Sunday, 26 October 2008

Fur coat and no knickers

Sometimes it is only with distance that the true picture merges into focus. So it is when I look back at the last school. Now that's not to say that the old school didn't give me lots of opportunities to develop (i.e. courses (snooze) and trips (yay)), or space to actually teach (i.e. we had half-arsed schemes of work and nobody actually checked what I was doing for the first term I was there so I could just make it up as I went along). But when I compare certain aspects with my current place, then I can see just what was going on with greater clarity than before.

It is true that the Head Teacher sets the tone for the whole school. Now these beings are cut from a different cloth to me, because I can't understand why anybody would want to set themselves up for constant public criticism, whether they are right or wrong. But let me show you the difference between my past and present Head Teachers. My present Head Teacher is very similar in ideology and practice to my Head Teacher before last, whilst my last Head Teacher must have been from the same mould as my first Deputy Head who went on to become Head Teacher after I'd left. Keeping up? I can reduce it to two attributes: power crazy, and philanthropic.

The Power Crazy Head Teacher usually has conspicuous displays of his or her rule of iron. Firstly, there's the power dressing. Sarah Palin ain't got nothing on the Power Crazy Head Teacher, who dresses to impress and probably barks, "Breakfast is for wimps!" whilst squeezing a bulging waistline into designer threads. Philanthropic Head Teacher will assert their authority equally well in a comfy cardigan or well-worn suit. Therefore this school's staff also go to work in smart comfort rather than the rigid inflexibility of suits which don't allow for the clambering on tables to fix wall displays or the unforeseen P.E. cover lesson that are part of a teacher's daily life.

This is the same power crazy person who usually drives an inappropriately flashy sports car, probably with personalised number plates, and parks it in their own reserved section far away from flying footballs, and often behind a red roped section attended by a liveried sixth former. Philanthropic Head Teacher drives a middle of the road (not literally; that would be dangerous) car, one which is a few years old but probably top of Which? magazine's list of reliable motors.

And the conspicuous displays of wealth and power dominate the personality too: when Power Crazy Head Teacher patrols the school, it is to sneer at crooked displays and question decisions with derision. When Philanthropic Head Teacher wanders round, it's to see how you're doing, praise your efforts, and wish you a happy half term.

It is no surprise that Power Crazy Head Teacher leaves the staff somewhat unfulfilled in knowing their own worth and value. Their ambitions are laid clear, and it's not long before they have taken on some consultancy role that means they are moving onwards and upwards, until they are only a part-time attender at school they are paid to run.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Oh yeeeeeees!

It's here! Half term! Yeeeees!

There's so much I wish I could share on here but I really don't want to lose my job in the midst of a credit crunch / recession / depression.

In my last school I knew practically everyone was a Luddite who believed even calculators to be either the devil's work or pure magical witchery. In my new school I'm not so sure. Somebody even mentioned "the internet" to me today, so I'll just have to stick to reminiscing about my past colleagues and capers, perhaps...

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


There's a class I take who are unruly and untamed, uncouth and unable to write properly. Wait, there are several classes like that. But the difference with this class is that they make me laugh so much. They are so naive and yet quite edgy. For a few of them, they cling to little pockets of stereotypes that they have picked up from somewhere, and every lesson involves the dredging up of at least three of these ill-conceived notions, alongside the usual tricks of tripping each other up as they move around the room, sly punches, and blatant insults.

Today's ill-conceived notion is that everybody in London carries knives, from grannies to babies. In the white noise of their minds, London is a place populated with the Krays, Fagins, Jack the Rippers and nobody else. Schoolkids are just short Jack the Rippers in blazers. They seem to think that the periphery of London ripples with the gleam of weapons, and that stepping over that threshold means you might as well give up any hope of staying alive.

Last week's stereotypes for off-task chatter were "gypo"s. When I enquired as to what they were talking about, I was informed that these ne'er-do-wells spend their days and nights stealing generators. That's it. That's all they could come up with. We had a little chat about the dangers of stereotyping, and then one boy confessed that his real problem was people who lived in caravans.

"But," piped up a boy behind him, "you've got a Coachman Laser Tourer."

