The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, December 31, 2004

It's with delight that I break the self-imposed holiday hiatus here at The Blackboard Jungle, to note that one of my favourite non-education bloggers, Colin Gregory Palmer, has taken up his long stated intention to qualify as a teacher while he's here in the UK, and has now blogged his first lesson as an initiate.

Reader, I present to you:
Mister Palmer's First Lesson

After a month of observing classes from the back of the room, it was my turn to stand behind the teacher's desk for the first time.

The first lesson I had to teach was in the afternoon, so, I had all morning to prepare. I wisely used this time to practice calling off the thirty names on my list and make confident check marks next to them for the class register.

I should have rehearsed what to do after the register for the remaining 45 minutes of class time, but I didn't. The register was a simple, concrete task I could focus on, everything that followed was an amorphous blob of the unknown. I'd get to the end of my pretend register, start mentally rehearsing the rest of the lesson, `OK, class, today we are going to...' and then think, `let me practice the pronunciation of those names one more time'.

An hour before the class I was to teach, I began to get nervous. Really nervous. In my addled state of mind, the following actually seemed like a good idea:

My body is triggering the fight-or-flight responce by using the hormone adrenaline. There is a finite amount of adrenaline in my body, so if I drain that supply in the next hour, I should be biologically incapable of nervousness.

I then worked myself into a state of near hysteria by imagining all the worst case scenarios in an attempt to use up my adrenaline.

Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) this strategy didn't work and at the end of the hour I was as nervous as it was physically possible to be, ready to run away from the group of eleven-year olds it was now my responsibility to instruct in the ways of science.

Their regular teacher opened the door to let the flood children into the room then, instead of taking charge as she usually would, she walked to the back of the class to take notes on my performance. I was now the one in charge.

I switched on the tape recorder I bought during my lunch break so I could hear myself after the class was over to try and gain an objective perspective of what happened.

"All right everyone... all right... settle down... quiet... quiet... Year Seven... quiet."

In my head, I like the sound of my own voice: deep, powerful, sexy and authoritarian. But on the tape I hear the truth: nasal, annoying, strained and unpleasant -- why anyone would listen to me is beyond my understanding.

`St Hedwig's' is a school much more formal than the ones I grew up with. Here the students are to stand behind their desks in silence and wait for my permission to sit down. They eventually became quiet-ish and I was so nervous I couldn't wait any longer.

"Good afternoon Year Seven."

"Gooooood aaaaafternoooooooooon miiiiiiiister paaaaaah maaaaah."

I made the `sit down' gesture with my hand and we were off.

"OK, today we are going to be dividing materials --"

"Are you taking the lesson today, sir?" interrupted a girl from the back.

"Yes, I am. As I was saying --"


Claps came from some of the children, and I should have taken this moment to be happy and calm down, but I was determined to push on.

"All right, all right... quiet..."

I plowed on through the ten minute introduction as the class became louder and louder. I realized later that I was trying to outrun the increasing volume thinking that, if I could just get to the end of the introduction and get them started on the experiment, I'd be home free.

"Everyone understand what you need to do?" I didn't pause to wait for an answer before saying "Okay! Off to the lab desks then."

The experiment was a disaster. The students were to test various solutions (salt water, lemon juice, vinegar, cleaning fluid, etc) to see if they were acidic or alkaline using litmus paper.

The logistics of distributing the equipment needed to do this hadn't occurred to me in advance. (15 student pairs) x (1 beaker + 1 pipette + 1 test tray + 6 red litmus papers + 6 blue litmus papers + 2 safety goggles) = 255 items. I ran around in a panic, criss-crossing the room in an inefficient path giving out materials to those who asked for them the loudest. Then, one tiny red-head girl approached me to ask, "Sir? May I help give something out?"

She earned a permanent place in my heart as teacher's pet with those words.

I dumped a huge pile of goggles into her outstretched arms and together we managed to get equipment to everyone.

Now the bigger problem came to light: the students didn't know what to do. I had considered making an instruction a sheet for my class to use during the lab, but ultimately decided against it because I thought the experiment was too simple to warrant it.

Never. Again.

