Monday, 22 February 2016

What Makes a Great English Teacher


 This was originally a question I answered on Quora that really got me thinking. We are inviting applications at the moment, and it's my first time recruiting. I'm genuinely excited about it, but it's made me think long and hard about who I want to work with. So, after much deliberation, here is my own guide to what makes a good English teacher.
 
I am in an interesting position at the moment which makes me quite relevant to answer this question; I am about to hire an English teacher to join me as the Second in Department at the school that I teach at. What this means is that I can tell you what I will be looking for in a few weeks time when I come to interview to hire.

First, though, a caveat borne of experience: I once went for an interview at a very good, very traditional school. I was well qualified for the post and when I was rejected for the role I was told that I simply didn't fit the school. I had thought that all the other candidates where quite boring, quite dull people who were overly entrenched in the past. The thing is that the school were absolutely right to reject me. I would've been a terrible fit. I would've fought against the school and they against me. So the caveat is that an outstanding English teacher in one school may well be awful in another, and vice versa.

To continue, then: In a few weeks I will sit across from some candidates and talk to them and what I will be looking for are people who:
Know their stuff: I want staff with great subject knowledge. I want our students to see that their teachers live their subjects.
Care about their subject: I want my students to receive up-to-date and exciting information. I want them to be able to get into deep discussions with teachers that truly care about what they're saying.
Are Interesting: Students deserve staff who lead interesting lives outside the classroom and can share elements of those lives. I want sportspeople, model-makers, musicians, chefs, readers, writers, readers, journalists, historians, film-buffs, artists, critics, nerds, geeks, gamers, because all this enriches the experience of teaching the most wonderful subject there is. Even if it doesn't seem important right now, it will be important at some point.
And then, I am likely to watch them teach a lesson and what I want to see is a lesson where the teacher:
Is Passionate: I want to see how much they care about what they're teaching. Students should be hung on every word because the teacher clearly wants to share their love and interest.
Has very high standards: Students deserve to be pushed and so I expect teachers to speak properly, press students' vocabularies, teach difficult texts and topics and correct students when they use unacceptable language or give simplistic answers.
Has a sense of humour and sense of perspective: You can also read this as 'Doesn't take themselves too seriously.' Schools should be lighthearted, fun places, and expect teachers to reflect this. They should also be able to recognise when a student has done something wrong by accident (as opposed to with malice), and how to deal with this is a way that is appropriate.
So that is my checklist for what I think makes a great teacher, but one last thing. I always want to work in an environment where teachers and students are pushing themselves forward. I think the best trait a teacher can have is to always be learning and questioning. I want to work with people that are unafraid of failure, and embrace criticism and move forward constantly. And if you've got to the end of this, and you live in London and are a teacher and are thinking 'This sounds like me!' then why not apply: Space Studio West London

Saturday, 23 January 2016

You work until when?

Hello everyone.

This is hard for me to say.

I am a teacher.

And I work until Five.

Shock, Gasp, Horror.

Oh. Wait. You ONLY work until five?

Yes. I only work until five. in fact, I stay at school until five, and then, give or take, I go home. What makes this particular situation slightly more unusual is that I teach until five. Every day, except for Fridays (where we pack up at 3:40) I get into school about and have a working day all the way through until five, at which point, almost simultaneously, the entire staff of the school legs it. And when I get home, what do I do? The same things that the rest of my school's staff do:

Spend time with their family.
Go to the gym.
Watch a bit of sport.
Play with the dog.
Watch the collected works of Wes Anderson.

You get the picture, and the picture doesn't include any work whatsoever. My school specifically has a 'don't take work home' policy. HA! I hear you cry from the future, but what if you HAVE to get that marking done. Well, if it isn't done in PPA time then the marking isn't efficient enough. And what about planning then? If it isn't done in PPA time then it's overplanning, not planning at all.

I know that this is beginning to come across as a sort of vague utopian satire, that in a second I will wake up from my little long-houred school but, actually, there is no volta here, no reveal. This is a piece of writing in defence of a few small things, and promoting a few small things. I live in an idyll, as far as education is concerned. A state-funded, non-selective idyll; A studio school.

By Tuesday, every week, I have taught every student in the school. All 80-odd of them will have passed into my judgement and out again. Now, yes, we are in our first year of opening, and so we are at half capacity, but the entire size of the secondary school will never exceed 300 for years 10-13. I know every child in our school's name, and they know mine. And I talk to them, every day. I spend time with students.

