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Yet another of my long-term colleagues is leaving. Not retiring, but being promoted at another school.
Although I’m pleased at her success, I’m rather sad at her departure as she’s good at her job and the kids respect and like her. So why is she leaving?
She’s one of the generation of teachers who went into teaching as a vocation, because she wanted to make a difference. Unfortunately, this attitude to teaching no longer seems to be in vogue.
My daughter, at university, went to a Career Day and out of curiosity approached the “Be a Teacher” stand. The chap there told her in detail how much money she could make and how she could ‘fast track’ into senior management very quickly and what a great career it was for her… When he finally paused for breath, my daughter, never one for holding back, told him that not once in his advertising pitch, had he mentioned the kids… He had the grace to look embarrassed.
A colleague of mine, when asked at his interview at a previous school, what he saw himself doing in five years’ time, replied that he hoped that in that time he would have become a bloody good classroom teacher… His reply was received with incredulity, as the expected answer, the one that would have got him the job, apparently, was that he could see himself as second in a department somewhere…
Isn’t that sad? Is there anything wrong with having the ambition to be excellent at what one does? Well apparently there is. The sign of a ‘good’ teacher seems to be the desire to climb the career ladder, not to become a better communicator or educator.
As a bit of an old fogey myself, (admittedly a Doc Marten-wearing one!) I find myself rather concerned by this attitude. I went into teaching to ‘make a difference’ too. The result of this is that along with my colleague, I’m seen as a bit of an oddity. A bit eccentric.
I have no problem with the ‘eccentric’ bit, I’ve always been proud to be different. But I do have a problem with the attitude, increasingly more common these days, that in order to rise in this job, you have to:
a) be young and
b) be willing to step over the kids to do it.
Is the reason that discipline in schools (even in a good school like mine) is deteriorating down to the fact that those promoted to senior roles in charge of behaviour etc are too young?
Can someone put in charge of pastoral care, particularly of those only a few years younger than themselves, really do the job? Don’t you need some life experience to be able to advise young people properly?
Can you really only be promoted if you are under forty?
My colleague is leaving for a school where her vast experience and ability to teach matters more than her age. She’s a damn good teacher and she will be missed. But I can’t help wondering how long it will take before it is realised that there’s a hell of a lot more to being a good teacher than the date on your birth certificate and a good interview technique.
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Today I had fun.
It’s that time of year when we in the English department introduce the year 7s to Shakespeare. We always do a small section of Midsummer Night’s Dream to give them a taste of the Bard. But before we get into the play, we (or at least, I do) do the introductory stuff with background and facts and all that. I started on the language. I always make a point of being extremely loud and declamatory when I start this aspect of Shakespeare because I think that to introduce the younger years to Will, you need to be totally unsubtle. So I get on chairs, wave my arms about spouting random speeches and generally making a complete prat of myself. The kids find it highly amusing and I get a chance to be totally silly. Today I taught my class to insult each other. In Shakespearean.
I found a web site that provided a list of Shakespearean words divided up into three columns with the simple instruction of choosing one word from each column then prefixing them with “thou”. The effect is hysterical. Once I’d explained to the class what they had to do, they were away. Within moments my whole class were yelling at each other in seventeenth century English. It was noisy and apparently chaotic, but what a buzz! They were having so much fun insulting each other that they forgot they were learning! They all wanted to take the list home so they could insult their parents!
Oh yes, and before they left, I told them that they had to insult me, in true Shakespearean form, in the right language and with feeling! So they did. And we all left the room grinning.
Whatever else these kids learn about Shakespeare in the future from other teachers in years to come, I know that they will go into those lessons having learned that far from being tedious and boring, the Bard can be fun and should be enjoyed.
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For some fourteen years, as well as teaching English, I’ve worked in the special needs department, alongside one of the best teachers I’ve ever known.
Sarah is a tiny woman with the biggest glasses, the longest hair and the highest heels I’ve ever seen. You could always tell when she was approaching, because of the clatter of her stilettos on the tiled floors. She was the head of the special needs department. The children adored her. In all the time I worked with her, I never heard her shout. But she wasn’t a pushover. In fact, despite loving her, the children she worked with were terrified of her. Not of what she would do if they were naughty, but of upsetting her. They would prefer to face a very angry and very big head teacher before facing her disappointment.
Working alongside Sarah, I learned about the range of special needs problems in the school. I learned how to recognise specific problems and how to deal with them. Or more importantly, how to get the students themselves to deal with them.
