Archive for September, 2007

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Excuses, Excuses: Part 1

September 29, 2007

”I still maintain he kicked himself in the balls.”

Kat (Julia Stiles) – Ten Things I Hate About You (film, 1999)

”You’re giving me a detention for NUFFINK”

Every child I have ever given a detention too, ever.

The students I teach seem largely unable to take responsibility for their own misdeeds. They have never done anything wrong, they never have anything to apologise for, and they are the victims of the perpetual injustice of being punished for nothing. Sometimes their parents will even write a letter to point this out. Over the next few entries I will list the twelve most common excuses I encounter:

Excuse No 1: He started it.
Used: After all incidents of fighting, throwing or verbal abuse to another student.
Notes: Sometimes the claim is ludicrous, the smallest quietest girl in the class, despite speaking no English and having done thirty-seven pages of work, is meant to have spent the whole lesson bullying Chanel, who looks twenty-seven, weighs fifteen stone, is armed with a knife and has done no pages of work.

At other times this excuse might well be true, a skilled disrupter of lessons knows how to provoke other students without getting caught themselves. Usually this is done by throwing every object in the room at the victim or cussing their close female relatives. (“Your Nan’s got no bottom lip” was one particularly cruel cuss I once heard.) Eventually the child will react by throwing something back, or starting a fight, and it is this response that the teacher sees and punishes. Ultimately though, even in this situation the child brings it on themselves by reacting instead of doing the decent thing and grassing. For some reason there is a code about grassing: It’s okay to grass if somebody spits on you, takes your coat or beats up your younger brother. It’s not okay to grass if they throw stones at you, take your pencil case or beat up your older sister.

Excuse No 2: I said it to somebody else.
Used: After verbally abusing a member of staff.
Notes: I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked by an unhelpful member of SMT “Are you sure he said it to you?” It is an incredibly demeaning question. Say, for instance, Rhys has just shouted “stinky, saggy tits” at Mrs Collins after she told him to write the date in his book. Rhys now claims this insult was aimed at his mate Jordan. SMT asks the question “Are you sure he said it to you?” Mrs Collins now has a dilemma: does she say “yes I know he said it to me, because I do stink and now I think about it my tits are saggy” or does she say “I guess I just assumed it was aimed at me”? I have found the best way to answer this sort of question is to say “I was talking directly to him at the time that he said it”.

Excuse No 3: I didn’t say it, ask my mate if you don’t believe me.
Used:This is again used in cases of verbal abuse.
Notes: Even in the toughest schools the testimony of a “best friend” is known to be unreliable. In fact you can’t really believe anything about a child until their best friend has officially denied it. This excuse works best when the verbal abuse was mumbled or when it sounds like an inoffensive alternative phrase ( “flipping heck, you’re a banker”) or if it was in a foreign language (there are languages from the Indian sub-continent where the only vocabulary I know translates as “your mother’s vagina”). I often find that if a child is using Excuse No.2 (“I said it to somebody else”) and it isn’t working they will switch to this excuse mid-flow, like this:

“You have to leave this classroom”
“What for?”
“For calling me a gay knob who can’t teach”
“But I was talking to Lee, he’s my mate, I always call him that”
“I was talking to you at the time that you said it. Lee wasn’t even in the room.”
“But I never said it. Ask Lee, he’ll tell you I never said it.”

“But you just admitted that you said it.”
“OH MY GOD. You are sending me out of the room for NUFFINK!”.

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Professionalism

September 22, 2007

“Superintendent [Ed] Larimer had made it known that he expected teachers to always dress, when they went out in public, as if they expected to see a student. School district rumor had it that Ed Larimer wore a tie even while mowing his lawn.”

Broulliete, 1996

If you search the archive on the “Staffroom” on TES (which is probably the widest read UK teacher’s forum on the internet) you can find the following among the archives:

“Your search for “profesional” found 103 posts.

Your search for “proffesional” found 116 posts.

Your search for “proffessional” found 189 posts.”

However, what concerns me far more than the ability of teachers on the internet to spell the word “professional” is the extent to which teachers generally do not know the meaning of the word. Time and again teachers seem to think that the words means something along the lines of “not revealing to the children what you really think”. Sometimes that is extended to include how you treat colleagues and students as well (usually not insulting the former and not sleeping with the latter).

