Wednesday 14 October 2009

Little Loners

Canteen duty is something that can be dreaded for a number of reasons, but for me it is often the pathos of that twenty minutes. For surely there is nowhere else around the school where is it possible to observe the hard time that some children go through. The saddest type of child I see is the Little Loner.

In lessons, the Little Loner is identifiable by their reluctance to join in group work. I combat this by sorting pupils into groups myself rather than letting them choose their own groups, and of course the benefits of this reach farther than simply inclusion of a shy or unpopular child.

The Little Loner will sit away from other children if possible, and is usually quiet, but often knows all the answers; however previous experience has taught the L.L. that you don’t earn kudos from your class mates by doing what the teacher wants. The L.L. therefore often retreats into a shell, but some of them are not actually aware of other children’s sniggers and persist in shooting up their hand at every opportunity.

I suggest if you have a keen Little Loner in your class, you move away from asking for “hands up”. One way to do this is to write each class member’s name on a card, and choose a card from the pack when you want somebody to tell you something. Or if your funding stretches to mini whiteboards, these are even better. Even disaffected pupils love to scrawl with a board pen on the slippery surface, and not only do you have every pupil (more) on task, but you also succeed in letting your keen Little Loner answer without fear of ridicule.

But back to the canteen. It’s all very well thinking of ways to include the L.L. in your lessons. And for the majority of lunchtimes most schools have refuges for L.L.s: lunchtime clubs like chess, Warhammer or maths puzzles, where they are no longer alone, but in the company of those who also avoid the harsh world of the playground. L.L.s are usually well known to the school librarian, as they settle down into their usual spot to read or surf the web. But even L.L.s have to eat…

It’s funny (peculiar not haha). Teaching has toughened me up so much. When I set out I was a bleeding heart who took seriously every bleat of “he’s bullying me”, and spent weekends worrying about something a child mentioned in passing. But when you meet about 180 children every day (form group plus five average teaching groups) it’s as much as you can do sometimes to even remember everyone’s name. (Seven weeks into the year and I still don’t know at least half of the pupils I teach.)

Yet nothing tugs at my remaining heart-strings as much as seeing the Little Loner eating a solitary snack or lunch in the canteen. Often it’s a case of a packed-lunch-pupil who can sit straight down without the tussle of the canteen queue, and it’s not long before they’re joined by some friends.

But sometimes packed-lunch-pupil dines alone on the healthy contents of their Tupperware box, and I have been wondering if there’s a correlation between the type of child who brings in a packed lunch and the probability that child will be more of a loner. Maybe there’s camaraderie to be had in the long queues to reach the canteen counter, or maybe the pushing and shoving toughens up children somewhat. (I could take this one further and wonder if having school dinners makes you more successful at getting served in pubs in later life… maybe there’s a PhD study in there somewhere.)

But even canteen-queue-child can be a Little Loner. On duty in the canteen I may recognise a pupil from my lesson, nervously focused on her slice of healthy canteen pizza, or his Tupperware pot of tuna pasta or sliced peppers and hummus; they’re the children not daring to look around, and trying to block out the din and clatter going on just beyond the half metre radius that constitutes the “no go” zone around them. I’ve learnt from experience that the worst thing to do is give a sympathetic little smile. This works well in the corridors, when you may well be the first person to smile at Little Loner that day, as you both escape rapidly into the swarm of noisy pupils. But in the canteen, smiling at a L.L. is tantamount to flashing a spotlight onto their seat and superimposing a bullseye onto their forehead. And the L.L. knows this.

There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to match-make between lonely pupils who I think would enjoy each others’ company. “Rosie, meet Emma, who also likes reading, and has two guinea-pigs as well!” And some schools have “buddy” systems that aim to do just this. But in the canteen, it just doesn’t work. Instead, the Little Loners sit at their separate tables, heads down until the deed is done and they can scuttle off to some sanctuary elsewhere. And it just seems to me the saddest thing for them to eat alone every day, in the midst of all the organised chaos of the canteen.

And then my duty is over, and I scuttle off back to my classroom, to unwrap the foil from around my sandwiches and mark books as I munch… alone...

Sunday 11 October 2009

The BBC Programme

Sunday: The Big Question - you have 7 days to watch this: Should teachers always set a moral example? It starts about 20 minutes into the programme. Features a Ranting Headteacher and Twitter's @schoolgate - Sarah Ebner. Interesting issues plus added hot air! Well done Sarah for reminding the public about the behaviour and responsibilities of parents! And well done sensible 12 year olds!

Moral Maze

Should teachers always set a moral example? This was a question posed on Twitter on Friday evening by @schoolgate – Sarah Ebner, a journalist at the Times Online.

