The following post is an email that I received last week from a fellow teacher. The content will be familiar to many: pressure to adopt child-centred teaching methods; disillusionment with PGCE course; atrocious behaviour in schools; excuses making from school senior management. This email sews it all together in a particularly moving way. It is distressing to think how many talented and enthusiastic teachers have been driven out of the profession, or into the independent sector, by their unwillingness to yield to the child-centred orthodoxy. It has been posted on my blog with her permission.
I would like to thank you profusely for saving my life yesterday – or, at least, raising my spirits.
I am a rookie – NQT (FE) and have just completed three weeks’ supply teaching at a London comprehensive – my first school post – History KS3.
Yesterday, I was told not to come back because of the behaviour problems in my classes. Although this dented my ego, it also provided a massive relief.
I was schooled at a London comprehensive in the late 80s, and, although the education/teaching was almost comprehensively bad, the behaviour was nothing like what I have just witnessed.
It was my first time entering a school since I had left, so I suppose I was in for a shock.
I was educated in the traditional way. My idea(l) of teaching is where the teacher teaches from the front, and the students listen, read and write. I secretly disagreed with everything my PGCE taught me and found it very difficult to adapt to the new style – especially devolving authority to the students through group work, which makes them even more unruly and loud.
In my school in the 80s, there were behaviour problems but these were limited to one or two students in a class or the bottom sets. Apart from that, we generally worked in silence. We never questioned the teacher or answered back – even when they did things like fall asleep at the back of the class (supply teacher – the kids worked on in silence, fearing he was dead) or leave the class for a cup of tea and the newspaper in the office next door (terrifying science teacher). We never complained, even when we were badly-taught. There was no-one to complain to. I am glad that teachers are more accountable now.
Corridors were orderly. One of our teachers made us line up six inches away from the wall before letting us in. We had to be utterly silent. He measured the distance with a ruler. In general, we read books, answered questions, got on with it. We had enough motivation to rise above teachers who ranted and raved all lesson and refused to teach the syllabus, teachers with no powers of explanation who made everything foggier and shouted at you when you didn’t understand, teachers with high absence rates and tedious monotonal delivery who never set/checked homework, teachers with impenetrable foreign accents, teachers who taught babyish material (Maths at primary level at secondary school) and teachers who taught to the lowest ability (one unforgettable hour listening to an explanation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to a student who didn’t understand that it was just a road). We were not streamed except for English and Maths – which was another cruelty.
Such was my compulsory schooling and I felt, for the most part, cheated, deprived and angry. The anger was hidden in the coma-like tedium, ‘asleep with my eyes open’, of my schooldays. I had reared myself on a diet of Enid Blyton and fantasised about a school with a glorious uniform, order, decorum, academic rigour and standards. I dreamt of being required to reach my potential instead of having to hide or deny it. In later years, I visited public schools, with buildings like castles, and my feeling of envy was still there.
I think we survived our teachers because we were motivated kids with hope for our future. We taught ourselves from books when necessary.
Our school had no drama or music departments, barely any sports, and no extra-curricular activities.
But that was a different world.
I was shocked to see that acceptable behaviour in a modern comprehensive included running and screaming in corridors, punching other students without being told off, climbing stair railings like a monkey. In the classroom, the students talk constantly, answer back, shout, walk around. All this is accepted by the teachers and SLT. There are no sanctions except detentions, which the students don’t mind. They talk to the teachers as if they are their equals and argue when challenged – loudly, constantly. They have no respect, deference or fear.
They also have the attention span of a gnat and cannot apply themselves to a task without constantly needing attention. They can be quiet for a minute at the most.
When I complained about bad behaviour to a member of the SLT, she focused on what I could do to ‘engage’ them more. I was surprised at this, having assumed that the children were at fault and not me. ‘Less text,’ she advised. ‘They are intimidated by words. Don’t ask them to read or write – they can’t. Don’t talk – they can’t listen. Use lots of pictures – they can discuss these in pairs. Use a cartoon for a starter. Stick information around the room so they can walk around and point to it. Show film clips. Change activities every few minutes so they don’t get bored. Use games, competitions, wordsearches, crosswords, a buzzer, the countdown clock. Make everything extremely easy so they are not threatened.’ She also came into my class, tried to coax the students into liking me (‘we have to give new people a chance’) and ignored the students who shouted at her, argued and walked around the room while I was talking.
