Archive for October, 2006

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The Top Five Lies About Behaviour

October 30, 2006

Dilbert.com

Most countries manage to keep a lid on the behaviour in their schools. We can tell this from the shocked faces of staff and students who arrive from overseas as they see what British education is actually like. (A friend of mine worked with refugees and discovered that more than one family left Britain to face persecution and possible torture in their homeland rather than put their children through the British education system). A few generations back we also managed to stay short of the current anarchy. To excuse the situation we are in now it takes a certain amount of deceit. The following lies are the ones I’ve encountered most often.

Lie Number 1:“If your lessons are good enough you won’t have any discipline problems.”
Who’s told me this lie: PGCE lecturers, OFSTED, LEA consultants, teachers from posh schools.
The Truth: Pupils don’t misbehave because you haven’t met their high pedagogical standards. The kind of kids that cause most disruption would consider any lesson where they can’t adjust their make-up, discuss their sex lives, and try and make one of the shyer kids cry as unsatisfactory. In fact one of the things most likely to make them kick off is seeing the rest of the class learning. The worst kids are a problem before you’ve even tried to teach them. They don’t care about the lesson and they don’t have a reason for misbehaving. They misbehave because they can.

Lie Number 2: “Discipline is all about relationships.”
Who’s told me this lie: Senior managers in schools where senior managers don’t do anything about discipline.
The Truth: A relationship is not one way. Students choose whether they have a good relationship with an adult. If the discipline system isn’t tough enough they will take every opportunity to have bad relationships. In tough schools you get hassle from kids you’ve never met. Complete strangers will yell abuse or throw things at you. There is no relationship there to be a problem. Moreover they will look for easy targets – the people management won’t support. In some schools that’s new staff, in some schools that’s particular departments. When I worked in the Woodrow Wilson School and SMT had fallen out with my department, they declared that all the teachers in it had problems forming relationships with the kids. It was considered more plausible that ten teachers all had the same failing, than that the consistent efforts of SMT to undermine the department might actually have had an effect on the kids’ behaviour.

Lie Number 3: “I’m sorry.”
Who’s told me this lie: Kids (usually accompanied by somebody more senior than myself.)
The Truth: When they say “I’m sorry” they actually mean “I’m not sorry at all, but somehow you’ve actually managed to get me into trouble with one of the few people with any power in this school. While they are here I will apologise but the moment they are gone I will make it entirely clear that it was your fault that I am in trouble and that I take no responsibility for my own actions. Moreover I reserve the right to do the action I am apologising for again, along with far worse behaviour, at the very next opportunity”. At Stafford Grove School one of the kids who apologised for his “uncharacteristic” poor behaviour when accompanied by the Head (“David’s not so bad”) was arrested later in the year for burgling the school and was last seen by me sneaking onto school grounds with a can of beer in his hand, accompanied by several other students no longer on the school roll, no doubt looking for chocolate and valuables to steal.

Lie Number 4: “We can’t do anything with him/her at home either”
Who’s told me this lie: Parents of obnoxious brats who I have foolishly phoned looking for help.
The Truth: Of course you can do something. You could stop paying for their mobile phone until they stop using it in lessons. You could cancel their Christmas presents. You could take that TV set out of their bedroom and lock the Playstation in the cupboard. Parents have a hundred times more punishments available than teachers. That said, parents have more to put up with too, so maybe the problem actually lies with the idea that teachers (the professionals) should rely on parents (amateurs) when trying to get schoolchildren to do what they’re told.