The brief description of the experiment in my introduction was like so many explanations in science: perfectly adequate if you already know what's going on, but totally unhelpful to newcomers. Soon, there was much yelling, giant soggy piles of litmus paper, clogged sinks and unanticipated questions.

"Sir? Sir? Sir! Sssssssss-errrrrr-errrrr! What's wrong with this milk? Why's it got sticky bits?"

It turned out that the milk the lab technician brought us was spoiled. So spoiled that large chunks lodged themselves in the pipette. While this didn't give off the most pleasant smell, it did have the welcome side effect of making the acid test on milk work really well, as the sour taste of spoiled milk comes from the acid.

I helped the groups as best I could but the bored students who didn't know what to do began to devise their own experiments.

"Sir? Do you really want us to test pee?"

My heart stilled as I saw a confused child across the room holding a beaker filled with something yellow and distinctly urine-like. I didn't know all of the substances the lab technician brought in, but thought it unlikely that one of them was human waste.

"Why don't you give that to me?"

The vial touched my hand and I was relieved to feel it was cool. Still not knowing what the mystery liquid was, I said, "Let's just put that to the side, shall we?"

Later investigations revealed that one inventive child discovered that if you mix coffee, water and vinegar in the right proportions the resulting solution that looks and flows exactly as urine does.

Still, there were good moments amid the disaster. When I asked one small child if his experiment was going well, he turned to me with huge safety goggles on his tiny head to announce, "Of course it is sir. I'm a proper scientist now."

And, if I do say so myself, I did take a damn fine register.
At any given moment, I can't recommend Colin's blog strongly enough without the actual aid of weaponry, and now he's one of us a teacher, I can do so with impunity. Rest of the story here.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 17, 2004

The last lesson of the year, and I have to sub for a music teacher (collective groan; any cover lesson involving equipment usually descends into nightmare within seconds - this one is the final hour of the final day, immediately after 600 screaming children lost it, hilariously, at the school talent show).

Walking into a room with a bank of keyboards attached to workstations and students sat quietly attached to their headphones, it occurs to me how many features of today are wildly different to when I was at school.

I don't recall substitute teachers, much. In my childhood, teachers weren't off sick with stress so often, and they didn't have such a thing as long-term cover when a member of staff leaves and can't be replaced for months at a time.
Generally what happened was that teachers would go on strike, students would be left at home, staring helplessly at the three books their family owned, trying desperately to swot for exams.
No such strikes today, or if there are, they depend on what union controls this or that school's agenda, and last no more than a day.

If I had had a substitute teacher, they probably wouldn't have been carrying an electronic register to call up the class details, and so wouldn't know instantly for what reason each child in the room were late or absent. They probably would, however, still have had to walk over to a portakabin outhouse / temporary classroom in the streaming rain. So schools are still ramshackle remnants of a rundown building, twenty years on.

Of course, the banks of computers, the casual interface of multimedia by teachers who - by rights - aren't expected to have gotten up to speed with programming a VCR yet, the electronic interactive whiteboards - none of those were around.

The computers in my school were limited in distribution to the head of maths' classroom alone, and consisted of six huge plastic BBC machines, topped with blinking olive miniature screens, a little like the early Atari consoles on top of some sci-fi monstrous imagining.

Yet, hundreds of classrooms here still contain a rows of desks and children sat with paper and pen.
There are no blackboards left in British education.
I had just about the last one, I think, four years ago. Even 'dustless' chalk would create a white powder exclusion zone of five feet from the board. Today, the low tech classroom uses a whiteboard, and marker pens. Marker pens that continually run out, or get swiped, or leave a dark circle of fuzz on the ball of your right wrist, but less dusty than chalk, at least.

Perhaps an overhead projector, a tired old fashion come full circle, is in educational vogue again. Fortunately, though, none of those blurry blue repro worksheets from the 'banda' machine.
Photocopies contain images, colour, and are run off at a moment's notice. The corresponding rise in quantities of useless piles of paper makes me wonder if perhaps the world wouldn't be a better place if photocopies cost £200 a copy, rather than £0.02, but still.
Nor even handwritten worksheets - instructions are typed, whether you have access to a network or not, and the prevailing fashion is for instruction delivery to be verbal, and support printed.

