Saturday, 28 April 2012

Letting Go: how a night of violence taught me to be a better teacher

'Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.'

Yoda

Do you remember what it's like to be a new teacher? Perhaps you are one, in which case this isn't difficult. One thing that marks the baptism of the classroom is the stress; the frozen moments of paralysis and anxiety as you crumble under the weight of approbation, effort and worse, ridicule. This is no small problem; I reply to weary, worn teachers all the time who have almost nothing left to give, so eroded are they by the death of a thousand cuts. But new or not, everyone wears the strain between the desired and the delivered; the tension when twenty five people refuse to pursue their collective interest and seem to aim for your disintegration.

Instead of crumbling, some shatter. We have ALL lost our temper; we have all blown a seal. The pupils can often see it coming; watching you as the rivets eke their way from their seams before erupting like champagne corks. This anger, while understandable, is an alien acid to your practise; it almost exclusively fails to achieve anything other than entertaining the crueller cells of your class corpus. When I began to teach, I went home every night feeling like weeping, and spent lonely weeks racked with self-doubt and dismay. Children wouldn't do the tasks I asked, and what kind of man was I? It was one of the lowest points of my life.

By my second year I wasn't drowning any more, but I was barely breaking the surface. I fell into a familiar vortex of fail: my classes were all hard; they barely seemed to work when I asked; as time passed I did less and less about the behaviour because nothing seemed to make a difference, and I couldn't cope with the effort of doing anything about it. As things got worse and worse, I circled the drain, hating myself, despairing for my ability as a teacher, and my ability to help children many of whom, seemed not to want to be helped. In many ways, I took their behaviour home with me every night, and it burned.

The Trial

Then, one night I was coming back from an evening out- I had been to see Shakespeare in Regent's Park because that's how I roll- and walking the short distance in the east end of London back to my flat in Stepney. It was a walk I had made many times, even at midnight, as this was. But this time, there were other creatures afoot, with designs on my contentment. As I entered the road I had an intuition that matters were not as they should be; ten, perhaps twelve teenagers spanned the road, clumped in small groups. They saw me; I saw them. I ignored the obvious thing, which was to turn around, because this was my street; so I continued. As I prepare to break their line, I kept my eyes straight ahead and my pace even- years in Soho had taught me that any engagement with an aggressor could be construed as antagonism, or sufficient excuse.

But my luck ran out. One of them stepped into my path and said, 'Are you being rude, mate?' I swerved around him, but not enough to avoid the roundhouse punch right into my mouth. Have you heard of people saying they saw stars after a blow? I did, then. Forget any fantasies about channelling Batman and boldly trading punches one after another; I went down like a minister's advisor, really hit the dirt in shock as everything swum around me. Four or five of them fell on me, and I knew for a moment what all prey knows: the irrefutable certainty that one is helpless, and hopelessly outmatched; whatever happened next was out of my hands, and I could only hope they were not blinded by viciousness.

Again, no luck. Too low for a satisfactory punching, I began to receive the proverbial kicking. To be honest, there was no pain; I simply curled into a ball and endured. But when they started to kick me around the head, I realised another proposition: they didn't care what happened. A kick to the ribs would indicate the desire to harm, but not end, a person; a kick to the head signified a boundary had been crossed. My options darkened. Still the kicks came; head, face, stomach, legs. A rain.

This went on for maybe ten seconds? It felt like an hour.

Abruptly, the ordeal stopped. Piecing it together afterwards, some of the others had disputed the attack, and pulled my assailants from me. Still on autopilot, I staggered to my feet, found my glasses, punched from my face with the first blow, and lurched off like a prisoner. Ten yards later I heard footsteps behind me, and the last part of me knew that I was finished; I had the sensation of knowing they were going to finish me, and the devils had overcome the angels. So I braced for the next blow, because I had nothing to offer them.

What happened next amazed me; it still does. One of the boys pulled alongside me and said, 'I'm sorry, please, I'm so sorry.'
I kept moving, not wanting to release the opportunity to escape. 'It's fine,' I said. 'It's fine.' I felt nothing at all, no pain, no fear.

I got home, cleaned up and shook with shock. The damage was less and more than I had thought; my ribs were black and blue, and throbbed for weeks. My legs looked as if I had been caught in a crusher. Two of my teeth had been loosened; days later, I lost them completely. Dental work aside, X-rays showed nothing but soft tissue violation The body healed. My mind, not so much.

