Saturday, 31 January 2015

How I Imagine Pay Negotiations Should Go

Headteacher: Hello, Please come in. Take a seat. Can I send my PA to go and get you a cup of tea?
Me: Oh, cheers, yes please.
PA: How do you take it?
Me: No sugar, but an almost obscene amount of milk.
Head: Excellent choice. Well done. How are you finding the school?
Me: Yeah I have fun. It's a great school. I enjoy working here.
Head: Well, Great. We love having you here too.
Me: Thanks.
Head: Good. To business. We'd like to offer you a ridiculous amount of money to continue working for us at this school.
Me: Well, I'm afraid that is not going to be enough. A ridiculous amount just doesn't cut it. I'm afraid I am going to need an obscene amount of cash instead.
Head: I like your chops. I think we'd be doing you down by paying you an obscene amount of cash. We're going to put a package together for you including an unbelievably stupid amount of money instead.
Me: It'll be tough to live on that, but I think I can get by.
Head: How about you get this chocolate cake as well. Right now.
Me: It is a pleasure doing business with you.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

An Open Letter to Whoever Stole My Bike

To Whoever it is That Stole my Bike Tonight,

Yes, sure I am angry. Sure that tears were shed. But my overriding attitude towards you is pity. Pity, because you will never have the experiences that I had on that machine, because that was more than a machine to me. That bike was my life.

I remember the day, nine years ago, when I was given it by my parents for my eighteenth birthday. The sheer unbridled joy of the thing. The wonderment of the thing, the sheer speed of being smitten by it. I remember the summer rides, the commuting to my first real job, the hard times riding in the snow and the good times riding with friends, old and new in the summer sun, wheels whirring on hot tarmac summer lanes under sieve-skied leaf-strewn skies.

You won't get to have those memories. You won't get the excitement of new parts lovingly installed. The oily sparkle of components under late-night-garage-light. Even if you do exactly the same things that I did, with exactly the same people, you will never love that bike as much as I do.

So, what are you going to do with it? I guess you'll sell it. Maybe you already have. I hope you get a massive amount of money for it, because if you're out stealing bikes then I guess you must need it. Just so you know, I am a student, currently paying for a Masters degree out of my overdraft and my savings. Over the past two weeks I applied for jobs at four shops and three coffee shops. None of them got back to me. Next week, hopefully, I will have a job that will keep me going thanks, in part, to good friends. Now my finances are going to have to cover the taxis and extra trains I will need. But regardless of where my money goes. I will have good friends.

There is something that, however much money you collect. can't buy. It's my freedom. I am not allowed to drive. Being diagnosed with epilepsy four years ago took my license away from me. Did you know that? No. I guessed not. I guessed that you didn't think about who was on the other end of you little bolt-cutter adventure. That bike represents the last vestiges of freedom of transport I have. So when you stole my bike you made my life a mass more difficult. Not terminally, not painfully, perhaps. But it's going to be more than an annoyance.

So there will be other bikes. People have already offered to lend me them. My house insurance should help out, and I am surrounded by loving, caring people who I'm sure will offer me help without me asking at all. In the long term this may not affect me that much, really. But still. Still. You have stolen my bike and that is the point, isn't it. It is my bike. It is not yours. You have stolen my bike. It will never be yours.

Thank you.
You have successfully ruined more than my day.

If I Had My Way...

I imagine that as teachers we have all had the same fantasy. (WHAT? - editor) No. Not the one with the people dressed up as animals. No. The one where someone suddenly bursts into your classroom and tells you that the government has decided that you, and only you, are the Minister for Education that Gotham Albion deserves.

You're thinking about it now, aren't you? You're thinking about your perfect school. About what you would do. So. What would you? Abolish the independent sector? Pay EVERYONE more? Remove the CD borderline?

I've been thinking about this recently. I can't remember who it was, but recently someone who is not involved in teaching asked me what I thought was wrong with teaching. I just had so much to say that I couldn't really come up with a coherent answer. I just pinballed my way around topics, constantly using the words 'of course there is also...' to start sentences. But then I went home, and thought and thought and came to a couple of core ideas, and (unlike my attitude to sandwich fillings) they are by no means revolutionary. It all just hinges around providing the best possible education and experience for as many students as possible. It's a core of parity across the system, not postcode lottery education. It's making sure that no matter what the home life of a student is, school is encouraging, providing and exciting. Is that so revolutionary? Fuck no. I believe that I would struggle to find many teachers that don't want a better situation for their students. It is how people want to go about it that is at odds.

If you involve yourself into the educational twittersphere and voice your opinions adamantly then you will be sure to receive some rebuttal. Someone won't like your opinion on Free School Meals or your plan for Burgerology to be part of the core curriculum. But aren't you just arguing for what you think is best for students? Yes. You are. It's just that the locus of what is best is a fuzzy and indistinct centre. Teachers will argue and they won't back down often because teachers are ratchet spanners: You can push them further and further one way, but they very rarely come back. 