I watched Sarah handle students that other teachers couldn’t deal with and watched her nurture and encourage them to be the best that they could be.
There was Jack, who couldn’t manage a whole week without picking a fight with a member of staff. Who had had so many final warnings he didn’t know if he was coming or going. Sarah and I decided that I should bring in one of my dogs, my golden retriever, soft, gentle, fabulously behaved Bella. When Jack saw Bella for the first time, the aggressive, hung over yob disappeared and the little boy emerged. He got down onto the floor of the special needs office and spent the whole lesson playing and stroking her. By the time the lesson ended, he was almost as chilled out as the retriever. Jack managed to achieve a decent clutch of GCSEs and twelve months later, after joining the army, was named best recruit of the year. His success might not have been academic, but he was certainly a success.
Then there was Phillip, Brian, Henry, Debbie… and so many others that somehow, having passed through Sarah’s hands, went on to become success stories.
The reason for their success? Sarah didn’t believe in writing anyone off. No one was a failure. Everyone had potential and she would make sure that they had the tools to fulfil it. Sarah never mollycoddled the students, she was strict and uncompromising, but completely fair.
Sarah left twelve months ago. She moved away and took more than herself with her.
I miss her dreadfully. No one else seems to have managed to fill her size 4 shoes. But twelve months on, when faced with a student with a specific learning problem, I ask myself what Sarah would have done and the problems seem more manageable.
What my friend Sarah taught me was that no one is irredeemable and that there is always hope for even the most apparently hopeless. I’m an English teacher, but my time with Sarah in the special needs department made me more.
Today my year 11 class had their last English lesson. We watched the Simpson’s version of Lord of the Flies (Das Bus) and ate white chocolate mice. In a way I’ll miss them. At least I’ll miss some of them, the ones who made the lessons worthwhile, the ones who made the effort and put their brains into gear. I’ll miss sweet-natured, clever Wes; funny, sharp Dan; witty, acerbic Andy. I’ll also miss watching Steve grow in confidence, listening to his insight develop. I’ll miss Ian and his humour and wonderfully surreal views on life. In fact, I’ll miss most of them…at least, I’ll miss the boys.
My year 11 class is very boy heavy. Out of a class of about 28, only eight of them are girls. This isn’t a problem as nearly all the boys are nice kids. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the girls. Of all of them, only a couple are reasonably pleasant.
In general, the girls have no interest whatsoever in English, literature, film or anything else remotely educational. Their entire conversation over the last two years has involved hair, makeup and last night’s date. Their interaction with the rest of the class has, in the main, been rude, dismissive and mocking. It’s a pity, but I feel that I have made a difference to most of the boys in the class: they understand Lord of the Flies, the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy and the power of Shakespeare. They also have a unique outlook on life, a sense of humour and the tools to do reasonably well in their forthcoming exams. As for the majority of the girls, well, I think I’ve failed them. They didn’t like my lessons or me and certainly didn’t like the fact that the boys ‘got it’ and they didn’t. It’s a real pity.
Tomorrow night is the year 11 prom. For the last however many years, I’ve always gone along to observe, to see the girls become young women in their beautiful gowns and their fabulous hair. This time, though, I have no desire to see them. Normally, I would be watching, with the other teachers as my class arrive in their limos, dressed to kill and up to the nines. Somehow, this year, despite the pleasure of teaching Wes and Dan and Andy and all the other bright sparks in my class, the shine has gone off the occasion, I don’t want to see the girls in their finery, as all they’ve bothered about for the last two years is their appearance. Going along to admire their frocks and their makeup will somehow make their attitude acceptable.
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I heard a very worrying story the other day. It was parents’ evening and a teacher I know, and whose opinion I respect, was approached by an extremely worried mum and dad.
They were deeply concerned about their son, a twelve year old who was finding school a little bit hard. This boy doesn’t find English particularly easy, but under the tutelage of my friend, is doing quite well and after a big struggle, has lifted his game from a NC Level 4 to a respectable level 5. All well and good you might think. That’s what my friend thought too. This little lad has worked his socks off and is slowly but surely, getting better. So you’d think that his parents would be delighted. Well, apparently they were. Until they spoke to another teacher.
This second teacher told the parents that no matter how hard their pride and joy worked, he’d never actually get anywhere, and any ambitions they had should be limited to the local college, where he might, if he were lucky, get himself some kind of basic apprenticeship.
Needless to say, the parents were devastated. In one fell swoop, this teacher had written off their son and told them that he had no worthwhile future.
