Posts Tagged ‘teaching as a profession’

On the crisis in English schools

May 4, 2019

Every Easter, England’s teaching unions hold their conferences, and alarming stories and statistics emerge. This year once again, it was the numbers of teachers being bullied by management, suffering stress, enduring long working hours, planning to leave the profession quite soon, and large numbers of pupils ‘off-rolled’ by secondary schools. What has gone wrong? Here are some thoughts, not in any particular order…

Increasingly, schools are run by managers, often with little or no experience of the classroom. Having zero experience of your particular field may be an advantage in other areas of the economy, but it’s bad in terms of running schools. Furthermore, identikit ‘training’ of would-be headteachers standardises both bad and good practice and undervalues particular individual strengths, I think.

In a sense, the teaching profession has been de-skilled; it’s certainly not as well-trained as it used to be. When I trained, all teachers were trained in university-level institutions, receiving a serious grounding in child development and child psychology as well as specific training in how to teach their particular subject. Now, unless you were particularly interested, that study of development and psychology was often dry as dust and dull as ditch-water, but I believe it was also vitally necessary and vitally important to being a successful teacher; it was only as my career developed that I realised just how I was unconsciously using all that knowledge and understanding I had acquired.

Teacher training is very different now: ‘school-centred’ was deemed to be much better, and it gave schools access to the money! Now, precious little of that vital general training seems to take place: there’s plenty of practice and experience in ‘delivering’ a subject curriculum, but divorced from understanding the minds of the little pitchers into which it’s being poured. I speak with experience here, for I was involved in setting up the initial teacher training scheme in my school. In those days students had to experience teaching in least a couple of different schools and I was often horrified at the poor deal some of my final placement students had received in their first training school: it was clear that a school had decided to have lots of students because they brought in lots of money, but had offered them very little support and training. I’m not at all convinced the situation has improved. What’s clear is that it’s uneven across the country, across different academy chains: there’s no guaranteed, standardised training… and if the teachers who are supposed to be mentoring the students are stressed and overworked, the temptation to cut corners must be great.

The end result of this is both teachers lacking a complete training, as well as teachers trained to teach by numbers and deliver a subject, in other words de-skilled and disadvantaged compared with earlier generations of teachers, not grounded in a sense of their own personal skills, strengths, aptitude and above all, sense of professionalism: this last has been consistently weakened and attacked by successive governments and generations of managerial headteachers. And so we get a teacher writing the other day about how it’s necessary to have standardised national testing because otherwise teachers can’t know how their students are doing because teacher assessment is all subjective…

Information technology has a bigger part in the current chaos than many people realise. Because data collection and analysis is now possible, easy and a source of profit for companies that market software, it will be done: it’s unavoidable, it’s the norm and the clock will not be turned back. Whether data-tracking of students in such minute detail is necessary or desirable is not really the question any more. And so, the workload issues it generates for teachers cannot be made to go away. When I started teaching, none of that was possible, and I don’t really think my students suffered because of that lack.

It’s also the political – as opposed to the educational – use that’s made of all this number-crunching: it now means that schools can be forced to compete with each other, that teachers can be deemed to be ‘failing’ if their results or ‘progress indicators’ do not come up to certain norms. In other works, data has become a big stick to beat up both students and teachers. Ever since the dreadful Kenneth Baker in the 1980s, every education minister has had to prove her or himself in their rise to greater things by playing with the train-set that is education; the fact that many of them had never experienced a state school education is of course totally irrelevant…

There’s another thing: the great divide between state education and the private system (which all taxpayers subsidise through its charitable status). At one level it’s a sideline, but it’s a socially divisive one that this divided country could and should do without. And this is where we come on to what can be done to change things. Other countries do it quite differently, and their school students do not seem to be total numpties compared with all our Einsteins: the obvious and most interesting example is Finland, and plenty of information about their radically different system is available out there so I don’t need to duplicate it here. Suffice it to say it’s based on local schooling and a thoroughly professional and professionally-trained teaching corps.

If we had a system of students all going to their local school – primary or secondary – then all schools would need to be brought up to the same level of staffing and resourcing. And there would be no need for the endless, polluting school runs where streets are jammed by the diesel tractors of parents who deliver their children to what they think is the best or right school for their child…

It does all come down to money in the end: how much is a child’s future worth? How much do we want to invest in the future of our country? And, sadly, my impression of England is that we want education, as we want so many other things, on the cheap…

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On the joys of teaching English

March 7, 2019

Every now and then, I remember I was a teacher once. When I meet up with former colleagues who are still working, I sigh with relief that I don’t have to return to school for training days, and listen to the ‘leadership team’ witter on about targets and initiatives and I don’t know what else, and I feel briefly sorry for those who still do have to… I also remember how different it was on the following day, when the students returned and the real work of a teacher began again – how much I loved it!