I was astounded. How can you learn history without reading, writing or listening? I had been giving the students GCSE textbooks to work from, because I thought they were so easy. ‘Don’t,’ she advised. ‘They are too hard.’
Meanwhile, the clever kids do their work in five minutes while the others are playing football at the back of the room or engaged in a tussle on the floor. They suffer silently, as they always did in comprehensives, denied hope, aspiration or a decent education. They put up their hands to ask for more work but you are too busy trying to control the unruly elements to respond.
It reminded me of the childish me – dreaming of books and books, fantasising about learning Latin and Greek, and British history in chronological order, so I would know which King or Queen did what when, so I could form the past into a coherent story or plan and know my position at the end of it. Who was Charles 1st? I’d wonder. Who was Oliver Cromwell and who were the Tudors? What did the Romans do? I’d heard about these people but knew I’d never find out at school. My childish self would have been appalled by cartoons at the age of 12. I was struggling to grow up and I wanted knowledge about the world. I wanted to hear about it from someone who knew.
My own world was restricted, stultifying, working-class. No-one was educated or erudite. School could have provided a route out of the dull confines of suburban life, where people only talked about what had happened to them, never about ideas, history, literature. School should have stimulated the intellect and imagination. I wanted to learn about different worlds from the one I lived in, perhaps escape to one of them, one day.
However, at least we were literate. At least we were required to read novels by Hardy and Thackeray at 14, not look at cartoons and play games with buzzers. School was not expected to be fun – learning is boring and repetitive sometimes. At least tasks lasted more than five minutes so you could get your teeth into them. As a child, I stubbornly refused to do groupwork. I wanted to learn from the teacher or a book, not waste my time listening to kids who knew less than I did. I also refused to help the lower-ability kids (mixed pairings are lauded for differentiation purposes). I felt cheated – I was there to learn, not to do the teacher’s job for them.
Harold Wilson thought comprehensives would be a ‘grammar school education for everyone’. That never happened. We sank into an undifferentiated swill of mediocrity and gloom. I still think that everyone deserves a good, solid, old-fashioned education.
Recently, I taught Functional Skills to bricklayers. Seventeen years old and they didn’t know about nouns, verbs, irregular plurals, apostrophes. I taught them from the front of the class, demonstrating on the whiteboard. They then practised, on paper, with admirable concentration. They learned and felt triumphant. They were not academic under-achievers after all. They had untapped potential. Bricklayers should be as literate as anyone else. I am glad that I sent them into the world equipped with the essentials of grammar, spelling, punctuation.
I remember myself at 12, in my shiny new too-big blazer, excited at the prospect of ‘big school’. ‘Now I’m going to really learn,’ I thought, ‘I’ll find out who Shakespeare was and how his mysterious language worked. And one day I’ll go that big office called ‘university’.’ In my hand, I held three brand new Bic pens, in different colours (a new luxury). They gleamed, as did my future. ‘With these pens, I can do anything,’ I thought. ‘I can learn everything’. My dreams were betrayed, as were thousands of other kids’. Kids with different dreams are also betrayed by the comprehensive system.
Getting back to the present, I was fired yesterday from my London comprehensive. I told a 13 year old girl to be quiet. She was outraged: ‘You can’t tell me to be quiet!’ I told her again. She stomped out of the classroom saying, ‘I’m going to complain about you and get you sacked!’ Later on, I could hear her crowing outside my door: ‘I’ve written lots and lots about you!’ She was fearless, assured of her power. I was dismissed. She had achieved her objective. The kids rule the roost. Apparently, they had been complaining to the Head about my strictness all week.
I don’t mind being fired. It is not a place I can work. I don’t agree with the ethos of child-centred learning and ill-discipline. I think children should be punished, not rewarded, for misbehaviour. I don’t think teachers have to be popular to be effective. I had begun to dread seeing those rude, argumentative children every day. But I am from a different world. And I won’t be working in a comprehensive school again.
I had meant to write to thank you for your blog, which heartened me yesterday. Instead, I’ve written my life story with a bit of polemic thrown in. I hope you get something from reading it.