Archive for February, 2007

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Why I Like Being a Teacher

February 25, 2007

I like being a teacher, because I like teaching.

This is not a tautology: a statement that is trivially true (I thought I’d explain that for any geography teachers reading). In fact far from being obviously true it sometimes feels like something that teachers are not meant to admit. Many teachers wouldn’t say that being a teacher is about teaching. A lot of teachers would say “I like being a teacher, because I like children”. A large number of teachers would say “I don’t like being a teacher. What am I doing with my life? Help!” I also suspect a certain number of teachers might think (but daren’t say) “I like being a teacher because I have long holidays, can be off ill for weeks without anybody minding, and I have no worries about my work because I just let the kids colour in pictures or draw posters in most of my lessons.”

But for me, I like explaining my subject to people so that they will learn. I’ve probably crossed the line now. I’ve all but admitted that I’d enjoy teaching adults as much as I do children. I’ve just put my academic function ahead of my pastoral function. Anybody hearing the above in a job interview would now be writing in their notepad: “Only interested in his subject, hates children. Suspected as much when I saw he had a good degree.”

Despite my disdain for Chantel and Jordan and their efforts to disrupt the learning of others I don’t actually hate children. Even the most challenging classes grow on me over time. I have never met a child I disliked anywhere near as much as I have disliked the average member of SMT. Most of the children I teach I actually quite like. However, (unlike some of my colleagues who find children to be wondrous, precious, innocent beings, uncorrupted by the world, who enrich our lives with their joyous exuberance,) I do find that children have a particular fault: they don’t know very much. I have never met a child who couldn’t be improved by learning more. I get the most satisfaction out of my relationship with the children I teach when I cause them to learn. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s annoying and must be dealt with. That is the purpose of my work.

Sometimes this is confusing to children who aren’t used to being expected to learn. One girl at Stafford Grove School complained to me: “You don’t teach us properly, you just tell us things we need to know”. Sometimes it’s confusing to my superiors. Again, at Stafford Green I was told “Don’t keep trying to teach your year 11 classes, just give them old exam papers to practise” and told that none of them would achieve the grade I was trying to get them to (in the end three did). But to me it is the only point of teaching. When it comes down to it the teachers that make a difference for the rest of your life are the ones that get you to learn.

As it happens I’m not actually that interested in my subject, I like it but I don’t subscribe to the latest academic journals, or plan to study it further in the future. When you get much beyond what is taught at A-Level it’s fairly tedious. I just enjoy teaching it and I enjoy getting children to learn it. I’m sure in some eras, some cultures, this might even be considered a good thing for a teacher to gain satisfaction from and a good attitude for a teacher to have.

Discussion of this entry has now appeared on TES.

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The Cast Of Culprits: Part 4. The Bureaucrats

February 20, 2007

Unlike students, teachers and school managers, I don’t meet the functionaries of the education bureaucracy on a regular basis and so my comments reflect only those that affect the day to day work of classroom teachers. In particular it is the LEAs (Local Education Authorities) that have the most direct impact, not the Department For Education and Skills who appear to exist mainly to produce paperwork and make school funding more complicated.

The most regular interference in ordinary teaching life is from LEA consultants. Consultants are former teachers (usually at the middle management level) who come into schools to provide training, conduct observations, give advice, and similar help. Some are good, experienced teachers who can tell you useful things. However, the most noticeable things about them are:

  • They get paid a lot.
  • They don’t seem to have to work as hard as teachers.
  • A large part of the training they give is simply the latest gimmicks: thinking skills, AfL, etc.
  • They are notoriously unreliable and are always turning up late or cancelling meetings.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they do a bad job. However one wonders what would happen if the money paid to consultants went straight to schools. How many schools would pay private companies for similar services? How many schools would find more useful things to spend the money on?

The next big influence from LEAs regards inclusion and exclusions. Although some of the rot comes from above, LEAs are responsible for special education. They also have a strong influence over permanent exclusions in schools. They have a dilemma, they can support schools by having large units for students with behaviour problems and help schools exclude the worst students. Alternatively they can obstruct efforts to deal with behaviour in order to make the statistics look good. The DFES publish figures for permanent exclusions also for the number of students enrolled in Pupil Referral Units A quick look at the figures reveals some LEAs are intent on letting the behaviour situation go unchallenged. For example take a look at the figures for Coventry, 4 permanent exclusions from secondary schools and “less than 3” students enrolled in PRUs for the whole City.

