Category Archive • The reality of teaching
December 10, 2004
"Leave us alone you corduroy-clad arsehole …"

Nuanced observations from Harry Hutton about what he will be doing next (and why), in the education line:

Just called the British Council to see if they’ll give me a job. The thought of teaching English again fills me with acute suicidal instincts, but I'm running out of money and it's either that or sell one of my kidneys. The British Council is better than most language schools. It's run by the UK Foreign Office: all the other language schools I worked at were run by drunks. They could use this in pamphlets as their "unique selling point." It would be an improvement on "Creating Opportunity for People Worldwide," which is the current slogan.
THE BRITISH COUNCIL
At least it's not run by a drunk.

And when people ask me what I do I will no longer have to stare at the floor and mutter that I am a teacher "but I do other things as well". I can look them squarely in the eye and say, "I work for the cultural arm of the British Embassy, and if I don't get some respect around here I shall have you all shot."

The other advantage of working for the British Council is that there are no British Council inspections to put up with: they don't inspect themselves. Other schools have to be "accredited" by the BC, which means that every so often some bearded fuck with a clipboard will appear in your classroom, poking his long nose in. Usually, he wants to see your lesson plan, which I never have, lesson plans being strictly for poofs in my opinion. "Oh," he says, "You don't have a lesson plan," and writes something on his clipboard, deeply shocked by such depravity. When the class is over you get feedback, and he will express disappointment that you aren't using the phonetic alphabet. And do you want to know why I don't use the phonetic alphabet? Because my students couldn't tell the difference between a plosive, a fricative and a poke in the eye with a burnt stick. And if I tried to force them to learn it they would rise up and pelt me with fruit.

… and about the same amount as that more. Ever since I called this man "terse" he has been mouthing off like one of those mad people in the street.

However, the point about having a job that supplies you with a good answer to the question "And What Do You Do?" is a very good one. As are the points that follow about how "Teacher Talking Time" mustn't be too high. Don't you dare teach the buggers, in other words.

By the way, the comments at Harry's blog are often worth reading. They are even sometimes quite funny, which is rare with comments at funny blogs, in my experience. (See Barry, Dave.) This bit of comment, for example, from "dsquared", is good, and relevant to proceedings here:

Of course, some economists question whether there are not productivity implications if you have a system where only the second-raters are left to carry on actual production, while people more able than themselves try to prevent them, but that's a problem for the future. It's rather like Atlas Shrugged but with more box-ticking.

Ah box ticking ...

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:45 PM
Category: LanguagesSovietisationThe reality of teaching
November 24, 2004
Hutton on Mussolini

Mussolini.jpgHere is Harry Hutton's latest Killer Fact:

Mussolini was expelled from school for knifing one of his classmates. He went on to become a primary school teacher (Mussolini, not the classmate).

Indeed he was (although I cannot verify that it was a knifing of a fellow student that broke the disciplinary camel's back) and indeed he did.

It's off topic somewhat, but I really do admire Harry Hutton's blogging a lot. It's not hard to get and to keep the attention of readers when you already are famous. His writing, it seems to me, is a model of how to use blogging to get famous, although perhaps he already is famous and I hadn't noticed. His postings are terse and to the point. No attention is presumed upon. I think my own blogging style may now be being influenced by him. If so, good.

I recently hailed Scrappleface's new book. Someone (maybe Harry Hutton himself if all others fail) should do one of Harry Hutton's best bloggings.

Harry Hutton has been a teacher for quite a long time, and many of his more penetrating postings are on educational themes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:29 PM
Category: BloggingFamous educationsThe reality of teaching
September 18, 2004
Anthony Daniels on why young British Jamaicans do so badly at school

Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple), now a regular contributor to the Social Affairs Unit Blog, says that young British blacks, or to be precise, young British Jamaicans, do badly at school not because of racism (the claim of a recent reportechoed by The Guardian) but because of the culture with which they have now surrounded themselves. Other racial minorities have thrived despite vicious racism against them. So what's with the Jamaicans?

If raw racial prejudice is not the explanation, then, what is the explanation? I think it is twofold. First, there is a marked lack of stability in the households of young blacks i.e. Jamaicans. This instability is seen in white lowest class households, of course, where it has precisely the same effects, except that the girls are less distinguishable from the boys, from the point of view of failure. Relative poverty does not in itself preclude constructive achievement among children, but when combined with a kaleidoscopically shifting spectrum of social pathology, it most certainly inhibits it.

Perhaps even more important is the culture that the young Jamaicans have adopted for themselves, both in England and Jamaica. It is not exactly a culture that promotes high endeavour in fields such as mathematics, science or English composition, to put it mildly. It is a culture of perpetual spontaneity and immediate gratification, whose largely industrialised and passively consumed products are wholly worthless sub specie aeternitatis. The young Jamaican males may have been sold a bill of goods by an unscrupulous entertainment industry, purveying drivel to morons, but they have bought it with their eyes open. Seen from the outside, at least, this culture is one upon whose valuelessness no execration could be sufficiently heaped.

By refusing even to entertain cultural characteristics as a possible explanation of failure, the combined forces of the Mayor, his commission and The Guardian are in fact serving to enclose the Jamaican black males in the wretched world that they already know and that already encloses them. They are, in effect, saying to them that the fault is not with them, their tastes and the way they conduct themselves, but with society as a whole. They are condemning them to a world of violence, drugs and familial insecurity.

