Saturday, 4 July 2009

Teechers - a rant

Isn't it interesting that as the statistics of exam success rise each year and as the chorus of governmental self-congratulation grows ever louder, that we now have demands for a 5-year MOT for teachers? I asked C who still teaches a day a week in school what she thought of this. She said she would resign immediately. It's exactly what I would do were I still teaching in school. And we had it easy. Our pupils could be unruly at times but they never threatened or attacked us and neither did their parents, which is not an uncommon occurrence in some places. In fact - to go by letters from past pupils - we seemed to have made a decent job of it.

And I must admit that is what it was to me - a job. Unlike some, teaching is a job where you immediately know whether you are doing it well. The class is like a theatre audience at the Restoration period. They are most palpably there: they are both actors and audience, fully equipped with personalities (and weapons) of their own, some positively bursting with personalities that do not necessarily want to be right there, right at that moment. I say teaching was a job, not a vocation. Doing a good job meant making it seem like a vocation.

We were indeed lucky to work at places that were sometimes lively and unconventional. Others - a great many teachers - are not at such places. They are at places where the odds are very heavily against them. It takes considerable energy to fight those odds, much more energy now than it did when C and I started. The bullying school curricula, the pressure of league tables, the collapse of families, the growth of the short-attention-span culture and entitlement-culture and litigation-culture, the endless soul-destroying administration, the periodic panics and paranoias about whatever social evil is currently perceived to be the greatest, the prevention of exciting activities once thought natural because of worries about health-and-safety. And the endless, termly, quadruplicate / quintuplicate checks that you are doing your job half-way properly, and half-way honestly, that is even when all four / five constantly proclaim you are doing it outstandingly well.

I had it damn easy. I didn't even have to prepare lesson plans. There were (gasp!) teachers who smoked in the staff room. There were fewer meetings, fewer public presentations. There was no physical punishment but I could break up a fight by physically lifting one child and placing him at arm-length distance from the other. There were sports fields, and while there wasn't always a theatre there were plays and music and art and - crucially - time for these things.

But time moves on. Even at the very good university where I now teach stately-plump-Buck-Mulliganly two days a week and speak softly without any need for a big stick, or indeed any stick; where I am fortunate enough to talk to students who happen to have come to my class because they are interested in precisely what I am interested in, I think I am doing more admin than I was when full-time, head-of-department in my third school (the first two were for just one year each).

So it grows. And the government (whichever government, it doesn't matter, as long as they don't have to take the blame but can find someone who will and cannot fight back) piles on the changes at school level so teacher can't have a decent run of years to perfect something, but have to jump in time to government's own rapid knee-jerk. Nor does that knee ever stop jerking.

And then it praises the results (ie praises itself for producing them) fiercely defending the results against any criticism because any criticism is "an attack on the hard-working brilliant students", and it buggers up school reform time and again. And then it says to the teachers - many of whom they have had to bribe to enter the profession - Still not good enough, we will have to pillory you again and punish you still more severely, you bunch of incompetents, who have nothing to do with producing our wonderful results but have everything to do with any every social ill, for which you bear full pastoral responsibility.

There is exhaustion, of course, as how could there not be given the circumstances? C's suggestion is to give teachers a sabbatical every seven years so they come back refreshed. I do not imagine, not for a micro-second, that this will ever seem even vaguely like an idea to either possible government.

And whichever govenment it is it will be composed of the selected elite of the famously straight, utterly competent bunch of public representatives with their famously honest approach to private expenses, not to mention their great support for education, education, education that entails shutting down as many means of adult education as possible. Deplorable bastards, I sometimes think, though I defend public representatives generally if only because someone has to. Deplorable sellers of snake-oil. Except there is no oil, only snakes.

Teachers are fallible, of course, and some really can't manage. Most do though. I think of them as a heroic band who never get called heroes, a bit like 'Tommy' in Kipling where it's "...thank you Mr Atkins when the band begins to play."

The band just carries on playing and it has long been out of tune. (Picture (via)...


Talking of theatre and actors, my first mentor, Martin Bell, used this epigraph from Wallace Stevens for his Collected Poems of 1967.

To know that the balance does not quite rest,
That the mask is strange, however like.

Philip Larkin said he didn't do more poetry readings: "Because I couldn't go round pretending to be me."

True. I heard and introduced Mr P. Muldoon last night. Thus it was. The mask firm. The constant on-stage of literary history. V. funny, very snake-oil in "inverted commas". Otherwise the Muldoonian collisions of chance and reading.

There (ah, the social calendar! my very own Jennifer's Diary!) I meet M. and Mme. Schuchard of Emory fame, whom I last met in Dublin eight years ago. And dear Judith P and lovely Anne-Marie F. And Sarah whom I had met at Cambridge. And Mr Brian Docherty who once enrolled on an MPhil that started and vanished before it had a chance to grow even into a toddler with reasonable prospects. And a lady from Amerikay who reads my poems, and Will, also from the USA who actually had a copy of Reel in his hands to sign (for Will and Alison) and Robert (was it?) from the BBC, or rather ex-BBC ,with whom a nice last conversation about literature on TV, but particularly about the endless interest of faces, viewed unflickeringly, un-tricksily, head-on on a TV screen, who was very nice and who sometimes reads this blog. Please drop me a line and let me have your name again. It was good talking to you.

