The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, May 27, 2005

It was with some surprise that I noticed my teaching union's headquarters are in Covent Garden Marketplace.
That must cost a pretty penny in rentals. One of the most expensive spots of retail property on earth, to be accurate.

Still, at £130* a year in fees from myself alone, I'm sure they can afford it.

(* $236 USD, factfans)

It seems the teaching unions can afford much much more than this. Last week I received a letter from the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, informing me on glossy colour print that this week, they would send me a survey, if I'd be so kind as to fill it in.

A letter sent in order to warn me that they would send me a letter? Someone has WAY too many subscriptions to play with.

When the survey itself arrives, it's catchily entitled 'Census'.

Census? Surely they're asking me to vote in their annual AGM? Or seeking a referendum decision upon exclusion rates for violent teenagers? Questioning me about my experiences of workplace bullying? Asking for my support in tackling the sudden increase in short term contracts? Looking to find insight into local issues as the local education department closes down and reopen with private finance the worst schools in the catchment area, handily shifting their more usual dispossessed students into my school as theirs is rebranded as 'desirable'?
These are the issues I pay hard cash every year for them to work towards.

But a census? A census is that pointless ten yearly scrap of paper that you try not to allow yourself to be marked down as 'jedi religion' on, stifling the yawns in the name of social progress.
cen·sus (noun)
1. An official, usually periodic enumeration of a population, often including the collection of related demographic information.
2. In ancient Rome, a count of the citizens and an evaluation of their property for taxation purposes.
After all, they deduct my subscription at source, from my wages - they must know who I am.

Turns out they do know who I am. The glossy blue A3 leaflet they want returned (postage already paid, naturally) has the first three pages filled in for me, through their funky database software.
I simply have to ratify that which they already know, sign it, return it, and congratulate myself on one hundred and thirty pounds a year well spent.

But wait! There is more.
I do have a part to play in this lavishly typed democracy.
They want to know what colour I am.

No, seriously.

More than that, they want to know my sexual orientation.

That's all, folks. Nothing more personal than my ethnic grouping and who, what or how I choose to engage in sexual congress.

No indication of how this is relevant to my classroom experience. They need it for their records, you know.

One letter unsubscribing from the Covent Garden based wankers' fatcat beano of an excuse for a trade union was duly sent.

[A brief hiatus will ensue as it's the half term holiday.

You may find me in Covent Garden Marketplace, throwing sharp objects at steering committees

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Prompt line, possibly unrelated. Rebecca's flat statement, as she divides poems whose 'representation of memory is fallible', in poetry from the first world war: "Big Brother begins tonight."

"I can't believe I'm eighteen now. it doesn't feel any different." Denise sits back down after showing us all her new tattoo, and the fifteenth body piercing, standing high and swollen above an angry looking welt, a stark contrast to the other, more organic looking belly ring.

"Oh, I enjoyed voting, though," Sarah disagrees. "I didn't know who to vote for, but I took it seriously. I read what they stand for. I thought, it's my first vote, I don't want to get it wrong."

"Yeah, s'pose. It means I don't have to use my fake ID to get into nightclubs any more. I can use my actual passport!"
Denise's tattoo was an eagle, spreading its wings across most of her lower back, gross feathers dumped in indigo along the pelvic bone.
"It takes longer to become an adult these days, and passage into adulthood is more ambiguous and complicated than in the past.


The "big five" traditional markers of adulthood [...] --leaving home, finishing school, starting a job, getting married and having children. In prior generations, these transitions were completed by the mid-20s. Today, this set of transitions is often not completed until well into the 30s, even the late 30s, for many people. And what we might think about as a neat "three-box model" of life--with education up front, work in the middle, and retirement or leisure at the end--is crumbling.


Young people now seem very aware of how difficult it is to become 'independent' or 'autonomous' against current economic and social conditions, and they seem hesitant to make commitments they cannot honor or that they think may fail"

Source, On the Frontier of Adulthood, from Case Western Reserve University, found via PsyBlog.
"Miss, is Philo entered for the exams?" Alex doesn't speak to Philo any more, not after she 'chose' her boyfriend 'over' Alex, but retains vestigial friendly concern. "She hasn't been in for six weeks now."

I assume so. The worst thing about Philo is that she's good at the subject. If she'd been useless at it, or not had a natural talent for critical analysis, she'd not still be gaining A's for work submitted at the last moment.
Would perhaps have shocked herself through failure into seeing the need to commit or not commit to her courses.

"That's not true, though, Miss," interjects Jon, "if something's good enough, why should you knock yourself out trying to make it better?"

That's one way of looking at it. Another is that the old truism that all the things worth doing in life are difficult to achieve.

"No way," replies Denise. "If it's hard, I ain't gonna waste my time."