Teacher Jane Smith comments:

Anthony Daniels is spot on – I have taught in London schools and his argument about Jamaican youth culture fits my own experiences. Teachers are however unwilling to say this publicly for fear of being branded racists. A problem which Daniels does not highlight is the fear that teachers have that parents will play the racism card if their children are put in detention or do badly at school. Thank you for an excellent article.

Comments from teachers (and from current pupils come to that) count at least twice here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:17 AM
Category: Peer pressureThe reality of teaching
May 27, 2004
John Holt on who the real leaders are in education

Busy doing other stuff today, so a steal from John Holt, from chapter 16 of his book Teach Your Own:

JohnHolt.jpg While teaching fifth grade, I thought often about educational leadership. For a long time, I had no idea what it was. Slowly I began to see that the atmosphere and spirit of my classes were largely determined by the students themselves, above all by two or three who, whatever might be their schoolwork or behaviour, were in fact the real leaders. Of the five fifth grade classes I taught, all of which I liked, the last was much the best – the most interesting and active, the most fun for me, the most valuable for the children. But by all usual standards it should have been one of the worst; only three of the children were really good students, and more than half the class had serious academic and/or emotional problems. What made that class the best was the two children who (without knowing or trying) led it.

One, a black boy, was by far the most brilliant student I have ever taught, and not just school-smart but life-smart, smart in everything. The other, a girl, just as much a leader, was a very poor student, but exceptionally imaginative and artistic, and also smart in the real world. What made these children such a joy to be with, and such a powerful influence on the other children, was not just their obvious alertness, imagination, curiosity, good humour, high spirits, and interest in many things, but their energy, vitality, self-respect, courage and above all, their true independence. They did not need to be bossed, told what to do. Nor were they interested in playing with me, or against me, the old school game of "You Can't Make Me Do It." No doubt they were helped by the fact that I, unlike so many adults, obviously enjoyed and valued those qualities in them that they most valued in themselves. But I did not create these qualities, they brought them to the class. What without these children might have been a miserable year turned out to be the most interesting and exciting year I ever spent in a schoolroom.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:09 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
May 16, 2004
Leaving the School from Hell

In my previous posting on Brian's blog I was planning to leave the School from Hell I was teaching at and start somewhere new in September. I left much sooner.

I arrived one morning at my department to find a boy out of lessons, when challenged I was met with the usual torrent of abuse. The Head of Department (HoD) came out (somewhat surprisingly) to see what the commotion was about and told me he was a known troublemaker and that I should go to my room and lock the door. "Lock the door?" I asked. "Yes" was the reply, "to be on the safe side."

I hid in my locked room and waited. The boy began banging on my door and issuing a variety of threats. I tried to ignore him, so he went outside and began banging on my window. At this point I summoned help on the phone that fortunately (only) I had in an adjacent store room. Someone actually came and took him away. Good. The next proper lesson I had resulted in another assault on me (being pushed around etc.) I phoned for help again and had someone taken away. Double good. So far, so good. Just another 'normal' day at this school.

The next day I find a note in my pigeon-hole from a member of the Senior Management Team (SMT). My facility to have pupils removed for misbehaviour was being withdrawn as I was using it too much. My HoD knew nothing of the decision, nor did the support staff who actually did the removing. The Head had already said that pupils could not be sent out of rooms (as they merely went and disrupted other lessons) so I just had to cope with them – without any support.

That was it. I was furious. I asked the support staff what they thought of it and they couldn't understand it. Other teachers thought it ridiculous. I went to see one of my colleagues who'd had similar problems. I found him at the back of his room, head in hands shaking. He'd just had another day of teaching at this school. "That's going to be me anytime soon" I thought to myself.

I made up my mind. Next morning I phoned in sick. And the next. I went to see my GP who, after explaining the situation wrote me a three week sick note for 'stress'. I wrote a letter to my Head explaining that I would not be returning.

I now had to find a supply job for the Summer Term ...

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:06 AM
Category: The reality of teachingViolence
March 25, 2004
British education has been getting better!

Susan Elkin, writing in yesterday's Telegraph, thinks that things have been improving:

When my father, a former teacher in Deptford, south London, heard that I was starting my teaching career at a notorious secondary boys' school in the area, his laconic comment was: "Well, if you survive there, girl, you'll cope anywhere."

How right he was. It was 1968. I was 21 and had come straight from an appalling "child centered" teacher training college that had managed to teach me absolutely nothing in three years about classroom realities.

I was the first woman to teach in that macho, multi-cultural environment, where boys were frequently caned, "slippered" or cuffed about the head and everyone shouted continually. Learning was the least of anyone's concerns.

The expectations of staff, parents and pupils were off the bottom of the scale. Pupil crime rates probably outstripped those in the nearest prison. You could smell the boys' stinking urinals from 100 paces. And several of the staff were definitely not the sort to whom any caring parent would entrust her children. Criminal Records Bureau checks lay more than three decades into the future.

Reflecting on all this 36 years and four schools later, as I look forward to retirement from teaching this summer, I am struck by just how much things have improved.

… and what is more, you can't help noticing, how much things have improved thanks to government oversight, command, control, training, standards, and – who knows? – perhaps even initiatives.

It does make me wonder though, whether what we might perhaps be reading about here is actually a case where the observer has influenced her own findings. Such has been Susan Elkin's effectiveness and career moves that things in her vicinity have indeed been improving, but outside of her influence, not so much so. Maybe that's the real story.

Mind you, you could say exactly the equal and opposite things about all the defeated grumps who say that things have only been getting worse and worse.