That she was asking this on a Friday evening, as I wound down at home after another hectic week with a glass of wine or more, brought out my more facetious side (first identified and labelled as such by my RE teacher over twenty years ago). But it stirred up some strong feelings, particularly amongst former headteacher and now education writer @GeraldHaigh, a time-served teacher who clearly believes that “teacher” is a life-long vocation that stays with you even beyond retirement.

I may be flippant about this on Twitter – after all, there are only so many things you can express in 140 characters at a time. But it’s been something I’ve been thinking about all weekend, and I do have strong thoughts and opinions on how much “being a teacher” affects our lives, and those hours when we’re not in the school building.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a generational thing. In fact, different lines of morality weave through different generations of teachers. Today we are expected to at least appear to be upstanding members of the community, leading future generations by example. When I’ve taken PSHE sessions about the dangers of smoking and drinking, and pupils have asked me about my own experiences, I’ve felt like such a hypocrite by glossing over my own history like those times as a student (when I never dreamed I would evolve into a teacher) when I drunk so much I lost hours of an evening, or set my own hair alight waving a cigarette around, and so on.

And yet when I was at school as a pupil, I remember well the two separate staffrooms: one which was safe to approach, and the other whose door resembled a dragon’s mouth with smoke curling round the edges as teachers chain-smoked their way through breaks. Even two years ago, before one of the most popular teachers I have ever known retired, the only complaint about him was from pupils whose books were returned to them reeking of smoke where they had sat in his study as he marked them, fag dangling from mouth. He’d even ignore the work-place smoking ban, and light up in his classroom as soon as the final bell went, and puff his way through staff meetings. How was that setting a good example?

The other thing that springs to mind are those 80s songs like Madness’s “Baggy Trousers”
– “all the teachers in the pub, passing round the ready rub”… yep, these were the teachers of my youth, and from anecdotal evidence from those educated in the 1970s and 1980s at comprehensive schools, there are also many tales of violent ex-forces teachers, for example, who would threaten and abuse their pupils; I myself have witnessed a teacher pinning a boy against the wall by the scruff of his neck for what we now call “low-level disruption”.

So in a way, I think it’s hypocritical to now expect teachers to be the bastions of civilization and morality in their own time, if it’s not affecting anyone else. It wasn’t such an imposition on teachers twenty or thirty years ago, so why now? So we can no longer smoke in the staffroom, and have a pint or two at lunchtime, and a good thing too in my opinion, but why extend restrictions on our personal lives beyond the school gate?

However, that’s not to say I don’t think there should be guidance in place. It sends a shudder through me when I hear of my colleagues, mostly younger, who have Facebook pages and allow pupils to become their “friends”. I think if you are a teacher, and you have a personal Facebook page, then this should be absolutely private, and you shouldn’t allow access to pupils, and possibly their parents. There are so many people who don’t see anything wrong with allowing pupils into their social networks, so why do I think it’s wrong? Well firstly, pupils are not our friends. There should always be some kind of professional distance between pupils and teachers, however friendly you are, or however many sports teams you take away on trips. If you erode that professional distance, then you open yourself up for all kinds of potential problems. My private life is just that. It’s why I write under a pseudonym. I would never want anything negative to reflect on my pupils, colleagues or school.

What else? Well despite the way that previous generations have dealt with it, I don’t think that today’s teachers should drink alcohol or smoke in front of pupils. I know we’re only human, and that plenty of us do drink and smoke, but in the presence of pupils we are professionals, and should act accordingly. But in our own time, however, if we want to drink until we’re sick, then why not? As long as the pictures don’t get posted to Facebook where half the school can see them.

And here’s where another argument comes in. Some believe that once you become a teacher, you are a role model and that label shouldn’t be taken off during evenings and weekends. And this is why I don’t like the label of “teacher”. If I go out for a few drinks with friends and start chatting to people, I don’t want them to know I’m a teacher, because at that moment in that pub, it doesn’t define me. I don’t want them thinking of their own children’s teacher when they hear me slurring my words after three pints of shandy. I don’t want them thinking how irresponsible I am to be doing what they too are doing in that pub at that moment.

This reminds me of that frequent moment of surprise that young (and not so young!) children have when they see their teacher out of context, in a supermarket or the High Street. Children categorise their teachers as being that adult who they see at school, and often can’t imagine them elsewhere. I’ve even had 14 year olds go on for weeks in lessons about seeing me in the High Street, as if they can’t get over the surprise of one of their teachers being released from the school building for good behaviour, and actually having to buy groceries like a human being.

And that’s fine with me. In school I am a teacher. I am a consummate professional, because not only do I get paid to be so, but I also believe that this is the best way to guide today’s youngsters to become tomorrow’s citizens. But away from the stressful classrooms and corridors, I feel I should be allowed to conduct my life as other adults do. As long as I’m not doing it in front of their pupils, or in the same pubs they’re drinking in, I don’t see the problem.