My job as a classroom teacher seems to involve as much confiscating of mobile phones (notable not just for ringtones and calls, but for when children have decided to download a streamed beheading from the net in the middle of class) and ipods, as actual generation of intellectual thought. I can't remember what it was that bugged my own teachers to distraction about our sub-curricular concerns - probably bubble gum, tippex, and badges.
No videos, CD roms, or dvds in classrooms back then - an educational programme worth watching had to be screened by one of the three UK channels at exactly the time of day the class convened, and watched as a live broadcast. So we no longer see the 'schools' clock counting down onscreen, but we have vastly more visual resources to choose from.

For actual lesson content - the fashion during my childhood was to enthuse students, and not worry about where the lesson was going.

Grammar instruction didn't exist (I had one grammar lesson ever, which I do recall was a substitute teacher, who probably hadn't heard), and 'encouragement' the dominant philosophy: I didn't get an actual grade on my work until I was seventeen, (even then I doubted its reliability and argued for it to be reduced, as I recall).

In the classes I teach, we grade every single piece of work, and publish in all rooms the level descriptors to explain what those grades mean. Students are given number grades for effort and for achivement every ten weeks, and an average, which determines their access to privileges in the school. This is cross referenced against IQ scores (Yellis and MidYis tests), and teachers are questioned harshly if a student fails to achieve the score they've been set as their potential.
"But his mum just died" is given short shrift, as the teacher's bi-annual performance bonus depends upon these statistics, but only in raw, statistical form.

Grammar is now the main focus of the governments' literacy strategies in schools; although students here are still stymied by what a subjunctive clause is, rest assured, they're supposed to know.

Enthusiasm and interest are dirty words we sneak into the lessons once we've thought up an official sounding objective to justify it in terms of government testing schedules.

Ahh, yes, external tests.

I endured seven 100% closed book GCE O level examinations.
My little sister sailed through eight 100% coursework GCSE exams.
My own students have formal public examinations at age 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. The first two, nominally, judge the school, not the student, but this line has never worked on a nervous child walking into an exam.

It's standard to take between 10 and 12 GCSE exams. Subjects without mandatory GCSE status tend to fold. (Which is a little worrying for Languages departments across the UK, after last year's dropping of the modern language requirement - based on what? The whole world will speak English?)
So: revision classes, pay-revision guides, cohorts of glum faced kids trooping, dejectedly into the halls every four or five weeks - a far more common sight.

Extra classes run by teachers correspondingly means fewer clubs and activities run by teachers - but as there's a seven page risk assessment for each child we take on a trip outside the school gates, and trips still remain unpaid, I'd assume out of school activities are plummeting from the radar in most establishments.

This is matched by a growing parental culture of fear and distrust about children - it's a tricky thing to get children away from their solitary playstation after dark, as most parents (more absentee / working than in my day) assume murder/abduction/worse awaits on every darkened streetcorner for any school aged child.

Better to shut them in with a satellite cable or a net connection.

Oh dear, I think I'm depressing myself.

Merry Christmas. See you in the bright New Year.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The horrors of delivering a unit of GCSE certificated coursework that forms 10% of students' final grades, and must be delivered through group work in a mixed ability set.

I decided to be realistic. Explained that a group depends upon its members for its grade. That if they were in a group with students who truant, mess around, or refuse to work to speed, there's a direct dampening of all group memebers' GCSE grade. Asked them if they'd prefer to negotiate their own groupings, or have me decide unilaterally who works with whom.
They voted unanimously for self-selected groups. They select their groups, and inevitably, five students are left alone and quietly staring at their feet, plus another six who are absent.
This means I get to divide up the non-attendees, and the - frankly - more useless of the students, so they're fairly spread.

Cue a long thirty minutes negotiating with well behaved, motivated students, to accept the presence of absentees, idiots, and shirkers.

There are only five video editing suites on which we can create the coursework. No room to do anything else.

There must be a fairer way to do this.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

This, this is BRILLIANT: American Rhetoric. While looking for speeches about / regarding the war in Iraq, I uncovered this place, which was able to furnish me with rhetoric from all prime participants, rather than merely those on 'our' side.