Gradually the anger rose; after a few nights, the blood boiled in my veins with a deadly purpose. I had been humiliated, beaten to the ground, unmanned in a way I hadn't thought possible, and if you have never been totally physically bested, you cannot know: to feel in fear of your life and have everything you are subject to the whim of another, crueller person.

I raged; I didn't sleep for days; I sat and stared into the darkness and seethed with revenge and anger and violence. I ate almost nothing, and did so begrudgingly. I became cruel, and that made me powerful. All I wanted- ALL I wanted was to pick up a brick, circle the area where they took me apart, and throw myself into their midst, exploding like a grenade and to Hell with the consequences. This, from me; I abhor violence; I have never thrown a fist in anger, I shrink from aggression. But my humiliation had driven me to the edge of my sanity, and every time I closed my eyes I saw the blows again and again. I wept with violence, and I believe that some part of me, some human shape inside me, fractured and fell.

Born again

I went back to school after a few days, although it seemed to be a dream world that hardly mattered. Alone at the end of the day, I contemplated another night in my prison of a room, disintegrating in the darkness. I must have looked like an animal, pinched and battered. I couldn't face the strain of the rage and hatred I constantly felt; the stress that acted like a skeleton to my body, keeping me up. I have never felt such a thing before, nor since.

Then it happened.

I realised that if I continued to hate so completely, to writhe so perfectly in anger, I would be annihilated; everything I am is contrary to hate; it has no part of my DNA. Breathing it like oxygen would be the end of me, either physically or in my identity. I faced two paths: continue to hate, and rage, and revenge; or I could forgive; I could let it go. So I let go.

In an instant- and I mean an instant- clouds parted in my heart.

I am not a man of faith, and I can imagine how this could be interpreted, so I can only provide my own poor agnostic perspective, though I borrow the language of faith. Not only did I feel better, but I felt immaculate; washed clean; baptised and reborn. Every muscle relaxed inside me as I realised that there was nothing to be done about my attack, so the appropriate thing to do was nothing, just move on. I felt strong again, stronger than before, and confident. Joy burst inside me and as a strange side effect, I felt nothing but pity for the children who had assaulted me. I saw their desperate, dysfunctional lives cast in the air like a 3-D map, and, without excusing or extenuating their vile behaviour, felt no anger, merely understanding.

This, in a second. That moment has never left me; the sheer transformation I felt from despair to elation. Somehow- and I am not a good man, nor am I possessed of heroic virtue- I had dislocated the event from myself; I had found some distance between the moment of violence and whatever it is that makes me who I am. This epiphany- and it was an epiphany- redesigned my relationship with my classes. Perhaps not as instantly as my Damascan absolution, but gradually. I saw that pupil behaviour was not a personal attack on me, other than that I was the person dealing with it, but a general action near to me rather than internal to me; I saw rudeness and mucking around as situations to be dealt with, not as a personal failure on my part. I started to see it as if it were a documentary on television, removed and dislocated from me rather than something that defined me.

In short, I came to care a bit less what they did, and care a bit more about what I was going to do about it. I still believe that pupils completely own their behaviour, and no one should ever blame a teacher for it unless they have literally antagonised the children to the point of goading. But, just as a doctor cannot crumble if a patient withers, so too must a teacher learn to create a professional distance between pupil and the person. From then on, I knew what I had to do in classrooms. You can only be hurt by people you love or care about; I decided to care a bit less about if they liked me, and a bit more about how well they flourished as pupils.

And that has made all the difference.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Transvestite Cage Fighter becomes spokesperson for Healthy School Lunches

'That IS a tasty burger.'
In a seeming attempt to implode the abstract concept of irony, Alex Reid, better known as Jordan's tabloid fluffer, was speaking- and I am NOT making this up- to MPs at an all party group about the impact children's diets have on their ability to concentrate:

Mr Reid, ex-husband of celebrity Katie Price, said he wanted supermarkets, banks and big business to fund free, healthy school meals for all children.
He said pupils were eating chocolate and crisps which were "affecting their ability to concentrate in lessons"

See? I'm not making it up. I COULD NOT WRITE THIS IF I INHALED LAUGHING GAS.