However, the actual concept is a bit more complicated than that:

“Whilst different analyses of the idea of a profession are to be found in the literature, it should serve our purposes here to focus upon five commonly cited criteria of professionalism, according to which: (i) professions provide an important public service; (ii) they involve a theoretically as well as practically grounded expertise; (iii) they have a distinct ethical dimension which calls for expression in a code of practice; (iv) they require organisation and regulation for purposes of recruitment and discipline; and (v) professional practitioners require a high degree of individual autonomy – independence of judgement – for effective practice.”

Carr, 2000

Some of this does raise the question as to what extent teachers are professionals. The extent of our autonomy is often questioned in an era where there both curriculum and assessment are prescribed, and the General Teaching Councils which regulate teaching are relatively new and largely unrespected. However, it is fair to say that teachers (even those who teach geography) are generally regarded as an important public service. However, we do still exercise autonomy in how we teach if not what we teach (at least when we aren’t being observed) and a professional body without the respect of the profession it regulate is still a professional body.

Do teachers have “a theoretically as well as practically grounded expertise”? My answer to this is to to suggest that they should do. It is at this point that I start to fear, not that teaching isn’t a profession, but that it is ceasing to be one. We are moving into an era where teaching is an option for the less able graduate. It’s easy to say that this is because of teachers’ pay. However, while teaching is a low paid option for a maths or physics graduate, it is well enough paid to be financially rewarding for a graduate in many other disciplines. The problem is not so much that the academically able can easily find better paid jobs, but that you no longer need to be academically able to do the job. In some respects the pay may actually be too high, for the teachers with a third class degree in media studies teaching may actually be the best paid option and they will stay in teaching even as their more gifted colleagues call it a day. There is a process of “survival of the thickest” as the relentless grind of the job drives out the most able leaving only those with nowhere else to go.

Moreover, schools increasingly have an anti-academic culture. There is no status or prestige in teaching for having impressive qualifications in your subject area, the philosophy is very much that it is how you teach that counts rather than what you teach. Having a PhD and teaching A-level physics or Latin is no more worthy of esteem than having a pass degree and teaching media studies or PE. There is, of course, a wide range of theoretical and practical teaching knowledge outside of subject knowledge. However, here too there is a constant pressure to dumb down. Teachers may be encouraged to understand theoretical knowledge around “Assessment for Learning” or “Multiple Intelligences” but it isn’t by reading books on the subject by academics and theorists. Teachers are taught their specialist knowledge on INSET days by people with no qualifications in the subject other than having attended an INSET day or training course themselves. Misconceptions are presented as facts and the knowledge actually imparted is usually close to worthless. Practical knowledge is also devalued. Experienced classroom practitioners are often seen as dinosaurs (resorting as they do to outdated techniques such as teaching the kids) while ex-teachers with a Powerpoint presentation working as Local Authority consultants describe how to make sure your lessons are “interactive”, “exciting” and “suitable for a wide range of learning styles”.

If we conclude that the jury (and the future) will reveal whether or not teachers still have any specialist knowledge, then we can move on to the question of ethical practice. Here we have a greater problem. Teaching is no longer an ethical profession. Partly this is because there is no shame involved in managers being dishonest, lazy bullies. But it is also found in the attitudes of teachers themselves. Teachers believe that they have no responsibility to be ethical. Yes, they might be obliged to keep the fact they are a drug-addicted, paedophile Nazi out of the classroom, but as soon as the school day ends their moral responsibilities end. Teachers view themselves as oppressed if they are expected to refrain from sleeping in the gutter, starring in pornography or campaigning for the extermination of Jews and Gypsies. After all it’s only a job, and as long as they aren’t at work at the time and it isn’t actually illegal then it’s their own business.

The quote that started this post comes from the US and describes the standards set in a particular school district in the 1950s. I mention it as one extreme, so as to suggest that where we are now, with teachers resisting the very notion that they might be expected even to be seen to be of good character is another extreme rather than the normal state of affairs. The other aspects of professionalism are in many ways out of the control of teachers and depend on the institutions that run education. However, the position of teachers as professionals who can be trusted with the exercise of ethical judgement is entirely in the hands of the teachers themselves. I hope that as teachers we can prove we are morally responsible professionals. Even if some among us can’t even spell the word.

References

Brouillette, Liane. A Geology of School Reform, SUNY, 1996

Carr, David. Professionalism and Ethics in Teaching , Routledge, 2000

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Values

September 15, 2007

“I’m Bart Simpson’s father and I’m sick of you teaching my son your time-tested values.”