An online speech database, with sound files of each speech included, that covers current affairs generously, and allows speeches from movies into its remit. If I have to teach this sort of decontextualised stuff (how many adults actually give speeches? Once a lifetime, perhaps?), then I'm damned if I'm going to do it without a little liveliness.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

It's raining on the last week before Christmas.

This means that children with too many jumpy beans to sit still cannot work it off by tearing around the playground screaming and roaring at each other.
They try their best, by tearing around the school building, screaming and roaring at each other, but the inevitable happens - a bell peals, and they are told to go sit still in a dull, faceless room, and listen to the teacher. With no screaming, tearing or roaring.
Which is about as successful as you'd imagine it to be.

Should you be written up to serve a 'break duty' on a rainy day, it is your job to stand for twenty minutes in a wet corridor while 300 children in hoodies attempt to tear past you, screaming and roaring. Your mission, and you have no choice but to accept it, is to stop them, reprimand them, and force them to do the opposite of what they intend: sit quietly in a classroom.
Which leaves them after break with a huge excess of jumpy beans.

A bell peals, and they are told to go sit still in a dull, faceless room, and listen to the teacher. With no screaming, tearing or roaring.
Which, again, is about as successful as you'd imagine it to be.

On top of this, the building is 40 years beyond it's sell by date, and there is rain streaming into buckets heavily in all rooms with external walls. We are encouraged to tear down the strip light-fittings, use string to concoct a mini system of funnels that re-directs the torrent through the nearest window. Occasionally, this requires three strip lights, and four buckets.
Now prevent the children from tearing around the rainwater funnel system. Make them sit down, ignore the huge amount of water splattering across them, and encourage them to write an essay on Victorian attitudes to wealth and inheritance in Great Expectations.
With no screaming, tearing or roaring.
Which, again, is about as successful as you'd imagine it to be.

Rainy days. More frightening than you might think.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Blogger know thyself...

It seems The Blackboard Jungle is the top ranked, nay the only , search result for:


Friday, December 10, 2004

An interesting referral led me to this rather eloquent post about the state of education:
Education has some real problems. Just look at some of the personal education blogs that are floating around here and here. It is hard to imagine many other jobs where professionals work through such harsh conditions. And yet the difference between a successful classroom and a failing one is huge. As any teacher knows, classroom dynamics has a balance point that is tangible. As much as we may fool ourselves, there really isn’t any middle ground. There are only successful coping strategies, disguised as classroom management. And yet all the extra expectations that are thrown into the mix really only serve to water down the ability to break over the top. In military terms, education is suffering a division of force.

What education seems to be based on is reinforcement of weakness. More effort is spent on remediating efforts than on anything else. Obviously education doesn’t work if competency levels get spread too far. This, however, shouldn’t mean that success comes by preventing the spread of competency. And yet, I think this is precisely the (un?)intended consequence of education today. Let’s do things that look like they encourage diversity, but make sure that no spread in society occurs. Eventually intelligent people reach a point where the fundamental axioms of these methods get rejected. To my mind, this is where tribal tendencies start to occur.

The "goth" dogma as I call it seems to be what society really wants – an appearance of uniqueness with rebellion that never makes it out of the old status quo.
Once in a while don’t we eventually have to accept the fact that the evolution of some structures make them counterproductive to their original aims?"
Source: Mo Blo; Problems in Education
I wholeheartedly agree.

Yet ... I can't help thinking there are more variables. Assigned Seat is an American (?) beginning year teacher. Although I have ten years experience, I teach in the English education system, at an inner London state comprehensive school for performing arts.

Does one country ever really have much educational parallel on an international scale? I've swapped classes with colleagues in Bologna and Copenhagen, worked closely with colleagues from (largely) Nigeria and Australia, and I'd say: not at all.

Is the common thread of chaotic motion really comparable beyond such different contexts?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Huseyin's a boy who's difficult to like. He truants regularly, is able to do the work, but prefers not to, upsets other students by throwing pellets of chewed paper at their heads as a vocation, with an unconcerned shrug walks out and disappears, frequently, distrusts teachers (with a native instinct even I have to admire), "doesn't care", repetitively, extends any reprimand with elongated insouciant "whys", and is prone to quite openly egging other students on to misbehave or lie.