This certainly makes a change from the usual stuff you read.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 AM
Category: HistoryThe reality of teaching
March 14, 2004
"You must employ this teacher!"

My friend the teacher in Kent emails as follows:

I thought you might be interested to know that I have managed to escape the school I have been teaching in. I have been offered a job at another school nearby and will be starting in September.

The final straw for me came when I had a detention class a few weeks ago. I had about six pupils in for a variety of offences - lack of work, misbehaviour in lessons etc. I don't have too many of these detention classes as few actually bother to turn up if I set them, but on this occasion about six did.

I attempted to get them to sit at a table each and gave them a book to do some work from. Chaos erupted. They weren't there to do work, they told me. They never do work in detentions. Other teachers just let them sit there. Well, I said, in my detentions you do. Result - boys began running around the room, jumping on tables and swearing at me. The Head of Department comes into the room, looks around, and walks out. I dismiss the boys (who are left some have run off already) telling them they have failed the detention and it will be reset.

I filled in the incident report forms and took them to hand into the Head of Years concerned. In the Staff Room I met the Head of Year 10 (most of the miscreants were from that year) to be told to stop writing so many reports as he couldn't deal with them all. He subsequently speaks to my Head of Department who meets me later to tell me I am too strict with the boys and shouldn't use detentions as a punishment. Instead, detentions should be an opportunity to have little chats with the boys and get to know them better.

I start looking for a new job that evening. I visit a number of schools to have a look round and the one I like best is the nearest and, although the intake is less able than my current school, the ethos is quite different. The Head is very visible, seen around the school talking to staff and pupils alike. He egularly pops into the department to see what's going on. If there is any misbehaviour, he'll yank them out of lessons himself. This is quite different to my current school where the Head has never visited the department in the two years I have been there. Many pupils have no idea who he is as he seldom leaves his office.

The school I visit is immaculate. No graffiti, little litter. Windows and lockers intact. My current school is covered in graffiti, strewn with rubbish and has numerous broken and cracked windows, including the main entrance to the bloc where my department is situated. The boys don't have lockers at my chool as they would be wrecked within minutes.

I go back a couple of weeks later to have an interview at the school I like. The demonstration lesson goes well, the kids enjoying it and an observing Headmistress says it was fantastic. Some of the kids (I later learned) went up to the Head of Department and told her "You must employ this teacher!"

The interview goes well - but one issue is raised - the Head of my Department has stated in his reference that I have problems with kids due to my "rigid discipline." I explain the situation at my current school which is greeted with shock and incredulity. High standards of discipline are fundamental at the school I am visiting. I am offered the job straight away and accept (beating six other candidates).

The next day I return to my old school. I have a cover lesson in a different department. As I enter the room to see if any cover work has been left (there usually isn't and wasn't) there is a loud crash behind me. The door has been pulled off its hinges and now lies in the corridor. The boys inside and outside the room claim to have seen nothing.

I send for the Head of Year 10. He's too busy. I send for a members of senior management. They're all in a meeting and too busy. The Bursar is sent to collect a list of names. I have a few, those that I know, but some have refused to give names and there is no register available. I write a report and stick it in the Head's pigeonhole. Later in the day he sees me in the Staff Room and ignores me. Nothing is done about the door as far as I know.

At least I'll be gone by September.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
February 25, 2004
Clare Short says please a lot but gets the hang of it eventually

I'm watching former Cabinet Minister ("Overseas Development" I think she was) Clare Short pretending to be a teacher, in one of these unreal reality TV shows. She starts, poor thing, by thinking that she'll be teaching, when in fact her basic job is child minding and power projection. Child domination in other words. She keeps using the word "please", which is not good news coming out of the mouth of a prison officer.

Her basic problem is that she is in the middle of a hierarchy, and she has a problem with authority. She has a problem with the authority of her superiors (whom she keeps reminding are only pretend superiors, for a week, and generally patronising and refusing to listen to) and even more she has a problem with her own authority. She is in a school and her job is to keep the inmates under control. She is becoming a bossy cow in front of our eyes, being a bossy cow being her job.

I'm torn at this stage between thinking that Clare Short has a point, and that she is a silly cow. As a senior politician, and a Labour one at that, she has been presiding over this system of command and control. Did she think that it could ever be this inspiring utopia that she wants to operate in?

On the other hand, she's just given a talking-to to a young boy which might actually have made some sense to him, and made him into a better person.

And now, there's what looks like a completely pointless mass expedition into the car park by thirty children, and this bossy little git is telling them all with maximum officiousness - and effectiveness, given what he's trying to achieve, which is power over everybody - about what they all "need" to do. But what I would "need" if I was trapped in this insanity would be something not insane and not ridiculous. Now Clare is in charge of this lunacy, and of course, her not being a trained prison officer, it all gets out of control. The prisoners don't do their tasks. Clare starts to beg them to do what the system wants, but why should they?

I'm torn between thinking that Clare Short is ridiculous, and thinking that she is actually quite sensible but that what she is doing is ridiculous.

Now her tutor group are "not cooperating". "Please", she keeps saying.

Please behave like good prisoners. Please stop behaving like bad prisoners.

Oh dear. Now she's making her group give us her Third World propaganda pitch. We Brits ought to moan less and: "We want justice for developing countries!" shouts one of them. Applause. Her superiors are very impressed. They don't care about the Third World. What they care about is that Clare has got her little set of poodles performing like performing poodles. Oh well, better that than wolves devouring each other.