Finally, and most importantly, LEAs are responsible for the opening, closing and merging of schools. It is here where they do the most damage. Major changes of this sort are usually disastrous, with merged schools, and new schools particularly prone to failing discipline. Moreover school closures are particularly unpopular politically and so elected councillors would prefer to avoid them. For these, fairly sensible reasons, LEAs wish to avoid closing schools. If demographics mean there are fewer children in an area this can be difficult and it becomes vital that all schools remain the first choice of a good number of parents. The event most likely to deter parents from enrolling at one school is a vast improvement and high(er) results in another school. Any school that performs incredibly well (this tends to happen where a school has good discipline and high expectations) is a threat to the neighbouring schools. If it’s a Church school and can therefore be chosen by children from miles around, it’s a potential threat to all the other schools. As a result LEAs will often act to stop the success of improving schools. Funding will be withdrawn from school improvement, admissions policies will change to send more challenging students to that school, successful schools will be encouraged not to grow. In short, the LEA will be an obstacle to any individual school improving, an implacable opponent of excellence in education.

Having a local authority in charge of school transport, overseeing admissions and protecting the rights of parents makes sense. Having an education authority in charge of school standards, education provision and providing many services that schools don’t actually want makes no sense at all. A change in the structure of education is needed. LEAs should be responsible for representing parents and students, and finding them schools to attend and getting them there, but they should no longer be responsible for the provision of education services. It is a conflict of interest. You can’t have the same institution identifying students with Special Needs (statementing) and paying for the Special Needs provision (unless you want to deter the writing of statements). You can’t have the same institution setting the policy on exclusions but also in charge of provision for excluded pupils. You can’t have the same institution in charge of ensuring parental choice in education, but also in charge of the running of the schools no parents want to choose. Without a change in where responsibilities lie LEAs will continue to be the fervent defenders of educational mediocrity.

Before anyone points it out, I do know that officially we now have Local Authorities responsible for schools not LEAs. However until I hear an actual teacher talk about “LAs” I thought I’d better stick with the familiar terminology.

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The Culture of Blame

February 17, 2007

Dilbert.com

At Woodrow Wilson School it was a case of them and us. There was a split between the Senior Management Team and the ordinary classroom teachers. Middle management were similarly split, with the departmental staff largely on the side of the classroom teachers, and the year heads and assistant year heads mainly (but not excusively) on the side of SMT.

What the split meant in practice was that blame would be distributed away from management and year heads and to departments and classroom teachers. Nothing was the responsibility of management. Notes would appear in pigeonholes telling us what we crime we had most recently committed against the school, for instance: “there is a lot of litter around the school, you should be stopping this happening when on break duty”. The thought that a problem might be the fault of the students, or that management might be able to intervene to solve it, never occurred.

The worst burden fell on middle managers. They were repeatedly told that they were meant to be able to personally ensure order in their departments. How they were meant to oversee up to ten classes at a time, while teaching their own lessons was never made clear. Senior Management were meant to be responsible for removing disruptive students from a classroom, it was called “Senior Management Call Out” but as time went on the rules changed, and we were told that Heads of Departments were responsible for organising removals, even if they were teaching at the time. There was no restraint when it came to publicly blaming departments for problems, negative comments were often made about behaviour in my department at year briefings. Worse, it was declared at a meeting the term before an OFSTED inspection that if the school didn’t pass it would be the fault of my department.

Because classroom teachers were to be blamed for everything, we had to be checked up on in ways I’ve never encountered elsewhere. Our planners had to be handed over to the Head to check if we were planning our lessons (presumably they were worried we just made up our lessons as we went along). We weren’t allowed to use mock exam results to give grades for school reports, we had to estimate their grades which were then compared with mock exam results to see how good our estimates were (reports and exams were timetabled with this in mind).