So you never want to climb Everest? Never want to breakfast with howler monkeys in the jungle? Never want to feed a puffin a morsel from your fingers?

"Oh, yeah. Of course. I want to do things. I decided. I'm never going to limit myself. No restrictions. Ever. That's me."

That's eighteen. Deeply held beliefs, without meaning. As long as they sound catchy, they're real.

Is the prompt line unrelated?
Is meaninglessness our latest faith, our guiding principle?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Pauline is small, scrawny, unkempt, underfed. She gets bullied a lot. She invites it. She loads a story about her cat onto the screen at hometime, then stands by the projector, moving from foot to foot, saying nothing.

She wants some attention.

As I tidy the room, I ask her to read her story out loud. It's about a cat who meets an angel one day, and is surprised at the encounter.

I sit closer, by the keyboard, and read the dialogue out, asking her to listen to my voice to hear the punctuation. Award a reason for this time-filling, a reason above and beyong the need for company, for reassurance and reward.

I ask her to listen to me 'live' the voices. If my voice rises, it's a question mark. If it shouts in surprise, an exclamation.
"Excavation" she mumbles, and asks me to point it out, hovering over the '1'.
If my voice is flat, it's a ...
Yes. A dot. Quietly I teach her the phrase 'full stop', and wait for her to edit her piece.

We add in some pictures, and she finds a kitten photographed inside a breakfast cereal carton. She's delighted, but I tell her to shut down, now, it's time to go home.

"Would you like a lift, Pauline?" I ask.

"Oh yes please, Miss L." Now I have to find a topic of conversation for the journey home as far as "past Woolworth's."
No matter. I should restrain my end of term temper long enough to allow one little girl a spot of company.

We talk about cats. It's a topic she becomes animated over, telling me their names, their patterns, their habits, their secret loves.

At the traffic lights, I notice two street wardens - support police officers, suited in neon jackets and mounted on state owned mountain bikes. Distracted, I tell Pauline that my dad does that job.

Pauline continues the story of the salmon that made the cat throw up.

Noticing the group of teenage boys the officers are speaking to are known to me, I crane forward, blurring the audio distraction of the cat who hates fresh fish.

Hassan is there, gesticulating crossly. Another boy shifts, and I identify Mev. A car hoots at me, indicating I should reverse to allow them to pass, and Pauline's words float into the foreground again. Betsy will only ever allow Spuds near her kittens, he's the only one.

"Which cat is the dominant one, Pauline?" I ask, as I try to figure out the body language of the boys at the junction in front of me. Are they being questioned? Or are they just chatting? Should I get out of the car?
"I mean, the cat who's in charge. Not the bully, but the boss."

She thinks carefully, biting her lip. "Mister Poshpaws. I think. They don't hate him though."

"When you feed them, Pauline," the boys begin to move away, and the officers remain static, watching them as I watch them being watched. "When you feed them, who gets to the food bowl first?" It's then that I notice all the boys before me are turkish. Did they think of them as a gang? I check the officers' faces. Both black. That's got to cause comment in our neighbourhood. Perhaps the boys invited the dialogue - merely asked them why they were police, or why they rode bicycles? Perhaps it was innocent.

"Mister Poshpaws!" Pauline crows in delight at the vindication of her first conclusion. "They leave the food when he comes in the room, and let him eat first."

"Then that's what we call the dominant animal, Pauline. The one who leads them. It's not a horrible thing. It's just how animals work: they need to know who's in control. They play the same games every day they're alive."

The boys turn the corner, relaxed strides, easy joyful arm punches, rolling gait. The officers lean into the sun and pedal forward. No tension. It's all okay.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I feel so positive about our results this year.

Tom races in, hair akimbo, full of sixteen year old social drama, asks me to step outside to ask for a lift home.
Bullies, miss, the six foot part time boxer tells me. I don't ask questions, set him to work on my filing, then drive the boy home.
Nah, miss, not home. My mates' house. I'm going out tonight.

You know you've a GCSE exam tomorrow, Tom? I leave it casual, to hang in the air with the unspoken trailing hint about revising.

Yeah yeahyeah, miss!

What is it in, mate?

Errrr. Of Mice and Men.

Correct. What else?

Ummmmmmmmm. Er. Um.
(&c. Standard get-me-out-of-this / take-pity-on-me / i'm-doing-my-best-to-make-this-sound-really-painful pause noises)

It's a book, Tom. Which book have you been studying all year?


There are no exams in Shakespeare. You did that a year ago for coursework.

You're kidding, miss!

Tell me you didn't sit and revise Shakespeare.
He's getting into role now, the good kid gone scatty, but even he can't maintain the front.
Nah, s'alright miss, I ain't revised it.