It wouldn't take long for Clare Short to fit right in and become an expert childminder/power projector. She's obviously getting the hang of it. She's learning to give orders with words like "Would you like to …" at the start of them, but in a tone of voice which actually says "I order you to …"

Yes. She's cracked it. And her superiors are exultant. They've converted her.

Interesting programme. I basically agree with the teachers, which is that if you have compulsory school attendance, this is how it has to be done. You can't force people to attend a place like this, and then pretend, and make them pretend, that it is all voluntary. Better to be honest about what is going on. Yes miss, no miss, three bags full miss. This was a "good" school. Poodles and not wolves.

But I now feel the way Clare Short felt at the start. It ought to be possible to do better than this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:39 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
February 19, 2004
The sorrows of young Cecile's teacher

I was quite right about how being Cecile Dubois' teacher has its ups and downs, and that most of them are downs. Now the poor woman can't make a move or say a word without being all over the blogosphere. Here's how Cecile's latest starts:

After noticing my apparent boredom this morning, my English bitterly teacher said, "And sorry Cecile if I'm subtracting from your learning - because the more work - the more it totals up to my mental breakdown!" And I didn't even acknowledge that one coming. I just nodded smugly to myself, as if she just threw a bag of dog poop past me and I hadn't noticed. Since my mom's NRO piece has been posted, I have had a layer of dignity.

That's the key to all this. A "layer of dignity". Nothing like writing up your entire decision to Take No Further Action about your daughter's difficulties at school on a mega-mega-website with a zillion-per-hour readership.

Meanwhile, Miss Teacher is having whatever layers of dignity she may once have had stripped away from her.

And then, my teacher shockingly showed us all her new ring her boyfriend of three months had given her. The irony is she spends half the time gushing over a Serbian baseball player rather than her boyfriend. …

Yes, I'm starting to feel extremely sorry for this woman. I realise that she's probably her own worst enemy, but Cecile runs her a close second. What the old USSR used to call the "correlation of forces" has definitely tilted in that relationship.

There follow more Cecile recollections about other mad teachers of various kinds. But what if it was Cecile who drove them mad? Final paragraph:

In eighth grade, I had a mad science teacher the first semester who, in her other classes, would elaborate on her love life. When she left, the administration curbed our grades generously. And now I have an English teacher constantly on the verge of a mental breakdown. And this is private school.

Yes it is. And what great places these things schools are for sharpening the teeth of promising comic writers. Which reminds me that we have photographs of Cecile's beautiful smile when she was here in London just before Christmas, but we'll leave them for some other time.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:35 AM
Category: The reality of teaching
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
December 23, 2003
Denis Dutton on moral education

I've started to read this piece by Denis Dutton, a recently acquired interest of mine, and so far I like it a lot:

With Toni Morrison, I acknowledge that what I think and do is already inscribed on my teaching, and all my work. Indeed, we do "teach values by having them," or at least cannot but reveal our values in the classroom in one manner or another. This is not a voluntary option for those of us who teach in higher education or anywhere else: it is a permanent feature of the human condition. I sit at my computer overlooking a grass commons between suburban houses. As it's a warm New Zealand summer, neighborhood children below are playing an improvised game of cricket. Mr. Gagliardi from the house opposite mine appears with his lawnmower and asks the kids to give way so he can mow the lawn. Today he's doing my side as well, because my old mower is still in the repair shop. They patiently wait by the side of the commons for him to finish, though it takes some more time when he shuts down the mower to chat a bit with Mr. McConchie next door. When the children later resume their play, Mr. Gagliardi helps out with some batting instruction, guiding them with his usual care and patience.

When I think of "teaching values," I find it hard to keep my mind focused on university classrooms. The promulgation of moral principles in the classroom or lecture theater plays a real but overestimated role in the moral enculturation of young people; more important in my opinion is the human example set by teachers and other adults in the ordinary conduct of life. If morality could be instilled by teaching principles in the same way that mathematics can be taught through principles, then Moral Principles 101 would long since be required in every university. As things are, the moral education most people receive at the university is continuous with the moral example being set by Mr. Gagliardi for the children down on the commons: his demonstrated sense of communal responsibility, his kindness and friendliness, his willingness to take time to help them with their play. He's not sermonizing from a pulpit, sacred or secular, he's just mowing the lawn, and setting a decent adult example.

I will be reading all of it, and my guess is, so may quite a few of you, if you haven't already

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:35 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
October 24, 2003
New York New York

A depressing article in the New York Times about … well, it's impossible to describe it without completely taking sides and making major judgements. I'd say it is about the abject failure of the Prussian model of education if you don't have Prussians in charge of it.

"What goes on in these classrooms, that's the story of urban education," said a teacher from Brooklyn. "You've got kids playing dice in the back of the classroom. You've got kids listening to their Walkman, or writing rap rhymes. And rapping to girls. And also practicing gang signs. Now that's a classroom that's run by a teacher who doesn't care."

There were frequent references to "the back of the classroom." When I asked why, one teacher said: "There's a certain protocol to the room. If they sit in the back, the kids have specifically opted out of dealing with the classroom. They feel as though they can do whatever they want back there."

"They just slam their desks to the back of the room," said another teacher. "There might be 15 or 20 kids back there, with a space between their desks and the ones in the front of the room. The teacher just teaches the ones in the front."

"Remember," said a teacher from Manhattan, "these are just children. Teenagers. There is no reason to ever let them get out of control like that. But I would say that many of the teachers I've met don't care about their students."

