So results are out and everyone is talking about them. Sadly, a lot of the talking is doing very little for the education system in this country. Why? Mainly because we are teaching our students that if you get a lower result than expected you don’t pause, seriously reflect on your own preparation and effort and then calmly deal with the consequences. On the contrary, you moan, wail and attack anyone and use the resultant chaos to push the blame anywhere but yourself . Or even more extreme, you start an actual protest and start waving placards around.
First of all I should make it clear I do absolutely agree that changing the grade boundaries for the English GCSE half way through the year is categorically unfair… But as for the rest of the slightly lower pass results? I think it’s just another sign that we need to stop teaching to the exam in clear desperation to get good school standings.
Out of all the students who got a D grade, I wonder how many could put their hand on their heart and say they had worked as hard as they possibly could? As one honest student admitted to ‘The Guardian’ “What it comes down to is I didn’t try hard enough in my revision.”
Yes, I am disappointed that some of my students didn’t get their predicted C grade. Do I feel that they were ‘betrayed by Michael Gove’ so that their lives are ‘destroyed’ by unfair marking? No, I think that they didn’t put as much effort into their controlled assessments as they should have done and probably shouldn’t have spent the odd lesson scribbling notes in their journal, chipping off their nail varnish and, heaven help us, trying to read ’50 Shades of Dire’ under the desk instead of doing their work. Even those students who worked hard and seemed on course for a C weren’t necessarily able to write using correct sentences or communicate clearly. They were still on course for a C grade and the fact that they didn’t get one is, although disappointing, probably exactly right. It’s not that they didn’t get what they deserved, it’s more that they didn’t quite deserve one in the first place. Not if we want to have a future workforce who can read and write to an acceptable standard.
This isn’t necessarily the students’ fault of course: it’s an education system that prioritises league table standings over individual students and schools that consider it their responsibility to teach towards a C grade rather than enable them to join the literate world.
Some schools also seem to be operating within a culture of entitlement, so students are regularly told that everyone can achieve a C. And they have numerous examples in the years above where Bob, the token non-attending, belligerant and lazy lump comes out with a C because he is gently coached through again and again by a despairing teacher until he scrapes a C without ever learning how to actually think. What, may I ask, is the point of the other grades then? If all students should get a C, then an A grade becomes little more than a bit above average.
Dr. Martin Stephen talked on Sunday about the education system being ‘obsessed with feeling hard-done-by’ and he couldn’t be more painfully accurate. A o.4% drop in pass rate and all too many headteachers are wildly declaiming that we have been robbed, abused, betrayed and let down. Really? I know school percentages have a massive impact and I wonder how much of this outrage is generated by real concern for students and how much is actually down to the school’s standing as a result of poor grades. Instead of hiding fearfully behind outrage, those headteachers should be looking at how we prepare students for exams and consider why it is that the slightest change in formula leaves some students unable to adapt their rehearsed answers.
What many people seem to be ignoring in favour of dramatic and emotive headlines is that ( aside from the unjustifiable change to English Language) GCSE grades should be more difficult to achieve. It will force schools to stop teaching to the exam and ensure students have to apply ideas rather than simply regurgitate set pieces of information. People are arguing that the Literature GCSE was marked ‘too harshly’ and is too difficult for students today. I was initially pleased with my class who achieved 43% A* grades. Not one was predicted an A*, and many were only predicted Bs. Some of those students are wonderful, but to be brutally honest, they aren’t quite at that stand-out level implied by an A*. If they got an A*, it not only devalues those who are genuinely exceptional, but all the other grades as well. I have been in teaching less than a decade but I can honestly say there is no way those students would be considered A* level five years ago. It’s not just results that have gone down – more worryingly, it’s expectations.
Rod Liddle in ‘The Sunday Times’ went further; he argues that ‘a large block of cheddar cheese could get at least a C grade in GCSE English’.
Valid? Not quite. Whilst both cheese and students can be slightly sweaty, have a unique ability to ignore anything they don’t want to hear and share a lack of empathy with the world outside their immediate person, that’s as far as the metaphor goes. For example, I haven’t yet found a lump of cheese that can surprise me (and I don’t count the mouldy bit that somehow always appears in my fridge – it has happened often enough that we’re old friends) or jump from lethargic apathy to astonishing insight in the space of a few seconds. If our students are not succeeding it is because we haven’t got the system right.