What then?

Cutting a long story short, I had to remind him of a thick orange covered book full of poems the whole year group have studied for two years solid.
Oh yeah, miss, the And-something, wunnit?

The Anthology. Who's in it? [... delete long painful pause from recollection of dialogue ...] What did Simon Armitage write? Hitcher?

Oh yeah yeahyeah.

Kid? About Batman and Robin?

Oh yeah! Yeah yeahyeah.
About as convincing as a fluffy dolly dress superimposed onto Tom's unconcerned frame.
What did Carol Ann Duffy write, then?

She wrote about that old biddy, yeah - you know, the one who bit off that guy's* --

-- okay, Tom, yes, I get the idea. No need to go further. And Salome and Anne Hathaway. She took silent female voices from historical details about the famous men they were involved with, and pretended to give them a voice. Got that?

Yeah. Yeahyeah.

Memorise it, Tom. She took real people, gave their womenfolk a voice. Pretended their stories got told.

Yeah. Right.

Say it.

Yeah. [...] Look, miss, my phone's going. Can I go outside and take this?
I feel so positive about our results this year.

* - Carol Ann Duffy's feminist retelling of Dickens: if you don't know what Havisham bites off, then I'm sure I'm not going to encourage the more perverse frequenters of google by telling you.

Monday, May 23, 2005

To the eleventh hour unfortunate who arrived here desperately seeking:
AQA English literature A paper of wednesday 25 may 05 answers
... you're out of luck. Try doing the test based on what you know.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Clearing out old folders and the work of students who've left, nevermore to be seen (three ashen faced, knuckle sweating examinations apart), and hidden between the folds of leathery tan A4 wallets from two years back, I find a full half packet of chocolate chip cookies.

Yes of course I ate them. Eating them right now.

Tested one on Jake (aged eleven, favourite food kit kat) first, though.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Sorting through drawers and old papers, I discovered a photocopied document squirreled away sometime in 2000, that outlined the incident which five years ago made me leave the school I later returned to:
I was working alone in [fourth floor rooftop portakabin classroom] at lunchtime. As [portakabin] was vandalised every day last year, and as no staff man [other rooftop portakabin, which functioned as school repository for emotionally disturbed / unmanageable children at risk of expulsion], I work there each lunchtime so that students know a teacher is around in case of trouble.

At 1.10pm a large, four inch keyring flew through the door and hit me on the back. Ryan, Alex and another boy were in the doorway. It didn't look to me as though Alex had thrown the object.

Alex asked for his keyring back. I picked it up and told him he could have it back at the end of the day. He walked up to my desk. He proceeded to shout "can I have my keyring / hand back?" at me for the next fifteen minutes, about fifty or sixty times, throughout the rest of the incident.

Alex walked over to the fire escape [read: unlocked door opening straight onto the roof], and Ryan followed. The other boy stayed outside. Ryan (or Alex, possibly) said "I'm going to throw myself off the roof."
They opened the door to the roof and Ryan put one foot outside.

I got up and walked fast to the door, warning them that if they stepped outside, I would work hard to see they were excluded [temporary expulsion; usually one to five days].
I moved behind Ryan and put my arm across the door, trying to get between him and the exit. I was worried that they really were going to endanger themselves on roof, as I know they're [school repository for emotionally disturbed / unmanageable children] regulars. Ryan kept hold of the door, so I pulled him away from it. He started shouting "don't push me." I continued to put my hand on his shoulder - I didn't do anything more than apply gentle pressure.

Ryan continued to yell "don't push me," but when it became clear I wasn't going to move away from the door, he backed away.

My [sixteen year old] students had left a stick of glue and some scissors on a desk at the back of the room. Alex moved away, laughing, but Ryan headed for the scissors. I continually asked them to leave the room every minute. I followed Ryan, intending to shepherd them out of the door.
Ryan turned in the aisle in front of me, held the scissors towards me at stomach height and said "I'm going to fucking stab you."

I think I replied along the lines of "don't be silly." I was unsure about whether he was going to do it or not - it certainly wasn't an empty threat. After a few seconds, he laughed and turned towards the door. He carried the scissors with him. I think he placed them on my desk as he passed it.

Both boys were still shouting at me "give me back my hand / key ring" or "don't push me" / "don't fucking push me."
Ryan started shouting to the other two to witness that I had "pushed" him at intervals, too. I escorted them out of the room, and to the top of the stairs, with some difficulty, as they kept turning and shouting "no."

Alex stood at the top of the stairs, shouting and Ryan stood in the landing alcove shouting. The third boy stood halfway down the stairs, laughing, throughout. He didn't enter [portakabin] at any point or behave aggressively other than this. Miss H came up the stairs to see what the noise was, and obviously recognised the two boys. I asked her if she would come up to the top landing, as I was seriously worried about the boys attacking me.

