The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Are you married. Miss?

No, Chezney, I'm not.

Why not, Miss? Do you have children?

No, Chezney, I don't.

Why not?

Well, partly because I don't like children.

[Tommy recoils in shock]

Whaaat? How can you not like children? You mean you don't like us?

That's not what I said, Tommy. You guys are teenagers, you have some personality, a bit of individuality to you, I can hold a conversation with you because you've got brains and gumption and some original ideas. You're not children, you're young adults.
The ones I don't like are the little children. I wouldn't work in a primary school, because I can't stand the cute ones.

Can't stand the cute ones?! [He shakes his head in disbelief] The cute ones. [Utter disbelief] I mean!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I walk into my bottom set of eleven year olds, and they file quietly into class, sit in silence to do a test that they can barely even read, quietly and politelly raising their hands for help when they get really stuck.

I walk into a top set of thirteen year olds, to cover their absent French teacher, and they ignore me, concentrating instead on racing each to give action lifts so they can smash the ceiling lights in the corridor. It's twenty minutes till they enter the room, despite my exhortations, and the threats of another teacher passing. Once in, they scream swear words at each other, play fight, and race in and out of the room for another twenty minutes. Eventually I get them calm enough to remain seated, and three students do some work. The rest taunt each other, kick chairs, try to secretly listen to ipods or look distinctly depressed by life, as they draw obscene valentine's messages to each other.

I know one of these classes, they're used to my rules and regulations, and know for certain that I will follow through any insurgency.
In the other class only five students have been taught by me before. They know I will follow up infractions of rules, however tedious the process becomes, but still respond absolutely differently to their demeanour when in my room, or following my lesson.

I surely can't have lost all ability to teach in the short walk from my room to the French block.

sure feels like it, though.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

That'll teach me. In a fit of sleepless toothache induced fury, I repeated myself rather loudly at the Avenging Angel who allocates all the cover for absent teachers yesterday.
Bang. As many hours of silent still invigilation as she can put onto my timetable.

One hour at a time of standing motionless, idly focussing on bowed head after bowed head - it's not pleasant. It's somewhat better than having to prepare, teach, interact, but your legs and brain suffer somewhat for it.
Invigilating leaves your mind weirdly blank. Strangely filled with calm images of dusty floors unswept, of clawed grooves on the boards of a stage rimed with forty years of kit bags and grubby hands.

I watch the other teachers. I don't associate with them, mostly - it's a fairly firm belief of mine that most teachers who entered the profession in the seventies, eighties and early nineties did so to pursue a life of showing off. Of achieving the social success they couldn't manage to pull off in an adult environment.
Mister S swaggers past, heels clicking noisily on the floor, keys attached to a clanking carabiner at his hips as he walks. His ostentation as he slams the door, clatters down stage right, self importantly rustles his blank papers or hitches up his expensively tailored trousers all scream self-regard.

I know he didn't start out in the job like this. He's become the job, the keys, the walk, the surety that he is observed, that his movements matter. As if teachers don't grow more or less wiser with age, they just become more and more Important.

I shift from one leg to the other, stifle a yawn. Wonder if he knows.

I leave the hall at the bell in a trance like state - my fourteen year olds, desperate to know their examination results can't bring me out of it, can't rile me with disappearances, truculence or secret mp3 players, so relax, bored byme, into the work I've set.

I wonder, too, if the intense levels of interaction of inner city teaching are contagious, not just debilitating?
I wonder if they're addictive, if ten weeks after I leave here, I'll be looking for troublesome teeens on streetcorners in the south pacific, wanting some trouble, wanting to relax myself by solving things, by being important.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Excuse the short break in postings there - I was - the whole school was - forced to abandon teaching for two days to complete compulsory professional training.

This consisted largely of sorting pieces of paper about the movement of objects in a science experiment around into a diamond shape.

Followed by a discussion about using drugs, where I and three senior managers had to place our opinions on an imaginary line which stretched from 'agree' to 'disagree'.

After this, I had to formulate three arguments on the concept of national service. The three arguments had to fit the categories of, firstly, 'plus' (hold on, it gets even more thrillingly specific in a moment), 'minus', and ... wait for it ... 'interesting'.