But even students who are disappointed in their results can enjoy one of the best things about the teaching world: we get two New Years Days. An extra chance to start afresh and set all our new year goals. Students can take any exam disappointment and use it to start their term knowing that they have to work their hardest and that they won’t just be handed their target grade regardless. Teachers can rejoice in their shiny new stationary, stack up their board pens in nice tidy piles, sharpen pencils, arrange desk space, have folders and markbooks organised and know that everything is where it should be for at least one day of the academic year. Display boards will be refreshingly free of insightful comments such as ‘JH is a nob’ and anatomically impossible phallic symbols, moving chairs won’t result in slightly stale chewing gum getting under your finger nails and exercise books won’t yet have acquired that slightly damp texture from being stuffed under a leaking lunchbag each day. And in this fresh new start, everyone involved in education gets the chance to make new resolutions to replace the ones we abandoned after only a few weeks in January.
So this week I have bought new stationary, colour-coded my timetable, organised my planner, imagined the shiny new lessons and made my resolutions.
1. To keep my marking up to date
2. Offer a solution rather than a complaint.
Last year I made it until November – this time I’m aiming to get to Christmas.
I only hope Michael Gove, head teachers, exam boards, everyone who has any say in education policies do the same and make this school year the year education becomes less about result tables and statistics and more about enabling students.
Dear Mr Gove,
I spent my Friday night on the same dance floor as about 200 year 11 students. Before outraged calls to child protection services start flooding in, I should probably not only clarify that I was at the Year 11 prom and it was for photos, but also that it was a comically awkward moment for all concerned.
Being there and watching some wonderful young people celebrate their success on a Friday night is not something I am contracted to do. It isn’t part of my job description or even something that is particularly encouraged (except by the students who beg some of their teachers to attend). But as I stood on the dance floor and looked around I found myself feeling sad that only one senior management member had turned up to say goodbye to the students.
The almost irresistible move towards data led assessment seems to be leaving us with production line schools where having sat their exams, students simply cease to exist. Data driven expectations have taken some management figures so far away from students as individuals that they no longer form much of a relationship with them, making it all too easy to see students as some kind of product to be sent along the assembly line.
And why is that a bad thing? Factories are organised and streamlined with each person knowing their place and everyone working towards the same final product. Once the machines are well assembled and trial runs completed, time and time again your finished product will come out exactly as you planned and expected.
The only problem with this scenario is that it can be a struggle to get students to sit in a seat for 50 minutes, let alone stay neatly on said production line as they are bumped and jostled from one station to the next. If it takes me asking three times for Alfie to write down the date, imagine the jam he would create on the travelator as he refuses to glide smoothly from a D to a C grade.
There is, quite frankly, a whole world of issues with attempting to turn schools into assembly lines but let’s stick to two key ones: how does it affect students when their results have an importance far beyond their own needs and, more importantly, what the impact of such target driven assessment will be on schools.
What does this dependence on results do to students?
Everyone is concerned with exams getting easier: maybe some teachers are giving in to pressure, spoon-feeding our students and teaching purely to pass exams. I know a few students who could quote and analyse the opening and closing chapters from ‘Of Mice and Men’ in great detail. The rest of the text? Not a clue. It passed over their heads in a short haze of preparation for their essay question, set specifically because it allowed students to only refer to limited sections of the text. And apparently, this is fine.
It’s a bit like being a ringmaster and taming a lion. You can safely put your head in its mouth as long as you ring a bell every time. The audience love the show as it is so you never bother working out to get rid of the bell. Which becomes a bit of a problem when you pass the lion to another circus (an employer maybe) and the lion goes merrily on its way, crushing as many heads as it chooses because it hasn’t actually been tamed, just programmed to respond to one set situation.
Vicky, who sat her controlled assessment a week ago, used a semi colon, a colon and an embedded clause correctly, causing me to do an undignified victory dance as I marked. It wasn’t until the next lesson when I realised the victory dance was massively premature.