As I mentioned before, my year head, Gemma, wasn’t up to much. She was a good friend to SMT and had risen despite no obvious ability to do her job. It soon became clear that she had lost the respect of the tutors. She could not be relied to support them, but would blame them for her own failures. In other schools a change of year head might have been considered. At Woodrow Wilson a failed year head was not considered possible. A better explanation was of course that the tutors must be at fault. Almost every member of the year team was made to move tutor groups (only Gemma’s closest friends were allowed to stay). Just in case having to change group might upset tutors to the point where they wanted to leave, the change was announced by putting notes in pigeonholes in the last week before half term, when it was too late to apply for jobs elsewhere. Teachers can of course leave mid-year, but generally don’t like to, as one of the tutors said to me “They use your professionalism against you”.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, I ultimately left Woodrow Wilson Schools because of the culture of blame. I had been having difficulties with a year 10 class that wouldn’t do coursework. I kept the class in Year 11 and attempted to get on top of their behaviour and low expectations. However they knew that at Woodrow Wilson they could use the culture of blame to undermine me. One student got his parents to complain to the Head that he hadn’t finished his coursework and it must be my fault. The student had had two weeks in class to do the coursework, and weeks to do it at home, and had never even asked for help from me. In a normal school this might be considered a fault on the part of the student. In Woodrow Wilson School this could never be the case. Apparently I must have refused to give help.

I was told to give extra help after school in order to ensure unfinished courseworks got done. I committed myself to a week of after school coursework sessions in order to get it done, and letters were sent home from the Head instructing students that coursework help was available and that they should turn up to get their work finished. Of course what happened is that no student turned up from Monday to Wednesday to get help. On the Thursday some nagging was done and three students turned up (not the one who had complained) and one of those three turned up again on the Friday. The overwhelming majority of students who hadn’t finished their coursework didn’t turn up.

This was reported back to the Head. A letter from him had done nothing to get the coursework done. He could have tried again or he could have acknowledged that if he was unable to compel them to do coursework then no wonder I couldn’t. Of course he did nothing of the sort. In a school where the teachers are to blame then I could still be blamed for something that even the Headteacher was powerless to do anything about. (Incidentally through my own efforts and hard work I did eventually get almost all of the coursework cleared before the end of the year. But it did take months of hard work and effort.)

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How To Find Out If Your Teacher Is Gay

February 12, 2007

If you are a boy in year ten then (for reasons quite beyond me) it will be very important to you to find out if your male teachers are homosexual.

The main method used to find out is to repeatedly ask personal questions. Here are the usual questions:

“Are you married?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Do you have any children?”

“Who do you live with?”

“Does the person you live with have a girlfriend?”

“Is the person you live with gay?”

“What music do you listen to?”

“Do you listen to Elton John?”

“Do you listen to the Village People?”

“What clothes do you wear when you aren’t in school?”

“Have you ever gone to The Village?” [the local gay bar]

This is all fairly standard. But be careful, sometimes students will get so carried away with the investigation that they will accidentally ask something that isn’t very polite, like “Do you have any mates?”.

At a bad school the questions “Do you like girls?”,“Are you gay?” and “Do you take it up the arse?” may also make it into the list. If you are going to ask a question that does go too far it is best to start by saying “Sir, can I ask you a question?” (Ignore the reply, as all sensible teachers will say “No” as any question that needs permission to be asked should never be asked.)

Apart from making very stereotypical assumptions about gay men, this approach is also completely hopeless against the openly gay teacher. At Woodrow Wilson School one of the staff was not just Out but Out To The Kids. He taught a lot of the PSHE modules on Relationships to different classes and would out himself to each class in turn. Very confusing for those students who assumed it must be a secret. It did seem to pay off. Whereas most teachers would at some point experience homophobic abuse, report it and nothing would get done, he would go straight (no pun intended) to his union rep, report it as discrimination and harassment, and the child would be excluded for a day or two.

That said I can understand why most of the gay teachers I’ve known like to remain in the closet to the kids rather than be the subject of gossip. But they do have to be discrete. The other gay teacher I knew of at Woodrow Wilson, despite keeping his sexuality from the kids, thought it would be safe to put his picture on a gay dating site. It was found, read, and within a couple of days every child in the school could quote the blurb from the advert “My name’s Dave, and I like Geography but I’m not just interested in work….”. A few days later they were also quoting several sentences that were not in the original advert, that had been added as the story spread throughout the school. Sentences I couldn’t possibly repeat.

