Archive for October, 2007

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Is This Normal?

October 21, 2007

New teachers often end up asking “Is this normal?” They wonder whether the things they are seeing are unprecedented, and quite possibly their own fault, or whether they occur more generally.

For their sake I am going to point out what is normal for students and school managers (unless you have lucked out and ended up at a school far superior to the ones I’ve worked in). The following behaviours are to be expected, not necessarily from every student and every school manager, but they will be seen on a daily basis.

How students behave:

  1. They will turn up unequipped. They will never have anything to write with, normally they will often not be in school uniform.
  2. They will want to sit where they like. They have no expectation that they or anybody else is going to learn. Therefore any request from you that they sit somewhere that won’t leave them free to sit and chat will seem like motiveless cruelty.
  3. They will not listen. Again they are not expecting to learn, so that the part of the lesson where you explain something to them is little more than a meaningless ritual to them. Asking them questions about what you’ve told them is therefore bizarre and inexplicable behaviour on your part.
  4. They do not recognise the rules of the school. They may have a strong idea that there were once some rules (like for instance the one suggesting they can’t sit in lessons chatting on their mobile phone for fifty minutes) but they understand them to no longer apply. Therefore anything you do in order to punish them is purely malicious on your part.
  5. You have no authority over them. There is nothing you can do to affect their behaviour, so why should they even acknowledge your presence let alone your authority?
  6. You are there to convenience them. Hand them equipment, listen to everything they yell at you and shape the classsroom to their tastes.
  7. Any behaviour on your part that doesn’t acknowledge these realities is irrational and threatening. Why are you complaining that they haven’t done the work when they clearly didn’t want to do it? Why are you criticising them for not following your instructions when they clearly weren’t listening to you?
  8. They will tell you exactly what they think of you and your lesson. There is no concept that opinions are something best kept to themselves. There is certainly no concept that the teacher is at liberty to say what is to be expected or what is needed in the educational process.

How schools are managed:

  1. The behaviour system won’t actually work. Rules will not be enforced. Students won’t actually turn up for detentions. Referrals won’t be followed up. Exclusions won’t happen. Worst of all the advice you were given about what to do when you need to remove a pupil from the room will be hopeless.
  2. Promises don’t actually count for school managers. They serve the purpose of improving morale but aren’t actually meant to be a guide to future events. Of particular concern is the promise “Jordan won’t be in your next lesson” after you have told them about something terrible that Jordan has just done. Not only will Jordan be in your next lesson but he, and all his mates, will now think that what he did last lesson is totally acceptable.
  3. School managers do not want to help with classroom based problems. They have jobs that consist of a huge list of tasks, some important, some impossible, some that can be ignored and helping teachers in the last of these categories. If they can make a difference to a new teacher who is crying in front of them, or somebody who is clearly looking up to them they might feel they should help. Generally though, helping teachers, even in cases of physical or verbal abuse, is to be avoided unless a teacher has walked out of the classroom, contacted their unions, called the police, called in sick with stress or in some other way created a situation which will have implications for management.
  4. Anything that creates work for school managers is a bad idea. It is a particularly bad idea if it involves changing anything.
  5. Teachers must document everything they do as written evidence is vital. Managers must never document what they do, as written evidence is incriminating. In particular if you ask what happened about the problem you reported to them last week they don’t now remember as they didn’t keep a record.
  6. You are there to convenience them. Solve their problems, listen to everything they say, shape the school to their convenience.
  7. Any behaviour on your part that doesn’t acknowledge these realities is irrational and threatening. Why are you complaining about the chaos and lack of learning in the school when that’s clearly the fault of the teachers? Why are you upset that they have done nothing about the ongoing discipline problem they said they’d help with when they clearly never actually cared?
  8. They will not tell you what they think of you. They will discuss it with your line manager, use it as a reason to blame you for things behind your back and even put it on references when you try to escape. But they daren’t say it to your face because if management actually let staff know how little they were valued there wouldn’t be one teacher left in the school.
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The Devil’s Own Education System

October 13, 2007

I’m far too busy marking 120 tests to write a blog entry this weekend. So instead I thought I’d borrow something from somebody else. “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” was written by C.S. Lewis in 1959. In it a senior demon outlines plans for luring more souls into Hell. These plans include some changes to England’s education system outlined in the extract below. I leave it to you to judge how far we teachers are now doing the work of the Devil.

“…In that promising land [England] the spirit of I’m as good as you has already become something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the moment, I would not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves ill play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be ‘undemocratic’. These differences between the pupils-for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences–must be disguised. This can be done on various levels. At universities, examination must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to do things that children used to do in their spare time. Let them, for example, make mud-pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have–I believe the English already use the phrase ‘parity of esteem’. An even more drastic scheme is not impossible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma- Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil remains democratically fettered to his own age-group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coaevals’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON THE MAT.