A lot of the 'problem' seems to be that being a teacher has, as an inherent quality, politicisation. Teachers seem to have those awfully sticky things: Views. Some of them even have Opinions. Teachers are messy things built up upon layer and layer of daily sermons. For Cthulu's sake some of them even read things! And not just the METRO! And, therefore, they actually care. Teachers have a real view of their profession. They have ideas about how they would want to run it themselves beyond just identifying the negatives. The thing is, teaching is a lot like politics. Just like politics, it is not that the core ideal is that different; it is all in the nuances of interpretation.

And the point? This isn't a bad thing because it models to students that things aren't clear cut. Teacher's disparate views help everyone. The seemingly petty arguments on process mean that teachers are consistently engaged with the core principle of teaching: Making it count for students. I love that teachers care enough about their profession to rise up on the internet and pseudonymously scream their faces off. A lot of people who read this will probably shake their heads at this, and understandably so. Arguments are counterproductive if all you do is shout.

I love that the profession is so full of ideas about itself that it bleeds them through its eyeballs so keep arguing, please. I beg of you. Don't be shy; you are a teacher, after all. Just know this: The job isn't about you at all. It's not about your ego, or your wealth or your legacy. It is about the kids ego, their wealth, their legacy. And if they follow you and become a teacher too? Well that's their own stupid fault, isn't it?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Case for Conceptual Literature

My regular readers (Hi Mum!) will know that I am not teaching this year; I'm doing the learning instead. I'm studying for an MA in Modernism and Contemporary Literature, and the quite esoteric nature of the course has made me think about the distance between the English A-Level syllabus and the current trends in literature, particularly conceptual literature.

One of the things that surprised me when I started this course was that I was surprised to see Literature like Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget. I was surprised to see works that were so revolutionary that they questioned even the integrity and purpose of the word literature. I was surprised to see it, not because of the nature of the course, or the institution, but that through GCSE, A-Level, a Degree and my own rambling reading, I had never seen anything like it before. After lecture number one on conceptual poetry I had difficulty reattaching my face, so much had it been taken off.

So I was forced to have a little check of myself and question what it was, really, that I knew, or thought I knew about literature. I have long thought myself a pretty up-to-date student. I've read a lot of things that other people wouldn't touch because they are shocking, or controversial, or push the boundaries of form. Stuff like Sarah Kane's 4.41 Psychosis, or Will Self's Dorian, or A M Homes' The End of Alice. Difficult stuff, but, inevitably, not that relevant. Why not that relevant, and relevant to what? Not relevant because they are the sort of works that are bought by and given awards by the sort of people that our students absolutely aren't. Fundamentally, these, and pretty much anything in a bookshop no longer looks anything like a student's life.

What do our students' lives look like, in literary terms? Twitter. Facebook. BBM. (Definitely not MSN messenger, God rest its troubled soul.) The literature that students come into contact with most is abbreviated, disparate, instant. To quote Kenneth Goldsmith himself,

What do people read? People read Facebook posts and they read them, I believe, very carefully. They read a Twitter feed. Y'know, short forms. Things that have information. But poetry, and literature, at this point? I'd say less so.  (Source)

 He's right. Most students read. They read a lot. More than we think they do, it's just what they read does not fit in with a 20th century schema. I am not suggesting that at the start of the lesson everyone gets on Facebook and we do a close textual analysis of their ex's mate's sisters latest status about last night's dinner but we should be having students look at what is actually happening now in literature. Questions of authenticity, spontaneity and digital culture are critically relevant to 21st century living. The question of whether Literature with a capital L actually has a place in modern culture as we currently conceive it is something that may well shape these students expectations of their own lives. (In fact, get them to look at their Facebook wall. Might be quite interesting.)

At the last school I worked at, Twitter was blocked on the school network through the innate fear that schools have of social media. This is primarily based on a fear of salubrious types grooming students for sex rings/religious cults/UKIP (Delete as your area dictates)but what I found appalling was that teachers had Twitter blocked as well. An entire piece of 21st century human existence stymied by the fear that teachers might gossip on it instead of do their marking. 21st century humanity is one of multiple digital and real-world selves. We are chimeras that exist both in cyberspace and realspace. Our students are digital cyborgs; to them the internet is as real as the classroom; Facebook is a life in itself and it is far more relevant than any Victorian novel because for 99% of the canon of English literature the digital cyborg did not exist. It is stupid to unleash students into the post-education world thinking that literature is not relevant to them at all.

