Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bring back Conscription (not really)

She's right. Of course she is. In her last column in The Guardian's G2 section Deborah Orr writes about the scandal that is the general level of literacy in the UK. She's right too about the half-hearted or plain wrong-headed attempts to drive up standards in schools. What she doesn't do is offer any solutions.

This government (and the last one too) HAVE got some solutions. They're just mindless ones. They generally consist of thumping the party conference table and promising to sack the shit teachers, close the shit schools and let businesses set up shiny new ones (like businesses have such a great track record in running anything. Including businesses.)

And it doesn't work. It won't work. Can't work. The truth is there aren't that many genuinely crap teachers. But there are a lot of miserable ones.

I was a teacher for ten years all told. At different times I taught English, Drama, Media Studies... I taught in tough estate schools, Catholic schools, rural schools - always in secondary schools, always in comprehensives. And what did I see over that ten years? Over that time standards of classroom behaviour definitely declined. All teachers will tell you there is more low level disruption now. More answering back, more chatting, less focused work, shorter concentration spans. But what really brought me down was the casual rudeness of kids towards other kids. I don't mean sustained, systematic bullying but a offhand reflexive dismissive attitude towards each other. Routine dissing became increasingly the norm. This was especially true if anyone showed an exceptional desire to learn.

And where does it come from this desire to poke and prod and needle each other?

It's not there in the early years. If you see any reception class anywhere in the country no matter how deprived,  you'll see whole classes eager to find out how everything works and eager to play. More than eager desperate to be friends with everyone, desperate to know everything about everything. By the time they hit secondary school much of this energy and drive has been lost. By the end of year nine, nearly all of it has gone.

A lot of this must be down to the curriculum which is increasingly skewed towards the perceived needs of the employers. Most owners of big and medium sized businesses, the suits who governments listen to,don't actually want creative, free-thinking employees who are likely to wonder about the point of what they're doing? They want drones who will work producing more shit so they can buy more shit without being troubled by philosophy or morality or spirituality or dreams of a better world than this one. This means a lot of subjects that should be the most joyous - literature, music, art, drama - are side-lined, and the 'core' skills English, Science, Maths, IT reduced to their most functional and boring components, because of course all those subjects could be joyous too. Even sport is tied into a health agenda now. Keep fit - save the NHS money. Even that most basic of human arts - cooking - is reduced to designing ready-meals and thinking about how to market them (I'm not making this up for polemical purposes by the way, that's actually want you do in Food Tech GCSE. In primary school you might make a pineapple upside down cake, once you've moved up to primary school you draw a pizza and work out which parts of the demographic it might appeal to using pie charts and surveymonkey.)

But it's not just the curriculum. It's the teachers. It is.

I taught for ten years and made a lot of good friends in teaching. It would be fair to say that I'm the envy of most of them because I managed to get out.

I was a good teacher, I think. My results were good and an even better index is that quite a lot of the students I taught became teachers in their turn. Most of those students turned sir and miss are in their mid to late twenties now and they seem to be still enjoying it, still buzzing and creative. Exhausted but feeling that their life has purpose and meaning. That they're doing a good thing against huge odds, prepared to kick against all the pricks. That it is still worth doing all the paperwork, still worth putting up with gratuitious insults from government, to put up with a league table obsessed senior management team, to put up with the indiscipline not just from students but from parents who have been increasingly encouraged to see themselves as customers.

My older ex-colleagues meanwhile are just exhausted. The talk is of escape committees, of going under the wire or over the wall. The staff room of the last shool I taught in was like Hitler's bunker - but with none of the joie de vivre that might imply. At least Hitler's henchmen knew it was likely to end pretty soon for better or worse. In the staff room at Chantry high School, Ipswich there wasn't the option of a cyanide pill or a merciful bullet to the back of the head. There was just the prospect of more of the same for day after day, term after term, year after year.

When I 'retired' from teaching (at the age of 39 - I got in late, as well as getting out early) there was a chap leaving on the same day who had done 44 years in the same school. He'd taught at Chantry longer than I'd been alive. He was well loved and had done everything from deputy head downwards.  He'd also run soccer teams, drama clubs, organised residential trips and all that. He had taught grandparents of some of his current pupils. He was, rightly, a legend. He was also pretty much the last of his kind.