He has a knowing, sardonic look that is beyond his years, too. I've seen it in other children over the years.

I can tell you're looking at me with a Dunblane fear in your eyes, now. Please don't worry.
On closer inspection, it's perceptibly a faked look, a camouflage for children who feel an urgent need to test boundaries, again and again and again.

But still, a look which I generally find untrustworthy in children, generally associated with the worst childish vice: liars; a response I feel I have to talk myself out of.
I'm not a Stasi member, I have no right to treat children unfairly, or judge them to be heinous for any particular facial tic. Thus I try to maintain a consistent, meticulous front of 'fair'.

I'm hyper conscious of my mild dislike of Huseyin. I carefully measure any replies, instructions or reprimands, till I've judged them scrupulously fair in relation to the other boys. I make sure I smile when speaking, and offer compliments and praise. Mostly, I'm relatively confident I achieve my aim: I behave rationally and fairly towards the child.

Three sample dialogues this week:
1. Huseyin was affronted that I brought in jelly tots for the class, and offered a handful to each child who'd worked hard (it's a bottom set class in an exam year, and momentum needs more than only academic reinforcement to be maintained). He loudly opined that he didn't want any sweets, that it was a bribe.
Yes, it's a bribe, I smiled.
Twenty minutes later, Huseyin has finished more work than in the preceding thirteen weeks. He looks defiantly at me, saying nothing. I casually walk behind him, and mutter, "and here are yours, Huseyin, okay?" as if he'd asked, as if he'd apologised, as if he hadn't challenged me and refused to back down.
The child takes the sweets.

2. Next lesson, Huseyin worked by his own volition, at half speed, and chatting throughout. A student had spotted me on the PC in the local store. Huseyin looks slyly at me and says he'd "heard" I'd been looking at porn.
James is alerted to a new idea. "Would you do that, miss, would you look at porn?"
A secret smile spreads across Huseyin's face. He's destabilised the lesson again.
Of course not, I smiled. Do you think a teacher would do that? In the local store?
Tommy protests: "but you could, miss. After all, you're an adult." His face wears an expression of reasoned debate, as if he's deduced the logical flaw in my reasoning.
No, Tommy, I don't think any teacher at this school would do that. Even if they are adults.
"Are you married, miss?" asks Huseyin. Again the sly look. Drawing the subject out? Or perhaps that's just his face.
None of your business, boys, let's get on with this project. I smile. Broadly.

3a. Penultimate week of the term and the class get a film as a treat for meeting their deadlines. Huseyin isn't happy - the film requires ten minutes of listening to understand the plot. White Fang is a cutesy puppy movie, essentially, I know my audience, and know they'll settle to it once the first bump is over. Huseyin begins to throw pellets.
After a calm, modulated reprimand, I give Huseyin and some other boys permission to go to Learning Support to do some internet research for his project, facing immediate deadline. He takes the slip silently, not thanking me, but not throwing things or loudly 'not caring', either.
I think I'm doing okay, but it turns out I *AM* the Stasi. Look at the levels of cold manipulation in the next dialogue that occurred, and see just which direction they're consistently coming from.
3b. Thirty minutes on, and Huseyin slinks back into the room, alone. He sits quietly at the back. I whisper to him a question. (no audience means no showboating)
"I got sent out of Learning Support."
Why? Did something happen? (no-blame statement)
"Nothing! I did nothing! She just said 'I'm keeping my eye on you'! For nothing!"
Do you know that teacher from another time? (inviting elaboration, but allowing grunt responses)
"No! I never saw her before! She didn't tell off no other boys, too, just me."
Gosh, really? That's very odd. Did she think you were someone else? (allow leeway for student to be partially exonerated, to prompt full confession)
"No! All I did was go on the computer games."
Did something happen? (Doubtful tone, non-judgemental stance)
"She didn't tell none of them off. Alls I said was 'why'?"
Ohhh. So it was just you. Just your reputation, then? It's not particularly nice if you have a reputation, is it? (eventually bring the dialogue back around to moral choices, non-threateningly)
"Yeah... !"
Did you have an overdue book? (backtrack, and remind him of privileges)
"Well, and I did swear at her a bit. Just told her to fuck off. That's all!"
Oh. I see.
Sorry. At that point, I really couldn't stop myself from giggling, and had to turn away.
Injured innocence always humanises them in the end.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The circle of wildly splashing blame reaches so wide in this article, that it's difficult not to read it as a tautology.
Schools to blame for children who hate books