Lie Number 5: “Well we can’t expect too much. They are just kids.”
Who’s told me this lie: Teachers making excuses for the anarchy around them.
The Truth: No, they are not “just kids”. In many cultures they’d be considered adults by now. Many of them are as big as adults. Unless they suffer from a severe form of mental illness they should be able to be quiet. They should be able to listen for ten minutes. They should be able to avoid hitting others or verbally abusing them. Children of the same age in many other cultures manage it. Children of the same age in our culture used to be able to manage it. The problem is this has been thrown away due to the belief that controlling others is wrong and that even self-control is wrong. This lie is made twice as bad when the politics of class are brought into it. Not only are children too immature to behave like human beings, they are too poor. I’m not going to pretend that deprived areas don’t have their own problems, but having one or two kids from single parent families does not mean that you are in the ghetto. Woodrow Wilson school had supportive parents who would (both) come in on parents evening and tell you how puzzled they were that their child had started behaving badly since they started at the school. Many of them were Asian but a fair few were white middle class too as you would expect in the suburbs. Yet to hear the school’s SMT talk you’d think we were in The Hood. “You have to understand” said Gary (the school’s third head since I got there) “these aren’t middle class parents we’re dealing with” when one of the non-attenders at parents’ evening tried to blame me for their son not doing his coursework. I didn’t think to ask him “If they are not middle class parents why are they all living in houses twice the size of mine?”

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Modern Education is Rubbish Part 1. Where Are We Now?

October 27, 2006

To quote from the BBC:

One third of employers have to give their staff remedial lessons in basic English and maths, a survey suggests. Managers said staff needed to be able to use correct spelling and grammar and should be competent in simple mental arithmetic without a calculator. One in five employers said non-graduate recruits of all ages struggled with literacy or numeracy.

And similarly from the Guardian:

Universities are dismayed by the poor levels of literacy and numeracy among school leavers who arrive in higher education expecting to be “spoon-fed”, according to a new study. Tutors at 16 universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – complained that many school leavers lacked a good grip of grammar and had a “fear of numbers”.

And also from the BBC:

Britain is in danger of becoming a nation fearful of its young people, a report has claimed …… British adults were more likely than their other European counterparts to say that young people were predominantly responsible for anti-social behaviour, and cite “lack of discipline as the root cause of anti-social behaviour”. The Britons who were unwilling to get involved claimed they feared being physically attacked or verbally abused – or that they would be the victim of subsequent reprisals.

None is this will come as a surprise to the average teacher. For many teachers what we see in schools is pupils who haven’t learnt, won’t learn and won’t behave. The idea that schools leavers will lack basic skills and that many young people are acting like thugs is taken for granted.

Teachers do differ in what they believe the causes are. The parents, modern society and the media are often blamed. For teachers who went to grammar schools themselves the children seem so different from those they remember when they were at school that only a change in society could explain the spawning of a generation of uncooperative sociopaths. However, for those of us that went to “bog standard comprehensives” (or worse), today’s young don’t seem any more cruel, lazy or ignorant than our own generation.

What has changed is that behaviour we remember from the playground now takes place in the classroom, not only in front of teachers but sometimes with teachers as the victims. What has changed is that the unwillingness to learn has become blatant and public, and is most often manifested by a complete refusal to comply with anything a teacher asks a child to do. What has changed is that the swearing, fighting and bullying that once would have happened in those areas of the school hidden from the prying eyes of teachers (for instance the toilets or the bike sheds) now happens out in the open. When I was at school, kids used to hide from the teachers. Now, I more often see teachers hiding from the kids.

In this new environment it is no wonder that students can choose to go through school without learning. Faced with the worst forms of behaviour many teachers have long since ceased requiring all students to work or even to listen. I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who has been told by pupils who are unused to the act of learning “You don’t teach us properly, you just tell us what we need to know”. Some children will react with shock and anger at being presented with new material to learn. Some children are amazed that listening is expected, or reading, or writing. In fact for many children it is a huge surprise if anything happens in the classroom which prevents them from continuing the conversations they started at break. This isn’t a change in society. This is a change in schools. Somehow we have a culture in many schools where pupils are not expected to learn, not expected to behave, and not expected to exercise responsibility for themselves.

I don’t believe this is a result of social change. I don’t believe this is a fact of nature. I believe this is a result of the education system we have. I believe it’s time that system was changed.