And so exit your correspondent, dressed fetchingly in suit of light material but of dark colour, in new shirt with white collar and some kind of faintly bluish pattern otherwise (dead cool, like you wouldn't believe!), and black suede shoes with red socks. No tie, alas. Exit, and home by midnight on the stroke of which suit magically changed into humble poverty-stricken nightwear. So relieved I wasn't wearing nightwear in such glittering company.


Michael Farry said...

Agree with the teecher comments and love that "lively and unconventional" remark. I enjoyed thirty years of teaching, most before this insistence on admin and paperwork and the measurement of everything. I taught in some "lively and unconventional" places and hope I added to the liveliness and unconventionality.

Billy C said...

'Teechers'. I will give you my opinions. Not all good I might say, so prepare yourself. The time? 1944 to 1957.

Infants school. I can't remember.

Junior school. One excellent teacher and a host of indifferent ones.

High school for boys with an all-male teacher cast. Myself: product of a very poor and dysfunctional family. 'Teechers': one jolly old housemmaster, one German music teacher who made lessons unbearable because one could not understand what he was saying and who seemed to think all his pupils were on the same level as himself, two sadists and many decent but largely uninteresting guys. Mortars and gowns; snobbery; rugger and not football; cricket whites or no game (my family could not afford, so no game); cross country (at last I could excell...pumps, shorts and vest were affordable so I was the best); regular detention from the sadists and punishment too because my dress did not, could not, conform to their high standards. ("You are a disgrace, N*****. You look like a scarecrow!")

But there was salvation. Two superb teachers and beautiful human beings. It is they who dwell in my conciousness today. It is their qualities I have tried to emulate throughout my life. Yes, they were my heros, and still are.

And now I see all five of my grandchildren in one school: a superb school. A head who directs his school as if it were Eden, which it is if one thinks about it. The curriculem is constructed around the performing arts and music and play which creates a sound platform from which to learn the core subjects. All this in a Church of England Junior School which now has an intake of 80% muslims. And it works. The teachers at this school? Heros every one of them. My daughter is one of them so I would say that, wouldn't I? :)

So, what has happened in the intervening years since I was a boy? A lot I suspect and not all government intervention has been negative. I'll give you my verdict on the next stage of their development in about ten years time. I have a suspicion it will not be so rosy. The reason? They will be entering the world of which you speak, George: secondary education, which will, very likely, undo all the good work that has gone before, which is a social crime.

Will said...

That is all fairy muff.

The Plump said...

I like the difference between a vocation and a job. A vocation is a something you do instead of having a life. A job is, well, a job. I don’t know what it is like in schools, other than being a lot tougher, but for me teaching is a little bit more than a job, it is a job you have to care about to do well. And that makes it a consuming job and thus pleasurable.

For the bureaucrats, politicians and managers, it is neither a job, nor a vocation; it is a career. To have a career it positively helps not to care about anything apart from your own position and if you have a career in education totally unsullied by actually doing any teaching, so much the better. Then you can take credit for both the new schemes you have invented to harass teachers and for the results of the self-exploitation produced by their caring.

And Will makes an excellent point - just saying like.

George S said...

What's fairy muff? Fair enough?

Saskiss said...

I have been working in education for 7 years. However, I am just coming to the end of my first year as a teacher. I work in a college and teach literacy, numeracy, ITC and Preparation for Work which consists of 9 units. I teach several groups in the Supported Learning Department with all my groups ranging form below entry level up to level 2.

Each group requires SOW, lesson plans and each student individual learning targets all recorded on appropriate paperwork.

Job, vocation, career, call it what you like, makes no difference. It has taken over my life. And they have the cheek to say it's not about the teaching but learning.

I am just waiting now for the flamed hoop I will need to jump through.

George S said...

Good for you, Saskiss. And good luck with those hoops!

George S said...

At primary school I was slippered in front of the class (along with three others) on a freezing day of heavy snow because my parents had told me not to take my sports kit in and I hadn't. This was an offence agaisnt the Spartan God. In effect, it was my parents who were being slippered but I was the interface, or interbum, so to speak. The slippering was administered by a keenly evangelical Christian teacher, our homely equivalent of the Taliban. Such things happened but I didn't feel particularly victimised, just a bit unlucky.

Secondary school was a long miscellaneous catalogue of minor physical assault and negligible bodily harm inflicted by splenetic or frightened masters, on whom I wished no particular harm after the first half-hour of resentment. It was a barbaric place that I always assumed was mediocre, but which seems to have turned out some unlikely prominent figures - Stuart Pearce, George Michael, Ekow Eshun, Charlie Watts and myself (considerably less prominent, I know).

I can't say these things made a man out of me. They were simply elements of a world that could be expected to provide further experiences of this kind in the future.

Some were bad, some were dull, some were kindly, some were brilliant, some were too brilliant for their own good, and for me. It was the way human beings behaved then (policemen could give you a box on the ear, as could a neighbour).

All that is by the by. I think teachers now are harrowed into being neurotic wrecks. Most of those bribed into the profession leave after their minimum commitment of three or so years.

George S said...


Forgot: Courtney Pine, Julie Rogers (Cry Me a River), James Hanratty, Valerie Grove, Jet Harris, and Mutya Bueno of the Sugababes.

Miscellaneous. The common educational thread?

hayley said...

I teach KS1 - easy enough however,
I call 'non-contact' time, 'non-combat' time.

enough said!

p.s I would like a MOT, re-paint and my tires checked.

George S said...

MOT - Make Over Teecher. Alas, that it should be so.