Miss H reasoned with Alex, who shouted less often, but continued to shout. He then moved to the next landing. Ryan stood with his face buried in his arms on the bannister. He refused to move for either of us and continued to shout "you shouldn't push me!" and swear. He also said "I'll do a deal. You go back in your room and then I'll go." I told him I would not do any deals.

I stood between him and the wall and asked him to move. I again put my hand on his shoulder in the same way. He calmed a little, but would not move. As he was not displaying aggression towards Miss H, I asked her to stay there with im while I phoned for assistance. The other two boys were on the stairs shouting "bastards."

When I got to [the nearest phone, two floors down], I could get no response on [the emergency number]. While I was ringing the main reception, I asked Miss B to go upstairs, so that Miss H was not alone, then asked reception to get the deputy head on duty urgently to [rooftop portakabin].

Miss H came down at 2.20ish. She had succeeded in persuading Ryan to move - however all three boys had gone to the first floor and continued shouting.

I had spoken calmly to the boys throughout the incident, but now was so shocked by it that I could not phone reception again. Mrs S phoned for me, and asked again for a deputy head to come urgently to the room. She said it was to do with "a boy stabbing Miss Lectrice with scissors."

I asked Miss B to send a pupil to the pastoral head , to cover my registration group, as I was too scared to return to [rooftop protakabin]. No one arrived.

By 2.35pm, Miss H accompanied me up to [rooftop portakabin], as still no assistance had arrived, and I was too scared to collect my things alone. She then accompanied me down to the deputy head on duty, who knew nothing of the incident.
And there is the story of the first and last time a student levelled a formal accusation of assault at me. I recall my response at the time was 'yes, I did push him. I'd push him again. I'd push any child who was threatening to kill himself, away from the roof.'

I'd forgotten the key detail, though. The rooftop shared with a unit for emotionally damaged children. The doors with no locks, serving as 'fire escape'. The isolation from the rest of the school. The fear that a child would harm himself in front of me. The sheer shock of seeing a cherubic face snarl and brandish a weapon.

Most of all, the one detail that made me leave.
The receptionist who, when erroneously told I'd been stabbed by a pupil, did nothing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The impulse to escape is an adolescent one. Remains so, as does our desire for urgency in doing so.
While letting casually slip news of impending exit to fourteen year old tearaways, they asked what I would be doing with my time once I leave. Explaining that I was going to travel the world for a time, do some VSO, reach for some further horizons, their reaction was as simple, honest and directly logical as we ever expect from pre-adolescents.

"Why would you do that? Isn't that a waste of money, Miss?" asked Tommy.
Chezney was unperturbed, eager to avoid any writing, "No way, if I had the money, I'd go to Kingston, Jamaica again. Everything is really small there. They have chickens."
"But if you think about it, Miss," persisted Tommy, doodling a cartoon of King Krull on his 'missing persons' poster, "that's going to be a waste when you get back. Where are you going to live? I would spend the money on finding a house."

I explain that I'm likely to be away for quite a time, that I haven't the money to do both things - buy a house in the property hot house that is London, and travel.

Thali's ears prick up, and he invents a question to make me move across and exlain to him where I'll be going. "So you're just going to waste time, Miss?" His eyes widen in near outrage.

I think about it. Yes, I suppose so. I suppose it is.
Somehow a life without hourly bells, sugar highs and tannoy announcements looks rosy with this new label.

I try to pacify Thali by explaining how I'm going to visit his home country.
He shifts excitedly in his seat, tells me a story of how he's been too scared to go back since a time when he was five, seeing a snake entwine itself round his mother's ankle and grip.
"Don't go there, Miss, it's horrible." Big eyes. "They have snakes!"

I agree that spiders and snakes are to be feared, and jungle expeditions frowned upon. South East London possesses no such dangers. The predators here, and the web they weave to snare these boys are of quite a different order.

"But if you think about it, Miss, that's a really really long time to waste. Just to waste it."
One final try.
"You see, Thali, time is different when you get to my age. For you, a year is a long time. It's a whole year! It's forever. If it's just before the holidays, a week takes forever, doesn't it?"
He nods, pen raised and forgotten above the poster.
"When you're an old old lady like me, you'll find that you've lived a very very long time, and it makes things seem different. For me, a year goes by just like that." I blink, snap my fingers. "In an instant. Was that a year? I didn't notice."

"For people who are very very old, like me, five years is nothing. When you're old, when you're a grandpa, and all your grandchildren are gathered round your knee, you'll blink, snap your fingers, and they'll be older. Just like that. And you'll say 'my, haven't you grown tall?' Because five years has passed and you didn't notice. Didn't notice at all."