In our timetable, SLT have been really careful to place enough time for staff to do all their work on site. Right now, I am in the 2-hour PPA period that I have first thing in the morning 4 days a week. I get a lot of stuff done in these periods, not least all my marking, planning, and then have a wander around the school, watching other teachers teach. Often, I just sit in the back of other teacher's classrooms and do my marking, or I just watch their lessons and learn something. I am not a mathematician, but I am getting better, purely by the amount of maths lessons I now watch. Because, once again, I have time.

There is, of course, a flipside that some are already guessing. If you keep the kids until 5, when do they do their homework? Here. They do it here. They have timetabled independent study periods where they have to do their work. They get it done on site, in periods supervised by teachers, which means that students can ask their teachers for help. Then, at the end of the day, the students get to go home, and not do homework, and not panic about not understanding their homework. Parents don't have to panic about not being able to help their students. Then, inadvertently, arguably, and even more adverbially, the best result is that students' books are kept at school, in big boxes. All of them. It is next to impossible for a child to lose their book, or 'leave an essay at home' because the book should never have been there in the first place. We have so much control here, and that enables us to do amazing things like taking kids on trips, and getting in outside speakers every single week.

What we are learning is that above everything else,  If teachers have time, have space, fell valued, feel supported and are therefore happy, then amazing things happen. Most importantly, the experience for the students is unique and incredible.

We Need to Talk about Thursday

We need to talk about Thursday. Why do we need to talk about Thursday? Because I'm pretty sure that it was the best teaching day of my life.

I haven't been writing much recently. Well, not here anyway. I have actually been working on a novel. It has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with it at the same time, but that is an aside that hasn't quite linked up yet, so we will leave it, comparatively, untouched.

The writing has dried up somewhat because I am a little bit too happy. It is easier to complain in a wild, emotional abandon than to exalt with any sort of integrity. I have learned that it is difficult to write good news, which explains the Daily Mail, I guess.

So, Thursday, I'm sorry. Thursday was the best day of my teaching life, and part of that was because it wasn't atypical of my current working life. I cycled in and arrived about 8, and I cycled home when I finished teaching just after 5. But, then what else?

I started the working day with breakfast, bought from home, sat around in the canteen with the other teaching staff while the students sorted themselves and their gossips out for the day. Then I had English timetabled with year 10.

I teach both halves of year Ten, or, looking at it another way, all of year Ten. We have about 48 students in year ten, and a shade under thirty kids in year twelve and that's our entire school. We're a studio school and we only opened in September. Next year we'll have years 10-13, giving up a shade under 200 students for the entire school. For now, we are minute, and not in that disappointing steak kind of way.

This diminutive structure has a vast number of advantages, but that's not the direct reason why Thursday was incredible. I taught a lesson. I taught the same lesson twice in fact. It was a lesson I'd been thinking of for a while. The first half of it was relatively mundane; the students wrote letters to each other, as if we were fifteen years in the future and they were getting in touch with their former classmates. They've been doing this quite a bit. They get a letter, anonymously, from someone else, read it and send a reply. The next week they get the replies and send another. it's working as an ongoing project. They enjoy it. Each of them, in 45 minutes, writes and observant letter. It's a nice thing. After that, the students studied two different manifestos and then wrote their own revolutionary manifestos. Some of them needed a bit of quiet space so used some of the other rooms in the school. I put some Billy Bragg on as well, just to set the mood.

After four hours of English teaching I hopped on the school bus with 12 Year 10s and drove about fifteen minutes down the road to go Ice Skating for the third time in two weeks. (third time, a third of year ten, sort of fits, right?). It became ice clear as soon as blades touched clear ice that many of these students were new to the slippery stuff. I love seeing students out of their comfort zones, and out of the school environment, so it's good that our school has developed an informal motto: Every week, someone goes somewhere. We're actually far exceeding this: Last week something like 8 trips went out and we had 3 outside speakers. We work hard to provide unique experiences, and in return our students are good as platinum.

I got back to school at 3:40, just in time for the last lesson of the day, which in my case was the current Core Project: Flight. Every group is pursuing the project from their own unique angle. Their only outcome is they must build a model and produce a display board explaining a concept of flight. One group decided they wanted to work with clay, so we got them some clay and I spent a good half hour modelling with them. I built an eagle's head of my own and they started on their own project. I had to leave them, though, to teach a masterclass. We offer these every Core Project session. They're optional little mini classes on these that the teacher is interested in or wants to research. This one was on advances in aircraft technology from WW2 to the current day. It's an area I really like talking about.