In a word we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us…”

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Excuses, Excuses: Part 4

October 10, 2007

Continuing the run down of excuses:

Excuse No. 10: He’s my cousin
Used: When told to stop attacking another child (“it’s okay, he’s my cousin”). When walking out of a classroom during a lesson in order to meet another child (“I have to meet Jason, he’s my cousin”). When arguing with another child. When being told off for doing something that another child has told them to do. In fact in any situation involving another child.

Notes: This one often highlights a social class difference between teachers and students. To somebody like me, raised in a two parent family with parents who spent most, if not all, of their working lives in offices, a cousin is nothing more than a son or daughter of one of my parents’ siblings, who lives at least a car journey away and who I would see once, twice, maybe three times in a year particularly in the holidays or at weddings. For the great British underclass a cousin is any child who lived in your neighbourhood whose mother once slept with your father’s partner’s brother. Why this actually means the school rules should bend to accommodate your cousinhood is unknown. However, there is something else odd about this excuse as well as its inadequacy: It’s always a lie. In fact the “cousin” usually turns out to the one kid living in a fifty mile radius who is not related to the child using the excuse.

Excuse No. 11: I have a Special Need
Used: When failing to behave or work.

Notes: It’s probably worth mentioning that this rarely comes from children who are formally statemented for Special Needs, who often want to keep their problems to themselves. It only seems to come from those students who have been identified as having a special need by the SEN department or, worse, their parents. A child will do the wrong thing and then tell you “my mum says I have a behaviour problem”. A child will refuse to work and then claim they have dyslexia, but they haven’t seen the doctor about it yet, but they are sure they have it because they aren’t very good at writing and they saw a programme on TV about it. Unfortunately our haphazard SEN system that can see any child identified as having any problem means this excuse is often taken seriously. Apart from the way any student can be labeled as being on the autistic spectrum for being introverted or clever, completely insane unofficial diagnoses can be made by unqualified individuals. My own personal favourite was when Gemma, my year head at Woodrow Wilson School gave us an IEP claiming that a boy who used to swear at teachers when he didn’t get his own way had “mild Tourects [sic]”, apparently you can be qualified to diagnose conditions you can’t even spell. The implication is that any child with SEN is no longer responsible for their actions, children are just picking up on this as they look for an excuse to misbehave.

Excuse No. 12: You can’t make me do it

Used: When given an instruction
Notes: Possibly this isn’t an excuse, more an obvious act of defiance. However, it serves the basic purpose of all excuses to start an argument rather than to take responsibility for one’s actions. The usual variations are either about the child’s system of authority “you can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mum” or about power “You can’t control me”. Unfortunately the second is often true and replying with “it’s not my job to control you, you need to control yourself” has very little effect in an environment where every indicator says the exact opposite. Fortunately they are often mistaken about what you can or can’t do. You can use the school sanctions to do many things they are unaware of (if there are working sanctions). Legally you can restrain a child in order to restore order. There are few things more satisfying in a teachers’ life than watching a child helplessly mouth the words “you can’t do that” as you book them in for forty-two detentions, phone their mother in front of them, or throw them down the stairs.

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Excuses, Excuses: Part 3

October 6, 2007

”Mr Roberts gave Jordan a detention for throwing a pen lid. He says he didn’t do this and I have checked his pens and they all have lids on. He shouldn’t have to do this detention. It’s unfair and is just because Jordan has a bad reputation.”

Letter from parents of a child in my form group, 2005

Continuing my run down of popular excuses:

Excuse No 7: Mr Crapteacher lets me do it.
Used: When told off during a lesson for:

  • Chewing gum
  • Listening to music through earphones
  • Playing music
  • Eating lunch
  • Wearing a coat
  • Texting their friends
  • Writing in florescent yellow ink
  • Taking off parts of their uniform
  • Doing their make-up
  • Sleeping
  • Stealing from the teacher’s desk
  • Walking out of the classroom

Notes: Apparently Mr Crapteacher, despite being only twelve years old and unable to spell the word “assessment”, is the best teacher in the school because he lets his students do whatever they want. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. They will argue that they are clearly allowed to do any of these things in all their lessons. Yes, the school rules might say the exact opposite, but the school rules have nothing to do with what actually goes on in a classroom.