Mr Reid told MPs about plans to raise £1 billion by offering companies promotional opportunities, including direct marketing to parents, in return for investment in a scheme called Let's Do Lunch.

Which is exactly the sort of hideous name you can imagine a bunch of stockbrokers coming up with as a beard for turning schools into workhouses.

The new Minister for Universities
So, in return for all that free stuff (which, as you know, companies are famously interested in doing) they get to use schools, and parental databases as advertising hoardings. And that, my panty-wearing pugilistic friend, is where we part company. Schools might run on money, but that doesn't mean they're businesses, or should be. Kids are already crushed by the artificial aspirations and rank demands of a world dripping with adverts, that sees children as lenient, unsophisticated hosts for their margins. Schools, one might hope, are the last haven from this sorcery.

I don't know who 'Let's Do Lunch' are, who backs them, or even where their website is. But I have a better idea: how about they prove they really give a shit about healthy eating for kids and GIVE money to schools to provide better catering? Oh, and how about Members of Parliament let me know what the criteria is to come in and 'consult' with them, because brother, I really want to know. I have some very advanced opinions about the role that Dark Matter plays in the formation of neutrinos in the heart of binary stars. I mean, I know fuck all about it, but hey, Alex Reid and School Dinners, right?

The Shape of Things to Come
I mean, has Jamie Oliver been hit by a bus? His Dream School might have been a well-meant misfire, but you cannot argue with his rhetoric on school food. In an era when the average cost price of a school dinner is about half a jam jar, he was bang on when he pointed out that kids deserve better than reconstituted lips and assholes, puréed, pressed, bread crumbed and deep-fried. His School Dinners campaign was an enormous success, and a real testimony to the power of one, as his campaign snowballed to the extent that ministers couldn't be seen NOT to agree with it, so potent was its intuitive moral truth. Of course, Michael Gove has exempted Academies (ie soon to be most schools) from the healthy eating provisions that were brought in subsequent to the Essex guzzler's march on Downing Street. His argument so far has been- and correct me if I err- that 'I haven't seen any evidence that academies will provide worse standards of food- if anything I have seen evidence that they are just as good', or words to that effect.
Dear GOD.

Of course this is cunning so acute you could rob a bank with it. There IS no evidence yet, because the whole academies program is so new. And such evidence would be painstaking to collect, and any meaningful studies won't take place for a long time anyway (by which time the political will is dispersed), so the call to 'prove it' is a hard one to answer. So instead let us suggest the following a priori proposition: removing the requirement to serve healthy food that might cost a little more, will probably NOT mean more schools volunteering to break their backs to provide it. Call me a cynic. But there it is.

Or do we think large, cash strapped institutions will perpetually act out of altruism AND prioritise healthy lunches over the cheap and cheerless options, when so many other things have to be paid for?

If you think that, your optimism batteries are more fully charged than mine. So: reduced healthy criteria for schools, or Rocky Frank 'n' Furter's attempt to turn schools into billboards. I'm not sure which one I can digest less.



Sunday, 22 April 2012

Razzle Dazzle 'em in education: why teachers need to beware of Billy Flynn

'All right, Mr Demille, I'm ready for my Ofsted.'
Spent Saturday at the TES Resources exhibition, delivering a couple of lectures on behaviour management. It was, as ever great fun- LOVE speaking to fellow teachers and scratching my education itch. I've never even been to a teaching exhibition before so I was curious what they actually were. I think my confusion spun around the problem of what they would have on each stand. I mean, what can you sell in education?

Oh boy. As I walked around the stands I saw the answer to that piece of naivety: there are plenty of things to sell in education. For a man like me, who feels that two marker pens and a spare exercise book is over planning it, I was astounded. Do people really use all this stuff? Apparently so. Stand after stand, hawking interactive games, software (oh, there was a LOT of software, believe me. I wonder how anyone learned anything before Pac-Man?), and more SEAL resources than you could club in a month, and lots of colourful toys and play benches. If you have a large budget and like taking a punt, then fill your boots. Some of it I could see as being useful; some less so- that's the point of a market, I suppose, and so far, so good.

But Caveat Emptor: if you've ever managed a school budget you will know how many temptations are strewn in your path, and in my experience, many of them are as useful as a sunroof in a submarine. But still companies vie for elbow room with their packages and their learning systems, and schools buy into them like they're being rationed by Francis Maude. Why? Because of Razzle Dazzle.