Cue more punching...

Thursday, 16 October 2008

No more testing for 14 year olds

So the big news throwing all sorts of people into flaps this week is the news that the government has decided, just like that, to scrap the national tests for Year 9 pupils. Previously only valuable as a threat to unruly 13 and 14 year olds, the tests were a major balls-up this year when the company responsible for administering and marking the tests just chucked them all into the bin or something like that.

Hooray, lots of teacher are yelling. Boo, some others are crying. And suddenly there are a flurry of emails from publishers and museums and theatres whizzing around saying, "Don't cancel us! Your pupils still need to learn stuff! They can come and visit our Mad Maths exhibition, or buy our "how to spell and write proper" study guides, or enjoy a performance from the Shakespeare troupe. You don't have to cancel just because there aren't any tests!"

And they've got a point, haven't they? It's all so sudden that it's knocked a good number of cottage industries and publishing ventures sideways. I don't know how it's going to pan out, but maybe the government should just step back and stop interfering every five minutes.

Ladies' man

Every now and again I happen to teach a boy who, in the old days, would have been called "sensitive", but in this more enlightened day and age is simply known as "gay". The boy may or may not know he's gay yet; it's not my place to ask or interfere, but merely observe and perhaps write about it on here.

I teach one such boy at the moment, and very effervescent and likeable he is too. He is a chatterbox though. At Parents' Evening this week I mentioned his chattering to his mother, who then wanted to know who he sat by. I reeled off a list of names, all of whom are female. I had to chuckle when his mother nodded sagely.

"Oh yes," she added, with a hint of pride. "He's very popular with the girls."

It was hard not to laugh. There she was, thinking her son is super-stud of the year group, when all I can think of is him prancing about with his gal-pals discussing who's wearing what on Saturday night out.


Monday, 13 October 2008

Sharp wits or soppy gits?

With a Year 9 class of not the highest intellect today, we read the word "debate" and they wanted to know what it meant, probably because it sounds a bit like "masturbate". I tried to explain that we might have a debate about fox hunting, for example. Some people might be for it, and some might be against. Perhaps it was a mistake to choose something so contentious. A large and lovely girl was nearly in tears as boys taunted her with graphic descriptions of foxes being ripped to shreds. I changed the topic, inspired by their behaviour.

Me: "Another debate would be about whether teachers should be allowed to hit pupils with canes."

Brat 1: "We would just hit you back if you hit us."

Brat 2: "That wouldn't work these days 'cos we'd just bring a knife in and stab you."

And what do you say to that?


Saturday, 11 October 2008

Teacher of the year

I've been thinking about yesterday's post for a lot of today. I was wondering if I had portrayed what had happened to me too harshly, but on reading it again just now, I don't think so. But I've had a chuckle to myself today remembering when I worked alongside the winner of one of these "teacher's Oscars" award winners a few years ago. Because if I was asking myself if I am shit, then he must have no conscience, because how else would he sleep at night...

Mr W (that's how I think of him; the W stands for something like Winker) hadn't been a teacher for very long when it was announced in the staff meeting one morning that he had been short-listed for a prestigious teaching award - the Headteacher was practically bursting with a mixture of pride and fawning at this time.

Rumours started flying around, as they do amongst a jealous and petty staff, that he had bribed several of his sixth formers to nominate him for this. After all, here was a teacher whose "Rate my teacher" website entry is the only one full of five stars and comments like "what a great guy". But these turned out not to be rumours at all. One of the teachers in my Friday-lunchtime-down-the-pub gang had a son in the sixth form at the time, and confirmed that Mr W's nomination had come as a result of his own suggestion just before he took a bunch of sixth formers on a really exciting field trip with lunch at McDonald's thrown in. Well, we kind of shrugged, how else would a teacher be nominated for an award that only teachers ever really knew about?

