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.


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.