Razzle Dazzle 'em

If you want to make it look as if you're doing something in a school, you have two options:
  1. You can do something about it. This may involve actually telling people what they need to be doing, kids or adults. Unfortunately this option may be laborious and time consuming. So...
  2. You can generate a lot of paperwork and meetings, demonstrating that something is being done, although nothing is actually being done
  3. You can buy something; a package, an INSET, a box of books, a rag, a bone, a hank of hair. A saint's finger, a witch's tit.

(2) and (3) fall into a category I call Razzle Dazzle. I of course borrow from Billy Flynn's unscrupulous and amoral defence lawyer in the musical Chicago, a man devoted to exonerating his clients no matter how guilty they were.

Give 'em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger 'em
When you're in trouble go into your dance

F*ck it.
Fighter pilots and submarine chiefs evading a missile lock throw chaff in their wake to distract targeting systems; in any management structure we can do the same, ejecting a mist of bullshit and empty activity to create the illusion of movement and structure, when all we have done is throw sand in everyone's faces.

Give em the old Razzle Dazzle
Razzle Dazzle them
Show them the first rate sorcerer you are
Long as you keep them way off balance
How can they spot - you got no talents?

There's a lot of this in the greater field of education. You see it far more clearly when you pull back from the classroom, step away from the whiteboard, and climb to the top of the mountain, for example when you attend exhibitions or educational conferences. THEN you see the big beasts circling the herd, wondering where they can take the first bit. 

Give em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give em the old hocus pocus
Feed and feather 'em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?

This is not unique to education; this is human nature. In the absence of a clear idea what to do, the need to do something becomes overwhelming. Grades a bit low? Behaviour a bit rubbish? Why not try a range of calming classroom perfumes? Or get a motivational coach in (surely the closest incarnations of educational Billy Flynns there are). Or buy a software package. Or cover the corridors with posters that promote the seven 'P's of great learning, or something similarly useless. Such an approach fills a folder of evidence, to astonish and amaze any inspector of peer reviewer. But...

What if your hinges all are rusting?
What if, in fact, you're just disgusting?
Razzle Dazzle them
And they'll never catch wise 

'FAIL your GCSEs!'
This strategy says 'I have acted'; I have pimped and vajazzled my classroom and my department with trinkets and gewgaws that make the same promises that all magic potion salesmen make. When I worked in Soho, there was a big Rastafarian called Danny who used to hang around my club waving refurbished bottles of Highland Spring, filled to the crusty brim with foul medicines brewed in his basement, or more likely, his septic tank. These, he claimed were magical antidotes to all ailments corporeal. Amazingly, some of the bouncers bought them; he had a gold incisor and a persuasive smile.

Danny no longer haunts my porch, but his descendants tap dance invisibly round all of our classrooms, all of the time. Brain Gym, INSETS costing a fortune, pointless suites of IT, Emotional Intelligence kits, educational psuedoscience, neuromantics, Steiner selection boxes... In many ways I don't blame people for falling for this: when I was a new teacher, I accepted what anyone in a position of authority told me, and why not? It would have been crass and vain not to. But it didn't take long to smell a nest of rats (and incidentally, I once witnessed a nest of rats being flushed, so I have form in this matter) every time someone told me that X was the best way to teach ALL children, or worse, that X would cost me a fortune. That's my basic question when I'm thinking about a new approach or resource. If it costs money, why does it cost money? Can I obtain the same effect without spending anything? Do I need the laminated colour posters and counters, or can I reproduce this myself by another activity? If I send a member of my department off on an INSET to a mid-price Travel Inn, will they learn anything that they will actually use, or are we meeting a Performance Management goal and nothing else?


How can they hear the truth above the ROAR?
 
'AREN'T YOU LUCKY?'
I think that a lot of the wares being hawked on the internet and circulars sent to schools, and tarted about at education shows fall into this category; purchasing as a substitute for doing something. It's the educational equivalent of the machine that goes ping! It's expensive and impressive, so it must be useful. Really? All a teacher needs- I mean needs- is a voice and a pen. Sometimes not even that. Mr` Christ allegedly turned up to temple in Holy Week and did his nut because 'My father's house is a house of prayer- but you have made it a den of thieves.' Have we allowed our schools to become dens of thieves? Should we be lashing the conmen and the bean counters, driving them from the classroom? I think we should. If they don't help, they're in our way.