“If you’re not sure about that colon Sam, ask Vicky. She’s our punctuation master at the moment.” An awkward silence spread around the room as Vicky looked blankly around. It turned out that Vicky not only couldn’t help Sam check he had used a colon correctly, but didn’t even remember that it was called a colon. When I pointed out she had used two perfectly in her assessment three days before, she smiled happily “Well, that’s ok then.” No, no it’s not. Students cannot become used to learning just for exams. Sadly, unless the sentence ‘The Go Compare man is annoying: he should be banned from television’ comes up in a work document, I doubt she’ll ever use a colon again.
I know the media find statistics an easy thing to grasp and turn into some kind of comment on education, but is it really worth sacrificing independent and effective learning for a few inches in a paper? All the strategies that schools implement in order to reach desired percentages make students lazy and unable to work independently. Constant re-sits and endless extra sessions might well get the school its number of A- C grades, but they aren’t helping Timmy be a competent adult.
In ten years time we’ll have builders who leave out walls because “no-one reminded me there should be four”, policemen who “thought I could arrest them next week instead- today was quite tiring”, teachers who do nothing all lesson because “I can just do it again tomorrow” and lawyers who don’t answer questions because “they weren’t in my practice answer”. Heaven help you if you need a doctor.
An education needs to be so much more than the ability to respond to set situations. Schools cannot be judged so narrowly if we are to avoid head teachers making decisions based purely on how the result percentages will be affected. And if schools don’t teach young people how to behave, how to think creatively, how to be independent and confident, how to value the contributions of others and how to adapt to a range of situations, then who will?
What will target driven schools be like?
When you want to be somewhere informative, safe and inspiring, where do you go? Probably not a factory. As soothing as the sounds of heavy machinery grinding away are, I really think a school needs to be a little bit different. And I’m not the only one. Experienced, inspirational teachers are sadly leaving the profession as they find that genuinely wanting the best for students is now secondary to churning out the grades management need for the school to be rated highly.
Even with the much-needed new policy that asks for levels of improvement for every child, we will end up with some students being focused on, not because they work harder, care more or need support, but because they fill the right gap in the spreadsheet. Bob might be capable of a B, but if his target is a C, that’s all he will get, because when revision classes are scheduled and one to one support planned, he will already be in the target achieved box and subsequently ignored rather than given chances to improve.
Mr Gove, someone needs to break the dependency on results and accept that there are other intangible but vital aspects to our young peoples’ education, aspects that cannot be assessed by percentages and data.
You aspire to improve the education system; this is one improvement that can’t wait.
Dear Mr Gove,
Teachers seem to be coming under fire all over the place lately. The media doesn’t like us, management doesn’t like us and goodness knows with all the diatribe directed at Mr Gove lately, he (perhaps understandably) doesn’t seem to like us much. In fact, after running back to my classroom after a very wet break duty (in July!) and being greeted by high-pitched laughter and a girl’s voice shrieking “What is that thing on her face?” (I have just had a fringe cut) I started to wonder if anyone liked us very much anymore.
I sat down at my desk, looked wearily at my emails and all the controlled assessments coming up, and considered for the first time if I liked teaching anymore.
And then I realised that I needed to man up and remember that my job is amazing. Not just good, satisfactory or sufficient to pay the bills: amazing.
If you don’t believe me or can’t remember why right now, here are seven reasons why being a teacher is the best job ever.
1. Students will provide the most entertaining and creative excuses you will ever hear. Forget ‘the dog ate my homework’ because modern students have gone far and beyond that in desperately trying to justify the fact that they didn’t do their homework/classwork. In the last month alone I’ve been told:
- I tried to do it but my dad had an important meeting so he needed my pen and we only have one in the house.
- It was in my bag and the bus driver stole my bag. (The very bag that she was carrying at the time we had this discussion.)
But my absolute favourite excuse for not doing work was from a year 11 student just days before his GCSE exam. His practise essay was a few paragraphs in when it suddenly stopped mid-sentence. I already had a few acid comments prepared when I turned the paper over and saw a detailed sketch of Boromir from The Lord of the Rings and the words ‘One does not simply finish an essay’. Absolute genius.
2. Life will always be unpredictable. If someone had asked me on Friday morning to describe the day ahead, I would have neglected to mention a child turning up as the lesson ended and doing press-ups in the doorway because he was ‘just so hench’. But that’s precisely what happened and I still don’t really know why. The inevitable bundle that followed as two of my class leapt on top of him was slightly easier to predict.