And that's it, actually. I don't know whether you've noticed the running theme. I love letter writing, I love manifestos, especially modernist ones, love Ice Skating, love craft and modelling, love planes and most of all I love teaching about things I love. There is no force in teaching more powerful than passion. I am not an exceptional teacher; I am a teacher who took a chance on a school that didn't exist when I applied to it, and I have used that chance, as have the rest of the staff I work with, to foster an environment where we enjoy every single day. We regularly say to each other that 'this doesn't feel like work'  because it doesn't. We don't have hideous numbers of emails; we talk to each other. We don't have reams of pointless paperwork; we get on with stuff, and to all the naysayers about accountability and OFSTED? Our vice principal is an inspector.

So we need to talk about Thursday, because Thursday felt like a school should; exciting, stretching, passionate and fun. It's just a little sad that it also feels like no other school I have ever been in.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Teaching and Watching

So it's the summer, right? And you're already bored, right? And it's inevitably going to rain, because it's England, and that's what it does, right? So, get yourself on Amazon and order up a load of DVDs, and being a teacher, or that should possibly be being a Teacher (it comes capitalised with your NUT membership) you inevitably can't leave your job behind, so why not take a hint from the Calamity Teacher Brand (tm pending) guide to what to watch when you miss school a little too much, but don't want to get off the sofa/out of bed. I have included OFSTED-sanctioned summaries of every film so that you're absolutely sure of what you've learned from the experience before you even begin.

1: Dead Poets' Society
A man breaks every rule in the staff handbook then encourages students to go against their parents' wishes until one of them commits suicide. Hilarity ensues. 

2: History Boys
Overweight paedophile teaches young student the value of their holistic education while indoctrinating an NQT into his own way of thinking. Lovable paedo gets caught fondling a student and is saved from a disgraceful dismissal by his untimely death. Hilarity ensues. Also on the AQA reading list so it's like doing homework.

3: The Breakfast Club
Five bad boys with the power to rock you students demonstrate their diversity through the medium of forced ubiquitous punishment. They are badly supervised and this causes negative behaviour to propagate. In the end no-one learns anything. There is also a musical montage.

4: Coach Carter
Inspirational educator is accidentally hired as a sports coach instead of a Principal. School sport is presented as being unfathomably important and this is why Ashanti ends up pregnant.

5: Harry Potter
A consistently failing and dangerous independent school is followed in a unprecedented 7-year study where the school consistently resists academisation by a clearly more organised and benevolent power. A student council raises its own private army in fierce defiance of Voldemort the DfE. IN THE LAST FILM THE SCHOOL IS TURNED INTO AN ACADEMY AND EVERYTHING IS OKAY THERE IS NO NEED TO WATCH THE LAST FILM. NO NEED AT ALL. GO BACK TO SLEEP. EVERYTHING IS OKAY.

6: Teachers
Precursor to Educating Essex makes a household name out of Andrew Lincoln. longitudinal study shows why Labour was always wrong about education. Always.

7: Donnie Darko
 Parallel universe parable demonstrates why teachers should always STICK TO THE CURRICULUM; a number of teachers go off-curriculum to teach dangerous texts and non state-sanctioned theories. This torrid arrogance leads to deaths and destruction. There's another paedophile in this one, too.

8: Perks of Being a Wallflower
Boy deals with worrying relapses in mental state by studying extra-curricular core subjects. Quality teaching

9: Summer Heights High
A drama teacher, a independent school exchange student and a youth delinquent are the centre of this reality-tv expose of the failures of an Australian school system that doesn't have the EBACC.

10: The Inbetweeners
Series follows four sixth formers who are consistently supported by an excellent head of sixth form and a supportive, enriching, school experience and all go on to excellent post-18 opportunities in the worlds of work and university. Hilarity is abundant in this riotous coming-of-age drama. There is also a paedophile because, well, of course there is. 

Enjoy your summer kiddies, because I'm watching films.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

There will be a story there.

I have always assumed that the birth of a school followed a secular immaculate conception. That schools just sprang up, or had always been there. I find it hard, still, to work out where one finds the space to place a fully formed school in a town, or village, or extra-urban part of Hounslow.

When I left teaching last year, I wasn't sure of when I would return, but I told myself that I would only come back to do something that I could really get behind. I had one ill-fated interview at a very prestigious school, but it didn't feel right, and they didn't like me, so the choice on that one was very much taken out of my hands. But then something came up.

When I left my last school, another teacher (among many) left at the same time. This teacher was also taking a break from classroom teaching (although he did little of that in his role as a director) but he wasn't off to study, he was off to plan. Plan and build. He was off to put a school where there had previously been no school. But, more than that, he was off to answer a question that we all think from time to time; 'What would I do if I was in charge?'. And his, most wonderful of answers?

'We're going to change education.'

