Archive for August, 2007

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Political Education Goes Down the Toilet

August 24, 2007

Political argument

More than ten years ago, through one of my hobbies, I knew a lot of people on the fringes of politics: councillors, student activists, party hacks and the like. It’s an irritating fact of life that everyone has a view about education and political types had more than most. There was one view that seemed particularly popular in the dying days of John Major’s government among progressively minded people. Its advocates would say something along these lines:

“It’s terrible that most young people today have no interest in party politics and are just interested in single issue groups. They would have more interest in politics if they understood it better. Schools need to teach people about democracy. If they did people would understand the system and get involved more. Then they’d like Proportional Representation and want Britain to join the Euro.”

I’ll ignore the last bit as I can’t quite recall what that was about.

Anyway, before long, John Major reached the point where he couldn’t put off a General Election any longer, and a landslide defeat brought an end to two million years of Conservative Party rule. The Labour Party, led by a youthful chap called Blair (I think he was about 12 at the time) formed a shiny, new government. Before long there was a new subject in the National Curriculum called Citizenship and every school was electing a School Council, a representative body that would be the breeding ground for the new participative politics.

Citizenship was dealt with differently by different schools. In some it is taught as a subject and probably doesn’t do any particular harm other than taking up time that could be spent ensuring that all school children can read, write and add up. In other schools it is taught by form tutors and is a complete waste of time. I still have a strong memory of my year team preparing to teach Local Government at Woodrow Wilson School. Gemma, my Head of Year, told us:

“Just tell them it’s like phoning in to vote on Big Brother or X-Factor”.

“Shouldn’t we be teaching them about Local Government and what it does?” I asked.

“No, They won’t care about that, none of their parents vote.”

One of the other teachers asked what to say if anybody asked which party ran the local council or who their councillor was. Gemma said that it was a Labour council, I pointed out that it was a Tory council. One of the Teaching Assistants said she thought she knew the name of one of the councillors for the ward containing the school but it turned out she was thinking of somebody who had retired from politics and left the country.

School Councils are another matter entirely. Many schools also have Year Councils elected by form groups allowing a lot of students to get involved. Intended as a microcosm of political life these should be a chance to learn about how the political system works. Provided, of course, that we are preparing students for a system where:

  • There is no secret ballot.
  • The counting of votes isn’t subject to scrutiny.
  • The only political issue is the state of the toilets.

I’m fairly certain Gemma used to fix the results for School Council elections. Many form tutors I’ve known did similar things for Year Council elections. I never fixed my elections, I always got great satisfaction in seeing the election of stupid, crazy or perpetually absent students in the hope that it might teach my form group about voting responsibly. During the course of the year I would make a point of telling them that they should be raising their concerns (which were usually about the toilets) with their Year Council member. Sure enough sometimes a student would have a political epiphany and say “Why the Hell did we vote for him. He’s always excluded. Who’s going to complain about the toilets for us now?”

Working at tough comprehensives I haven’t seen any student get involved in party politics. From what I can tell of local political parties when they do get young people joining it’s usually from the posher schools. Efforts to turn the disaffected young into models of civic involvement don’t seem to have worked. They don’t seem to be interested in those single issue groups either. Of course the places I’ve worked at might be a biased sample of schools which failed to inspire political activity. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that at every school I’ve ever worked at nobody ever did do anything about the state of the toilets.

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Just For The Record, I Don’t Hate The Kids

August 17, 2007

I guess it’s a sign that more people are reading this blog, but my virtual self seems to have accumulated a few enemies. These enemies pop up either here or on the various teacher forums where my blog is sometimes discussed. My real self has a few enemies but they are mainly people who used to be my boss who don’t like the fact I quit their schools in disgust (the one advantage of teaching a shortage subject is how easy it is to escape).

There are two accusations made against me regarding my blog.