Teaching should be a marathon, but it's run like a sprint. You wouldn't expect a distance runner to sprint like Usain Bolt from the off and keep that up for 26 odd miles. Of course you wouldn't. But govts do expect teachers to do that. And you can't. You just can't. No one can.

So teachers burn out. And they're not paid as badly as they once were - not if they've been doing it a few years and so they're trapped. Not in a gilded cage exactly, but a semi-detached cage with nice curtains and cushion covers, one that has three bedrooms and a patch of garden and a garage. Teachers wages seem nicely calibrated these days to be just too much to give up easily.

And what else could they do anyway? What does a burned out teacher do? Just as a cynic is a heartbroken idealist, so an inadequate teacher is often a formerly outstanding one brought low by the erosion of their confidence by the sense of being on a treadmill. By tiredness. Those of us who are parents know the toll days and weeks of sleeplessness can take on your patience, your ability to plan, the amount of work you can get through - and being a teacher can get to be like having a baby that never grows up, that never learns to sleep through the night. You're simply never allowed to be 'off' to have a bad term, or a series of dodgy lessons.

And even if your lessons are amazing all the time you still get ground down.When I did my PGCE my lecturer once said (possibly quoting someone else) that in teaching the 'ball-and-chain of your personality rolls across the classroom floor in front of the kids.' In other words, there's no hiding place in teaching. Every week your very human frailties are on public display to an audience with forensic inclinations. In an average week the average secondary teacher might teach 300 different students. That's a lot of very harsh judges. It makes all the X factor bollocks look like nothin (which it is of course). In ten years I taught several thousand students, all of whom will be able to tell an unflattering story about me, or mimic my voice, my gestures, mock my mannerisms and my beliefs.

That's bloody tiring. The thought of it now makes me tired even now.

And yet all those mid-career teachers, the ones plotting escapes in a school near you right now, they can't just leave. They have mortgages, children at Uni, petrol to buy. Even those threadbare jackets and comedy ties cost you know. So what do we do? These unhappy teacher have experience, wisdom and insight that we shouldn't lose - but equally we shouldn't put them or kids through the torture of forcing them into the classroom day after day until their retirement. And retirement itself is five years further off for most teachers than it was. Like having five years suddenly added to your sentence when you've committed no new crime. that's got to be against some UN Human Rights convention somewhere.

Maybe we should bring back conscription.

Not for 18 year olds, but for people with degrees. Maybe it could be a condition of getting a student loan. Perhaps it would become a rite of passage, a badge of honour, something people boasted about. The compulsory time at the chalkface would be celebrated with plays (Mr Chips With Everything maybe), sit-coms and a whole new Carry On film. If everyone had to teach it would be more respected and MPS (and parents) might be less inclined to pontificate. And if they did pontificate, then there's more of a chance that they'd have at least the vaguest idea of what they were pontificating about.

It's a facetious idea, of course it is. But the long-term unhappiness of teachers is a problem for everyone who has children. The lack of routes out of classroom that make good use of the skills that have been hard won there is a waste for the whole population. What is the sense of having some of the best minds of our generation planning ever more desperate ways out. Maybe, in a more enlightened future, teaching will be something that you do while your health, vigour and sense of humour is intact and then - like footballers when they hit 35 - it is expected that you'll move on.

People point to the holidays, but the holidays are just part of the trap. You know that feeling you get on a Sunday. The Antique Roadshow Blues, when what is left of your weekend is ruined by the knowledge that the working week will soon be upon you? Well teachers get that big-time in the middle of August. that sense that panicky sense that you have to do something WORTHWHILE and IMPORTANT right NOW or the term will be on you and the waters of target-setting, report writing, marking and powerpoint prep will close over your head. One benefit I hadn't expected when I left teaching was the feeling of release from the burden of holidays...

So this has been a long blog post (thanks for staying with me) and it doesn't offer much more in the way of solutions to the fact that our schools are fucked than Deborah Orr's piece did. But I guess you could boil it down to most of our teachers are good, but they're desperate and we've got to find strategies that ease them out into creative paths without condemning them to the bear-baiting style cruelty of endless terms in the classroom. Or, alternatively, we make life easier for the classroom teacher.

Oh, and we've got to convince students that there's nothing weird, random or (their word) gay about Peace, Love and Understanding. That would be a start.