I offer my insincere apologies here for the mixed pronouns, but it was necessary to facilitate some inconsequential gravitas. 'We're going to change education.' it's a wonderful phrase. It's brave, it's possibly stupid, but it's all that is right. As you can probably imagine, that sort of statement sought me out from my high-brow literary malaise. I was convinced. I wanted to be part of this, or, at least, I wanted to find out what 'this' was. Turns out 'This' was the 'that' that I wanted the 'this' to be.

In short order, I had an interview, I got the job, I started becoming something. I started co-writing a story. Others were involved. Others are involved. We are becoming something and that thing feels gorgeous. A lot of what we're doing in September isn't totally defined. A lot of it isn't set in stone, or fleshed out or down on paper, but that is so wonderfully exciting. There is no set way of doing things yet, so the teachers get to define how things are done We are not encumbered by history. When we looked at the options for what to teach, we decided on what we wanted to teach. As in, what interested us. When I chose set texts for GCSE, I made a conscious decision to choose what excited me, not what was easy. I chose texts specifically for their wider ramifications; the opportunities to teach off-field. Off-spec. Off-kilter.

Going away from the teach-to-the-test rubric is the point of the school. The point is to teach. to actually teach. Not to check boxes in ever-decreasing circles, but to take steps in ever-increasing bounds. We want to engender a culture of wanting to learn. Not being tricked into it. We seem to have an obsession with 'tricking' children into learning, and that we have to 'complete' sections of education. The education is something that can be 'finished'. Screw that. Lets change the ethic. We're trying to change the ethic.

There is a lot of top down dictum in education. A lot of people making their own decisions and a lot of people below them just 'doing their best' is spite of this. Is it your best? Is it the version of you that you want to be? Be your own hero. We are. We are trying to change education one student at a time, one school at a time. Part of it, though, is who we are surrounding ourselves with; Passionate people who believe in themselves and their causes. People who question the status quo and value their own learning as much as their students. This might sound horribly arrogant, but I am starting to realise that teachers easily become very negative. It is very easy in staffrooms for teachers to enter spirals of negativity that effect our working lives. Instead of being proud of what we do, we surround ourselves with people who bring us down. The school that I have been temping at as a cover supervisor is quite close to the new school, and I have been innundated with negative energy about what we are trying to do in September. We are seen as a threat and a risk and a group of people playing at education. It has worn me down at times and given me undue doubts, but then the moment I have conversations with the other September teachers I am instantly filled with excitement. It's been fiercely dichotomous. I have found myself feeling displaced from both. But then I started to ponder, then wonder, then with enlightened wonderment filled myself with hope. Then I realised it wasn't hope. It was the feeling I should have.

I Love This Job.

I have missed it, and being a cover teacher has just entrenched this by showing me a pale imitation of what teaching is. I want to be around other people who aren't curbed by some underhand need to whine. Now I whine a lot, I know, but I will never tell anyone that I don't love my job. And, I reckon most of you do, too. You are reading blogs about teaching. You are on Twitter. You care. And most of you seen to want to change teaching so that it is more teaching, and less bullshit. So get the people around you who believe in what you believe in and start changing what you want to change at the ground level, and make sure people know what you're doing and how you're doing it. Don't suffer dictum in silence. Build narratives between teachers and other teachers, between teachers and students, between students and students. Make your own environment. Talk to each other. Come out of your classrooms and share practice. Don't be afraid of being observed by your peers, or of collaborating with other subjects or other schools. Don't be afraid to take ownership of yourself.

Be a heroine. Be a hero. Be the teacher you want to be. Don't be afraid to be positive about things you believe in because, you know what? You believe in them. Be the most positive person you can be about what you want to be positive about. This process of preparing to open a new school has taught me to be proud of my ideas and proud to be positive. It's a strange thing, but I feel like much of the education system, both as a profession and a public service, rewards a lack of ingenuity. I want to stop that. I am with other people who want to stop that, and we're stepping up to the plate. Fancy going up to your own?

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Planning backwards

I read this blog post this week, and I thought about one of the major points, that is, planning backwards from A-level. In September, I am going to be Lead Teacher of English at a new school where I am the only English teacher (Department nights out are going to be wild (or, alternatively, just me, in the pub, on my own, crying, into a half drunk pint of absinthe.))