3. Spending an hour watching lego versions of Pride and Prejudice on youtube is a perfectly legitimate use of your time. Even a few ‘angry koala’ or ‘running duckling’ clips are justifiable when doing a lesson on similes or suchlike. And yes, when your boyfriend comes home and asks what you have been doing you can absolutely still sigh tiredly and say ‘just working’.
4. You get to play games at work. So if you fancy running a murder investigation by marking out a dead body with masking tape, putting police tape across your door, making detective badges and preparing fake DNA evidence before you read a Conan Doyle story, you can. Admittedly the first time I tried it, every suspect wanted to be guilty so did everything in their power to be the one arrested, but at least they were all excited about the story.
5. After months of behaviour management strategies implemented with pain-staking care, you might well be rewarded with that elusive school equivalent of a medal of honour: the slight nod of the head from one of your difficult students as they walk past you in the corridor. A tiny gesture for them: a massive break-through for you. Definitely a glass of wine with dinner night.
6. Instead of working in a cramped or soulless office, you get to create your own workspace. If that workspace needs to include wooden swords, Viking helmets, Churchill posters and a massive map of the world, then so be it. What other job allows you to bring in a six foot dinosaur to decorate the back of your room?
7. Every single day you get to introduce students to the subject that you love. You get to immerse yourself in words and writing, and even better, you get to bring students with you. You get to watch them become Frankenstein explaining his obsession with creating life, Henry V about to fight at Agincourt, even Curley’s wife as she regrets her lost dreams. You have the power to make a child’s life better in some way. Over the course of just one day, about 150 students will enter your classroom and those 150 children will make you smile at least once in a lesson (yes, even the more annoying ones). I bet that’s more genuine smiling than your average city worker gets in a day.
So, yes the politics and management structures suck, the marking is long and you’ll probably be spoken to rudely at least once a week, but nothing will leave you more inspired, exhilarated and exhausted than teaching.
Life, fellow teachers, is good.
Teachers, Mr Gove, are in your hands.
Dear Mr Gove,
How well do you remember your PE lessons at school? Because as some of my tutor group grumbled off to P.E. this morning, it not only struck me that PE can be a distinctly unfair lesson, but also that it can pretty much sum up many of the systems within teaching. There are plenty of opportunities for unfairness while the noticeably overweight PE teacher has their back turned, just as a whole world of injustice goes on as management and government ministers are busy watching the other end of the pitch.
Comments from the side-lines
A few weeks ago I had to explain to a generally high-flying tutee and his perplexed mother why he received a shockingly low grade in PE. He was a keen member of the school football team and played cricket occasionally for the county, but clearly his PE teacher had found some flaw in his athletic ability.
Every so often, you meet the kind of parent who swiftly gains an almost mythical status. The kind of parent who refuses point blank to accept that their wonderful child could possibly be responsible for trying to set fire to the school, despite the lighter found in their pocket, the three people who saw them start it and the CCTV footage that clearly shows them in the corridor, lit paper ball in hand. (Yes, that really happened.) Thankfully, this particular parent was far from that level…
“So was there anything in Ben’s report that you were worried about?”
She leaned forward, gazed concernedly into my eyes and, with the kind of expression one might use to utter your final words upon your deathbed, said: “Ben didn’t eat his dinner last night”.
“Oh. Right…” (I mean, honestly, where do you go from here?)
“Not one scrap” she continued earnestly. At this point, it became fairly clear that a response was not only expected, but the lack of one was starting to cause slight aggravation.
“Had something happened?” I ventured hopefully.
“Yes. Yes it had.”
Silence. I flailed around somewhat desperately for a question that might give me a clue as to what was going on. Mum became increasingly livid as the conversation continued, until she was almost spitting the list of cricket and football matches Ben had played in, and just at the point where I thought things were going to get distinctly unpleasant, I asked the one question that clarified everything: “What have you been doing in PE this term?”
“Dance. And I hate it.”
Mum leapt in, clinging to the belief that the world of education was not truly that ridiculous: “But his report doesn’t just reflect that does it? It can’t be that unfair”.
In education these days…yes, yes it can.
As a teacher, I can tell you now I know everything there is to know about jumping through hoops. There might be a certain amount of box-ticking and pointless paperwork in every job role, but let me save you some time here– if we made it the new Olympic sport, not only would teachers bring home the gold, silver and bronze medals, there wouldn’t be space for anyone else on the squad.
