Teach your children well….if they’ll let you
Posted on January 7, 2019
(The picture shows the author in 1976. Dynamic.)
Monday in January and we’re back to normal. It’s an annual occurrence that has a place in my heart.
43 years ago I set off with trepidation to my first teaching practice school. I’d done all the theory and entertained people in my college classes but now the bullshit had to end and I had to find out if I could teach people. Turns out that I could and, what’s more, I had stumbled into what turned out to be a job for life that I absolutely love – even if my current teaching is significantly more genteel than the ensuing four decades of rough and tumble in comprehensive schools.
I’m always obliged to preface any comment about schools by saying there was never a golden age. I am entertained by people in their forties and fifties who tell me that discipline was so much better back in the day. Given that some of my former pupils are now approaching 60, I can say with supreme confidence that memory is playing a trick on them. There has always been misbehaviour, some of it shocking, and there have always been teachers who have been hopeless at dealing with it.
For all the changes that have beset our children, their teachers and their schools, one thing remains stubbornly resistant to the winds of time: teaching and learning take place when someone with something worthwhile to convey – and with the personality to convince others that it’s important – introduces that idea to a group of young people. The single person – ranged as s/he is against greater numbers – has to be either convinced that what is on offer is worthwhile or, at the very least, be very good at bluffing it. That’s the deal; that’s how it works.
The trouble starts when that teacher really can’t convince even her/himself that what’s going on is worthwhile. It worsens when a narrow, stale and meagre curriculum has to be ‘delivered’ to children for whom the sole purpose of education has been stewed down to achieving test results….and, by god, you’d better get those results or you will be doomed, doooomed I tell you, to a life of precarious employment, insecure housing, hand-to-mouth, non-salaried uncertainty.
Oh, wait a minute. What’s that you say? That’s what you get even if you get those results? That can’t be right, can it?
One thing I learnt very early on is that you treat teenagers as if they were stupid at your peril. If your only reason for ploughing through the kings and queens of England in chronological order is because they could be tested on it, you’re in the mire. You end up looking a fool for pretending it’s important in itself. Good teachers need the courage of their convictions – and that means finding their own narratives to justify their pedagogic actions and choices…..
……and there’s the rub. In a curriculum that needs to be delivered like a prawn madras brought to your door by a kid on a moped, teachers are allowed to make few, if any, choices. A regime which, like all work in the public and private sectors, is scrutinised, measured and reported on in minute detail, means that teachers stick to the script, don’t diverge from the path, don’t take risks. We’ve got a test coming up, let’s practise, practise, practise.
How was school today? Boring. Yup. That just about covers it.
I admit that I exaggerate for effect. Good teachers, once they navigate their way through the system, still muck about, do stuff that engages children, stray from the path. I have written here about teachers who haven’t bought into the test-dominated regime and here about schools and teachers who have a better vision of what education should be. Thank goodness there’s plenty of resistance out there to the way in which schools have become exam machines with kids being the oil that greases the moving parts.
Our problem is that we have allowed education to become a commodity and schools to become institutions from which profits can be made – and from which ‘value for money’ has to be squeezed. The only way to be profitable is to ensure that outputs are satisfactory and the only measurable output from a school is results. So let’s narrow the curriculum, drill for those tests and make sure that the publishing companies get in on the act while we’re at it. Let’s sell off whatever land we can and make what was once a public asset an attractive proposition for greedy profiteers. Let’s have chains of schools – Ark, Oasis, E-Act, Harris – like, well, chains of car dealerships or carpet shops. Let’s allow publishers like Pearson to set up an intercontinental colonisation of educational materials. After all, the market, as we all know so well, serves the needs of all of us so amply.
At the toe-end of these political choices and the ideological drive behind them are children and teachers. So, I’m hoping that on this January morning, plenty of people embarked on, or continued, their teaching careers armed with a few certainties, a drive to make their classroom just a bit barmy and a clear knowledge that it’s their colleagues in the postal service who can do the delivering while they do the educating.