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The Corridor of Death

October 25, 2006

The worst news in teaching seems to arrive at the most inconvenient times. Friday afternoon, while preparing for an imminent lesson with bottom set year ten, is not a good time for anything. But that was when my Head Of Department at Stafford Grove School, Mertha, decided to tell me I was changing classrooms. This meant:

  • I would have to spend hours moving.
  • All the preparation of my own room that I had already done was a waste of time.
  • I would have to use a room with an incredibly inconvenient lay-out.

If I thought I’d had a choice I would have refused point-blank. It turns out another member of the department had refused and threatened to leave rather than move down the corridor. As ever, I accepted my lot.

I knew the corridor through the department was unruly. I’d raised it at the very first department meeting of the year. In particular I’d pointed out that:

  • The “one-way system” in the corridor was never obeyed or enforced.
  • The lights were constantly being switched off.
  • The corridor was being used by approximately half the school population during lesson change-overs.

Of course my comments were ignored by Mertha and by Claire, the Deputy Head, who was also at the meeting.

It was only after I’d moved to the middle of the corridor that I learnt just how bad the situation was. Right away I discovered that my year 11 classes had no intention of going the correct way down the corridor and that at the end of the school day children would congregate outside my classroom in front of the fire escape. A few weeks later, I discovered that the fire escape was the main method of entrance to the building for students skipping classes and ex-students sneaking on to the site for purposes of petty theft. I discovered this when another teacher left my door unlocked and I returned to find my desk had been kicked in and every item of value removed from the drawers (admittedly that consisted only of chocolate bars and gel pens I’d been storing as bribes …. I mean prizes for my form). As a result I also learnt that although there were CCTV cameras at both ends of the corridor, there were none on my room or the fire exit next to it. In a similar way, I would later learn that bolting the fire exit to stop students breaking the rules by coming into the building through it was a violation of health and safety rules. Because different year groups had lunch at different times this guaranteed that during any lesson taught for one year group during another year group’s lunchtime ten or twenty kids would accumulate loudly in the corridor outside my classroom, waiting for whichever lessons would follow mine.

However, the repeated disruption and the many incidents of theft and vandalism that my classroom was subjected were not the worst part of being in the middle classroom in the Corridor of Death. The many inconveniences of the classroom itself, such as the seating arrangements that prevented students from being clearly visible, or the Interactive Whiteboard that didn’t actually work were also not the worst part. The true threat from the corridor was a more simple one: violence. Not long after moving rooms I saw a couple of the most emotionally disturbed students attempting to go the wrong way down the corridor when it was at its most crowded. In the resulting scrimmage a couple of more experienced members of staff actually took part in the physical restraining of the two students (to the shouts of “you can’t do that” from Lunatic A and Lunatic B). A few weeks later my own efforts to convince my year 11s from taking a short cut by going the wrong way down the corridor soon established that other people’s year 11s would just push past me. As the weeks went on I realised pushing and shoving of teachers was commonplace in the corridor. One tall male pupil pushed a female teacher up against the wall and held her there. Teachers began hiding in their classrooms.

As ever in teaching the first rule of behaviour management applied: “Whatever is normal is acceptable”. The corridor became the place to cause chaos. At the bottom of the corridor there was a door to the roof, and before too long it was broken open and it started to became my duty to remove students from the roof. The violence became so normal that I looked up the rules on using physical restraint and began weighing in, physically pushing kids out of the fire exit when safety and order required it (as ever to the cry of “you can’t do that”). One year ten boy started turning up after school, standing outside my classroom and pushing and shoving to get in. After the third incident in which he assaulted me I managed to get him suspended. It turned out that nothing had been done about the previous two incidents – I’d foolishly reported them using the school discipline system.

The assaults from this boy were a key part of my decision to leave the school. Once I’d got a job elsewhere I felt far happier to ignore the chaos outside my room. The school’s Senior Management Team (SMT) didn’t care – I’d seen the Head let kids walk the wrong way down the corridor – so why should I enforce the rules there? However it was only a matter of time before SMT would notice the violence in the corridor and look for teachers to blame. I was eating my lunch in the department office when the Assistant Head turned up to say the noise in the corridor was interrupting his lesson. He suggested that two colleagues and I give up our lunch to take shifts patrolling the corridor. I pointed out that:

  • It was not our job.
  • We had lessons to prepare.
  • None of us were being paid to organise lunch duties.
  • Every person who was paid to manage the department was safely hidden on the other side of the school as they were every lunch break.