The usual horror story only a bit more so in other words. This is New York after all – and in New York they don't do things by halves. Basically the out of control kids at the back are making it impossible for anyone at the front, teacher or pupils, to get anything done.

One of two strategies might work. One, the aforementioned Prussian model, the problem there being an insufficiency of Prussians, and more pervasively, the general unwillingness of the system as a whole to be Prussia. Not a wholly bad thing, I think you might agree.

Two, a "consenting" Prussian system. Teach only those who want the sort of schooling of this sort, and chuck out the rest. Have rules, and have near the top of the list of rules: and if you don't like all these rules, leave. That might then evolve into something better than Prussia, because then surely, other schools might spring up which might cater to those who don't care for Prussianism.

But the implications of Two are too scary for most people to want to face. In effect that would mean making the abolition of compulsory schooling official. (I presume that it's already an unofficial reality.) And if kids can choose not to go to school, what else will they choose to do? I'd say, make it legal for them for work for money, and in general confer upon them the legal rights and legal duties of adulthood. But the rich world's not ready to face that.

So, Three, bugger on with the shambolic mess now prevailing, is presumably the policy that will go on happening.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:50 AM
Category: The reality of teaching
October 08, 2003
Laura's school and Brian School

Last Friday I bought, because I feel that I should from time to time, a copy of the Times Educational Supplement (October 3 2003). It's a sort of giant Brian's Education Blog for centre-left to stupid-left teachers, done on paper. The economic basis of it is teaching job adverts.

The latest issue has (on page 5) what I've come to notice as a staple story for the TES, the one about the very smart person who becomes a starting out teacher, and who finds that it Isn't As Easy As She'd Thought It Would Be, and that she had to Work Very Hard.

This is the subheading of the story:

High-flyers are discovering that the teacher's daily grind is no cakewalk.

This story is about Laura Johnson, a 24-year-old Oxford graduate, who is doing a spell of teaching as part of the Teach First initiative. And she found it was very difficult, had to work from 7 am to midnight, blah blah blah.

The moral being: They Earn Their Money. Or to be more exact: We Earn Our Money And We Deserve A Stonking Pay Rise.

The more I think about these stories, and I've read plenty of them over the last few months, the more I find myself dissenting with extreme and indeed contemptuous vehemence from the usual version of what they are said to mean. They do not mean that Oxford graduates are less than very clever. Oxford graduates are, on the whole and give or take a few pomposities caused by ignorance of the world outside of Oxford which acquaintance with the world outside of Oxford will soon cure, pretty much as clever as they think they are. (It didn't take Laura Johnson long to realise how little she knew about what teachers did and how unrealistic were her first hopes of what she might immediately achieve as a teacher.) The thing that is stupid stupid stupid is the routine of flinging totally, and I do mean totally, inexperienced "teachers", on their own, into "classrooms" crammed with several dozen "pupils", and expecting non-insanity to be the result. The inverted commas in the previous sentence are there because "screws", "prisoners" and "jails" would make at least as much sense of what is going on here as does any talk of teachers and pupils. That kids get stuck in thumbscrews (see the previous story but one here), or otherwise get screamed at or assaulted, or that the kids retaliate in kind and assault their "teachers", is just the kind of Dickensian awfulness that one should expect from such a practice. The miracle is not that this happens. The miracle is that anything nicer ever does.

What would we say about the RAF if kids were plucked off the dole-queues and stuck in jet airplanes and expected to drive them straight away without crashing and burning? Of if they were "trained" for this absurd and destructive ordeal by doing nothing more than sitting about discussing and writing essays about the theory and the philosophy of flying for a few months or years?

The reason why teachers so often compare their lives to that of front line soldiers in wars is because that is indeed what their lives are like. And during the Second World War, the RAF did grab ignorant young men and stick them in complicated airplanes with woefully insufficient training, and hope for the best. That's the kind of cruel madness that happens in wars. But that's no excuse to do such things when there's no war being fought.

Brian School, will, to start with, have about one or two pupils, who can leave at any moment without explanation or justification if they don't like it, and there'll be me, and maybe one or two friends helping out, plus any concerned adults connected with the pupils who aren't sure what will happen with this arrangement and want to keep an earlly eye on it. At first there will be confusions and unpleasantnesses. Some kids won't like me or my friends and vice versa. Some adults won't approve of what is happening. But by and by, a small gang of consenting children and adults will coagulate, and slowly expand, learning all the time.

At which point, I fear, the government will shut the thing down on account of the adults not having had enough "training" (i.e. not having spent sufficient time writing essays about the philosophy of education), because we aren't helping enough with the government's latest truancy initiative and languages initiative, and because there's only one toilet. I'll say to The Government: but you aren't giving us any money, what business is it of yours? And The Government will reply: the fact that you refuse to accept any government money (fair comment – that will be the reality of the situation) means that you are a Private School and that only makes everything far, far worse.

If Brian School can ever get past those problems and get as huge as the average tiny "school" is now, new adult members will be inducted much as new younger members are. They won't be hurled into insane asylum/prisons and made to stay up half the night preparing make-work for their prisoners and then lie awake for the rest of the night worrying about how to subjugate their prisoners. They'll be welcomed, told a little of how the place is organised and how it works, and then asked to make themselves useful, doing something easy which they can easily do. Some will have been enticed there with a particular activity in mind for them to start in on.