Thali's eyes light up, middle distance, at the little grandchildren soon to be clustered around his knee.
My eyes light up at the idea I'll be wasting my time.

We both smile. Just a little.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

I often despised colleagues - skilful colleagues - who would waltz into inner city schools, turn everything upside down in a dire, short sighted attempt to look good to management, then deplore the behaviour, the work rate, the children, the staff, the managerial inadequacies. Invariably, they would declare themselves too good for the place, and leave within two years flat.

As far as I can judge children at inner city schools need stability and continuity more than any single other factor in their lives.

There is precious little of it in their home areas, and the rapid staff turnover at inner city schools proves little of the 'worth' of those vainglorious overdramatic short term teachers who are simply 'too good' to put up with conditions in the quagmire.
When it comes to adults whom you believe really know or trust you, four years is not very long in the life of a child.

In the face of the severe temptation toward elastic band flickery, there's nothing like the frowning disappointment of a teacher who knows you, your four brothers, your cousin, your mum and last week had tea and shared raucous anecdotes with your uncle.

Two years? Figures as just another person who walked out on you.
This is one of the key anchors which kept me in inner city schools for eleven years - providing I can keep the energy levels topped up, then the longer I stay, the more effective my presence becomes for students.

However, I'm somewhat of a hypocrite, for I'm leaving.

Leaving the school, the job, and the profession, and so I should keep my filial collegiate scorn to myself.

This is my last summer of teaching: previous experience has taught me to keep news of my impending departure low key.

My last school was what we term a 'failing' school - the average length of internment for any staff was two years, three was considered long service, and there remained one staunch, wonderful deputy head who'd weathered seven. The news of any staff member leaving was greeted with grim stoicism - as though children were expecting you to leave anyway.

One sensed that the only trigger for their surprise would be the teacher who put their money where their preachable principles are, and stays.
The recognition I detected in their eyes as I told them was terribly sad: all adults disappoint; all adults leave.

I've left my current school before; in a performing arts school full of drama queens and gossip it can be tricky to navigate students' sense of panic or betrayal at a sudden departure - not least because it allows students to find an excuse for failure in your wake.
Last time I left this place, I took care to stage the scene. Stopped the lesson to make an announcment. I wanted to explain what was going to happen, why, how and when to my most dependent classes. In doing so, I unwittingly accorded higher importance to the news than it merited.


I recall walking out of that room feeling as though I'd stabbed someone. Several someones. My announcement was confronted with a wall of rebellion: slammed books, walkouts, angry cries of "thanks a lot, that's all our exams failed, then" - which helped or sustained neither student nor teacher, nor the hapless woman left to take over.

This time, I've learnt from my mistakes - let the news seep out early, through offhand remarks. Surprised "didn't you know?" dialogues in corridors, dropped conversations with older siblings at the school gates.

The response has been calm. Interested. Relaxed. A sense of growth towards an ending that's inevitable, not asserted as if in revenge.
It does help that I usually at some point come back.

So what have I learnt? Finally, I learn to model the behaviour I want students to display.

Monday, May 16, 2005

"Rick isn't a bad kid. He just takes against a teacher, sometimes, if he thinks they don't like him."

Late Friday afternoon on a stress-bloated busy bastard of a week, and my pleadings have worked. Rick is receiving the kid glove treatment over The Notorious Accusation of the Balloon Filled With Water.

He's sat working on the lumpy blue couch in the office, listening to the head of department rail volubly at the exam board's telephonists. As the boss replaces the recevier and looks up, Rick's face changes - scowl, foot up on seat, headphone placed into ear.

"Rick. Take the headphone out. You need to listen to this. We need to talk about what just happened in class."

He takes the earpiece out, adjusts his mp3 player, puts the other ear piece straight back in. "I don't fucking care."

"Now Rick. Stop it! You're only getting yourself into worse trouble. Try to calm your temper down. We need to talk properly about what has happened."

"What's 'appened is that fucking teacher is a fucking dickhead.I ain't talking about it, and I ain't staying behind." He's putting the class warrior act on, to mask his pure fury at the accusation that still rankles.

"Be sensible Rick. I have always spoken to you calmly and with respect, haven't I?" Reluctant nod. Rolled eyes. "well then if we're going to talk about what happened, I demand that you show me back some of that same respect, by not being rude to me, and not swearing."

Heavy sigh. Lips moving in a silent "don't care" retort. But unspoken.

"So before we start, is there anything you need to say to me about what's just happened? Rick? I think there's something you need to say." Boss is getting irritated, I can tell. 3 o'clock on Friday - not the most empathetic of moments to try to identify with a teenager's tortured sense of a world of injustice and indignity.