The first is that I must be a bad teacher, or unable to teach, to have the discipline problems that I write about on my blog. Of course this makes the huge assumption that I write about my problems on here. Anyone who actually reads this knows how rarely I refer to specific incidents on here, particularly where they involve students. I have no interest in writing about problems I can solve for myself. I have very little interest in writing about problems which I get myself into. When you add that to the fact I don’t want to be identified from the incidents described here you’ll find that what really interests me are the things that are happening all the time to all the teachers at my school, or at all the schools I’ve worked at. I have a particular fascination with how abnormal behaviour becomes normal. I didn’t write about “terroring” because I once got “terrored”, I wrote about it because all teachers can expect it in certain schools or with certain year groups. I didn’t write about the “fuck-off factor” because I once got told to “fuck off” but because it’s an everyday occurrence and is most often brought about by serious efforts to teach. And heaven help us if you think “Chantel” and “Jordan” are two real students.

As for bad teaching, I can assure you that I get results. I could point out any number of times my classes have done unexpectedly well in exams. I could also point out the times I have been praised for my classroom management or had to assist other teachers with discipline. Schools operate on a system of blame and I know I’ve had a fair share of blame directed towards me over the years, but I’ve not struggled with the logistics of classroom management for many years. But all of this is an irrelevance, because nobody could have told anything about how I teach from my blog, I don’t even mention my subject. The only way anybody could conclude that there was something wrong with my teaching is if you believe that any teacher who reports poor behaviour must have somehow caused it themselves. You don’t have to teach in too many different schools to know this is bollocks, to know that the exact same lesson, the exact same teaching, can result in completely different pupil behaviour depending on the school, or even just depending on the year group. Mind you, just because it’s bollocks doesn’t mean you don’t still hear it again, and again, in teaching.

The second criticism from my virtual critics is that I must hate kids. No doubt this is based on the fact I think they should behave. The implication is clear, if I object to students disrupting lessons, being verbally abusive and assaulting staff then I must really dislike students. This is obvious insanity. Again, it’s something that you hear again, and again, in teaching. But there’s an obvious reason why you hear it. Teachers who can’t actually teach have to justify their career choice to themselves somehow. A love of children is the most common excuse. You hear it all the time “my subject knowledge isn’t great, but I have really good relationships with the kids”. Roughly translated this means: “the children and I have come to an understanding that they don’t actually have to learn”. Those of us who still aspire to educate are seen as having a dislike for the darling children. I suppose I could attempt to write heart-warming stories of the students who I get on well with, have developed a connection with, the ones I can happily chat with. But who cares about them? What warms my ice-cold heart is not to count some adolescent as a friend, but to count them as a success: those clever young people who have gone from awful comprehensives to study my subject at top universities; those struggling children who start achieving in my subject for the first time in their lives; those average students who have got the grade they never thought they’d get.

So for the record, I don’t hate the kids, but I do want them to learn. I want them to learn as much as they can, even if it’s more than they necessarily want to learn. And I’m willing to fight to get my way. I’ve never yet met anyone who left school thinking “I know too much”, yet I’ve time and time again met people who regret not getting the grades they needed in my subject. For their own sake I want to educate them more than I want to be friends with them. Only in a truly disordered education system would this be seen as hostility on the part of a teacher.

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The Fourth Law of Behaviour Management

August 13, 2007

The fourth and final law is: students are responsible for their own actions. This is perhaps the most difficult to abide by when there are so many outside influences suggesting that nobody is responsible for their actions, that we are all machines programmed by our upbringing or material circumstances into performing certain actions and not others. As much as I find this philosophically repellent, it is even more of an anathema to me when considered on pragmatic grounds alone. If schools intend to educate then they must aspire to enable students to make informed choices. For a school to accept that students are not responsible for their choices is to have given up on much of education before it has even begun. Schools need to have an ethos that makes it clear to all students: You make a choice when you break the rules and the consequences of your choice will have to be accepted.