Excuse No 8: I have a note from my parents.
Used: For anything pretty much, but particularly common for uniform violations and for leaving the classroom to go to the lavatory twelve times a day.
Notes: There’s no getting around it, the parents of the underclass are under the control of their own children. If Chantel says “I want to go to school in leggings and a T-shirt with ‘100% Slut’ written on the front of it then her mum will write a letter (or more likely ask Chantel to write it and then sign it) explaining that Chantel’s uniform is in the wash/ripped/too small/setting off her allergies. If children are finding it a burden to stay in a lesson for a whole hour with nothing to do but learn then they can have a note explaining that they have an bladder complaint (not yet diagnosed by anybody but their parents) that means they will have to go immediately to the toilet whenever they are confronted with difficult work or a lesson where they can’t sit next to their friends. One year I taught a Year 8 class of twenty-three where no fewer than eleven students had bladder problems of this sort. Other popular notes include:

  • “My son/daughter can’t do their detention because they are: picking up their little brother/innocent of all wrongdoing/scared of the dark”
  • “My son/daughter can’t write due to a hurt finger/headache/Special Need but is nevertheless going to sit in your lesson chatting”
  • “My son/daughter has a personality clash with her teacher. Can they be moved to a class where they won’t have to do any work?”
  • “My son/daughter has a sore throat. During your lesson can you allow him/her to suck sweets/drink water/wear a coat/inject heroin”
  • “My daughter cannot see the board. I have made an appointment at the opticians for 2017 but until then you will have to let her sit next to her friends in your lesson”.

Excuse No. 9: You’re picking on me.
Used: When in trouble.
Notes: This one is very popular and believed by a lot of parents. If a child is punished it cannot be because they have done anything wrong. It must be due to personal animosity on the part of the teacher. Sometimes the child will claim they are being picked on because of their race or gender (I’ve had simultaneous complaints that I pick on the boys and that I pick on the girls). Sometimes children have genuinely lost any conception that punishment is connected with wrong actions and come out and say things like “you’re only punishing me because I’m not working” or “you’re picking on us because we won’t do what you say”. Unfortunately this ridiculous sense of grievance can lead to prolonged problems, malicious complaints and sometimes there are even managers who believe it and cause trouble for the teacher involved.

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Excuses, Excuses: Part 2

October 2, 2007

Continuing my run-down of commonly used excuses:

Excuse No. 4: You didn’t tell us what to do.

Used: Whenever a student has been sat (or stood) doing nothing when they should have been working.
Notes: There is no sense of shame in the users of this excuse. Children who have literally been told five times what to do, sitting in a room where the instructions are written in bright colours on the board, surrounded by other students who are quite clearly following the instructions, will still claim that they have not been informed about the task at hand. Sometimes a child who has been asked directly “do you know what you are doing?” and answered “yes” will still claim two minutes later to have never been told as to what they were meant to be doing. Another variation on this is to say “But you haven’t explained this to us”. Inexperienced teachers might then start to explain the work for a fourteenth time. However, a quick glance or a little questioning usually reveals that the arduous task the child needs explained is one of the following:

  • sitting down
  • opening their book
  • copying the date from the board
  • reading or copying down the explanation they had already been given
  • reading the question they are meant to be answering

A further variation on this is: “You haven’t explained this to us properly”. This is quite frustrating if you have explained it seven times already in words of one syllable or less. It is even more frustrating if your class is a top set in year 10 and what you have repeatedly explained is something they should already know, and when you explained it to bottom set 7 a few weeks ago they all got it first time. Of course “explaining properly” means something quite different to Kirstie. It means “explaining it to her individually, rather than to the whole class, in such a way that she will then be able to do all the work without needing to think or even recall anything she has previously learnt”. Worse still is that as you explain it all once again to her, this time looking right at her and using words so simple that they could be understood by a three year old, or maybe a well-trained dog, she will break eye contact and start chatting to a friend. Alternatively she might say “you make it all so complicated!” and cover her ears, refusing to listen.

Excuse No. 5: I am doing it.
Used: When a child is asked to do something, particularly if they are being told off for not having done it yet.
Notes: A child wearing a coat that is still zipped up will say “I am taking my coat off”. A child standing behind their desk, with their chair tucked in, will say “I am sitting down”. Negative versions of this also exist: “I’m not talking” or “I’m not answering back”. This is one of those phenomena that a non-teacher might find difficult to believe. It can be a shock when you see it for the first time, particularly if you have an angry child shouting the denial at you as if you are being highly insulting by believing the evidence of your own eyes.

Excuse No. 6: I have to do it this way.
Used: When a student is doing something in an inconsiderate or inappropriate way.
Notes: Children with their feet on a chair will claim to have suffered some kind of leg injury that requires them to dirty the furniture. Children who are meant to take their coats off before they sit down will claim they have to sit down in order to do their shoe laces up. Children sitting in the “year 9 girl position” (turned sideways facing the rest of the class, legs over the side of seat, back leaning against the wall, exercise book turned ninety degrees) will claim that they have to work that way because they can only write on paper which is at right angles to the desk. Strangely enough this writing affliction only ever occurs when giving into it will make them face the class and never when it would make them face the wall. Another condition revolves around the fact that if you only have pencils to lend out then some students have to work in pen because they are physically unable to write in pencil. This affliction, never actually results in the student concerned bringing in their own pen.

On the plus side “I have to do it this way” is one of the excuses that actually allows the teacher a fairly good comeback, along the lines of: “And I have to give a detention for this”.

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