Personally I couldn't quite understand how Mr W was supposed to excel at teaching. At times he used my classroom for lessons, and it used to wind me up every time when I returned to my room at the end of one of his lessons to find overturned chairs, sweet wrappers all over the floor, new graffiti on the desks, and so on. At one time I had asked him to track down the culprits who had drawn something rather pornographic on one of my desks, and which had been spotted first by some Year 7s who hadn't quite worked out what it was, thank goodness. Mr W promised to sort it out, but nothing was ever done. A small point, but one which I added to the many others which I started to hear about. There was the case of the lost coursework, the case of the made-up coursework marks, the case of stealing another teacher's work and passing it off as his own... but Mr W was charismatic, and such matters were overlooked or just forgotten...

And being charismatic, Mr W won the trophy and got a promotion within the school. But still the slackness continued. He was given his own office opposite the staffroom. One time I was in the staffroom trying to mark, books balanced on my knee, when in came a dozen Year 11s. I was just about to ask what the hell they were doing when one of them pre-empted my question. It turned out that Mr W had important stuff to do in his new office, like arrange exciting field trips to McDonald's, and so had abandoned the idea of actually teaching his class, dumping them in the staffroom so they were nearby while he used his phone and internet. I did not have the words to express how I felt about this, but he was irreproachable now he had a shiny trophy and promotion.

So I guess the moral to this is that even award-winning shiny-trophy-possessing teachers fall far short of perfection. Or maybe the moral is that awards for teachers are a sham. But either way, it made me feel better about being made to feel a little bit shit yesterday.


Friday, 10 October 2008

Am I shit?

Please, please tell me that not everybody is perfect and I'm not the only person who doesn't always have a starter, plenary, all-singing and dancing kind of lesson.

I was visited by another teacher today from another department. Thanks to timetabling tangles, I teach a few lessons outside of my subject specialism. It's not like I know nothing about this other subject: I've taught it on and off for many a year now and I'm qualified in the subject up to a high level. But obviously, in a new school, they do things differently, and alongside everything else that's new and slightly confusing at times, I'm dealing with teaching this other subject with not much guidance at all, apart from my own stack of resources and experience. For a start, the department might as well be on the other side of town to where my classroom is. Location isn't that important though: only this afternoon I was thinking about how I hadn't seen one member of my department, who teaches next door but one, for about three weeks.

But anyway, I have seen teachers from this other new department about four times since I started and then only in passing. But then today the head of department decided to drop in to see how I'm doing. My classes' books were scrutinised, and I had a round of rapid fire questions about what I've been doing. And then, like a magician who has been hiding the top hat, this teacher suddenly pulled out a white rabbit in the shape of a child's book from a previous year. "Ta-da! Now this is how you should have been doing it for the past few weeks." Gee, thanks. And you didn't show me this before because...?

So the whole exercise just made me feel like crap. I'd been doing alright, but it just wasn't the right type of alright. My starters were the wrong flavour, and I'd marked in the wrong colour. Pah. I just wished I'd been asked the right types of questions. Were the children enjoying the subject? Yes. Were we adhering to the national curriculum and its latest incarnation of levels etc etc? Yes. Was I differentiating for the enormous range of abilties in my groups? Yes. I'm not saying I didn't learn anything from this brief visit, because it did make me rethink one of the tasks we had done, but it just reinforces the fact that in teaching you are never ever right. You can never reach nirvana. You are a mere cockroach who keeps coming back for more shit.

Happy weekend. :-)

Thursday, 9 October 2008


Here's something I never thought I would do... look back wistfully at my last school and yearn for one of the teachers and his strict discipline and old fashioned values. I thought of him today when I was on duty, as he used to organise the duty rotas at the last place, and whilst I never really got on with him, he did embody a set of values that a number of the older teachers held dear, which seem overlooked by those of the same generation at my current place.

For thousands of years the elders in society have complained about the lack of respect amongst the younger members. It's just a rite of passage for older people like myself to be disrespected in the same way we used to disrespect our elders when we didn't give a hoot. What goes around comes around. If only for that life lived backwards, youth is wasted on the young, and all that.

But I can't believe the way that the pupils in my current school have a complete lack of boundaries, of knowing (assumes teacher-voice now) where the line is, and when they have crossed it. I thought it was just me, being new and being verbally prodded to see how far I will go. But today I was observing a senior teacher with a class of GCSE students. At first I was smiling wryly to myself: here where the usual complaints and protests about a task from a bunch of students who will just about scrape C grades if they are lucky, or more likely, when the exams are dumbed down yet again. Different kids, different school, same moaning. It does bring a smile to your face to know that some things are just universal.