What right did this person have to decide this child’s future? What right did this person have to decide, that at age twelve, this child had no ability whatsoever?
My friend was horrified and disgusted. This child might not be a brain surgeon of the future, but he is trying hard and will probably do OK. That is, if some stupid, thoughtless moron doesn’t get their way and relegate him to the rubbish tip.
Teachers have immense power. We have the ability to make or break a child. We can inspire them to great things, like my friend and other good teachers try to do. Or we can destroy them with a stupid, thoughtless remark, which will stay with them, and their parents forever.
Perhaps this person, believed that this was being honest. And after all, honesty is the best policy, isn’t it?
Well, no. It isn’t actually. If being ‘honest’ involves being needlessly cruel and destroying someone’s hopes, then give me a little white lie any day.
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The Year 9 SATS began today and owing to a peculiarity of timetabling, I unexpectedly ended up teaching my class. Not that this is a problem, as I like them. Anyway, I decided to give them some practice in analysing a poem they’d never seen before. I thought that the best thing for them to tackle was a difficult poem, reasoning that if they could handle it, their exam in a few days’ time would be a doddle.
I read them W.B. Yeats’ “Second Coming.” One girl’s initial response surprised me. “What a sad, beautiful poem,” she said. Her response was purely instinctive and spot on. That’s exactly the description I would have given it. I gave them little detail about it, simply that it was written in 1919 in response to the horrors of WW1. (I know there are alternative suggestions about the reason for the poem – like things to do with Yeats’ elitism, – but I prefer my explanation as it’s one thirteen year olds can understand.) I then asked them to focus on the first stanza and to decide what the poet was saying. Once they’d understood what anarchy was and the meaning of a ‘widening gyre’, they soon worked out the meaning of the stanza. Someone suggested that the war and all the horrible things that happen in the world were the result of the ‘falcon’ (us) no longer listening to the ‘falconer’ (God), or as one girl added, not being able to hear, as the poet uses the word ‘cannot’. I was impressed.
When they started to analyse the second part of the poem, the girl who had commented on its beauty said, slightly worried what my reaction would be, that it reminded her of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. Needless to say, I was speechless (for once!) as I haven’t taught this class the Shelley poem!
The discussion about what Yeats was saying continued until the end of the lesson and I was impressed by their insight. These students are thirteen and fourteen year olds and they inspired me. Not the other way around. Isn’t that amazing? And humbling.
I’ve taught Macbeth for a long time, to a lot of students. In fact, it was the play that I studied myself for O level, so not only do I know the play fairly well, I like it too.
I enjoy teaching the Scottish play as it is always fun to see the usual reaction of most classes to the prospect of studying the Bard (“Bleah…Shakespeare’s boring Miss.”) change once they get into it.
I’ve yet to find a class that isn’t fascinated by the blood, the violence, the black magic, the sex…
Having said that, I have actually been witness to Macbeth dying in the classroom. I didn’t think such a thing was possible, but some years ago, I watched it happen. The teacher, young and a bit nervous, insisted on the kids reading the roles (fine) but without modelling them first, so they had no idea how the words should sound, or what they were about. The class had no idea about the point of the play and she refused to go into detail about the blood, the violence, the black magic etc. It was boring. It was dead writing on the page. I love the play and even I was bored!
The first thing that I do, when I teach this play, is to have a discussion about witchcraft, then go on about witchfinders and magic and whether it’s possible to foresee the future etc. I make sure that the class is fired up before we start to read. Then, when the reading is in progress, I emphasise the goriness of some of the scenes – it’s great fun watching the boys go pale when I explain what cleaving someone “from the nave to the chaps” means!
But the real fun starts when Lady Macbeth appears. Every student is fascinated by her and I’m always fascinated by the reaction of both sexes to her. The usual initial reaction to her is disgust, or revulsion. Then, as the class understands more of the subtle nuances of Shakespeare’s language, there is a change. They begin to see more than merely the “fiend-like queen”. Someone invariably notices that Lady M has to summon the powers of darkness to enable her to commit evil acts. Then someone points out (usually me!) that Macbeth, this great warrior chap, must be a real wimp to allow a woman to persuade him…after all, doesn’t he have any will power at all? This all leads to very vocal ‘discussions’ about who is actually responsible for the tragedy. Someone always declares that it’s the woman’s fault, to which someone always points out that she actually didn’t kill anyone… At this point it tends to get very noisy. And a lot of fun. But every year the boys claim it’s her fault and the girls claim it’s his…
What is interesting is the fact that even in the twenty first century, many boys still seem to believe that the woman is the cause of all evil. Even after women’s lib and equal rights and all that stuff, it seems that we are still seen to be the troublemakers! It’s fascinating to watch each year group go through the same process of discussion and analysis. It’s wonderful to see the words and ideas of a long-dead Englishman fire the imagination of yet another generation of students. And it’s brilliant to watch young minds open as they realise that there is no right answer and that the fun is finding that out!