'It's the resource that goes 'Ping!''
I also fear that the higher one proceeds up the food chain, the more such paper tigers are required, which is ironic, because when you go in the opposite direction directly, towards the children, they need very little bullshit whatsoever, and have Radars for such matters that border on the trigger-sensitivity of a Geiger counter. Watch kids when you try to teach them something that is patently a load of crap- SEAL springing to mind- earnest, but hollow. They spot in half a second when something is a pointless waste of time. So should we. On a day when I read that Higher education DOUBLED its management budgets over the last few years, I wonder if we will ever learn that although most organisations need better management, that usually doesn't mean more managers, but a clearer understanding of what management priorities should be.

Let's keep the Billy Flynns out of the classroom, the management meetings and the department budgets. Buy it if you need it, but don't buy it because you have a budget. Let's just teach the kids. Remember them?


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Does water make you smarter? QTWTAIN

'How's that? Would a glass of water help? Scale of 1-10.'
Is it silly season again? Oh yes, it's always silly season when it comes to the latest social science confection about education. And this one's an old one, with grey whiskers dangling around its ankles: the claim that drinking water raises exam grades. Or, to be more specific, that taking water into the exam hall may improve grades by 'as much as five percent.'
Can you hear that rapping sound? That's me, drilling my head into the table like Woody Woodpecker. Statements like this keep my holy mission lamp burning- to expel as much wooly-minded bollocks from the already heavy burdens of teachers as possible. But oh, the bollocks falleth passing hard, and often.

Let's take a slightly closer look at this, in the manner of a post-mortem crime scene investigator. Which is appropriate, because this theory is ripe, mature as a good Roquefort. Some of you may have heard of Brain Gym, one of the most knuckle-headed moronisms ever dropped in our classroom laps. It believed, among other things, that touching your pressure points 'activated the brain'; that doing special exercises made your thinking 'clearer'; and that the brain had to be 'hydrated' to operate at peak efficiency. I'd also like to point out that its proponents believed that the water was best absorbed through the roof of the mouth as it was 'a more direct path to the brain'; presumably they had fathomed an as-yet undiscovered route between the palate and the medulla oblongata that mere empirical science has overlooked. The stalwarts who advocate this latest research aren't making such a claim, luckily. Just thought I'd mention it.

Brain Gym was adopted and paid for by thousands of gullible, well-meaning schools, and in some areas (such as my teacher training) directly sponsored by an equally gullible DfE, which apparently believed that 'anything's worth a punt', in that way that it bloody well isn't.

So, to the present claims. The Universities of East London and Westminster researchers found that, of 447 psychology students, one quarter of them took water into the exam hall. So, around 112. Of those 112, examination grades were on average 4.8% better across the cohort. Conclusion: drinking water may have been responsible for this.

That 'may' is very important. Because the researchers, not being idiots, haven't simply claimed that A (water) caused B (5% increase in results); they suggest that it may. Big difference, and quite right too. Also, we have to be careful, in a way that the media coverage of this wasn't- every news outlet I saw today reported the big 'Water increases grades by 5%' headline, with weasel apostrophes to bury their honour. Press on science stories leans- always- to the big claim, so we can excuse the researchers that charge. But here are the problems anyway:

1. How do we know that the students did 4.8% better than they would have normally?

We don't know what they would have obtained without the water, for the simple reason that we don't have the ability to divine what would have happened in alternate dimensional realities of our own Earth. Maybe they would have obtained exactly the same grades. Maybe not. Who knows? That's the point: who knows?

Of course this kind of data is usually predicated on other data; coursework, previous test scores etc. Usually what happens is that candidates prior attainment data is compared with other canidates eventual attainment, and probability graphs are produced, with estimates of where the candidate should probably be as they proceed through their courses.

'Glug...glug....getting smarter...'
The huge, huge, leviathan problem with this is that they simply aren't reliable. Just because most people who obtain, say 65 % on their course work later go on to get (on average) a 2:2 or whatever, doesn't mean that any individual candidate will. I've seen- often- kids jump from Es and Fs at GCSE to Bs and Cs at A-level, because of a change in attitude, work ethic, family situation etc. And vice versa. This deterministic model of human behaviour might satisfy the current bean-counter's passion for cramming the human experience into statistical models, but it is about as smooth a fit as a yoghurt pot on the horn of a rhinoceros.