What shocked me though, was the way that some of the students were cheeking this teacher, and she did not even acknowledge that this wasn't the way to talk to an adult. Even another teenager would have taken offence at the tone of delivery. And now I am alert to this, I am witnessing it time and time again. This afternoon, another senior teacher who has served at least thirty years at the school was completely ignored when issuing instructions to badly behaved students in the corridor. He had to raise his voice to stop them in their tracks, and even then, in a busy corridor swarming with pushing kids, most of the miscreants just carried on with the flow, whilst only two listened to his wrath.

During last lesson, my class were doing group work. It's a big class and although they are only Year 7, whether it's their keenness or boisterous, as an entity they can be noisy during collaborative work. I was circulating, and had stopped by one group. A boy had called me from another group and I visually acknowledged him with a sign I'd be there in a moment. Suddenly, a huge voice bellowed out to attract my attention, and I just couldn't believe that somebody would act that way! I turned slowly on my heel to glare at the culprit, asking very seriously and slowly: "Are you shouting at me?" If that boy ever does that again to me, I'm quite prepared to eat one of his trainers, that is how certain I am that he got the message.

But I fear that for some of them further up the school, they are lost causes by now. They have been pandered to and put up with for so many years that for them, teachers are just like their friends and can be talked to or shouted at or sworn in the presence of in the same way.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Afternoon tea

Just saw this in the news...

Girl fed school staff hash cakes

The story continues...

Leeds City Council said neither staff members made formal complaints.

I bet they didn't! I bet the day went quite well after that little afternoon tea. Suddenly a double lesson with Year 10 didn't seem such a bind after all...

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

New leaf

Maybe it's the autumnal motif, but as the wind whipped the tree tops this morning I decided to turn over a new leaf. I've just been feeling so fed up already, and yet my mind was turning back to how I felt leaving my old school back in July. The staff, my friends; the pupils whose lives interweaved with mine for 5 or more years; the camaraderie against the common enemies of whoever was annoying us that week... I don't have that right now, which is why I guess new schools are hard to cope with at first. And I miss it. My life and experience is starting to diverge from theirs: I can't share their anxieties about the forthcoming inspection, and they know nothing of the issues I find myself involved with now.

So I decided that today I would start to plough my own furrow, feather my own nest, or some such idiomatic doings. I would get more involved. I would sign up to run clubs, help with productions, organise rotas; whatever needed doing. And I did at least one of these things today. Consequently I felt quite beatific all afternoon, bestowing even the most restless of children with calm smiles as I issued detentions like I was dishing out fine candies.

As a result, I finished the day with a calm serenity I haven't felt in a while. I did wonder if somebody had laced my water with opium, but I know I would never let my bottle (of water, not antiquated drugs) out of sight, so it must just have been my leaf-turning.

All was well until I made a crucial mistake. I tried to organise my out-of-school life. Being at school all day, there's no time to make the important phone calls that involve waiting in automated queues or tracking down the one person you need to talk to who always takes their lunch break at the same time as you. So I have about half an hour once school is over in which to phone the weary office workers who control things like council tax and credit cards. And of course, it's always the wrong time of day for them. I imagine they are just reaching over to switch off their computers and fetching their coats from their department kitchenettes, leaning over their open office divides for a quick gossip to pass the long minutes until going home time. And then the phone rings and they tut loudly, irritated at the prospect of having to deal with somebody in the last ten minutes. And that person is me.

So this is why I ended up spending ten infuriating minutes talking to Mrs Jobsworth at the council, unable to satisfactorily resolve what I'd imagined to be a small and easily remedied query, but obviously I was a fool to imagine that anybody like Mrs Jobsworth would share my view. To say she made mountains out of molehills is an understatement. And unhappily for me, I finished the day just as wound up and angry as I normally do, albeit for different reasons.

Stiff letters - and stiff drinks - all round!