You can’t teach Shakespeare in a vacuum. If students are to get any pleasure from the words of a guy who’s been dead for four hundred years, then it’s up to the teacher to make the words relevant to them. To make it live. Kids like gore and mystery and violence, why else would computer games be so popular? Macbeth fits the bill, or at least, can be made to fit if the effort is made by the teacher to do so. And if going down the magic route doesn’t work, then the woman being the cause of all the trouble certainly will…as the boys will say it and the girls will try to kill them for it!
My first teaching position was in my old school. This might seem strange, but quite a number of us old students returned to our alma mater as teachers. It probably tells you something about how much we enjoyed being in that school….
Anyway, during one of my lessons I was told a curious story. About the infamous Killer of old, who was still teaching at the school. The story was circulating that he was really dangerous and shouldn’t be crossed as he had, the kids insisted, thrown a student out of a second storey window… It took all my self-control not to laugh out loud as I knew the real story, but there was absolutely no way that I was going to tell it!
What really happened was this: Some years earlier, when I was still a student at the school, the Geography room in which Killer taught was a ground floor room which had a floor- to- ceiling bay window (the building was originally a Victorian mansion later used as a college before it became a state school). He was teaching a class, which contained a rather difficult student, that, for now, I will call John Smith.
John Smith was apparently being a bit of a pain, so Killer, standing up had said, “John Smith, get up!”
John, stood up and with Killer bearing down on him, his metal-tipped shoes clattering threateningly on the parquet flooring, stepped back. John’s desk was in the bay window and as he stepped back, he stepped out through the bay, which was wide open. The playground was about three inches below the windowsill, so he stepped out onto the tarmac without even a stumble…
As in the manner of all stories based solely on an oral tradition, this story changed and grew with each successive telling until the final tale bore little resemblance to the truth. What was interesting was the insight it gave me into the way Killer maintained his terrifying reputation. I discovered that Killer knew of the story and did nothing to refute it as he realised that it helped to propagate his infamous reputation for each successive generation of school children.
Like the children that I taught at that school, I too was terrified of Killer. Now however, the bogeyman of my past provides me with endless anecdotes with which to entertain my students. I’m not sure if he’d approve, but when I explain the oral tradition to my students, the way that this frightening teacher from my schooldays maintained his ferocious reputation provides the perfect example.
I was talking to an old friend the other day and reminiscing about our school days. I remembered an incident that happened when I was in the fourth form – year 10 in today’s speak. The school I attended had two playing fields, one slightly higher than the other and separated by a piece of sloping ground some four feet wide. If one sat at the base of this slope, one could not be seen from the school buildings.
The sixth form at the time had quite a number of pranksters in it and on this particular autumn day this sixth form decided to have some fun with the teaching staff. During the lunch break they summoned all the younger students onto the lower playing field (there were only about five hundred students in the entire school – those were the days eh?) and told them that when the bell rang no one would go into the school buildings. Seemed weird, but as younger kids we assumed the sophisticated sixth-formers knew what they were doing, so on an agreed signal everyone lay down at the base of the slope and waited.
Moments later, the deputy head in his sweeping gown came out onto the terrace at the front of the building and rang the bell. Normally this would be greeted with all the students making their obedient way into the building. This time nothing happened. So he rang the bell again. No response.
Peeking over the top of the slope, we saw the deputy head turn on his well-polished heel and go back into the building. Egged on by the sixth form, we stayed where we were and waited.
After about five minutes, we took another peek and saw every member of the teaching staff, dressed in their black academic gowns forming a single line across the front of the school and striding down towards us with frightening determination. It was a scary sight.
We glanced at our leaders, who mouthed,“Wait,” then after an interminable minute yelled, “Now!”
As one, the entire student body leaped up and ran up the slope towards the approaching staff, yelling like banshees. We ran through the thin black line of teachers and dispersed into our respective classrooms where we waited with dread, the coming wrath.