This outlook has implications at every level:

Classroom Teachers:

All discipline must be based on choice and consequence. This can be expressed in the language teachers use: “If you use your mobile phone in class, you will be choosing to get a detention”, “Ryan, you have chosen to get a warning”. It also means that there can be little room for exceptions and favours. When the rule is broken a choice has been made, no punishment should be cancelled for later good behaviour and no child should be exempt from the rules. Clarity is vital to this ethos, the rules must be stated to every class in turn and reminders should be frequent. No child who is misbehaving should be able to see their punishment as anything other than what they have chosen to get. Moreover, where punishment takes place it is vital that the student acknowledges what they have done wrong.

School Management:

School managers need to make these principles school wide. Clear rules written in the language of choice are needed and should be distributed to every parent and every student. There must be pressure on teachers to enforce the rules universally (the exact opposite to what is normal in many schools) and support for teachers where enforcing the rules becomes difficult. The rules must apply to all and cover everything. Instead of producing countless meaningless statements on discipline there should be one simple discipline policy and it should be lived by. There must be no impossible punishments which will never be delivered. Procedures should exist for every situation, and not as paperwork that is ignored but as words to live by. They should also require that students acknowledge what they have done is wrong. All SEN support for behaviour problems, all initiatives on discipline, must be based on the idea that every student can behave. Every conversation with parents must be based on the idea that their children have made their choice and must live with it. If a child has made a choice to misbehave, then no parent, no Head of Year and no member of SMT, has any right to undo the consequences of that choice.

LEAs and Government

Once again the most important action on the part of the Powers That Be is to stop obstructing schools from dealing with behaviour. Not only should there be no limits on exclusions but exclusions for assault or verbal abuse should be required by law. Parental refusal to co-operate with a school’s discipline policy should be considered grounds for exclusion. There should be no more inclusion for students who choose to misbehave and no more mainstream provision for students who are believed to be unable to make the choice to behave. Inspectors should inspect for enforcement of the rules, there can be no discrepancy between the rules as written and the rules as demonstrated in the daily life of the school.

Of course for any of this to happen then a philosophical change is needed as much as any practical measure. We can no longer view the offender as a victim, and those who persist in doing so must be removed from any position of power. If you do not see others as responsible for their actions how can you ever take responsibility for your own?

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Ten Things to Know About the Kids

August 5, 2007

Obviously this is intended to apply only to the students in properly challenging schools, and there will be exceptions. Nevertheless, if you are new to working at tough schools here’s what you should know before you enter the classroom:

Five Bad Things About the Kids

  • They break and destroy things. Outsiders just don’t seem to be aware of this, but you simply cannot give them breakable objects without setting down the ground rules. You can’t even leave things lying around the classroom.
  • They have no sense of personal responsibility. Punishments are seen as something the teacher has chosen to give them, rather than something they have chosen to get. Be ready to develop vocabulary and phrases appropriate to this, eg. “You have chosen to get a detention”.
  • They throw things at each other. Don’t ever give them anything they can throw. Never lend out more than one rubber (er… that’s an eraser to any American readers). Never lend out equipment with parts that can be removed or broken off (like pencils with erasers on the end). Never give them spare sheets of paper. Any unaccounted for object is potential ammunition.
  • They do not have school bags. Well they might in year 7. They might if I’m their form tutor. But generally speaking they won’t.
  • They don’t do homework. Unfortunately you will have to set it anyway.

Five Good Things About The Kids

  • They do know that education will make a difference to their prospects in life however much they pretend otherwise. That is why the ringleaders are so keen to stop others from learning, they are simply doing their bit to enforce the class system.
  • They are loyal to their friends. We often see the bad aspects about this, but this is a virtue.
  • They turn up without being paid. Bad schools are hell to be in. Yes, there’s an element of continuing their social lives and having nowhere else to go. Yes, they do seem to start vanishing as they get to year 11. But they generally do turn up.
  • Despite of all the claims to the contrary, they actually have quite advanced problem solving skills. Those computer games are difficult, damn it, but there’ll always be in a kid in year 9 who knows how to kill the last few pimps on that Grand Theft Auto mission.
  • They aren’t shy.

As there seems to be a lot of activity on the comments section these days, I’d like to hear what you have to say about the kids you teach. But try and say as many good things as bad.

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