Prior to being inspected by Ofsted (and I’ve had that pleasure twice in the last four years) the schools’ emergency meetings were not about reminding us to teach outstanding lessons, but to get all the paperwork done properly. I had no forum to explain all the things that I implement to improve my teaching, but I did have a wealth of paperwork to complete that necessitated a trip to the local take-away and staying at school until ten in the evening when the caretaker wearily kicked our department out and sent us home.
I’d hope that telling your gymnastic coach that not only did you draw a complicated backflip on two different kinds of paper and analyse each movement in excruciating detail, but you also made three spreadsheets, each with a different colour coding system to show exactly how you hypothetically intend each part of the move to go, would count for very little.
But in teaching, if you play the game well, such spreadsheet ability (management love a spreadsheet) can guarantee you a free pass to the winner’s enclosure, way above the gymnast who spent their time actually doing the backflip in the first place.
In a job that revolves around shaping the way our next generation’s lives will go, this seems more than a little ridiculous. Ben may not be able to dance but he definitely knows how to turn a phrase: “It’s not fair. I think it’s stupid”.
Leap-frog has never really appealed to me as a game. The fortunate child lines up and away they go, leaping gleefully through the air, revelling in the brief moments where they are no longer forced to trudge along the ground like the rest of us. But let’s spare a thought for the children who obediently brace themselves, blindly trusting that everything will work out fine. Somewhere out there, probably wandering casually through M&S as they select their evening vegetables, is the headteacher who came up with the ludicrous idea of leap-frogging naughty children up to the top sets in the same joyfully selfish manner.
Setting in senior school is not just a good idea: it is categorically the only way to ensure all students have the best opportunities. However, as obvious as it sounds, setting is supposed to be by academic skill rather than by the ability to sit and carve swear words into the desks with a carefully sharpened compass. Try asking little Jimmy to pack up his exercise book and pencil case as he sits awaiting his lesson with earnest anticipation so that he can walk along the corridor to a lower set. Then try doing it while the undeserving lout replacing him shoves past the now justifiably outraged Jimmy and throws himself into a chair before announcing to the disconcerted class “This is a f***ing joke. I’m not doing any work anyway”.
Let’s not forget that every student in a top set has worked hard to get there and demonstrated real skill at the subject. So when management make the controversial and inherently lazy decision to throw a child who struggles with simple punctuation issues into a room with the high-flyers of the school, at the expense of another hard-working and dedicated student, it isn’t only the parents who dream fondly of slapping them with some kind of sea creature.
What does this kind of management teach students? Break every rule in the book, swear at teachers, truant lessons, make it absolutely clear that you have no respect for anyone in the school, and you will get to laugh in the face of someone who has worked hard for their place as you shove them aside and take their seat. Are people really surprised that we have some young people living insular and selfish lives when many school systems pander and inexcusably encourage their initial steps on the road to such a life?
This, Mr Gove, is one of the education issues that need your attention; you may be busy at the other end of the pitch, but that’s what referees need linesmen for. Consider us teachers your goal-line technology.
Dear Mr Gove,
As a teacher who fully supports your intention of establishing ‘world-class education in this country’, may I offer an insight into the daily lives of the children whose lives you have such power over? The one thing you need to understand is that you are dealing with people who aren’t yet fully on planet Earth.
Let me introduce you to a typical session with my tutor group…
My goodness you’ll learn some stuff from a tutor group. Not necessarily things you ever thought you needed to know, but interesting nevertheless. I know Justin Bieber’s birthday better than some of my friends. (Sorry guys!) I know how many people have ever died from ‘eating so much they just, like, blow up!’ I know how many times Mark Wright cheated on Lauren and how I can get a free lunch in Greggs (although that one prompted a pointed discussion about lying).
Survival tips have also been shared in the twenty minutes before lessons begin. When each one of my tutees shared a fact about themselves, one mentioned that cats try to kill people. He was deadly serious.
“It’s true, Miss. Cats are evil. They wait until you’re asleep and then they claw your neck, but only a little bit so you don’t wake up, and then they eat your blood.”
If he hadn’t been standing in front of me, face concerned and anxious, I’d have been sure it was a joke. This was a boy who had been permanently excluded from another school, tried to steal from a teacher’s handbag and had, only a few days earlier, squared up to a group of year 11 boys over a comment in the canteen (forgetting the fact that he is not much over five feet).