"Yeah." Shrug. The insolent, grumpy, pessimistic Rick I used to deal with a year ago returns - washes across his ashen features like a mask.

"Yes what, Rick?"

"Yes ... sir." His eyes deaden, and I'm reminded of the times I used to drag him out of class before he did damage to the perceived perpetrator of perceived wrongs, only to discover a boy who felt no hope or optimism about his future, who felt hotly determined that a teacher who does not 'like' him is a teacher who has limited his options, has thrown his potential away.

"Go ahead then, Rick, and then you can go talk to Miss Lectrice about what we do next. I'm waiting. What do you have to say?"


"You're a fucking wanker."


They gladden my heart, I tell you, these boys. Read into that whatever you will.

Friday, May 13, 2005

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

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

  2. Arrange an interview by picking up the phone

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

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

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

  6. The job is now yours

So: what have we taught them?

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

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

So: what have we taught Luke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Recently the british press has been full of headteachers' complaints about poor standards of parenting.
Horror stories abound of children who are sent to school with no idea of what the word 'no' means, no idea of how to read, even of how to feed themselves.
The national mania for the 'makeover' show demands the government apply a quick fix: parenting classes! Mandatory! Punish the chavs! Middle class values rool.

The single voice of reason I've encountered belonged to Michael MacMahon, author of an essay in the Sunday Times (I can find no direct link on the site).
He describes a class of first years, patiently waiting for instruction at the start of a lesson. MacMahon sets out the task clearly and in stages. Explains what to do if things go wrong. Children sit waiting.

He asks if there are questions, and fifteen hands go up immediately.
Each child wants to know what it is that Sir wants them to do today.

These children are not being naughty, wicked, wilful, or disruptive. They simply have no perception of themselves as part of a group. They wait patiently for the moment when the teacher will come over and explain to them personally what it is they have to do.
This sense of individualism resonates strongly with the students in my classrooms.
The rights of the individual are well known in our society.
The duty of the individual to act as part of a group is unexpected.

It has to be carefully, clearly spelled out, again and again and again. It's such a new concept to these kids that it tends to takes fourteen weeks of constant repetition to help them see that they are part of a larger unit.

This, then, is what I wish parenting classes - should there ever be such a thing - could tackle.
Case in point. The students' graduation evening last night was gloriously well behaved, formal, organised.

We expect them to wear full formal evening dress, with corsages, and hold long rehearsals to ensure they understand exactly how to treat their peers with sufficient respect to impress upon everyone present: this is no one person's moment to any greater degree than any other.
  • In rehearsal, we explain that if a student receives a whoop or a cheer as they receive their presentation folder, it makes it harder for the next student to listen to the lack of cheers.

  • If we applaud every person, rather than waiting till a full class has 'graduated', at some point our hands will get sore and tired, and those waiting to receive their words from the visiting dignitary will find it harder to endure if the applause is failing.

  • If we laugh and cheer at a peer who's passing our seat, we think we're boosting their confidence, but actually we're increasing the pressure on a heart that is already pounding.

We spell it out very very clearly to these sixteen year olds.

It is the last day of their formal compulsory schooling - attendance at any day henceforth is voluntary. We enunciate the words with great clarity - they deserve the dignity of a formal finish.
But we forgot to educate the parents.
It was interesting, to witness real schadenfreude on the students' faces as they trooped up to receive their presentation documents (make eye contact, big smile, stick hand out to be shaken, kids!), dressed in evening gown or DJ, shoes polished, faces scrubbed, manners turned up to 11.

Because their families had no idea how to behave.

  • No idea that screaming, leaping and whooping when Junior walks onstage might make it harder for Jordan to follow.

  • No idea that laughing uproariously when Haddon trips over his shoelace might terrify the wits out of Hayley waiting her turn in the wings.

  • No idea that when their blasted toddler begins to scream with boredom, they have the option of taking it outside so that others don't have to suffer the aural indignities of a baby being sworn at, being cuffed loudly.

Ali turned toward me, waiting for his name on the PA system, whispered, "why are they applauding? Don't they know how rude that is? I thought Sir said they'd all wait till the class is finished."
Suddenly the difference between the students onstage and the working class estate families that had raised them became clear.

As requested, a guest speaker lays it on thick to parents - we expect YOU to get YOUR child out of bed tomorrow morning, we expect YOU to remove televisions from bedrooms right now, we expect YOU to tell YOUR child they are not going out at night until June's exams are over.
YOU are the person who needs to take responsibility now. YOU cannot abdicate that responsibility then later admonish YOUR child.
With those words, the difference between our sixteen year old students and the homes they come from became startling.
We haven't simply taught these children lessons. W
e've educated them. Because we've allowed them to see they have choices over how to behave.