Five minutes passed, as the tension grew, then our teacher swept in with a billowing of black gown. He walked to the front of the class, turned to face us, paused, clearly for dramatic effect, then said, “Good afternoon, open your text books at page twenty…”
Nothing was said about our prank then, or ever. Nothing apparently was said in all the other classes either. It was as if it had never happened. But I did notice that our teacher was trying very hard to hide a smile.
This was a very mild, innocent bit of silliness … in the same vein as the car on the roof of the chapel …or the sports car wedged into the bike racks (Yes, really!)… Which was treated by the staff in the manner in which the pranks were carried out. With humour and patience. That particular sixth form carried out numerous practical jokes on the teaching staff and each one was met with the same response. It made for a happy environment where it was fun as well as educational.
Can you imagine the response if things like this happened today? The school governors would be called in with the Ed. Psychs to work out what childhood traumas had made a bunch of students put a car on the roof… And can you imagine the nightmare for Health and Safety? The idea that teachers could actually enjoy and possibly be complicit in a prank would be unthinkable today. And this is a pity because I think that it makes schools poorer as students see school simply as a place to which they have to go and where teachers don’t have a sense of humour. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating dangerous or life-threatening stunts, but the occasional bit of silliness can’t be a bad thing if it makes us look a bit more human…. And as for a yellow Mini on the roof of the school chapel … that’s another story.
Sometimes it takes magic to do this job.
A colleague of mine is both a talented mathematician and a brilliantly inventive magician. He’s a young man with a wicked sense of humour and a wonderful way with kids. He’s a form tutor and through a growing friendship, we sort of came to an informal arrangement that if ever the need arose that I would stand in for him if he needed to be elsewhere during tutor time. It works well as I like the class and I like him. I’ve watched him with his form and been amazed at the way he handles the most difficult of students: he does it with humour and…magic.
He’s a talented amateur magician in the style of Derren Brown (but with a lot more charm I think) and I’ve observed him defuse a potentially unpleasant confrontation with a smile, quick wit and sleight of hand – both verbal and actual. I’ve also discovered that like me, he is a bit of a geek when it comes to science fiction or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, on a long wet hike through the woods abutting the school (annual sponsored walk) we found that not only could we quote Chaucer (in the manner of Bill Bailey) at each other, we could also quote chapter and verse of any Star Trek, Star Wars or anything written by Joss Whedon without error or embarrassment.
All this became very important this week.
My son, who is now seventeen and studying mathematics, finally admitted that he had a real problem with statistics and had done so for a while. When asked why he hadn’t said anything earlier, he told me that he was afraid that if he actually vocalised, his fear, then it would become a reality, and then he really wouldn’t be able to do it. Now it’s getting close to exam time and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my maths isn’t brilliant, and what I know about statistics I could write on the pointy end of a pin and still have room left over. So we both had a bit of a panic and I eventually rang the school, meaning to speak to his maths teacher. Well she’d already left and I ended up speaking to my magician friend. When I explained the problem, he had no hesitation in suggesting I bring my son to see him. So I did.
An hour and a half later, I went to pick him up and the boy I collected was not the one I’d left earlier: he was positive and could now, apparently do the statistics. When I asked him about the time he’d spent with my colleague, he told me that an hour had been spent explaining the maths in a way that my son could clearly access. The rest of the time had been spent comparing notes on Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’, Buffy, martial arts and computer games.
My son retired to his room, completed his statistics homework and when he handed it in the next day, got 98% – the highest grade in the class.
What my magical colleague had done was understand. He’d seen my son’s fear and defused it. He’d made the effort to find out what he liked and how he thought. He’d found common interests and through that, found a way to explain the (to me) incomprehensible.
The effect on my son was amazing. He’d suddenly realised that there were other people out there who liked the same things that he did and who didn’t have any worries discussing Oblivion (a computer game) in the same breath as statistical problems.
My liking for my mathematical colleague has grown into a new respect. In fact, what he did was inspired. He made a connection. He took the time to get to know my son and to understand the way he thinks. He then used that understanding to find a way into the maths. (In fact, the following day, he told me that he found the way that my son thought was interesting as apparently, he looks at maths with the eyes of an artist…)
Surely this is what teaching should be about. Understanding the way the student thinks. I know it’s easier in a one-to-one situation, but the principle is the same in the classroom. If you can meet the students somewhere, on some common wavelength it can bridge the gap between student and teacher by showing the students that teacher is human too. Showing humanity isn’t a weakness; it doesn’t, as one of my colleagues fears, give the student a weapon to use against us. It allows them to connect with us. And in some cases, this, as my mathematical friend has proven, can be truly magical.