The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, September 30, 2005

It's been a while since my last post and the world of learning how to be a teacher is hectic, full and whirling. Just as we all think we are getting on top of the work and can stop, relax and have a coffee, more comes along! It's just like having a real job without the cash, nice clothes or respect of your peers.

This week we have all (well, most of us anyway, apart from the super confident model-esque looking child geniuses amongst us who WILL get their comeuppance or will become Superheads and burn out at 35) been panicking that we don't know much at all about our chosen specialisation. How does one hypnotise and entrance a group of recalcitrant 13 year olds to the joys of quadratics? These doubts have been compounded by the airing on C4 of The Unteachables which has driven us into the very ponds of despair that we will never, not in a month of INSET days be able to control such demons. Our early aspirations to be calm, caring and knowledgable have downsized to a mere desire to escape the classroom with our dignity intact - replace "our dignity" with "our lives" by the time we actually get into school.

Our school placements have all been handed out and we all know whether we are spending the first term in the Welsh equivalent of educational bedlam or the Grange Hill of our youth. My own placement is in a smallish Welsh town that could only be desired as Uninspirationalville. The good news is that I am looking forward to it enormously!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

How much reading do we have to do!!

Also, although I did a full time engineering degree the first time around I seemed to have more free time than I do here - I never spent this much time in the library (guess that's why i got a rubbish degree then).

First time around somehow the daily mundanities like washing and making sure Him Indoors has something for his tea and finding time to tax the car and go to the dentist didn't seem to intrude - I guess I was just smellier and cared less about the maintenance of my rented student squalor than I do now as an adult with a mortage to maintain. I don't understand how people with children cope (that's a general statement do they cope full stop, let alone with studying or a job on top!).

Another thing. The government entice you onto the course with the promise of a £6 or £7K bursary - it's not a lot, but it will pay the aforementioned mortgage. The course start in the middle of September - but the first cheque doesn't come until the end of October! What's that all about! How are we meant to live in the meantime? Consider this - the simultaneous growth of the banking sector in the UK at the same time as the government are trying to encourage student numbers in HE - a link I think...someone has to fuel the debt.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Oh my word!!! What have I done? This is a mistake. Everyone is 10 years younger than me and has just finished a maths degree - I by contrast have killed most of my brain cells during the past 15 years of hard working (well, OK, so you work hard you play hard - it kills the cells!) and have forgotten anything I ever knew about maths.

The men and women are all nubile young gods and goddesses, bright eyed and shiney haired with new cars (how IS that, they have never worked and they have a new Clio and I have a beaten up old I detect good degrees and the beneficence of Daddy and is it too late to tap my own parents?).

I am not so worried about the classroom management side as the technical. The younger ones seems bit more afraid of facing the children - I am afraid, but basically think they can't be MUCH worse than a pile of miltant railway workers...can they? By contrast, I am petrified by my lack of knowledge. Today we had to start an "audit" which will help us identify our subject weaknesses...anyone who has worked knows that an audit is a TEST and that you can FAIL. Most of the subjects I can't even remember to be able to say whether I know them or not - they all sound new! Maths is meant to be an ancient subject, beloved of the Greek et al., so how can they have invented new topics in the past 15 years!!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

So, end of my first full week in school; what have I learnt and seen?

Little boys fight and I am a button waiting to be pressed by a naughty child - I need to learn more about not taking the bait. I find that - with some relief given the path I have chosen for this year - that I actually like to teach - I have so enjoyed seeing a child grasp an idea and I love seeing their face glow with pride as I am able to say "Well done!". I want every child to go home at the end of the day with a sense of achievement and pride - the danger is of watering down the effect of my praise by handing it out so freely.

At the end of the week we took the entire class on a full day combined local history/nature trip - about an 8 mile round trip across heathland, up an airport control tower, through the woods and back along a busy country road. Trying to keep the children in their two-by-two line and away from the speeding traffic, running up and down the crocodile like a loony cajoling the slow ones at the back, the lumpen twins to whom walking more than 200 yards was a novelty, the two little girls in the world of their own who announced that they were "on a mission", starting a song to keep the spirits up (poor kids, they must have thought i was mad!) and the tiny and brave little ones that by the end of the day I though I would have to carry. I have already grown attached and want to know how they get on.

