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.