Some will be confused and angry, and leave, which is fine – if they don't like it, they shouldn't hang about. Others will love it but be, in our opinion, unsuitable, and will be eased/intimidated out and if that fails, told to go. But some will be great and will see the point quickly, and will love it, and will stick around. It'll be the same as any other sane adult operation, in other words.

Many of these adults will (I fantasise) be ex-"teachers", who, for the privilege of actually doing some real teaching to consenting pupils, will be happy to do it for nothing.

Dream on Brian. That's what blogs are for. More realistically, if anyone is already running something like Brian School within easy-ish travelling distance of Brian (i.e. near-ish to London SW1) do please get in touch. I'd far rather not have to do all the organising myself. I'm better at just helping out.



Continue reading "Laura's school and Brian School"

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:38 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
September 07, 2003
Stress

This is the sort of headline of which people say: "They don't write headlines like this any more." Except that they just did. It's further evidence that the nationalised education system of Britain is coming to resemble the old USSR.

So, next: Russian teachers, in England, out of their skulls on vodka, driven crazy by quotas.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:29 PM
Category: SovietisationThe reality of teaching
July 27, 2003
"I don't mean to be patronising …"

Over at A TCS Blog, Emma (who commented on the post below) has a charming description of attending a Promenade Concert, an event which coincidentally I also gave some attention to.

The killer line in Emma's description for our purposes here was this, concerning a rather officious member of the audience who was telling other people what was what in a very stupid way:

"I'm a school teacher. I don't mean to be patronising; I just like telling people things they might want to know."

Indeed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:27 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
[0]
June 23, 2003
Teaching and dreams

Today I had lunch with a friend who has just got herself a law degree. She mentioned in passing that one of the jobs of her dreams would be to do teaching in some exotic location where the air was warm and the pupils were well behaved and eager to learn. But she wasn't going to do this because it wouldn't, she said, lead anywhere. By this she meant that if she came back to England she'd be no nearer to a real career than she is now, and she can't afford such dalliance. We talked of other career options, which sounded much more realistic.

It was only afterwards that I realised. Here was someone who "dreamed" of being a teacher, but to whom it simply did not occur to become, or to even try to become, a teacher in England. And nor did it occur to me for a moment that she was wrong. We didn't discuss it. We simply moved on straight away to the more promising stuff. We dismissed without even seriously considering the possibility, that teaching in England, or the sort that could result in a career, could ever have anything whatsoever to do with dreams.

Rather revealing, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
[0]
March 11, 2003
Eastern European non-saviours

Following on directly from the posting immediately below, about the low quality of the people now trying to enter Britain's teaching profession, I expect the following two things (among all kinds of other things) to happen to British teacher recruitment over the next few years.

First, thanks to European Union labour mobility laws (which Britain, unlike many EU countries, takes seriously), I expect a flood of Eastern Europeans to flood (since that's what floods do) into British teaching.

But, second, I expect most of these Eastern Europeans to recoil in horror from their new jobs, and to end up doing only as much British teaching as they have to do, until they can find other jobs that are less stressful, like working as drug dealers or table dancers – or perhaps as actual, officially recognised Prison Officers, in jobs where it is clearly understood by all concerned that prisons are indeed prisons, and you can't expect to run them like holiday camps. The lucky few will get jobs in the British educational private sector.

The idea that the British teaching profession can be made wonderful simply by attracting wonderful people into it is false. It doesn't matter how wonderful a person is if what he has to do is impossible. It is not possible to imprison the proletarians of Britain without the use either of physical force or the threat of expulsion, and without any disruption to the minority of pupils who would quite like to make use of their prison time to do some learning. This simply cannot be done, no matter how wonderful you are.

It doesn't matter how successfully you may previously have taught in another school system, where you had the means to do your job to hand. In Britain, you won't be able to do what the government wants of you, because no one could.

You can be a combination of Maria Montessori, Plato, Carol Vorderman and the leader of the England rugby scrum. You still won't make this system work, because no one could.

Faced with this impasse, the government only makes matters worse by piling in with yet more demands and restrictions and bureaucratic oversights, as if the government threatening reality with the big stick of the law can somehow alter reality. They thus make a job which is already impossible, even more impossible.

But none of this will stop the politicians from persisting in the delusion that "better people" will somehow solve the problem. Thus the Eastern Europeans. For a few short years, they'll be presented to us as the saviours of British education.

Very few indeed of these Eastern Europeans will make a long term success of teaching in British schools. But that won't stop them being used as temporary political wallpaper for a few years, to wallpaper (since that's what wallpaper does) over the cracks in the system. But they will be revealed as no more capable of making the British state education system work than Brit teachers are.

The only good thing that will come out of this episode will be that it will show that the existing mess wasn't the fault of the average failing Brit teacher.

If the average failing Brit teacher had got a job in Eastern Europe, he or she might have done it quite well. Which is why many Brit teachers will actually migrate to Eastern Europe, to teach English to people who want to learn it.

There is another way to make use of Eastern Europe for British educational purposes, but I'll save that for a later posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:48 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
[0]
Things Are Getting Worse

So, what else did my Kent schoolteacher friend have to say?

Well, he did say that getting good people to become teachers in state schools is becoming harder. He did not, however, go quite this far:

Recruiting teachers can be costly, time-consuming and ultimately unsuccessful, according to a new report from the recruitment industry.

Select Education's annual True Time and Cost of Teacher Recruitment Survey revealed that recruiting a teacher costs a school an estimated £4,000. It showed that 60% of schools surveyed had unfilled permanent vacancies and the standard of applicants had dropped.