These techniques are part of a squillion pound national strategy intended to train me to raise students' achievement from level 3a (can indentify what a text is about) to a level 4c (can identify what a text is about, and point to it).
I'm summarising rather ruthlessly, of course.

I see no reason why the post should take up two days, simply because the ruddy training did.
It seems to have passed the bureaucracy boys by that the 200 strong staff of my school have postgraduate qualifications from respectable universities, professional diplomas, and years of experience in the roughest schools around. They don't think merely handing us a sheet of A5 explaining these painfully moronic activities is sufficient.

No no no.

The only way we professionally qualified, over educated, experienced morons can understand a simple task, evidently, is to do it ourselves.

For two days.

Meanwhile, all our level 3a students get two days off to run, skip, jump, sleep in, shoot up, drop out, and use a magnifying glass to explode a snail into black gunge.

And the social services unit down the road, cannot fund mentors who can help homeless teenagers coming out of juvenile detention centres and into hostels. These are people at high risk of reoffending, and who will be placed in care homes if they do so.
A word about the children I've taught who live in care. Their lives are feral to a degree the moral panic majority could not imagine. If they fight, it's with knives. If they own something, they have to carry it with them, or one walk to the shops means they don't own it any more. Care is something *all* teenagers need to avoid.

Ex-offenders on their first release tend to be over-optimistic about how easily they will handle life outside, without any family to protect or shelter them. A mentor is a lifeline for these kids.

But no money. According to government, there *is* no money.
Meanwhile, down the road at my school, an outside speaker from central government is paid over £80 an hour to ask 200 fully paid adults to shuffle bits of paper. Tell each other where on the opinion line we stand over trivialised, dissociated issues of abuse or of power or of forces beyond our control.
We get croissants for breakfast, a slap up lunch, and we watch a powerpoint display of naughty boys with their hands eagerly waving, answers aloft in a well scrubbed classroom optimistically labelled 'Hackney'.
Bollocks. That's what teacher training days are. Pure and simple.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Reading about the 'Broken Windows' theory that was used to defeat casual crime in 90s New York, and about Zimbardo's 'Stanford prison experiment', I'm thinking hard about how context and situation are responsible for negative or confrontational student responses. Having been shoved, bruised or thumped four more times in the last two days, it behooves me, as the adult in all these interchanges, to analyse whether my own behaviour contributed positively or negatively to each situation.

Situation 1: Strange kid at door signals to Huseyin, Huseyin throws fizzy drink about the room, gets removed, strange kid - Robert - forcibly pushes me out of the way, twice, to retrieve Huseyin's things.
Context: Huseyin knew that, according to the broken windows theory, I try to ensure absolutely predictable responses to small infringements of rules. Three strikes and you're out, one action against property or person and you're out. He devised a way of utilising that to his own benefit.
Situtation: Lack of follow up on serious incidents when they involve children the management perceive as illiterate or unteachable. My own tractability - if a kid gets past me on the way in, I'm stupid to try to stop him on the way out. But also: my prime concern became immediately the classroom full of other fourteen year olds. I asked them to stand back, so that these boys weren't encouraged by their closeness to do anything to get themselves into worse trouble, and they complied quietly, didn't use the excuse of chaos Huseyin had offered them.

Situation 2: Strange Robert, as he shall henceforth be known, is accompanied by a stern looking anger management specialist to my room, and apologises. I don't know the kid. I accept his apology.
Later, he returns with Huseyin, who attempts to apologise, but can't resist insulting me and protesting his innocence simultaneously. He begins hectoring me about why I reported his behaviour. When it becomes clear that he isn't listening to any replies, and that he has pals outside the door, I leave the room, walk slowly to an office where I know there will be more adult witnesses if any further attacks should occur. Stand in the doorway repeating in low tones that I don't wish to discuss it with him right now. Huseyin screams repeatedly at me, though now it's witnessed by eight other adults. One of them takes advantage of my perceived guilt in setting Huseyin up, and his comparative innocence, to escort him off the premises. Huseyin ignores him.
Context: Removing the isolation of an empty classroom after school removed Huseyin's power to intimidate me. The knowledge that incidents are reported routinely to other staff created consequence and the need to at least nominally apologise.
Situation: Adding extra adults added gravitas to the situation. However it showed that adults don't have authority over Huseyin. They do over Robert.
Also, I made it clear that I was the person who decided if an apology was acceptable or not. Small victory.