Anyway. I like this idea of planning back from A-level, but I also thought about planning forward from A-level. As in, I want to plan the student that I want to leave my department, so I sat down and started to think about that student. I asked myself a very simple question: How will I describe the eighteen year old student graduating my school? Specifically, a student with an A-level in English. I jotted down a few traits before a reasonably important realisation:

The Student:
  • Well Read 
  • Respectfully Outspoken
  • Creative
  • Pragmatic
  • Confident
  • Respectfully Cynical
  • Able to Find Perspective
  • Positive.
I thought, not a bad list. The student would be able to stand up for what they believe in, and root their beliefs in an appreciation of others. They would be calm and confidant, speak well, but not try and overly control others. A great, and it was here that I found a word that has fallen a little out of fashion recently, citizen. A Great Citizen. An Ideal. My Ideal,yes, and therefore fallible and imperfect, but an ideal adult, to an extent.

This is not, then, planning back from the qualification, this is planning back from the person. This is end-result holistic planning. Notice how many of those goals are achievable in English. Go on, have a look, I'll wait.

Back? Good, let's begin.

Planning has become an exercise in filling time. Or times maybe (S operative.). It is an exercise in picking out nice neat little Lego blocks and lining them up to make a perfect shape. But that isn't really planning at all. What that is is filing. Filing children away. Planning in order to place children from the future through the present and into the past. That is not, though, how things really work.

The child that turns up in September is just a version of a later adult. That later adult exists in a plural form and is irrevocably linked to the child. It will be affected by a million unforeseeable circumstances, but if it is guided by an expectation of it being exceptional then the negative versions of itself will slide away. When was the last time you thought about the potential adult that your lesson was effecting? When was the last time you really thought about long term planning in the real long term? A lot of schools are happy to paint words like 'Success' and 'Resilience' about their doors, or write it under the crests on their blazers, but how much does that influence the actual teaching? And what does that mean? I would think that for most schools success means something that arrives in an envelope in a few weeks time, not a moment of clarity in thirty years.

Planning is not about lessons, not about blocks of time. Think of it more as painting a model. When you paint a model you have to lay down the basecoat, and it has to be right. If it doesn't quite stick or is the wrong shade then later the model will be a mess. As you go on the areas of work become smaller and smaller until you are dotting the eyes with a brush with a single hair. The thing is, that all the way through you are painting the same model, and working with the same ideal, it is just that you do the basic things first and work towards an end result that is incredibly complex. Planning is this. Plan for the best adult, and the student will become that.

Maybe. 

It's all in the name

I am an 'Outstanding' teacher, in an 'Outstanding' school, and I am being bullied, day after day, by a group of year seven students.

When I ask them to do something, they ignore me.
When I ask them again, they ask me why?
When explain, they tell me that they don't have to.
When I tell them they do, they tell me they don't.
When I threaten them with detention, they tell me they won't turn up.
When I tell them to move seats, or leave the classroom, they laugh in my face.
When I send for on-call, they are suddenly silent, obedient. The on-call teachers, for the most part, look at me as if I'm mad. They look as if I have no idea what I'm doing. I ask for detentions; no-one turns up. I ask for sanctions; nothing happens.

Perhaps I make too much of a job title, but I know this truth to be self-evident: I am a cover supervisor, and for a great swathe of students this very fact obliterates my face and replaces it with a target. Teaching, at its very core, is a balance between behaviour management and the ability to convey information. There are many other factors, but at its core, these are two essential traits. I am not here to talk about conveying information, ideas and skills, for that has become nigh on impossible for me. I am here to talk about when behaviour management becomes impossible. because a single thing is broken: Not hearts, nor minds, (although mine are beginning to unravel) but the facade of repercussions.

You are more than welcome to disagree, but in my opinion behaviour management is based on a lie, and that lie is the the teacher somehow wields a power over the students that is unbreakable. Students fear things. Some fear detentions, or their parents, or being shouted at, but when it all boils down and dries out to the white grainy stuff that really screws up non-stick pans, students wield an overpowering amount of, well, power. Any class is only a smidgen of self-awareness away from breaking the spirit of a teacher. There is a moment when the class becomes the mob. They realise that the teacher is, essentially, powerless; that they cannot stop everyone at once. That, if their transgressions are spread wide enough and loud enough, there is no way that they can be controlled. In short, you can't kick a whole class out.

The cover teacher, then, is an easy victim. They rarely know names, rarely know systems and protocol, and regularly have to deliver boring textbook work. The cover teacher has difficulty building any positive relationships because their job is profoundly to tell students what to do. For students, the pervasive culture is that the cover teacher is a target, and they turn as entire classes towards this. Detentions are hard to set without a classroom, or names, or any knowledge of protocol and escalation. Other staff are too busy with their own work to adopt classes from others and so minor transgressions go ignored and this escalates. The next time a class is covered they ratchet up their behaviour and have no way back. There is no reset button for children gone feral.