During 2002, 30% of schools surveyed recruited four or more new members of staff, with 9% (mostly in secondary schools) appointing 11 or more new teachers.

Many headteachers said they were struggling to fill the posts they were advertising, and 40% said they had fewer applications for each post advertised in 2002, compared with 2001. About 5% reported having received no applications for an advertised post.

More than a quarter - 28% - said the applications received were worse than the year before. Headteachers complained of spelling mistakes, poor presentation, "odd pen ink/colours used", and letters that were "pompous", "rambling" or "vague".

When it came to an interview, applicants were still not up to scratch. Interviewees, according to headteachers, showed a lack of enthusiasm, interest and character; their appearance was not appropriate and their were "personal hygiene" issues that needed to be addressed.

Heads also objected to interviewees chewing gum, wearing nose rings, bad-mouthing their present school, failing to show they liked children, not giving eye contact, having no knowledge of the school they were applying to and being unable to articulate answers.

What my friend said was that it wasn't just that only bad teachers apply. The problem is that good experienced teachers leave, and potentially good teachers, when they first start out, often find that they just can't take it and immediately run away to do other things.

The most memorable vignette my friend reported concerned an experienced teacher from Australia. This man had served for twelve satisfactory years over there, but after three days at my friend's school he'd had enough. "You won't be seeing me again." Running a school must be hard if an experienced Australian teacher can't even make a go of it.

He talked about the problem of how some head teachers aren't visible enough, spending too much time crouched over their desks ploughing through the tons of paperwork they now have to plough through, and too little time out there backing up their teachers and generally keeping in touch. I compared this to the complaints soldiers used to make during and after the First World War about commanding officers whom they never saw from one month to the next. Once again the appropriateness of the "trenches" metaphor was confirmed, because it was my friend who then said that indeed, fighting in the trenches is what teaching at a state school often feels like.

"Inclusiveness" he said, doesn't help, which confirms a regular theme here. A terrible proportion of teacher time and energy is spent persuading recalcitrant pupils just to refrain from busting up the lessons for everyone else. Add the new emphasis on not doing anything that could be said remotely to resemble assaulting the pupils (a policy which, taken in isolation, makes nothing but sense to me), and you have a recipe for chaos.

Given the kind of person I am and the kind of vibes I give off about the potential wonderfulness of education, my friend several times went out of his conversational way to emphasise how impossible it is to think of his job as "educating" in the sense he feared that I took it to be. There's no time for profound discussions about the Meaning of Life or the subtleties of History and Geography and Maths, etc. Almost all of his time is spent staying in some kind of control. He teaches science. Chemistry, actually. And his biggest problem is stopping the rowdier boys from destroying all the equipment.

In short, my friend confirmed just about every Daily Mail type right wing cliché about the horrors of state education that you care to think of.

The posh parts of the education system seem to be ticking over okay, and in some places I dare say, are getting even posher. But for the great mass of the kids of the ex-manual-labouring classes, things are getting slowly but steadily worse.

I made a point of asking my friend exactly this question. Do you, I asked, ever attend big gatherings of teachers? Not often, he said. I've done it a few times. Okay, said I, but is it you understanding that the conversation at such events among those who do regularly attend such things is upbeat, or pessimistic? Is the general opinion that things in general are getting better, or that they are, in general, getting worse?

Oh, getting worse, he said. This was said calmly and matter-of-factly. This is partly because my friend is a calm and matter-of-fact person. But I also got the impression that the fact that Things Are Getting Worse is so obvious to all concerned that it doesn't merit a raising of the voice to note the fact. Everyone already knows this, so there's no need to make a big fuss of it. Things are getting worse. Yes. Of course they are. Didn't you know?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:48 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
[0]
December 21, 2002
Thoughts on a death threat which wasn't

Mike Peach is onto something of a story, namely the "death threat" that has been expressed by one of a chat-posse of exasperated teachers blowing off steam in the TES chat room. Mike recycles the quote. One teacher, it seems, from time to time yearns for …

"a large handgun ... to blow the head off of the first pupil who has failed to shut up/do homework/sit properly at their desk/speak politely to me".

Well, maybe this is a story, but in my opinion the story is not that this man (I'm guessing he is a man) is a murdering psychopath. It is that he is only one of thousands upon thousands of stressed-out teachers who are finding life harder and harder, caught between an ever less deferential populace, ever more attracted by the alternative enticements of electronic pop culture, and an increasingly meddlesome central government which bombards state teachers with bureaucratic torments as never before in English educational history. Yet these teachers are expected to make the sort-of almost completely compulsory, "inclusive" (i.e. no-expulsions), state education system just keep on rolling as if nothing bad was happening to it.

The other day there was a story about how a struggling school in the north of England had gone to the immense trouble and expense of recruiting a couple of new teachers from Jamaica. In Jamaica, old-fashioned education, at least for the more aspirational pupils and teachers in the better schools, lives on, and our Northerners were trying to import a slice of that old magic.

It's the same story, I think. The story being what a ghastly job it can be, teaching in a British state school. The locals can't or won't do it any more, and certainly not with the old ease and confidence and contentment.

Remember also that comments in computer chat rooms, and for that matter many blog postings and blog comments, are put together and "published" a lot more hastily than something like an article in the old Times Education Supplement, and thoughts that are – how can one put it? – somewhat unprocessed will find their way into virtual print. That, after all, is part of the point of these things.