Situation 3: While covering a music class (work set "they all know what to do." Cheers for that, Mister S--), a bunch of about twenty fourteen year olds decide to run in and out of all the classes in the building, piling in as a group, starting a fight with the first kid they recognise, and then piling out again, fast and en masse.
Three girls from my class pile out with them.
Without really recognising the kids in my music cover lesson, I have to decide quickly if they were in part responsible, or victims of what happened. Almost all of these kids (my school is huge) were strangers to me. It would be easy to go over the top.
I try to memorise body language, stance, numbers. I think my lot are innocent. The beleaguered deputy head arrives. I explain events, then defend this lot - they weren't a party to it, and they didn't encourage it. I call a register again, to determine who the three girls who've left are - there's no question that any of these kids will be brave enough to name them.
When they reappear, I refuse to let them in. The head of Music can't help, I can see him physically restraining Huseyin and - surprise surprise - Robert next door, so when another teacher relieves me of cover duty, I tear a strip off the three girls and take them away with me to write letters of apology. Doing so, I insist on accuracy, rather than elaborate self-defence statements. It works. They apologise.
Context: A school where children can apparently get away with this 'rushing' and harming of individuals is pretty much on the brink of losing control.
The rapid appearance of a deputy head signalled to other children that matters would be dealt with, but more public response is needed if children are not to think that these invasions are normal, are an everyday possibility.
I see kids' eyes on the corridors when they approach louder or older kids. My presence as an adult doesn't inhibit the fear reflected as they swerve and weave away. The perception here is that kids aren't so safe from each other.
More worryingly, that adults can't protect them.
We need to change that context. Desperately.
Situation: Cover teachers have so much less control than staff who know students' names. I managed this one, I think, although only just - by not expecting students to 'grass', but identifying the culprits and providing real consequences anyway. It would have been easy not to take responsibility - walk away, this is a cover lesson, it's the music department's responsibility, it's the deputy's responsibility. Instead I gave up my time to make it clear to those three kids that anyone at this school will make it their business to see that consequences will be explicit, and inevitable.
Without the context, however, this is railing against a tide.

At another school, we used to have a name for this. We used to name it repeatedly, explicity, as often as we could, and define it around ten times daily. We used to do that because we had to. The name?

Minimum standards.

Something you can only achieve by working together on.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

"Don't underestimate the time it will take you to get your classroom organised before you leave," warns the new boss, "I know from experience, there's always more stuff to tidy away and file properly than you think."



I'm leaving teaching, not this particular job. Why would I want that stuff?

I'd thought I could perhaps bring in a few rolls of bin bags the day before my flight.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Burdened with a one hour drama cover lesson (we don't buy in staff to cover teachers who are sick, we simply lose our marking and preparation periods to do it ourselves), and given the ludicrously inappropriate task of asking thirty one twelve year olds to spend an entire hour creating a scene from irreverent comedy show 'Little Britain', I watch seven little girls re-enact a classroom, featuring "yeah but no but" character Vicky Pollard.

I watch with interest to see how these girls represent a teacher faced with insouciant defiance and logicless destructive force.

Calmly. Quietly. Politely.

The girl playing teacher coolly repeats her instructions until the errant Vicky character complies. Refuses to raise her voice, to respond in kind, or to allow herself to be distracted by persistent attempts to raise the interaction to a level where violence could be induced.

Interesting. I wonder if this is learned, imagined or observed behaviour? If this is how these girls see their own teachers behave as they deal with four or five Vicky Pollards in each class?

An hour later, marking a far too easy exam in a prep room, I overhear through open windows on a muggy day - a head of year is dealing with a class of older students, a floor below. Screaming, yelling, ridiculing and bullying his students. Sarcasm, abruptness, interruptions and dissent are the order of the day.

I realise that perhaps - just perhaps - those girls were not copying, but modelling for us.