So I'm another cover teacher being treated like shit by student after student, day after day, and I just put up with it and do whatever I can to make my life a little easier, all the time knowing that the students' time is being wasted, partly by themselves, and partly by a system which fails to support. But I think what is behind this is a tacit acceptance that a cover lesson is allowed to be wasted. This, surely, is indicative of a pervasive culture; that learning, and work, are only valued and accepted by students when they are told that they are in an environment that they are conditioned to appreciate. How sad is that? That we have engendered a culture in students that they only look to learning in little blocks. I (probably irrationally) blame learning objectives. This is learning, we tattoo on their little faces. This is it. I am the lord of teaching and listen up, we shout at the top of our teaching voices, because I am about to show you measurable learning. Look at my almighty powerpoint, for looking into it's depths will reveal to you the secrets of your future. Now go and write a fucking poem in groups.

And then, all the while this happens, it is children that suffer. Their wonderment is worn down and worn away until their belief is such that value is only placed on these things that they are told are important. And then beyond this they become fixated with the same culture of accountability that we do. They only listen to the people that tell them to listen to them the most. They only do what they think is directly related to their grades. They are being receded into something basic, and ignorant, and unthinking. We feed them only the food that we think they need, and this dry boredom means that any change is feared and becomes the catalyst for real nastiness. The mob only likes the driest of chicken, and if it is not fed it, it will gladly roast piggy, glasses or no.

Perhaps I am over thinking this whole affair. Perhaps I just keep seeing a class that is genuinely nasty. All I know is this; In my former job I pressed the dreaded on call button twice over two years. I the last six months as a cover teacher I have pressed it almost every day.

I am an 'outstanding' teacher in an 'outstanding' school, and I cannot control a group of year sevens and I don't know what to do about that anymore.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Inspire me, I dare you.

It has become the opium of the masses for those who gaze with longing eyes on the pay packet of the Senior Leader. It's perfect little form must fit, must be the right size for the pre-formatted box, or as I am seeing increasingly, it must fit between the windows of the corridor, to be read once by a proud director and then forgotten to the slowly abrasing elbows and shoulder of a thousand rushing, barging, ignoring students. It is that haven of soundbite; the inspirational quotation. It is the Quote of the Week. The appropriated gobbet that holds within its words some pervasive message of peace, of hope, of hard work paid off, but it really just sits still, bathing in the blissful ignorance of one long dead. I told you I was ill, he said.

But alas, If the opium of the masses is the (in)famous quotation, then I am on harder stuff. I am the smoker with the hand-rolled cigar, the craft bear drinker, and I wear a tweed cap. Ironically, of course. I love a quotation, but I can't stand the humdrumery (definitely a real word) of so many of them. They are chosen and presented without thought, without care and without any student consideration. I apologise if this next statement pulls tears into the eyes of some aspiring Ministers for Education, but painting quotations on walls and putting them on boards during form time to sit with little to no acknowledgement doesn't make students cleverer. It doesn't make them more conscientious or aspiring because for the most part the quotations that swill around the hi-tops of students on their diurnal passage look as if they have been saved up from Christmas crackers.

I like quotations that come from unlikely places. I love those that are challenging to preconceptions. I adore those that are unique. Anyone can find a quotation that talks about how hard you have to work to be a great success, or how every child is a unique little butterfly. So how about showing your students a different angle? Perhaps the gravitas of:

  Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. – Arthur C Clark

Or maybe, to counteract "It'll be okay" syndrome:

This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time. – Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club)

 Why not use these moments of un-curriculumed freedom to have a look at events from a alternative perspectives:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. – Robert Oppenheimer, Inventor of the Atomic Bomb

But these are perhaps too conventional still. How about any of these:

Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them only in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market likely to have been? Surely he can only have been a thief. – David Graeber

You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been. – Ursula Le Guin

If you want to watch telly, go watch Scooby Doo. That programme was so cool; every time there was a church with a ghoul, or a ghost in a school, they looked beneath the mask. And what was inside? The janitor, or the dude who ran the water slide. Because throughout history, every mystery, ever solved, has turned out to be not magic. - Tim Minchin

When I went to the Yellow Cab Company I passed the Cancer Building and I remembered that there were worse things than looking for a job you didn't want. – Charles Buckowski

If they give you lined paper, write the other way. – Juan Jimenez (also the preface to Fahrenheit 451)

I think of writing as a sculptural medium. You are not building things. You are removing things, chipping away at language to reveal a living form. – Will Self

Being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket. – Futurama
 
My advice is stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and the lie are not "sort of" the same thing. And there's no aspect, no facet, no moment in life that can't be improved with pizza. Thank you. – Daria Morgendorffer
 