I shan't forget the looks in their eyes as these children watched their families fail to understand how to play fair, how to support each other, how to lose one scrap of self-importance in order to gain a wealth of shared dignity.

The light of their realisation of the difference between where they come from and where they can go to was truly illuminating.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

At graduation evening, I bump into my students' retired pastoral manager, three years on from his dignified exit.

He's working with the school again - for the past year, he's taken "on-site pastoral responsibility" for "students on vocational programmes".
Or, in plain English: "the kids we bump off down the building site because they're not bright enough to do GCSEs" get a "supportive ear" from him when they're "caught shoplifting".

It suits him. It suits his caring, rigorous style. He looks good on it.

Actually, he looks about ten years younger.

"Christ," he says, "a lot of people have said that. Makes me wonder just how bloody knackered I used to look."

Chatting about the change, he says the real difference is no longer having to feel as if Everything is Your Fault.
If a child is wayward, if a child underachieves - sure, you play a part in the process, but without the dragon stench of government targets breathing down your collar, you don't go home feeling you've let the world down, that the child's poor track record translates as yours.

To some minds that makes a bad teacher.

To my mind, if a teacher is no longer crippled by the Orwellian notion of 'vocation' that allows government mandarins to load curriculum change after curriculum change, directive after strategy after role adaptation after target after inspection after charter after rebranding on the profession - if a teacher is allowed to simply use their years of experience and get on with the job of teaching and do some damn good in the world ... they generally do.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Posts are a little hazy along the production lines at present.

There's a standard habit in UK state comprehensives. It recurs with any teacher who is leaving at the end of the term, when management assumes they're slipping and backsliding on their basic duties, as final term cabin fever sets in. I guess said manager figures that they themselves would have their own sights set elsewhere, so why wouldn't everyone else be operating in a walking dreamworld of abdicated responsibility?

Hmm. Not my style. But I digress.

The standard response is to get your money's worth out of said exiting malingerers by another route - by increasing the number of substitute teaching they're awarded in the average week.
If they're just going to function as another warm body in the room, why not put them somewhere this figures as a job apex, right?

I see the logic.

Except, I'm trying very hard not to lose focus or to disappoint my students by enacting half-arsed rubbish lessons on their batttered brains. I'm trying to maintain the same high standards I expect of them at any other time of year.

But still I'm caught in the assumption of abdicated weight - the tectonic gap of teaching: three hours' extra substitute teaching a week.

I still have to write longhand reports, process 350 folders of coursework, give speeches at graduation evenings, organise and plan inventive lessons, and plan, administrate, staff and deliver a revision school the size of a small primary ... but now I have to do it in three hour's less time.
Four hours if you count the time spent writing incident reports for little Arron, who locks the strange supply teacher out of the classroom, or Antoine, who throws a mouldy banana at the whiteboard, or Patrice, who decides to try to bite Gemma's wrist till her teeth draw blood in their midweek French zoological experience lesson.
All of which makes my admin record look slapdash, means I'm missing report deadlines, turning up late to graduation, submitting coursework at the final moments before deadline; to my managers' eyes I appear to be doing exactly what they assumed - cutting corners. Leaving in spirit, long before I leave in body.

And that annoys me.

I have a mountain of dogsbody work to catch up on.

Blogging - that reflective externalisation of internal processes - can be awkward on top of the rush season. At the moment, it comes last on the list.

My apologies. Normal service will be rushed, hasty, and often delivered a day or two overdue.

And will resume; as soon as I've given these damn overworking naysaying unbelievers what for. I'm going to teach them a lesson.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Something I hadn't ever noticed in teenage culture before: the boys are taking longer to fuss and stye their hair just so than the girls are.

Suddenly all those illfitting tousled chop cuts in the assembly hall look a little too perfectly tousled; the same shock of over-gelled mess falls at the same angle over the same half eyebrow as yesterday and the day before - and I realise these haircuts are premeditated, artful, constructed, intentional.

The girls' hairstyles are messy, hastily brushed, run at most into twin pigtail plaits. No product. No elaborate mullet, hoxton fin, up do, braids, foofy headband, teased afros or razor cut mohican.

Young men in every previous generation have taken at most two minutes' pride in their barenet fair: floppy public schoolboy fringe, or burberry-shaven bonce.
Is this our first generation of truly metrosexual young men?

Remarking upon this to Tom, age sixteen - too much wet-look gel, casual 'mussed' look - he agrees, enthusiastically. "Too right, Miss! It takes me twenty minutes every morning to get my hair right."

Friday, May 06, 2005

Finishing up your contract at a job involves much going through of old papers, sorting out what's useful for other staff to be left behind, and what's just junk that's cluttered your desk for a decade or more.