Some days, actions speak way, way, way louder than words.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Icelandic system [iys - lan' - deik sys' - tum] n.
(also teen circulation plan)

A practice, supposedly based on childrearing methods in medieval Iceland, of sending teenagers to live with other families, in order to learn adult skills and behavior from grownups they have not yet learned to manipulate and despise. A version of the Icelandic system, the foreign student exchange, had long been employed by frustrated parents, but the practice went native and exploded in popularity with the publication in 2023 of Britney-Penelope Leach's bestselling advice manual, A Fresh Start: Why Other Parents Can Raise Your Impossible Teen -- And Why You Should Let Them. Leach noted that away from their parents adolescents were typically friendly, polite, curious and altruistic; it was only at home they became resentful and histrionic "typical teenagers." She proposed placing teens with new families to give them a less cathected but still affectionate and protective adult-child relationship focussed on the gradual assumption of adulthood. The federally funded Domestic Yourh Exchange now enrolls approximately 50% of high-school juniors and seniors and is credited with significatnly lowering juvenile crime, drug use, pregnancy, depression, rudeness, and TV-watching.

Katha Pollitt, The Future Dictionary of America.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Isn't it great -- no, really, isn't it just plain peachy -- when you've been off sick for a week with flu, with the side effects of typhoid jabs, and having major dental surgery, to be greeted as you re-enter the building by a member of the administrative staff screaming at you and calling you a liar?

And we're supposed to be the adults.

Honestly. If you can't cope with the demands of a job, then leave it. Not rocket science.

Life in public service; everybody's whipping boy.

More upbeat posts tomorrow. When I've forgotten what it's like to be a walking stereotype.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

I thought I would write about Jason at thirteen, hitting the peer group wall of puberty with a smack so hard you can almost see his teeth rattle.

I thought I would write about the jadedness of the colleague who sees only the barbed wire barriers she wants to see (and on the morning after I've slept four hours after a family party) comments - mistakenly - that since I've resigned I look "ten years younger."

I thought I would write about touring all the sixteen year old's english classes, noting a binary division between teachers who focus placidly on the work, the children, the task at hand; versus those who suck all the limelight out of the ether, who - by dint of larger-than-life grandstanding - force their students into dependency upon teacher.
And how I shamefacedly recognised my own teaching style in the latter group. Too late.

I thought I would write about the stubborn, dogged loyalty of thirteen year old Rebecca staunchly defending my mistakes to Blair, based only on the fact that sometime last year she dubbed me her favourite teacher, despite thirty two weeks of nitpicking and railing against her mistakes ever since.

I thought I would write about the difficulties our eleven year olds, products of the english 'literacy hour', had with tasks that demand anything of their imagination.
"How will I know what my character's name is, though?"
"Sweetheart, you have to make it up."
However one of the children has donated to me a dreadful throat infection, so you must just flesh all those tales out in your own minds, own hearts, own classrooms.

Welcome to The Blackboard Jungle: where one needs no comment box to be truly interactive.
Back when I've recovered.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

There are a few fifteen year olds deputised to create an artwork on the theme of Bram Stoker's Dracula up on the miniature rooftop corridor. They have intermittent brief bursts of time out of class to do this, and they're nice kids. It's an odd thing, though, to run up to check a stock cupboard, and turn a corner into boomboxes, kids in death metal t shirts, acting the studious artist, fingers smudged in the purple-greys of the Count's slowly forming eyes.
"Hello Miss L."
~ Hello.
"Hello Miss L."
"Hiya Miss."
"Hello Miss L."

I check out the artwork, and continue past.

"It must get really annoying to walk down a corridor and have everyone on it say hello to you." A typical left of field comment from an ex student of mine, Will.
~ No, sometimes it's rather nice.
"Do you remember me Miss L?" I don't. I remember the recognition of me in her eyes, but not her name, not the key to the dialogue.
"You were my teacher in year eight."
"You taught me in year seven. I learnt a lot in your lessons."
~ What about you, then? I recall your face - when did I teach you?
"Not sure, Miss L. Maybe year nine?"
"You taught me English in year nine, Miss."

Did I really teach so many of them? Will chips in, brandishing three brushes at once.
"You were the only teacher who taught me English."