I had to look in the dictionary
To find out the meaning of unrequited
While she was giving herself for free
At a party to which I was never invited
- Billy Bragg

1. You can't win. 2. You can't break even. 3. You can't even get out of the game. – Ginsberg’s Theorum

I have never found anywhere, in the domain of art, that you don't have to walk to. (There is quite an array of jets, buses and hacks which you can ride to Success; but that is a different destination.) It is a pretty wild country. There are, of course, roads. Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain't no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction — you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart. – Ursula Le Guin

Most of the wind happens where there are trees. - Paul Muldoon

Look at all those things. Lovely ain't they. But my greatest advice? Find some of your own, from people you respect, and then you can talk about their words to your students. All of the aforementioned will be used from September, along with trucks and trucks of others; an ever changing cloud of words that turn black and rain and snow and then open up to the sun but never fail to have an impact because they are part of a dynamic conversation.I think that the current teaching ethic is one that rewards stasis. Despite its outspoken chagrin of coasting, it rewards systems that stay the same. But ideas that put things in place. Hmmm. Putting things in place. That is a vile little goblin in itself. Stop putting things in place, because that just means that they are to be left. If you paint something on a wall it will be ignored because that is its inevitable function. Talk, change, EXIST AS A CONVERSATION.

Just, in all this quoting and quothing, remember:

A witty saying proves nothing. - Voltaire

Oh, shit. I think that's just formed a paradox. 

 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Out of order

I've been hearing this phrase a lot recently:

That's well out of order

and it's been grating on me. I hear it a lot from students, and very occasionally from staff about students who say it a lot in some kind of reflective ironic joke. The staff will grow out of it, but I'm not sure that the students will, because they seem to be indulged again and again, not just in my school but nationally. Perhaps internationally, in the Anglo-centric forum at least.

What grates me, as if I am the most sweatily warm of own-brand cheddars, is that students appear to be confusing truth with unfairness. Or, perhaps not truth, but honesty. An example, I hear you cry from the orchestra pit, well: I was wondering through a school recently, when two teachers walked along the bottom of a stairwell of whose stairs I was, well, walking down, behind two unbeknowing students, chewing. One teacher said to the other

'I'm so frustrated with him. I've put on revision classes after school every day and he always says that he is coming and never turns up.'

to which the other, their line manager, replied:

'You've done everything you can. If they want to fail, then let them fail.'

The students in front of me, bedawdelling their way down the stairs, piped up at this point.

'Did you hear that? That's peak that is.'
'Yeah, well out of order.'

I stopped, then, on the stairs, and waited for the students to go. It was lunchtime, and I had no need to enter a convoluted defence of an ethic that the students clearly didn't care for. I was, however, galled. Disbelieving.

Perhaps it is just me who sees the fundamental issue at the core of this little anecdote, perhaps it is not. I believe, firmly, that teachers have a duty to provide as much as is possible for their students, but I also believe that students need to learn that, for most of their lives, very few people will go out of their way to help them. Life is a tough old place, and people lose jobs and go bankrupt on 'That's out of order' attitudes.

I feel like this entitlement to a teacher's daily misery is propagated by the unrealistic standards set by government on achievement and that this in some way reflects upon teachers. To illustrate, there is that old idiom: You can't do the exam for them. Unfortunately, it would seem, teachers are being forced into a scenario where they feel like they have to and students are beginning to get wind of this, and it is creating a cancerous, damaging attitude of entitlement, as if many students know that their teachers will be judged on their progress and so assume that teachers simply will not let them fail. The adage of failure not being an option has been inverted from an expectation into a student-led tacit threat. You can't do that, you're not allowed to let me fail, is becoming a rousing chant of an increasing number of lacklustre students.

To finish: A friend of mine rang me recently. (Yes that's right, I have a friend)He is a sports coach at a very big and successful club. I asked him how his team were going to do this year and he said, quite nonchalantly, we'll do okay, but we just don't have the personnel. I was awestruck; what a refreshing attitude. Sometimes you don't get the students, and it's not your fault as a teacher that all their parents seemed to have only drunk Lead-Based Sunny Delight while pregnant. (unless it was, of course, and then you should be rightfully ashamed.)