How does a single teacher manage to address the needs of a mixed ability mixed age class (two years age difference between the youngest year 5's and the oldest year 6's)?

Anyway, next week I start to find out how to teach their older brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

First impressions of my primary school placement so far - I am spending the week in a class of 30 mixed year 5 and year 6 children.

The size variation! Some year 5's are huge and some year 6's are so tiny I doubt that they can grow big enough in the next year not to be eaten alive when they get to "big school".

So much is packed into the day - maths, reading, handwriting, a smattering of geography and history also thrown in, a language lesson and in the middle of the day a swimming lesson! I have the names of about half the class now, although it doesn't help that too many have the same name and I am afraid that the ones that have stuck are those of the incredibly cute kids or the troublesome or troubled ones - the ordinary, trouble free ones sort of pass by unnoticed...

As a potential maths teacher I am glad to see that they haven't developed a dislike of the subject. Lots of adults seem to think that the way to get children interested in maths is to make it "relevant" so I am glad to see that these ones at least are enjoying the subject for its own sake without asking why they need to bother knowing about, for example, square numbers. They appear, to my so far naive eyes, to enjoy the competition and the praise for success and improvement.

Today I taught C swimming - a tiny 10 year old, red haired and massively ginger freckled, grinning trustingly at her enthusiastically encouraging teacher as she kicked her backstroke and slowly sank below the waves. It's a shame that I won't be there next week to see her improve - I have already grown attached to this class.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

So, I went swimming training last night (none of us really know why we do this, it has become more of a social event than a fitness one, none of us is getting thinner or fitter but this may be because, since we are all 30-40+ the exercise is merely serving to hold back an inevitable gravitationally induced decline...3500m later, exhausted we weigh ourselves and see no change from the week before...anyway I digress) and spoke withe my friend S who is a primary school teacher.

It turns out that in this part of the UK there is a glut of primary school teachers, all newly trained and yet we have declining birth rates and schools competing not to be the ones to close. Having spent two years on supply teaching (stay in, call the Local Authority, see who needs you that day, make no plans, never really bond with the kids) S has now secured TWO jobs. Two half time jobs to cover teacher preparation time. She now spends her lunchtime travelling between sites and at each school spends no more than a morning with each class per week. Sounds tough to me. S loves to teach but was warning me about the immense amounts of paperwork that I would face.

Seems like teaching is one of the few professional jobs I know where the people in that profession try and warn you not to join it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


I have finally relented to the pressures applied by my good friend Lectrice and agreed to adopt-a-blog on the Blackboard Jungle site. I hope that you will be gentle with me as I am new to the blogging palaver and am somewhat nervous that I may bring the reputation of the esteemed Jungle into disrepute, or worse still...boredom and falling readership!

There she is swanning around the world leaving me to start my PGCE in Secondary Mathematics in just four days time. I start the course with a week long primary placement in a really lovely little Welsh village school. After that I have about a month in college before being let loose in school. We spend most, 80% at least, of the PGCE year in schools - which seems to be a technique designed to sort the wheat from the chaff from the very outset - bail out now while you still can - but is one which fills me, and I am sure all my fellow students, with dread and horror; "who me, out there...with them! Now!". I can't imagine what we will be taught in that first month in college - basic riot crowd control techniques and first aid maybe? That I haven't studied Maths for the best part of 20 years doesn't seem to concern me nearly as much as the wide eyed rabbit in a headlight terror of facing 30+ 15 year olds. Maths - pshaw, there's a book for that...but kids...! As a 35 year old with no kids and a fairly successful career in engineering behind me I know that if I don't know the answer i can always look it up...but children, in front of me, all their eager and doubting acne filled little faces looking up at me...hell, what was I thinking!!

In the meantime, for the next four days I shall try and cram in a summer's worth of spare room DIY and family visits. I'll give this site an update next week once I have met the wee poppets in my primary. Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

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

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

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

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

None of the volunteers at the programme did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The food suddenly tastes sour.

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

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

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

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

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