Now there are many other arguments we could follow here. Should teachers be allowed to be members of the BNP? Should they be struck off for being caught drink driving or taking drugs? These are far more contentious, and perhaps for homework you could think about these issues for next lesson.

As a post-script, if you do follow me on Twitter then you’ll know from my regular evening tweets that these arguments are mostly theoretical, and that a night out for me these days is as rare as a hen’s tooth. But it’s the principle of the thing!

Slippery Ladders

I wrote the following a little while back, in the immediate fall-out from a failed job interview. Of course, after the pain and frustration had subsided, I was reasonable enough to realise that, okay, maybe it was simply a case of somebody better than me getting the job each time. But I'm not going to edit what I wrote then, because it sums up how I was feeling, and still am to an extent. Here we go:

I’ve got a problem. It’s making me really fed up, and I’m losing motivation. My problem is that I can’t seem to get a promotion. In the past year I’ve been for three promotions at different schools, and been interviewed for all of them. One of them was a small promotion and I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell up against the internal candidate. The other two were for bigger promotions and have concluded with feedback that it was between me and the candidate who was successful but that the other candidate had more experience in something or tackled an issue better than me or… whatever. Waffle all you like.

But I’m getting worried. Because I hear of younger, less experienced people being given promotions or fast-tracked on special courses for those in the early years of their careers and I feel like I’ve missed the boat. Maybe I’ll never be given a chance. Maybe I’ll always be asked the same question: “So why now, when you’ve been teaching blah-de-blah?” With just that hint of suspicion as to my motives, trying to weed out some little secret that simply doesn’t exist.

Well let me tell you why. I love classroom teaching: I love the banter with the pupils, I love helping them make progress, opening their eyes to new ideas, and I love that they make me open my eyes too. I love thinking on my feet, finding new ways to explain something in ten seconds flat for the one child that “doesn’t get it”, seeing children develop over the year, and making resources and lessons to move the learning on and engage the pupils. I’ve had different responsibilities in different roles, but to me that wasn’t the be all and end all of teaching. I was never upwardly mobile before because I had so many things I was enjoying, from trips to clubs and competitions: how would I get the chance to do all this if I was in charge and bogged down with paperwork and phone-calls, I used to think.

But now I feel the time is right. I’ve stacked up enough experience in different roles to enable me to see that I could do a promoted job very well. I sometimes wish I was in charge because I can see a simple solution to something that others are not willing to try, or because I know that I could do it well – or better. I’m looking forward to five or ten years down the line and I can’t imagine staying in the role I’m currently in because I feel the need for a change and a challenge. I’m going stale and I feel the world moving on past me but the feeling is one of being trapped. I’m top of the pay scale and I want to try something new – so why won’t anybody give me a chance?

So I really don’t know what to do next. There are only so many knock-backs I can take without feeling like a deflated balloon: no longer of use to anyone and hanging around in the corner long after the use-by date. If there’s no way I’m going to be given a chance to move on within teaching, then what should I do? I’m more than ready to move onwards and upwards, but if there are no opportunities for me, then maybe I should look in another direction. I just don’t know what or where.

Friday 2 October 2009

Twitter stole my blogging vibe!

Oh I have been quiet haven't it! I was sure I was going to have a summer off, not thinking about school, and that pretty much happened, which, as they say, was nice. There were also a thousand other things I wanted to do over the summer, but the best laid plans, as they also say... well, you know the rest. A wash-out of a summer, apart from those three days where I did manage to live the dream and read in the garden, but a break from the classroom whichever way you look at it.

But then there's the Twitter thing. I was going to be my usual aloof self but Twitter is a whole new way to connect with people on the internet. It's far more immediate than blogging like this, but as such, you probably end up revealing more about yourself. Which is a phenomenon which had me thinking about its uses in the classroom: how much more appealing to think you only have to type 140 characters instead of an essay! How great to have immediate feedback from others all round the world, and be able to join others in commenting on the news and random selection of "trending topics". What a relief to see your "tweets" slip off the bottom of the page after a few minutes, so you go more with ideas than first time perfection.

Yep, I can see Twitter as a great educational accessory. I just wish the schools I know and indeed work in were far more geared up technologically to accommodate classes of students working with blogging tools like Twitter. I know it goes on in a number of classrooms across the world, because every now and again a teacher will ask fellow tweeters to say hi to their class or answer a question like how old you have to be to drive where you live. I'd love to work in a place where current technologies are used to inspire students but for the moment I shall have to wait until the infrastructure becomes available... or I find it somewhere!