He left, and the following day Claire called me in to her office to complain about my lack of cooperation. I pointed out that I’d raised the problem of the corridor at the start of the year. I pointed out that nobody patrolled it during my lessons. I pointed out that I was not being paid to organise lunch duties. Somehow, her efforts to tell me off ended up with her agreeing to raise the issue of supervision of the corridor at the next SMT meeting. Of course, nothing will ever actually be done. But with me long gone the Corridor of Death becomes the responsibility of the next generation of teachers in the department at Stafford Grove School. Curiously they mainly seem to be supply teachers on temporary contracts.

I can’t imagine why they can’t retain permanent staff.

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Introduction to the Blog

October 24, 2006

You can say [our] future is threatened by racial bigotry, or the breakdown of the family, or by national naivete toward world economic forces, or by a strange spiritual malady which has rendered us low-minded and irresponsible. And you would be right on each count – each is a contributing factor. But the major cause is ignorance. Again and again we do not see the main issues clearly enough or long enough. Again and again we do not discern which actions would truly be in our best interest. We take the wrong action or settle for wrong headed inaction. The cure for ignorance is education. But our schools, especially our inner-city schools, have broken down. This is a crisis in education.

Joe Clark (1989) talking about US schools then, in words which could apply to British schools now.

Hello and welcome to my blog.

It is intended to be an honest description of what is going on in secondary education in this country. The title of this blog indicates that I genuinely believe that education has become a battleground, or more accurately several different battlegrounds. Students who don’t want to study, managers who don’t want to manage, and even teachers who don’t want to teach are all too common obstructions for anyone that actually believes children should be learning in our schools. These everyday obstacles are combined with an entire education system that at every level doesn’t seem designed for education. For that reason it is often a fight to get to the point where the kind of teaching and learning, which would have been taken for granted less than a generation ago, can even take place.

This blog will detail both my personal experience of fighting the battle to teach and also my take on the system that has turned our schools into battlegrounds. I plan to run two different threads of writing throughout the blog. The first will detail my experiences as a secondary school teacher and will share opinions and advice related to this experience. The second will discuss and comment on bigger issues relating to education, under more general titles such as “Modern Education is Rubbish” and “A Brief History of Education” each divided into several parts.

I intend to rewrite and update the entries about the big issues (and this introduction) as I go. This is because over time I intend that they should form one single coherent viewpoint about the state of education today, and so as I develop my arguments further I may need to review what I have already written in light of further thoughts, and comments and discussion made about the content. I will bring any major redrafting to your attention when it happens.

The posts relating to personal experience I don’t intend to rewrite in any major way, although I will be grateful for any corrections to spelling and grammar. Please be aware that unlike most blogs these will not be in chronological order and wll not reflect the most recent events in my life as a teacher. They will mainly come from two different schools, the first is Woodrow Wilson School, a large city comprehensive with a very mixed intake where I taught immediately after I qualified. It went through a series of management changes and my time there was marked by infighting between Senior Management and the department I was working in, based on consistent efforts by Senior Management to blame all problems in the day to day running of the school on classroom teachers – the “culture of blame”. The second is Stafford Green School, a school with a much more challenging intake but which had strong results when I joined. Over the time I was there I saw results tumble and my department fall apart and learnt first hand how complacency over discipline could create a disaster even in a school with a long history of effectiveness,

Finally I will be encouraging debate and discussion on the issues raised in my blog as I go. As well as the “comment” facility on the blog itself, I also intend to encourage discussion on the teacher forums I post to, particularly Teaching And Education on INFET, but also Opinion and Behaviour on TES. I look forward to reading your feedback.

References:

Clark, Joe, Laying Down the Law, 1989, Regenery Gateway

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