Things that I really enjoyed: reading books together in class. That was still possible in secondary school and we all loved it: reading around the class, sometimes everyone in turn, sometimes volunteers, sometimes me. We could and did pause to discuss all sorts of things: plot, character, language, how a writer tells a good story, why x happens and not y, why a writer does things a certain way and not another. All kinds of opportunities for different kinds of writing arose at various points in a novel. And everyone could express opinions about all sorts of things, practising listening and responding, learning to argue, and to support opinions with evidence…

Sometimes I would get students to present a book they had recently read to the class: a brief introduction and then read out a carefully chosen extract; explain what their opinion of the book was, and why, and finally take questions from their class-mates. Not everyone found this easy, but I felt, from a very early stage in my career as a teacher, that good speaking and listening skills were probably going to be of much greater use and importance to my students in the future than writing skills…

When we got on to individual talks to the class, we had a great time: choose your subject, and give an illustrated five-minute presentation to the class, then take questions. It was often an astonishing confidence-building exercise for students who were not very strong at English, as they used the opportunity to be experts in their own field in front of the class. As time went by, health and safety curtailed their choice of options somewhat, and having livestock in the classroom sometimes presented management issues… but I always learned lots, and I know the students did, too. I still think the best ever talk came from a GCSE student who was a keen fencer: she spoke confidently and demonstrated her skills effectively, using a male student whom she didn’t very much like as her opponent for the practical parts of her talk: he took it all in very good part. The talk filled an entire 40-minute lesson; nobody was bored, and she naturally received full marks for her efforts.

Discussions and also formal debates featured regularly, and I had an understanding with students that no topic was off-limits as long as they could approach it sensibly and maturely, and respect others’ different opinions and their right to express them: you were allowed to disagree as long as you did it respectfully and explained your reasons… I can only remember a couple of occasions in nearly thirty years when it was necessary to close down a discussion because some could not manage these rules.

Of course, students had to write, as well as speak and read. One of my favourite activities came out of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Year 8 students (age 12-13). If you can make the book work, it’s a real challenge for them: nineteenth-century language and behaviour and dealing with issues of race, childhood, schooling and lots more. The book has everything: truanting, running away from home, a murder, romance, getting lost in a cave, finding a real fortune… and there is an amazing writing opportunity immediately after the murder: produce the front page of the town paper the day after that event. There’s writing the story, editing and improving it, working out how much the reporter can know and find out, compared with what Tom and Huck have seen, and then you can go into an IT suite and they can design and produce and print their front page.

The skills of essay-writing come to the fore as students approach public examinations, and over the years I evolved a tactic which they seemed to find effective and helpful: the whole class together would plan an essay. I’d take them through the entire process stage-by-stage, from analysing the title and working out what an examiner might expect, through brainstorming and then organising and sequencing their ideas, followed by selecting evidence, and then crafting an effective introduction and conclusion. It would all appear on the whiteboard, colour-coded with different pens; we could pause the process and discuss any aspect of it that anyone wanted to, and we could also time the different parts of the activity so that students could work out how they might effectively allocate their time in an exam room. We needed a good double lesson – 80 minutes – to do the whole thing, and if time allowed, the last thing was to practise and discuss a range of opening sentences. It was pretty exhausting for all or us: the class being attentive and working against the clock, and me, controlling and managing everything so it all came together in the allocated time.

I used to enjoy giving work back to students. I’ve read some unbelievable nonsense lately about re-marking and triple marking and written dialogue between teacher and student and thought to myself, ‘How can any of that be justified in terms of time?’. Although I wasn’t particularly proud of it, my semi-illegible handwriting did me favours; I regularly did write lengthy and detailed comments and advice on students’ work, and they often had to work quite hard to decipher my runes. They asked each other first and when that failed, called me over: they actually wanted to know what I’d written, and I could briefly expand and clarify. And, of course, there were extra oral comments as I gave work back, perhaps reading out particularly good bits before I hurled exercise books back across the room towards their owners…

A good deal of being a teacher – an English teacher, certainly – is about being an actor, as perhaps you have deduced from the above: confidence builds up over time, as does the very necessary ability to be reflective and critical of what happens in your classroom, and to adapt and modify when circumstances dictate.

I particularly loved working with sixth-formers, for they really kept me on my toes; even if I knew my stuff – and I did – I never knew from what angle their questions or comments might come. Keeping one step ahead of them was exhausting, as well as very satisfying. They got special treatment in some ways: we were a little less formal with each other, and we always set the room out in a circle to create a seminar-style atmosphere, as well as to emphasis equality, rather than use the serried ranks of desks or tables that larger classes required. There was tea and mince pies at Christmas, too. Practical criticism – working with unseen texts – was what I liked most of all, feeling more and more the enabler rather than the teacher as the two years of the course ticked away and they all in their different ways became more perceptive and confident as interpreters and critics of literature…

There is no better profession – and I think that word is so important, and so under-respected nowadays – than teaching. I have been very fortunate in my life’s work.

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