Friday 30 January 2009

Everything you need to know to survive teaching...

This week I received the advance copies of my new book: Everything you need to know to survive teaching - the second edition! And do you know what I thought, dear reader... what an excellent present it might make for the teacher in your life...

Saturday 17 January 2009

Get rid of religion

I've been perusing inspection reports. Strange hobby it isn't; it's getting to know the schools in my local area just in case a job comes up that means I could have an extra half an hour in bed each morning.

And what I notice time and time again is that most schools are criticised for lacking in the statutory requirement for a daily act of collective worship. Now when I was a school pupil back in the increasingly hazy mists of time, we had assembly every day. We sung hymns, we dropped our hymn books accidentally on purpose to raise a few giggles and glares, we didn't dare whisper to our neighbour, and we stood up when the teachers flounced onto stage. Since becoming a teacher I've never stepped foot into a school that does this.

Instead, the majority of schools do not have a hall big enough to accommodate the whole school population in one place at one time. Even if there's a way round this, such as extracting one year group at a time for their own year assembly, most pupils only meet for a whole school assembly once a week. This, I think, is a mistake. I believe that a whole school assembly provides cohesion and sets out expectations quite clearly. It's an opportunity to pass on messages and give some moral guidance. I remember the stories we were told in assembly quite clearly, right back to primary school. True, they seemed to be told on an annual rotation, and I've never been one for the religious messages in particular, but I feel I gained a lot from the food for thought they provided.

But sadly, as most schools don't have a whole school assembly every day, this collective act of worship is supposed to take place in form time instead. And it just doesn't work. Maybe in Year 7 the pupils are open and receptive to the structure of a quick prayer "to the god we believe in" and some debate of a thought for the day, but try this with stroppy Year 9s and upwards and you are fighting a losing battle. However subtly a teacher may try to squeeze in a moral message, the pupils are quick to sense that your tone has changed from nagging about uniform to something they're going to take even less notice of. Start to mention "prayer" and the backlash starts.

Religious Education has a generally poor reputation amongst pupils; it needs a rebrand for the 21st century. It's no surprise really: when the news is dominated by deaths and doom caused by religious conflict and the subsequent wars on terror, who wouldn't be turned off by religion? But that's not to say I don't think it has a place in schools: it is precisely because of the dominance of religious conflict in the news that pupils need to know about world religions. And Religious Education does provide the crucial opportunity for children to think philosophically about moral issues, which I see as far more important than learning about oxbow lakes or other trivia that, let's face it, could be condensed to a fact file on the back of a cereal packet. The things learnt in Religious Education are, I believe, some of the most essential life skills that pupils need to grasp. But get rid of the name. It's such a turn off. Call it something sexier and half the battle is won.

But back to these daily acts of collective worship. Why have them at all? Schools fail to provide this quite frequently according to the inspection reports I've read, because even if there is some discussion about important issues in tutorial time, the religious aspect is missing. So why do the powers that be keep insisting that we provide a prayer a day? Again, it needs re-branding. What is a prayer anyway? For the few people who do believe in a god, how many of them pray because they believe their god will answer their prayers, and how many actually just benefit from sorting their muddled thoughts and anxieties into some sort of conscious order? Meditation does provide benefits, but most pupils aren't in the mood to think if from the outset they are being asked to do something they don't believe in. Instead, we need a daily act of collective thinking, discussion, debate and awareness. It would serve the same purpose but without the failure factor generated by using the words "religion" or "worship".

Leading by example

I wrote before about the difference a Head Teacher makes to a school. And I knew there was great hope for my school when I recently caught sight of something that I don't suppose many others did. We'd had an Open Evening in deepest darkest winter, when the staff found it gruelling to stand around like sales assistants for three hours after a day's work and answer difficult questions from parents: some over-keen, others ill-informed. As we began to shuffle our best text books into piles ready to stash away from sticky hands and rude pens until next year, I realised I'd left my coat somewhere. And as it was about minus ten outside I knew I had to find it before the caretaker locked it away and doomed me to freeze solid and statue-like just as my hand grasped in my bag for de-icer.

I dashed to the Staff Room and saw my coat lying across the back of a chair, and just as I turned to leave I caught a glimpse into the kitchenette. There I saw our Head Teacher, sleeves rolled up, washing up hundreds of cups and saucers, alone and unacknowledged. And I couldn't help but smile and feel renewed enthusiasm for working for somebody like this.

Friday 16 January 2009

Bad Boys (and Girls)

It's not often I would refer you to The Telegraph, but in this case, it's worth seeing. If I wasn't a teacher I would read that article about terrible behaviour in schools with a cycnical eye, thinking the media was doing their usual "it's the end of civilisation as we know it" act of prophesising armageddon... but I work in a relatively nice school and even I come across this behaviour several times a week.

In fact, in my last school, one student in particular was such a nightmare of aggression and stroppiness that I overlooked whatever duty of care I perhaps should have had for him, and looked out for the others in the class instead. And myself of course. Because each lesson, it could go one of two ways. The first way was the worst way. Ten minutes into the lesson he would explode about something or other, kicking over chairs, stomping out, hurling abuse and books and whatever else was in reach. The second way was preferable, but wrong in the eyes of authorities and laws. He would sheepishly ask to go to the toilet, disappear for ten minutes, and return in a more chilled out mood with slightly blood-shot eyes. He would placidly make a half-arsed attempt at whatever we were doing, without a fuss, and the lesson might even be pleasant for everyone else too.

So which has the best results for the well-being of the students as a whole then? Maybe he just should have had ritalin, but took an alternative route...

Building bridges

Ah, look at me there. I was all "end of the year" melancholic wasn't I? Well I decided to return with a more positive attitude for 2009, and for a few days it worked. In the fast-paced, slow-stretched world of the pupils' lives, after one term to them I seemed like I'd been there forever. Even my form group, a bunch of foul-mouthed piss-heads and stoners if they are to be believed (hah!), asked me how my holidays had been, but only so they could then regale me with tales about what they did on New Year's Eve. Puking up on pool tables in the local pubs seemed to be a favourite pastime this year.

But a mere eight school days into the new year and the "alrigh' teacher" greetings had been replaced by at-tee-chood. This week has been the sort where I've had to exercise restraint beyond the understanding of most other professions, except perhaps Catholic priests, and even then...

Three girls in my form group, flashing new diamond rings straight from the Argos catalogue bought to them by gullible boyfriends, have returned with more attitude than they ever had last term. This has resulted in several "in my face" rows as they scream at me in frustration at not being able to slather on another orange layer of foundation because I've informed them it's assembly today. Let's just say they are lucky that their hair extensions are still glued to their heads and not inexplicably wrapped around my fingers...