In the tradition of editorial rhetoric prolepsis, I should now anticipate the argument against. It is an age-old one; that students should be forced to crawl while we know that they can run. English Literature is a wonderful subject because, unlike Maths or the Sciences, sometimes you can jump to the back of the textbook (read as: Burn the stupid piece of crap) and students will understand. I don't need to teach basic literary theory for students to understand Goldsmith. I need them to think. I need them to think about their own lives and then care about the future. It's not that hard.

I should probably, wittily, appropriate someone else's closing statement for my own in a kind of self-referential didactic wonder, but I'm not. Instead, a challenge. Throw out your lesson plan for Monday and tomorrow set a KS5 class a website for their homework. This website. Or this one They don't have to read it all, in fact, to quote Goldsmith again,

I don't expect you to even read my books cover to cover. It's for that reason I like the idea that you can know each of my books in one sentence. For instance, there's the book of every word I spoke for a week unedited. Or the book of every move my body made over the course of a day, a process so dry and tedious that I had to get drunk halfway though the day in order to make it to the end. Or my most recent book, Day, in which I retyped a day's copy of the New York Times and published it as a 900 page book. Now you know what I do without ever having to have read a word of it.

Tell them that they don't have to read it at all. Tell them that what is really important is that they think about it. Some will think it's utter shit that they could've done themselves. But isn't that the point?, that not only could they have done it themselves, they probably have.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Teacher

Teaching is a tragedy of a profession because it reminds us that we're going to die.

Our peers age with us, and the inexorably slow tide of time makes the ravages of age near invisible. Beyond the occasional 'Was that really that long ago?', there is little identification of the expansion of the collective past. Every year we see, or don't see, those that long(er) ago we shared a classroom, and lessons, with.

Students, however, don't age with us. They are always the same age. Not literally, but functionally. There is always a sweet year seven class and a horrifying year nine set. Every year they start school and every year they leave school, too. Every year we will get a little bit further away from them. Every year the popstars on pencilcases look younger. The fashion, stranger; the colloquialism, more bizarre. I might not have been teaching long, but even I found the distance growing.

And then there is the creeping sense of Envy.

They say that school is the best time of your life. I don't know who they are. I don't want to. It's a crap idiom because they missed off a two words: In Hindsight. School was great. Did I realise that when I was there? Hell no. I occasionally take chagrin against the plethora of TV 'reality' shows that seek to make the layman understand how difficult teaching is.They regularly foreground difficult teenagers, stupid hours and budgets smaller than one of Patrick Bateman's dinners in size and expenditure. What they can't put across though is the sense of unfulfilled childhood that drives many teachers.

I have this belief that I have had stymied by many but, I think, they might have gone home and a little worm of doubt might have filled their stomachs down in the place that remembers bad things you've done far longer than it should. The belief is that most teachers are teachers because they want to atone for something they did, or didn't do, at school. For myself, it is the overriding feeling that I could have done academically better. I know others for whom the opposite is true; they feel this sense that they were not hedonistic enough as children and, although they don't go and get smashed in a classroom rave, there is a sense that just being at school again is a second chance. Maybe I'm wrong. (If you fancy a discussion about it then come along to my next classroom rave. It starts at 15:45 on Friday. Room 86b. Bring your own booze.)

I think what is so difficult is the perception of time. As teachers we are trapped in a constant analepsis with our own pasts being played out in front of us over and over again. Students, though, exist in a wonderful state of hopeful prolepsis. I can't speak for primary school, but there is a state of hope and expectation in secondary school that is near-infectious because, in secondary school, every student always seems to be on the cusp of something. All they can do is predict their own futures. They might be in that inchoate adulthood when they are covered in spots but they can anticipate a beautiful future accepting whatever award they want. They are always, unrealistically or not, on the very verge of everything wonderful happening for them. It is what drives them forward, maybe not consciously, but it's there. The moment where they stop predicting, and working towards, their ideal future is the point where they become retrospective and start worrying about the past. In school, for every student, there is a chance. An opportunity. A moment. 

You've probably heard the moment a student becomes lost to their past. It is the point where they stop saying could and start saying should. It is the hallmark of us as teachers and adults. The saddest thing in schools is watching students and thinking 'I should've been like that.' We can use that, though. Our regrets are powerful things. We can build ourselves forward instead of taking ourselves apart. Regardless, though, of our relative happiness, teaching will always have the maudlin static of growing older as we constantly compare ourselves and our peers to our students. It is inescapable.

But the strange thing? Maybe it's the extensive holidays, maybe it isn't, but when I left teaching to go into postgraduate education three months ago, I really didn't think I was going to go back. Wait, no, that's not the strange thing. That's just being tired of bureaucratic shite. The strange thing is that I kept reading the TES. The strange thing is that I kept writing this blog, kept mucking about on twitter. The strange thing is that I keep talking about teacher, keep thinking about lessons, keep looking at things and wanting to teach them. The strange thing is that I feel out of the club and it's just not the same.