January 22, 2004
"This job is about imposing your authority for benevolent ends"

Here's an interesting article, by ex-BBC man Steve McCormack, who switched to teaching for the usual wanting-to-make-a-difference reasons. Now he's giving up. For all the usual reasons again.

A frighteningly large (i.e. not insignificant) minority of children behave atrociously:

After school in the pub one Friday, my concern about the pupils' attitude was confirmed when a gaggle of teachers from abroad began to compare notes. One, an Australian with 10 years' experience, said that until she came to England, she'd never had a pupil refuse to do something outright; in this school, it had happened three times in a week. Colleagues from France and South Africa agreed. The widespread lack of respect for teachers and teaching that they were coming up against in Britain would be unthinkable in most schools back home.

Everyone in public life in the UK needs to wake up to this fact. Something fundamental is going wrong. Not with all children, granted, but with a frighteningly large proportion. Year on year, it's getting worse. Pupil behaviour explains why so many teachers leave early, and I can't see any hope on the horizon of things changing.

The bureaucratic burdens are getting too heavy for normal humans to bear:

In every school, pupils have to meet targets – from the grades that they should hit by Year 9, say, to learning five new Spanish words a week. But the teacher who has to dream these targets up has, on average, more than 200 children to think about. All of their targets have to be written down, discussed with the student in question, and the pupil's performance monitored against them. The scale of the operation means that the quality of thought and implementation plummets. It's another factor chipping away at morale.

As pure story-telling, as opposed to public philosophising, you can't beat this next bit. McCormack has finally decided that he's had enough:

Then, of course, fate got out its emotional knife and gave it a good twist. Out of the blue, pupils and teachers paid me kind compliments and said they wished I were staying. On the last day of term, my wonderful Year 10 tutor group unexpectedly floored me by showering me with presents and touching comments.

But what I think is the key paragraph comes just before that one, and it goes like this:

This job is about imposing your authority for benevolent ends. A few teachers can do this naturally. Most have to work at it, and use tricks, techniques and a bit of acting to get their way. I was firmly in the second category, but found the process, day in day out, draining. So I decided to leave school at Christmas and return to journalism.

There, it seems to me, you have the collapse of state education in one paragraph. Our brightest and best simply don't believe in doing the centrally important thing that state education now requires, which is the imposition of their own authority, by which they actually mean power. McCormack is aware that for schools as we know them to work properly, orders must be given, and obeyed. Yet he refuses himself to do it any more.

He presumably believes that someone should do this, but he isn't willing to do this himself, given the circumstances in which he is expected to work.

You can write my concluding paragraph for yourselves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:09 PM
Category: The reality of teaching