If they really want to fail, who are we to stop them? All we can do is explain the consequences, teach as best we can, and afford the opportunities. It is their life to live.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

You Can Be Anything You Want To Be


I would like you all, as a class, to imagine that you are all grown adults and, as we have told you that you all can, you have achieved all of your dreams. So, close your eyes now, and think. You are waking up on a wonderful day in perfect town, where you all live. You have got up and dressed and you are now on your way to work. Now, remember, each of you will be different in your goals, but you are all on your way to work. Some of you will walk. Some of you might ride a fancy road bike. Others will have an expensive car. Maybe you'll drive it, maybe you won't, but your on your way to work. You've left your lovely house, perhaps it's in the suburbs, maybe it contains a wife, or a husband, or two cats and a dog. Maybe it's up a private track behind a set of ornate gates or maybe it is high up at the penthouse of a skyscraper. Sorry. I sidetrack. So, you are on your way to work. You have a smile on your face and it is a wonderful day for you to be alive and so you think; what better way to get to work than with a nice fresh coffee, or tea, or maybe a hot breakfast and so you check your watch but you know that work won't mind because, I imagine, most of you own your own companies, or work for yourselves, or maybe you don't work but, hey, you're going out for a coffee anyway. So you, living your perfect life, amongst other people living out the dreams we've told you that you can all work hard and have, walk up to the till to buy a coffee and my question to you is:

Who is serving you that coffee?

Which of the other students, other dreamers in this room doesn't get to live out their dreams because they have to serve you your latte? Who stands there, and smiles and secretly hates you and themselves and looks, jealously, upon your perfection and serves you your coffee? Whose dream is in the dust amongst the floor?

But you don't worry about this, because you got your dream. Someone didn't, but that wasn't you. You're doing fine. So you get to work, and you turn in your projects, and everyone loves you and you're doing just cracking. So you say to everyone that you're just popping out to grab some lunch, and so you pop into the supermarket to grab a few things and maybe one of those nice sandwiches as a treat. And you pick up your things, and put them in a basket, and you go up to the till and there is another person, sat there, passing things she can't afford in front of a scanner, because she didn't get her dream. But don't worry: your teacher said that you were going to get your dream, so you did. But. Wait. Her teacher told that to her as well. And she worked, didn't she? Or did she just think she was working? Did she just want her dream a bit, whereas you wanted yours a lot. You wanted yours more than anything else.

But there's, perhaps, another story behind this. Maybe that Coffee guy is living his dream, just not yet. Maybe he's at night school, or he's writing a book. Maybe that till girl is working so she can pay for uni. They are doing this because they value their education. They value their dreams. Their dreams change things. They fulfill their operators and they make the world different. Maybe Coffee guy is a volunteer lifeboat man, and checkout girl is a thesbian in the evenings, or she's researching something minute and underfunded but fulfilling.

So is your dream really your dream or is it just a bit of a concession? And, and here is a dangerous thought, does your dream actually matter? Does your lovely dream job contribute to anything? Does it make things better? does it make you better? What has happened in this wonderful dream day that has changed the world?

Your teachers are increasingly preparing students for lives where you either fail to live up to your own expectations, or live up to expectations that are, frankly, useless. You will graduate school to get jobs that allow you to do exactly the same things that you are doing at school; performing the minimum in tasks in order to spend the rest of your hours browsing the internet and documenting your humdrum lives for others to browse. You will participate in a great amorphous mass of perpetuating nothingness. You will be happy, sort of, but you will be doing jobs that have been created, essentially, so that people have jobs. Our economy is the preserve of the service industry. Most people don't really do anything except move things around so that other people can move them back.

Most of you will be perfectly content with this. You will stop doing arts, and sciences, and humanities and you will lose interest in pursuing anything. There is an interesting term: Pursuing. Pursuit of learning, of fulfillment through personal improvement is, surely, the point of life (in lieu of having any concrete theological solution (If God in any form suddenly appears and tells us the point of humanity was achieved in 1981, with the invention of the potato waffle, then I will gladly rescind this post*)). It doesn't need a label, it doesn't need anyone to qualify it with an EBACC or a sticker or a sew-on badge. Your dreams are consistently pigeon-holed into sensible twenty-first century friendly boxes: I want to be an accountant when I grow up. I really want to work in sales. No-one wants these things. Not really. These things barely exist. Every one of should want to change the world. Content is a dirty word. Content is a word sold to you by people who can profit from your quiet obedience. You should want to live without dead time. You should aspire not to be cogs. The problem, of course, is alluded to in the start of this little talk. Not everyone gets everything they want or, what they want is useless. So, what is there to do? To do, is to remind you that life isn't a desk. Life is in your heart. Life is in your head. Life is your own fulfillment, not your teacher's or your boss's. But please, for your own sakes, be ambitious. Care. Give a shit how your insignificant spark of life on this tiny planet in some backwater of the galaxy is spent. You probably only get this, and your dying every single second. To quote Fight Club, This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time. Go out and be a revolutionary. Go and, to quote Whip It, be your own hero.

Here endeth the assembly.