Homer Simpson attempting to remove Bart from Catholic School

There are three things which remind people that English education might to some degree involving the promotion of moral, philosophical or religious values. They are as follows:

  1. There is a legal requirement in schools for a daily act of Christian worship. This, of course, doesn’t actually happen but no politicians dares repeal the laws because it would involve explicitly discussing what values our school system promotes now that it has long since abandoned anything resembling the ethics of any major religion.
  2. There is a powerful body of opinion that wishes to wipe out Faith Schools. This is a coalition of liberal opinion made up of the hard(ish) left who believe all good schools should be destroyed and militant atheists who believe that the purpose of the state school system is to bring children up with values other than those of their parents.
  3. Every so often a politician wants to say something vague about their own values (for instance they may wish to indicate their patriotism, their tolerance or their civic-mindedness). When they realise that they have no policies actually based on those values, the obvious solution is simply to propose as a policy that schools teach those values. This, historically, seems to be how much of the curriculum for PSHE has developed.

Although discussion of all three of these topics is quite common there is a general reluctance to discuss which values are currently being taught in ordinary comprehensive schools. Such a discussion would involve admitting that secondary schools are teaching, through their practice, that rules can be ignored, learning is unimportant and that life is a war of all against all.

Besides the lessons learnt from the daily experience there is deliberate teaching of values in assembly. This is the one part of the timetable where children are directly exposed to the moral wisdom of the school’s senior management. It would be nice to think that the prospect of addressing an audience of hundreds of adolescents might encourage school leaders to promote good character, the pursuit of knowledge and personal responsibility. In reality the following moral insights are repeatedly taught over and over again:

  1. Victimhood is heroic. In another era British school-children might have been told of those who have shaped British history and culture in order to provide examples of human excellence. Now, all heroes must be victims. Anne Frank was a hero for being a victim of the Nazis. Helen Keller was a hero for being a victim of illness and disability. If any great historical figures (for instance Martin Luther King, Gandhi or even Jesus) are mentioned it is in the context of having been victims of injustice as much as for their achievements. Great women of history have a chance of being acclaimed if a case can be made that as women they are inherently victims of a patriarchal society. So for instance we may hear about the accomplishments of Florence Nightingale. However, she is always in danger of being overshadowed by one of her contemporaries, the nurse and herbalist Mary Seacole, by virtue of her double victimhood. Not only was Mary Seacole a woman but also she wasn’t white.
  2. “Racism” and “Bullying” are wrong. This would, of course, be a very useful message if the nature of bullying and racism were actually identified. With regard to race some students might get some idea that joining the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan would have been wrong, and that some words should never be used. They are unlikely to be told that there is anything wrong with regarding all Asian students as foreigners, socialising in racially segregated groups, repeatedly getting their parents to complain about non-white teachers having “accents that can’t be understood” or routinely asking black teachers (including black African teachers) if they smoke ganja. Bullying is likely to be illustrated with heart-rending stories about victims who have taken their own lives. There might be a suggestion that name-calling or repeated assaults are wrong. It is unlikely to be suggested that stopping other pupils from learning, treating others as second-class, intimidating members of staff, or random assaults are forms of bullying.
  3. You should show “respect”. Again the examples undermine the message. Respect does not mean accepting that your teachers know more than you do and accepting their authority and insight. It does not involve having the humility to consider others as no less important than yourself. It certainly does not involve obeying the rules of the school and the classroom. It is a vague virtue roughly translated as “not causing too much trouble”. Telling students exactly how to behave respectfully, with reference to actual rules and by indicating that adults are to be obeyed without question, would be far too authoritarian for the modern school. Instead students are exhorted to be polite, inoffensive, smartly dressed and hard working in the vaguest terms possible and usually on the fraudulent basis that this will be reciprocated, or prove to be psychologically beneficial.

Of course, all of this is easier than teaching the unfashionable messages that might actually make a difference. Assemblies on how rules are to be obeyed to the letter, on how doing wrong makes you a bad person, or on how academic achievement will determine your life chances are the exception to the rule. Who are teachers to suggest students shouldn’t end up leaving school criminally inclined, morally reprehensible and intellectually limited?

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“But They Have To Go Somewhere”

September 8, 2007

As somebody who advocates an increase in permanent exclusions to the level where it might actually do some good, I often here the classic counter-argument: “But they have to go somewhere”.

Often it’s difficult to avoid answering with flippant suggestions as to where excluded children should go, for instance into a big hole in the ground, preferably with their parents (who are usually ninety-nine percent of the problem) thrown in on top.