Even now, despite all the insults from his friends, this boy is adamant that cats are simply murderers in the making and the best way to survive having one in your house is to sleep on a blue pillow. Why? Cats don’t like water.
Another day I got them to write down one thing they wanted to be achieve by the end of the term. Ambitions ranged from ‘not get more than 3 detentions a week’ to ‘kill Joe on xbox’ to my personal favourite: ‘fly a plane’. Someone wanted to eat every kind of pizza and one girl wanted to be in Harry Potter. When I mentioned that the films were all finished, she looked at me as you would someone completely mentally deficient and said “Not in one of the films, in the place.”
We did a news round-up the week that Somali pirates were hitting the headlines, which resulted in a fairly thoughtful discussion about why people could end up in that position and what should happen to them. A surprisingly astute conversation that addressed the morality of piracy continued, until that is, a dismissive girl’s voice piped up at the back. “But surely it’s easy to beat them now? I mean we have all these guns and stuff and they only have those stupid bent sword things…”
And these are only a few of the incredibly naïve, occasionally frustrating but mainly inspiring people whose lives you can alter with your policies.
Please look after them.
Dear Mr Gove,
Whilst you worry about the paperwork and league tables that will secure your party positive press, teachers are, on a daily basis, facing numerous hazards far more intimidating than a drop in polls.
Teaching probably doesn’t resonate as one of the more dangerous professions. It’s no Artic sea fishing or carnivore hygenist . But it has its hazards. For example…
One of my more ‘special’ (and by special I mean take ‘special’ care with these students: they may bite. Or throw pens (at each other), books (on the floor), the occasional chair (across the room on a good day, at you on a bad day), attempt to burn down their classroom, try to sell you drugs etc. ) students was walking past as I drove out of the school grounds and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him make some kind of movement.
Work as a teacher for more than a month and instinct will tell you that the best response to unexpected movement is to move sharply to one side. Just in case. Nine times out of ten it will be an overly enthusiastic stretch or merely an attempt to impale a fellow student with a poker fashioned out of your lovingly prepared worksheet. The one time in ten, it is a mis-aimed rubber or similar missile that will undoubtedly cause well-intentioned but hysterical laughter when it accidentally hits you in the face.
This time, it was merely a two finger gesture (No, all my students don’t hate me; we had done Henry V and the V sign that day), but instinct took over and I flinched to the left. Sadly, my hands were on the steering wheel at the time, and the lamppost by the kerb had a very close shave, as my tank of a car veered wildly towards it. Jerking to a stop, my car was rapidly surrounded by what seemed to be a whole year group of teenagers, all chuckling openly and some, more worryingly, using their phones to film what was ( I still hope) just the boring aftermath of what could have been decent school gossip for at least a week. A year later, to some students I was still the teacher who “drove like a retard”.
And that’s by no means the most embarrassing moment…
Finding the Right Equipment
Sporting enthusiasts always tell you the importance of breaking in new shoes. As someone who climbed (painfully) up Kilimanjaro in brand shiny new walking boots, you would think I had learned my lesson. And yet, I still found myself lying across the doorway of not one, but two classrooms, as about 60 year 11 students laughed hysterically at my feeble efforts to regain my dignity.
It wasn’t one of those fairly dramatic and therefore shocking falls either – that at least would have inspired some sympathy and concern. No, it was a slapstick, gradual affair as my foot got caught in the (ever so beautiful) hazardous detailing on my other shoe. Yes, I fell over my own foot. With a fair amount of squealing and doorframe grabbing on the way down as I landed face down on the floor. Try recovering from that.
I certainly didn’t. In fact, it was a good minute or two, as teachers’ heads poked out the office to check out the source of unrestrained amusement erupting from two classrooms, before I could even stop laughing myself. I tried, unsuccessfully, to restore some kind of order and complete a sentence as tears filled my eyes. It was with my top-set class who are luckily the kind of class who won’t use things like that to destroy you; unluckily, they are also the kind of class who know how to dish out the banter. We didn’t get through much that lesson.
But by far the worst hazard in teaching is the inevitable cross-over from teaching life to personal life. I have come close to being hit around the head with the contents of a heavy shopping bag when I forgot where I was and told off a small child who was destroying a shopping display in Tesco’s, and whose parent was nowhere in sight.
