her to calm down, not scream, tell her what has happened.
The screaming continues.

A male voice interjects, loudly, disgusted, combative.
Responded to by a shouted retort. Then more voices as other children join in the belligerent, aggressively yelled replies.

I wonder if security presence would dampen this chaos that falls between the cracks of home and school and lessons, or if it would antagonise.

I'm not sure.

Correspondingly, I'm not in any real hurry to walk outside this room.