But a more considered response would be to say that in the first instance they should simply move schools, and if they keep getting excluded then special establishments will need to be set up which are able to deal with them without sacrificing the education of the innocent. Although this would cost money, it can’t even come close to the expense involved in dealing with them in mainstream schools. Staff spend the vast majority of their time dealing with the worst offenders, if we could get them out we might actually be free to concentrate on our job: educating those who can be educated.

What irritates me about this is the fact that people see fit to ask teachers to come up with an explanation of what they want done with the unteachable students in the first place. Are people in other jobs asked similar questions? Do people ask doctors and nurses what provision should be made for patients who are too violent or awkward to be treated? Do people ask bus drivers what should be done about people who strongly object to travelling by bus? When violent or inebriated drinkers are asked to leave a pub or club does a do-gooder come up to the bouncers or bar staff and ask them about alternative drinking provision for piss-heads, sorry, drinkers with emotional and behavioural difficulties?

The fact that teachers are asked about provision for students who aren’t learning and are preventing others from learning is revealing in itself. If schools were seen as being for the purpose of learning then it would be ridiculous to have somebody who wasn’t learning attending school. Nobody would need to ask about the alternatives to having such a child in school because, as their presence is obviously pointless, all the alternatives would be no worse.

But clearly learning isn’t the purpose of sending kids to school. The powers that be, and I fear the public too, would prefer to see a child at school learning nothing than at home, or in the streets, learning nothing. Somewhere along the line schools ceased to be where children should be in order to learn and became where children should just be. Somewhere along the line teachers ceased to be people who taught and started to be people who supervise hordes of youth for no particular purpose other than to keep them off the streets and out from under their parents’ feet.

We need to rededicate our schools to learning. We should be permanently excluding more students, not just for violenct or abusive behaviour, but for being non-learners. If that does create too many problems in creating new provision, then can I be the first to start digging that big hole I mentioned earlier?

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Why Education Shouldn’t be Run by Bankers

September 1, 2007

This article in the Guardian explains why education should be run by an independent committee along the same lines as the Bank Of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, the bankers who set interest rates. The suggestion is that party politics is responsible for the state of education and an independent committee of experts, the education equivalent of bankers, would do a better job.

There are a number of assumptions that make this enterprise dubious:

  1. This approach assumes that politicians have a lot of power over education and that politicians exercise day-to-day control over the system. This is nonsense. The system is run by Quangos and bureaucrats. The problem is not that the system changes continually at the behest of politicians, changes in minister and Government actually seem to have very little effect on the education Titanic. A bigger problem is that politicians make announcements about improving discipline, or ending mixed ability teaching and nothing actually happens.
  2. It assumes that educational experts are technocrats, concerned only with adjusting inputs to achieve particular predetermined outputs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many education experts are ideologues promoting particular, politically-motivated views of the system. Worse, the most ideological of them have often proved capable of taking places on Quangos and subverting the designs of politicians.
  3. It assumes that what heads and teachers need is more research about how to do their jobs. The fact is that some schools are well run and some are badly run. We can do all the research in the world but it will always come back to the same basics: Schools with good discipline and an academic ethos do well, schools with poor discipline and no respect for learning do badly. Successful schools have headteachers who know that and know what to do about it. They don’t have piles of research to tell them the obvious.

Without these assumptions then the whole scheme seems like nothing more than another desperate effort to make an unaccountable system that is wrecked by bureaucrats even more unaccountable with an even more powerful group of bureaucrats in charge. Education is a battleground, with those who want to educate in a constant battle with those who want to prevent it.

Far from getting politicians out of education we should be acknowledging that they could do the most to save education. They are the only ones with the power to change the set-up of education, but they live in a world where their lack of power is presented as unalterable fact and they are constantly referred to the very same experts who are destroying the system as it stands. Every Education Secretary is under the delusion that they can encourage schools to improve but can’t demand it. What we need is not a further weakening of ministers. What we need are politicians who pass education laws that mandate schools to do what the minister wants, rather than simply encouraging the DFES to tell the Local Authorities to tell the Headteacher to implement an initiative designed by a Quango that may have some resemblance to something a politician may once have promised. For example, instead of promising to increase the powers of schools to enforce discipline, politicians should reduce the power of Local Authorities and SMT to NOT enforce discipline. A legal right to exclude is almost worthless when Local Authorities are encouraging inclusion. A legal requirement to exclude violent and abusive pupils would be far more useful. However, unless politicians actively go out and seize the power then they will continue to have only the responsibility and the blame for a system they don’t control, and somewhere along the line some government probably will decide that they no longer want that responsibility and will hand it over to “Bankers”.

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