Pardon? Typically, Will, as he always used to, stops me in my tracks. He's out of uniform, but then, he's painting. Could he really not have been timetabled to study English for the other three years he's meant to have been here?

"It's true," he continues, with the offhanded blinding logic of the mildly autistic, mildly ADHD kid, "you were the only teacher to teach me any English."

Ah. He's being sarcastic. Not wanting to hear any diatribe about his relationship with the current teacher, the one who's done him the favour of arranging for him to be here creating ghoulish artworks around Transylvanian maps, I hurry forward again.

"Do you know what grades I was getting before you taught me, Miss?"

I turn as I tread on, intrigued yet again. Bright boy, scatty as anything, handwriting utterly illegible, prone to more than the normal distraction, more than the normal balance of ruthless logic.

"I was getting all grade Fs." I'm surprised. Not shocked, but surprised. He'd always been fairly clever, to my estimation.

"Then I had you for one year, and you taught me [insert random exam-passing acronym], and now I get Bs."

For a second time, I'm halted in my tracks.

"That's right, Miss L," chimes Gemma, one time eleven year old schoolrefuser, "I was on level 3 when I first had you, and now I get Bs and As."

Genuinely shocked.

"And I love reading now."

Solemnly, I make them put down their paintbrushes and jamjars of murky bloodstained water, and shake their hands. They just gave me something very precious, you see.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

New boss at work.

Sounding us all out. Carefully. Letting details slip that we grab and clutch at, collate them in corners to fashion a collage of just how much of a disaster this new boss could be.

She asks why I'm leaving, what my new school is like, and I tell her: I'm leaving the career, not the job.
She sounds shocked, asks why. Part of her interview for the job was conducted in the back of one of my lessons: her job was to observe a difficult, 'borderline' class of sixteen year olds in their final term, then share her judgement of my lesson with the other observers cogently enough to persuade she can manage people.
"But you're such a good teacher," she says. Casual, but watching me.
I'm not unhappy at the school, nor am I unhappy with the rewards of the job - which are considerable. But, I explain, if you're good at stretching the minds of brighter children (without torture implements), and effective in dealing with the behavioural challenges of disaffected or illiterate children, then that's what you are asked to do. That becomes who you are. Damage limitation teacher.
"Because you're competent," she agrees. Her eyes look shrewd.
"Yes." My role moves closer to firefighting, and that itself becomes, over time, draining. Drained and washed out isn't good enough.

I point out there that if I become disgruntled with my job and do it badly, there are real life consequences for the children I'm responsible for. That isn't good enough. Half hearted will never be good enough in this job. I play one crystal-teensy part in shaping human identities here; my job is not to be moving units of money.

She agrees. Superficially, she has to agree. The vocational codes that teachers sue to browbeat each other into doing more than is necessary or remunerated sit atop the undercurrents of this conversation, where we size each other up, work out if the next seven weeks will be of help or of hindrance.
Underneath the social gloss of politeness and flattery, I think we've made our real meanings clear to each other. I begin to know who she is. She begins to see who I am not.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Ten minutes into the first lesson of the first day back after half term, and Tony has outlived his own patience, is sent out for yelling, ripping up books and backchatting the teacher. He runs away, and the deputy head on child-catcher duty is informed. Tony returns to stand in the doorway shouting at me, and I quietly conduct the rest of the lesson from the doorway, to keep a physical and verbal barrier between him and the other children. The head teacher arrives, takes Tony off my hands, and demonstrates by example that there are consequences to the rest of the class. Tony buts and what ifs and stumbles on his interruptions as he pours out his take of how Miss Lectrice Did him Wrong. The head raises a flat palm, and silences him with an "ah!"
I close the door and leave them to it, resume the rounds of checking homework spellings have been copied correctly.
"Miss," whispers Joanne, as I write her three times checked 'apperience' out again for her, "Why is she like that?"

"Like what? Do you mean the head teacher?" I keep my voice low. "She's removing a naughty child so that the rest of us can work well."

"Like a queen. Why does she have to be like that?"

I lean in and whisper. "Because she's the boss. One day you'll grow up and be the boss, and then it's right and proper that you'll be the queen of everybody and boss them all about when they need bossing about."

"No I won't!" She shakes her head furiously. "I'll never behave like the queen."