I found a leather bound expensive notebook. Habitat, handmade paper, decorative and rich. I wondered if it might contain an old journal, or perhaps was a child's very realistic interpretation of documents to be included in a fictional police case file?

Turning the first leaf, I saw printed very neatly in large, round hand, the following words:
Ms Lectrice has completely lost her voice
Turning another few leaves I find blue biro instructions for a series of classes, and a series of hastily elected monitors to read out.
Sixth form: We have some folders that we need to complete this lesson.
Year 10: We need to get the text books from Miss M.
Year 11: It's your final debate! Comfort's group will go first.
I think back to Hipteacher's silent protest lesson a few weeks ago, and feel a warm reassurance that it is possible to teach without shouting or raising your voice. Without even speaking at all. A golden memory of how children can rise to a challenge, of how real human compassion is not beyond their grasp.

Until the rounded letters suddenly change. A sharp black jagged scrawl interrupts the simple blue instructions.
Terry: get OFF the table.

Lucy: STOP chewing.

SIT DOWN: Jessica, Meltem, Melissa, Stephanie.

TERRY! Sit down or be sent out.

I will ask Ms ScaryPrincipal to deal with you if you do not work
And in a neon green haphazard child's scrawl, beneath:
The rosy glow of memorialising myself ... fades.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

They're fourteen years old.

How does Macbeth's language show his fear and desperation to cling onto power?

If they get this wrong, they go into the next year group with a governmental label of functionally illiterate.

How does my language, here, express impotent fury at a system mired in dread futility for a fourteen year old still unable to write in sentences?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Fourteen year olds sit disconsolate in a fast emptying hall to do the 'SAT' verbal arithmetic exam.

The level of this exam is 'levels 3-5' - that's the lowest level.
The English Language exams only measure level 4 and above. In English, by age eleven, anything below level four is considered sub-literate.

Innumerate. I think of the word and look around the hall. Spot so many of my own students in there.

"Look at the spot marked A on the map, and write down its co-ordinates."

Surrounded by the completed papers of those who've scored higher, and been able to leave earlier, fourteen year olds listen to warm honey newsreader tones of a recorded verbal delivery. They have fifteen seconds to answer before the subsequent question is signalled along the ageing PA system with loud van-reversi beep.

Innumerate children sit, twist, fidget, stare, try to count on fingers and run out of time, try to remember through physical movement the points on a compass, tap toes, drop pens again and again, sigh.

"What time is it four hours after ten thirty in the morning? Say whether your answer is AM or PM."

Pen dropping boy manages four times in one minute. I pick his pen up and sternly reprimand. "Don't do that again."
"It wasn't my fault!" Stage whisper, indignation.
He spends the next four minutes lying in an S shape, bent backwards over the desk behind, arms outstretched and supplicant to the mildewed lights of the hall ceiling.

"If I face west, then turn ninety degrees to the right, twice, what direction am I facing?"

Foot tapping girl reaches a crescendo of rhythm. taptaptap
I and a colleague stare hard at her, throw her The Look.
"What are you looking at me for?" Incredulous stage hiss.

Both children determined that although they have just broken the rules of a state exam, they are innocent.
The evidence before my eyes is wrong. The obvious response to being caught is innocence, and retort.

The examinations officer ignores it. Nothing else happens.

These are the innumerate kids. The illiterate kids, too, mostly. These are all the problems in microcosm of the inner city school.

But not just that. Of their inner city lives.

"What is 83 taken away from 100?"

Today is a microcosm of the future for these ne'er-do-wells.


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Like a fool, I decided that my thirteen year olds' two week, simple, snappy Media project should be something a little more adventurous than any other teacher has managed.
Something to show people that although leaving I haven't switched off. I haven't given in to that de-mob happy sense of Obligations Discarded that other staff who leave the job indulge in.

So we're analysing the openings of media productions of Othello.

"What are they saying?"

"That's not English!"

"Thee thou thee thee thou."

"But we voted for Romeo and Juliet."

"Couldn't we do Hamlet? Or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, at least?"

"Ewwwwwwwwwwww! There's sex in it! That's disgusting!"

"Do they all die at the end? Then what's the point of watching if we know they all die at the end?"

"So, he's a world famous actor, yeah, and he's got boot polish on his face to look black? And that was normal? That's so gay."

"Who is he? Which one's Iago? Is Roderigo the bad guy? So who's Desperado then? This is boring, I tell you."
The only word they've learnt is 'motive'; now they spend day in day out camply whining ... "What's MY motivation?"

Monday, May 02, 2005

The glorious gloriableness of a gloriful Bank Holiday in the sunshine listening to a frog chorus prevented there appearing any Monday post here at the Blackboard Jungle.

Apart from this one, obviously.