As the unfortunate display of Cadbury’s fingers was gleefully kicked over, and a smirk of delight crept across said child’s face, I didn’t even think. “Put those back right now!” I instructed, in that universal teacher voice that develops over years of trying to prevent glue fights and suchlike on a Friday afternoon. The child flinched, and bent uncertainly to pick up one of the boxes when a different voice cut in sharply.
“He’s playing. What’s your problem?”
I’m sure there are plenty, but at that moment, my main problem was probably the fact that her child was now kicking the biscuit boxes towards my feet. I could have stood my ground and explained calmly why little Tommy shouldn’t be allowed to entertain himself by pulling down someone else’s hard…well, maybe not hard, but work nonetheless.
However, the rage was building in his mother’s eyes and she wasn’t done attacking me yet. “If you want ‘em put back, you can bloody do it”. In a classroom situation you take for granted the fact that a child, no matter how difficult, will stop themselves before they actually grab the nearest object and smash it over your head. Here, I felt the lack of such security and cowardly scuttled backwards, imagining packets of biscuits being thrown hysterically at my head. “I…just feel sorry for the people who work here and…” As she moved forward, like a slightly enraged rhinoceros, jerking her heavily laden shopping basket upwards, I gave up and backed away, trying not to break eye contact in the hopes it would, as in safari adventures, prevent the hostile animal attacking. It did…just.
I even once found myself phrasing a letter to whichever company produce my shampoo to complain about their poor grammar on the bottle. Apostrophes are honestly quite a simple concept, and yet they managed to get it wrong twice in one tiny, poorly written paragraph. I am not, as you might expect from reading that statement, a 90 year old crone with nothing better to do. When you’re a teacher, being under 30 is no protection from the occasional bout of acting like some kind of Victorian school mistress.
Danger money level? Not quite. But teaching has its hazards. Mr Gove could be just another one of them.
Tell someone you’re a teacher and you used to invariably get one of two responses: “I wish I had your holidays” or “You’re brave.”
The first deserves only a cursory point: the holiday situation is, they might be pleased to learn, not unique to myself or others currently employed in education. Were they to go through the necessary training and become a teacher, they too would receive those magical 13 weeks of holiday a year. Indeed, to many teachers’ embarrassment it is all too easy to get into the profession and therefore if they wish for those holidays so badly, it seems pretty obvious what they could do. And yet, there I stand, watching their smile gain a smug air of superiority, as we agree that in fact they are not a teacher and so don’t get the same holidays as me. Perhaps that’s part of the testing system to become a teacher: if you can’t work out how this goes, you’re possibly not the best person to teach the next generation.
The second response deserves more credence (and possibly less sarcasm), as the idea of going into school being like going into battle is something I imagine most teachers can relate to. Arriving at school each morning is not so much charging onto a battlefield, it’s controlling a hostile state. The war is over: we are supposedly the party in power. But it’s by no means time to throw away the bullet-proof clothing or dismantle the siege weapons.
Each morning starts with a sense of determination and the idealistic belief that today will be the day that every hostile citizen roaming the corridors will be turned. Equipment has been checked, and double-checked, the battle strategy has been planned, reserve forces are prepared and back-up systems are in place. No soldier has ever been more meticulous in his preparation for battle than a PCGE student teaching a one hour lesson. But what you quickly learn after the first few terms of service, is that you can’t ever predict where the next attack will come from. Moving around the classroom is like negotiating a field of discarded landmines, where the most unlikely pupils can turn an exhilarating moment of success into a fight for control of the classroom.
Students are mercurial beings who often go from keen and diligent on Monday, to resentful and disengaged by Tuesday. And if it gets really bad, by Friday you look around the room and see not so much children as gremlins in school uniform, joyfully leaping off the walls and using exercise books for confetti. The pixies in Harry Potter have got nothing on a year 8 class last lesson of the day when let loose on an unfortunate supply teacher. And it doesn’t take much to inspire random crazed behaviour. One major culprit for inspiring gleeful somersaults down the corridor and bundling of smaller children into cupboards is only a slight inconvenience and mild irritant to most normal human beings: rain.