If people in the Old Media decide to try to make something of this, along the lines of the above quote being a real death threat, then maybe the real story should be the deliberately misleading malevolence of the Old Media. They take a hasty little remark which was at least honest about a real problem, parlay it into a major row by bouncing it off some special interest groups who also benefit from pretending that the "death threat" was the real thing, gouge ever more undignified apologies and retractions from, in this case, the TES website editors, and then report the whole mess as if it just happened by itself, when they truth is that they created it themselves pretty much out of thin air.

This kind of thing is okay if the original blurter-out was the US Senate Majority Leader. (That's a recent real case – this man has just blurted himself right out of the job by saying something racially unacceptable). For a teacher telling it like it is, and for a website trying to go on allowing people to do this, it would be cruel and stupid and would solve nothing.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that (the selfish, careerist, ambitious part of) Nick Farrell of computer active on line is hoping that things do proceed along exactly the above lines. Farrell's piece (thanks to Mike for the link) ends thus:

A TES spokesman told the BBC that the teachers were doing what some might do in the pub after school, and were simply venting their frustrations by playing a silly fantasy game.

Two things of note there. One, TES "spokesmen" are already talking to the BBC about this, and two, they are already conceding that it is "silly" for the truth of what it can feel like to be a state teacher to see just a little bit of the light of day. So already the Media have got the Human Beings on the run here. Already there is a trace of blood in the water.

Yet how long before some crazed prematurely retired teacher sets fire to a school? And when that happens, will it emerge that several times the poor wretch tried to say how it felt being a teacher, but they told him to shut up and to stop rocking the boat?

And before I stop, one more point. I freely admit that I'm grinding my various axes here, just like everyone else in this story, or what there is of it so far. By paying my little bit of attention to this (so far) non-story, I'm doing my little bit to stir it all up. So it would now suit me (i.e. this blog) quite nicely if the Media proceeded to do exactly what I have said earlier that they shouldn't.

But my "official" opinion, so to speak – the reason why I find this story so interesting, and the thing that I think it proves or at least illustrates very nicely - is that compulsory "Prussian" education for everyone is now an unsustainable system in a country like Britain, and is in terminal decline here. I regard the personal travails of individuals in that system, both teachers and pupils, as symptoms of a deeper malaise, and not something that can be corrected by treating these offending individuals as one-off personal aberrations and just bashing on regardless with the same old system - except staffed instead by Jamaicans (or for that matter by Australians) at ten times the cost that it used to cost.

Even the new role played by the Media in all this just means that education, like everything else, now takes place in a completely different wider context. Telling the Media to drop dead and stop being the Media is, after all, no answer to anything.

Yet plenty of activities now proceed very nicely in this changed context, and they use the Media to do even better. State education just isn't one of them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:06 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
[0]
December 14, 2002
The Sheila who couldn't cope

The December 14th issue of The Week, the British magazine which reports on what the rest of British (and some non-British) media have been saying, reckoned that an extraordinary article by one Kate Gibbs, first published in the Evening Standard (they don't say which day), was worth reproducing in full. Ms Gibbs is an Australian teacher who "thought she could handle even the most disruptive pupils". But then she had a go at teaching in one of the Government's new "flagship" City Academy schools, this one being in North London, hence the Evening Standard's interest. (I could find no trace of this piece, or about this particular Kate Gibbs, or about Grieg City Academy on line, so no link I'm afraid.)

It's a predictable saga of testosterone-fuelled insubordination, insults, rape threats, and consequent non-education, the minority of pupils who actually wanted to learn something being the main victims, along with the teaching staff of course. Money had been thrown about in abundance, but the government's attempt to get a grip on the place, had, for the time being anyway, only made matters worse.

Ms Gibbs' piece abounds with those military comparisons that always seem to crop up whenever state education is now discussed, and her second last paragraph provides further evidence of the Sovietisation of British state education, this time in the form of the idiotic paperwork that state teachers must all now endure. You sense that the staff might have been able to cope, if it wasn't for all their superiors looming over them, trying to make absolutely sure that they were coping.

I soon understood something about why teachers did not want to teach there. They were in open revolt at the crushing paperwork burden imposed on them by management, and what they called "the overbureaucratised Academy". Pigeon holes were stuffed daily with memorandums, student profiles, new agendas and forms to fill out to prove you had been setting homework and marking books. They complained of losing Sundays to lesson plans and evaluations that nobody read. From what I could see, most teachers could not wait to leave. The students, needless to say, picked up on this. They told me that the extraordinarily high staff turnover – while I was there, five permanent staff resigned on one day – made them feel rejected. They longed for continuity, for someone to attach to. Usually, I reflected, the questions I would be asked as a 25-year-old teacher were: "Do you have a boyfriend, Miss?" Or "Do you think he's fit, Miss?" But at Grieg City Academy, it was always one question: "Will you be here tomorrow, Miss?"

And then the last paragraph reveals that there very soon came a day when she decided that she wouldn't be.

By the end of my second week, I had lost my voice and was sick in bed with bronchitis. On the following Monday, I phoned to say I would not be coming back. As I put down the phone, I experienced a pang of guilt for the few good students I was letting down. But mainly I felt overwhelming relief. It's extraordinary to think you can plough £20m into a school and actually make things worse. It will take time – and a lot more than money – to transform Grieg City Academy.

Aussies have a formidable reputation in London for being just plain better at what they do – more hardworking, more efficient, smarter, tougher – than the local average. If an Aussie Sheila can't cope in one of these places, it must truly be in a bad way.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 AM
Category: The reality of teaching
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