Friday, 23 January 2015

chain gang

So there I am driving my tired ass off to work early one dark morning. Early because I have had a full teaching day three days in a row - this means I am teaching for five hours and marking during my lunch period. Tired because the end of term was approaching and it was assessment week the previous week, meaning I had just marked five sets of 30 books to do in three days - you do the math. Unfortunately I was marking English essays. Long. 

Anyhoo, back to the story...driving and wishing so much for the final Friday I tuned into the local radio station and hear that the head Ofsted guy - Michael Wilshaw - is bashing teachers again. He states that children who are succeeding in primary schools are not developing in secondary schools, and that secondary school teachers are not able to teach because of disruption, and finally that bright students or students from poor backgrounds are not doing as well as they do in primary schools. 

Then a bloke who runs some genius charity is interviewed for his tuppence worth, and parps on about how primary school children leave their schools as bright young things only to enter secondary schools to have their dreams 'crushed' by the end of year 7.

This all had come a few days after reading Chris Woodhead's comments in the Times, about how English teachers (don't) "feel they have a responsibility to introduce their students to the great classics of English literature. Apparently my esteemed colleagues are part of the 'rot' in teaching. This was in response to an ex teacher complaining about her grand-daughter (in a grammar school) only reading extracts of novels, and concentrating on language studies; apparently she always taught complete texts when she was teaching.

Imagine being me for a moment. How the hell am I supposed to walk into work full of passion, enthusiasm and energy for a day's work when apparently I am crushing dreams and when I am contributing to the 'rot' that is my subject?

Look, this isn't me crying into my staffroom coffee. I am all for tough talk, and pushing boundaries, and aiming high- this is exactly why many of us go into teaching... in order to get the best out of our students. This is certainly the view amongst the teachers I have been privileged to work with for many years. But year after year, it's always us doing something wrong: either the exams are too easy or the teachers aren't doing their job.

The language in teaching has changed so much over the past decade; mostly for the better. We are trained within an inch of our lives to learn and implement new strategies for teaching, enabling children to achieve, the way we mark and give feedback, dealing with behaviour in the classroom, the structure of lessons, how we seat students in the classroom, using technology in lessons, analysing reams of numbers which tell us which students are progressing according to all sorts of categories. And that's before we have even planned a lesson! You'd think after 17 years in a profession I could do it all with my eyes shut, sit with my feet up in class and regurgitate endless lessons whilst playing Candy Crush under the desk. Well let me tell you not on your life. That is not what happens. There is a constant sharing of best practise, new initiatives, pedagogical ideas; basically getting rid of the bad stuff and making the good stuff better. 

So I'd like to know what these teacher bashers hope to achieve with their comments? Teaching is already a profession under strain with a shortage of trainees, and the rate of newbie drop out increasing every year, so it's time these 'experts' came up with suggestions instead of scathing soundbites.  Views which  kick the professionals who are constantly challenging themselves to improve their methods in the classroom, views that seemed designed to pitch primary school against secondary school - when we need to be working together more to ensure transition between the stages is supportive of each child, views which create cracks in the relationship between home and school. Seriously, you are telling the nation that their children are being let down by their teachers. And then you expect them to swish into school full of the joys?

I have always wondered when the government will call on parents to assist with the improvement of education. Teachers are not solely responsible for the success, progress and achievement of our children. By the time they get to secondary school, there have been eleven years of conditioning regarding learning, social skills, behaviour, attitudes to authority. Eleven years! So when a school pushes the importance of reading and literacy to the point of ensuring that reading books are part of the compulsory equipment; what more can we do when children go home to houses without a single book or parent interest in how or what they are reading? When a school has a thorough behaviour and exclusion policy tightly upheld by staff; what more can we do when children are allowed to stay up late, hang out on the streets, answer back and swear profusely in the family home? When teachers are now expected to consider the vast range of abilities, languages, interests, gender, nationalities, religions, emotions, learning styles, home situations when planning lessons, what more can we do when children refuse to do homework, sit and listen, engage in activities, or speak respectfully to the adults in the classroom?

I'll tell you what we do - we keep doing what we do. We don't ever give up. Even when parents have given up on their offspring. We don't give up. Even when some students have given up on the chance that they can make up for time wasted. We don't give up. Even when it feels like the government and official bodies that should be supporting us have given up on us.

And as for Mr Woodhead. Before you go kicking off about teachers not taking the time to teach whole texts - take a look at the requirements of exam boards and government educational legislation. We have to teach whole texts, so we do. But we also have to teach a whole shebang of other stuff too. Which we do. Maybe you could suggest that parents encourage or discuss whole texts with their children. As I do.

Just as we are trained to support, guide, challenge, and develop our students in the classroom, surely the educational leaders should be doing the same with our teachers. Imagine if we criticised students in the same way that teachers have been vilified by ministers and Ofstedites in recent years?

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