"The "unacceptable" failure of many schools to teach children to read properly is laid bare today in a damning report from education watchdog Ofsted.
Under-achieving children are being "let down by the system" despite a decade of attempts to force schools to improve the teaching of reading.
Teachers in the worst schools are often too ready to blame parents for not caring enough to make sure their children read at home, Ofsted said. But the best schools make no excuses for under-achievement, even if most pupils do not speak English as their first language.


The main failings that Ofsted highlights today include:

# Too many teachers still do not know how to teach reading properly, despite the introduction of the national literacy strategy six years ago.
# Too many headteachers know too little about how reading should be taught, and fail to ensure their staff apply the best techniques consistently.
# Many schools do not encourage children to read for pleasure, even when they are good at it. Most of the schools do not see this as a problem.
# The gap between the best and worst readers is among the highest in the industrialised world by the age of 10
# Children who fall behind often end up with a hatred for reading, making it much more difficult for them to improve later on.


Many of their observations make for depressing reading.
One spoke to a boy of eight who was already below the level expected for his age. The inspector wrote: "I pick up the book and ask if we can read this one together. He hesitates and looks away, turning his face. He picks up the book a few minutes later and tries to read the title. He spells the word and sounds out each letter but cannot blend them.
"He is frustrated and says, 'I don't know the cover, how can I read it?'"
After more frustration and "wild" guesses, the inspector recorded: "He gives up and says that he is rubbish and can never read."
The incompetence of schools that do not teach reading well enough drags down children who pick up reading quickly, Ofsted said.
One seven- year- old girl told inspectors she was not allowed to read books outside the school's reading scheme. Because they were so easy, she finished them at home in a couple of days."

[NB. Bitter experience teaches me that everything in education is political, and so I should mention that the source organ has political leanings which contradict those of the current elected government, and an election is beginning to loom].

While the blame is being shared, showered, shrugged and shuffled out of, I feel duty bound to point out that every secondary school at which I've worked has contained an English department which has been instructed by its borough Literacy Advisor not to teach whole texts [aka fiction / novels] more than once a year, and to ditch 'private reading'.

We are left stymied by a curriculum that currently has me spend seven weeks at a time teaching children to write: instructions, explanations, reports, different types of letter.

It's difficult to create any interest in such a restrictive curriculum.

Moreover, it's disempowering to children to make their diet of fiction so bland and weak.

Fiction is not a life-skill, not a job-qualification. As a source of inspiration and a means of viewing the world through new eyes, it's unquantifiable. As a means of instilling empathy, too.
What fiction also excels in is functioning as a delivery system for literacy.

Ofsted and the so-called Literacy Strategy share some of the blame and shame that this report should - quite rightly - trigger.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The principal of my school hands me a faintly photocopied booklet on the AST programme, urging me to sign over my soul. I'm trying to take it seriously, but some lines simply tumble from the page.

The 2002 document incorporates, of course, a FAQ, because ASTs are too stupid to simply read unadulterated text:
"How do I know that this isn't just another passing fad?"
"The Government is committed to increasing the number of ASTs. Over time it is anticipated that ASTs will represent 3-5% of the teaching population."
This would be the scheme I've been advised to apply for NOW, as it's being cut after Christmas, would it?

"Personal motivation: ASTs have the opportunity to become involved in areas that transcend the traditional bounds of teachers, providing a whole new set of personal and professional challenges that build on and exploit your existing strengths."
VERY excited about being allowed to transcend my traditional bounds. In fact, should very much like to be endowed with the power to leap walls at a single bound, see around two corners at once, in different directions, summon invisibility at will, and eat both pudding and main course in the same mouthful.

However, if the bestowing of non-traditional 'bounds' is to also involve 'exploiting' me, I'd like at least the right to sell my story to the NOTW, like any other government-hired slapper.