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The Cast of Culprits Part 3: The School Leaders

February 8, 2007

Despite my criticisms of teachers and students I’m still confident that the majority of teachers remain hardworking, dedicated and capable and the majority of students still wish to achieve academically. Although there are excellent secondary headteachers out there – looking for schools where results have improved from nothing to the top of the league table might help you find some of them – there is a widespread problem of heads that cannot make a difference to the problems of their schools and more importantly heads that do not believe they should be solving the problems of their schools.

The reasons for this are probably down to the following:

  • A funding system, inspection system and management systems that are based on paperwork and navigating bureaucracy that conspire to keep heads busy but disconnected from the day to day running of the school.
  • A conservatism that convinces heads that all problems their schools face can be dealt with by traditional methods – good teaching, reminding staff of expectations, letters to parents, telling middle managers what to do – rather than new methods and new distributions of responsibility.
  • Promotion of the weak, ineffectual and visionless – managers who are committed to the education system as it is rather than towards rescuing schools from the system who would never dream of standing up to pushy parents or incompetent LEAs.
  • The continuing persistence of discredited ideologies. In particular a belief in mixed ability teaching in as many subjects as possible, and a belief that children from deprived backgrounds cannot be expected to learn or behave.

In practice this means that teachers often encounter the following behaviour from senior managers that undermine them and their ability to teach:

  • Blaming teachers for all discipline problems. This includes disorder in the corridors, and around the site, problems faced by all new teachers, and worst of all verbal and physical abuse of staff. (The key phrase used is “Discipline is all about relationships”). This is made worse when those hea teachers do not teach and have had the power and status of being senior management to protect them for years.
  • Delegating discipline to middle managers, and worst of all to departments. If large groups of students work together to disrupt lessons, or if detentions are not attended there is little or nothing that departmental managers can do. Even heads of years have only limited time to deal with discipline problems and do not have the power to exclude, which is often what is required.
  • Appeasing students, parents and LEAs. It’s hard to believe how many headteachers seem to believe that they are representatives of interest groups rather than leaders in their own right, attempting to achieve their own clearly stated goals. Nothing is more damaging to staff morale than having no idea what SMT want, but knowing that they are subject to random complaints and unreasonable demands from management.
  • Bullying management techniques. Some heads ignore statutory conditions, intimidate trade union reps, routinely lie in references, and never keep their promises.

There are a few changes that could be made to improve the situation.

  • A change in school funding so that heads no longer have to become full-time form-fillers in order to ensure a good deal for their students. A general reduction in bureaucracy will make management positions more appealing to teachers.
  • A change in discipline so that the responsibility for discipline (and, in particular, sanctions) falls squarely on Senior Management Teams and cannot be delegated. Discipline systems must state consequences and responsibilities exactly. Any responsibilities that fall on classroom teachers cannot involve unpaid overtime, or be unspecified by their contracts. Failure for managers to comply with their own systems should be considered a breach of contract.
  • INSET for senior management to consist of doing a day’s supply teaching in a neighbouring school. Managers who are disconnected from the realities of teaching life are a huge problem in schools.
  • A statutory duty for heads to permanently exclude pupils who assault or verbally abuse staff, deal drugs or bring in weapons and a corresponding end to all targets and financial incentives to reduce exclusions. No head should be able to say their hands are tied on exclusions.
  • An end to mixed ability teaching in the vast majority of subjects, inclusion and the tolerance of poor schools in deprived areas.

Perhaps the worst part of poor management in schools is that a long history of failure is no obstacle to a further career in school management. As I said before there are heads that turn round schools and make a name for themselves as “superheads” and experts in “school improvement”. What there is less publicity for is the army of “not-so-superheads” and “school destroyers” who after turning a good school bad go on to serve for many years as LEA advisors and quangocrats, helping other headteachers to follow their bad example.

Attempts to discuss this entry have been made on INFET and on TES

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