Take my bottom set year nine class only last week. I watched helplessly from the back of the room as an over-confident, cocky student teacher (probably the type who used to smile smugly when meeting teachers for the first time) turned my cheeky but lovely class into a pack of feral animals within a few brief minutes. I’m not saying for one minute that parents don’t know their own children. They do. But they see them one on one or, at worst, within a group of friends. Not one of them experiences the irresistible pack mentality that seizes a child once they smell the fresh blood of a weak teacher. And even worse for the unfortunate student teacher, overly confident and self assured fresh blood. On a rainy day.
You could hear the thought process (bottom set year nine aren’t overly subtle) as anticipation spread around the room. Here, they thought, was someone we can bring down. Someone who needs to be brought down. And when said teacher moved the piles of work around on my desk, messing up my lovingly cultivated in-pile (which every student I teach knows not to touch on pain of me having some kind of nervous breakdown) to sit down casually on the edge of the desk, several faces even turned to me, almost reassuringly. ‘Don’t worry Miss, we got this’. They looked at each other and the fiendish smiles that every experienced teacher fears started to spread around the classroom. A few shared smirks, one or two whispered comments and the class were in agreement: this was an enemy and nothing would satisfy their blood lust but to see her fail, preferably with maximum entertainment factor.
Totally unaware and worryingly self-assured, the PGCE student proceeded to try out various methods to engage the students in her lesson, even committing the most cringe-worthy of them all: being cool. In a world with youtube and media messaging, where the briefest moment of embarrassment is re-played again and again, often set to music and in slow motion (just ask Mr Gove – or youtube him falling over!), the most excruciating, cringe-worthy vision is, and always will be, a teacher trying to be cool.
As we sat and listened to her explanations of knife-crime “Well, when someone stitches you up, and you wanna* get them back, you could either tell the fuzz or try handle it yourself”, I struggled to control my discomfort, as did the students. Time slowed as the universe punished all of us for everything we had ever done wrong by forcing us to watch the most excruciating monologue of all time. As if this painful attempt to show she was just ‘one of the gang’ wasn’t bad enough, she then proceeded to use what I can only assume were supposed to be hip-hop ‘gansta’ style gestures. Cue slightly hysterical and uncomfortable laughter from half the class and silent head shaking from the rest.
Each time she spoke low-level giggling and discussion followed from every direction in the room until it took about five minutes for her to finish some simple instructions. My favourite moment was when they started miaowing. Every few seconds a just too loud to be ignored ‘miaow’ came from one section of the classroom, only to be replaced by a different cat in another area when she turned to confront them. If you weren’t the person turning red at the front of the classroom, it was brilliant. How many teacher training manuals cover what to do when your class turn into cats? Resisting the hypnotic pull of the car-crash style carnage, I began moving around the room, speaking quietly to a few key players to try and limit the damage. A voice cut across the room. “I’ve asked you to get on with your work and some people are not making it easy for you to concentrate. I don’t even like cats”. From that point on, there was no recovery for her.
Eventually realising that no work at all was being done, just a lot of chat (I learned lots about the current series of TOWIE) the PGCE seemed to come to the realisation that the problems with the lesson stemmed not from her, but the low ability of her students. If you ever want to experience the closest reality can get to battling orcs, let a class know you think they are stupid and you’ll very quickly have a snarling, ferocious pack of orc-like creatures in front of you. Even worse, there’s one or two in there who will never, ever forget that moment when a teacher implied they were stupid. So not only have you ruined your lesson, been given several lasting and insulting nicknames and earned the classes’ eternal hatred, but you have also, quite possibly, given a few students a complex that will take a lifetime to get over.
As the trainee teacher slumped, defeated, behind my desk and the class joyfully shoved past each other to escape, I’m pretty sure the once attractive holidays seemed well worth giving up for another career. Any other career. One far away from children. Whatever you think about our holiday time, some people were meant to teach. Others…well they tend to get broken. Sadly, despite the emphasis from Ofsted moving more and more towards good teaching (excellent), heads and senior management seem to be increasingly interpreting that to mean paperwork that justifies poor teaching. So it is exactly this kind of trainee teacher who gets through the process – suffice to say her training centre passed her with flying colours.
This is what is wrong with education – a desperate sense that if only teachers get their spreadsheets right, everything else will somehow fix itself. Sadly, Mr Gove, all you get that way is teachers who turn children into cats.