Long sigh.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Another blogger posits that there are two political perceptions of the world:
"a politics teacher once told us, that the basic difference between the political left and the political right is that the left believe that people (by which I mean the general populus, rather than the people in power) are inherently good, and that it is bad leadership / rules of society / corruption that can make them bad, whereas the right believe that people are inherently bad and that only rules, punishment and (usually material) incentives can make them good."

Alvin Toffler, however, posits that school teaches you three things:

To be Punctual.

To be Obedient.

To perform Repetitive Tasks Uncomplainingly.

These are the skills needed by the Military-Industrial Complex not only to mass produce useless goods with built in obsolescence, but also to fight their dirty wars.

That time of year. I have to teach Marxist critical theory again. Can you tell?

Friday, December 03, 2004

What annoys me about teaching adults, apart from the fact they're neither as cute, nor creative, nor as naughty as children, is that they know how to answer back.

Britain's fifty years deep in the throes of a cultural addiction to 'evaluation' forms. Every seminar, every meeting, every interaction seems to end with you or someone else being evaluated on a scrap of useless paper. Particularly useless, as the person who receives your evaluation is often the person evaluated. Crap presentation? Well, what would you do?

When I give seminars to local teachers, not only do I have to take the evaluations in, I have to count and average the totals, summarise the central complaints or successes, then file a report on the loathsome things.
Given a choice, I'd refuse to even look at them, so it's a dispiriting experience. (though I've never yet had a bad evaluation, touch wood.)

Imagine all those hours of preparation, to be handed a sheet that summarily brands you 'satisfactory'?
Perhaps this is a flavour of how it feels to be unfairly judged, or judged on 'effort', that nebulous quality we rattle off in students reports all the time.

Trepidation, and some sweets helped me sit down, yesterday, to count my score.
0% 'poor'.
0% 'disappointing'.
0% 'satisfactory'
20% 'extremely useful'.
80% 'excellent'.

Only criticism: 'should have lasted longer than the normal two hours'.

Wow. I rule.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

This week, the Peter Principle has me pounding my forehead against the walls in frustration.

The local council asks me to deliver a training seminar to all the first year teachers in the area. They will not pay me for delivery, on the principle that I am already paid for teaching during those hours (although I'm not), but will allow me to charge money for the time spent preparing.
Hence, one over prepares, of course.

Today, three hours before the seminar was due to begin, I was summarily informed that the school's supply requirements are substantial today, and I could not be allowed offsite cover to go to the seminar.

"You do understand that I'm not attending the seminar, don't you? That I'm delivering it?"


"Why is the cover requirement so heavy today?"

All the first year teachers are out on a training seminar this afternoon, so there's no-one to cover your lessons.

"And who do you think is going to train them?"

In order to be paid for the fourteen hours of work I've already put into preparing this seminar (thankfully run as a self-directed unit), I have to rush to a neighbouring school, leave equipment and instructions out on the desk, and hope staff take any notice of them, and rush back here to teach.

While simultaneously hoping these staff from schools all across the borough don't notice what school has shot itself in the foot quite so publicly.

Students I expect to find priorities difficult to grasp, to make mistakes in how they frame a request or demand, to err on the side of short termism in their planning. Adults are more difficult to forgive.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

As I sit, leafing through local newspapers, looking for examples of ridiculously over the top bias to present to a seminar of training teachers tomorrow, I hear a voice pipe up behind me: "hello miss!"
Adrian, a generally good humouredly naughty tearaway from school is hitting the store's Easy Internet screens, looking for gaming cheats. I say hi, and turn back to my skimming.
"Miss, are you our teacher, now?"
Beg pardon?
"We're not at school, so are you our teacher?"
I'm a little confused by the question, frankly.
"If we start doing something bad, if we start swearing, will you tell us off?"

I begin to wonder if this is something like a DJ doing requests. Is he asking me to reprimand him? For what?

I inform Adrian that once he's no longer in school uniform, he's a private citizen, as am I, and as such, I have little compunction to tell him off for any reason.

A beat.

If, however, he were to bring the name of my school, or himself into disrepute by committing any disreputable, illegal or embarrassing act, then - as a private individual - I would be quite prepared to tell him off.

But he'd never do anything so disreputable as to start swearing in public, would he...?

"Of course not, miss."

Truce achieved.