So: we don't know what would have happened without the water to those students AND we can't predict the future. Those are pretty big problems. Yet some people in the social science faculties wave them off as irrelevances,as if they were minor details. They aren't. They are enormous. They are cosmic. They are the problem.

2. How on earth do you know the water had any effect at all? The problem that people like Feynmann used to delight in pointing out to social scienctists, is that human behaviour is so complex, so resistant to simple reductivism, that anyone trying to point to one cause leading to one effect in behaviour, is going to have a very hard time indeed. If I want to see why water is getting hotter, I can investigate the factors; I can remove factors one at a time; I can control. I can blind, I can double blind, whatever I want to do to make the experiment as clean as possible. Turns out it was the bunsen burner. Who knew?

It's so very, very hard to do this with humans. A given factor (say, giving a specific stimulus, like saying 'You look fabulous') can have an enoprmous variety of effects (a phone number; a slapped jaw; an invitation to audition for La Cage aux Folles). Because there are countless influences on human behaviour, and that even before I get to the nebullous, wondrous possibility of a free human will (Heaven FORBID). This is often referred to as a high causal density; in other words, there are too many possible influencing factors on human behaviour to be able to pick out any causal relationship with anything other than the force of conjecture.

So maybe the water did help. Maybe bringing water in reveals that the candidates are nervous, and need some kind of totem (has anyone done any research on the effect of gonks?) that reassures them; one that says, 'Yes, my brain shall not wither and dessicate in the space of the next two hours. I can relax.' Maybe the water drinkers were hungover; maybe THAT helps. Who knows? Not I. And not this research.

What is the possible mechanism of this wonderful claim? Is it that you can't think straight when your brains are dry? Is it that water is magic? How quickly does it take for imbibed water to reach the brain and meaningfully have any kind of interaction? Surely the exam would be over by then? How much water needs to be ingested?

Honestly, this is so daft that I can barely support my lower body. Sure, I can probably have a punt and say that being refreshed and fed is a good place to be for a student in an exam, but what more can be extracted from this research other than those experientially obvious claims? Nothing. Nothing meaningful; conjecture, and a pitiful conjecture at that. A hundred or so students were studied. A hundred? I could find you a hundred students who do better after a packet of Monster Munch. Give me thousands; give me wave upon wave of hydrated ubermensche and I will start to accept what you claim. But a hundred? F*ck. That.

I wouldn't mind, but this is exactly the shade of guano that rains down on us in the education profession, regular as Sunday. Money is spent, time is blown, and directives of best practise are issued. It is an enormous, self-copulating industry of sloppy thinking and waste. And we have to deal with it, every rainbow and unicorn flight of fancy that someone with a clip board and a hard-on dreams up.

We do not have time for this shit. All it does is keep me in good blog material. I could live without it.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Barbie Girls in the Classroom: How Mattel sees us

Is YOUR classroom filled with magic & sound? I HOPE SO.
"Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism # 146.
Oh, Freddie, how wise you were. When Morpehus asked Neo in The Matrix (an A-level Philosophy staple) 'Do you want to know how far down the rabbit hole goes?' he could have been talking about the past half-hour of joy and dread I have had exploring the delights of yet another 'how others see us' meme, in the form of Teacher Barbie, one of Mattel's many clever attempts to illustrate the militant feminism of Andrea Dworkin in plastic miniature mannequins. (And if you haven't read any of m'mselle Dworkin's books, then do, do. They're a LAUGH a MINUTE)

There was a Barbie everything (Dworkin Barbie alas, failed to launch, having split the focus groups), so of COURSE there would be a teacher trope; of course. And not just one but several. Come with me now as I lead you down a very strange school corridor indeed- the Earth 2 bizarro world of Teacher Barbie....

1. 1995 Teacher Barbie



'There's so much to learn- they're NEVER done!' 

She's game, I'll give her that, and clearly subscribes to the idea that learning is a life-long process. But NEVER done? I bet she's one of those teachers that doesn't get through the whole syllabus in time for the exams. I had one like that- a raddled old biology soak who, a week before the GCSEs handed us all a pack of fifty sheets of closely typed A4 on plant reproduction and said, 'You might need to know this for the exam.' Is this you, 1995 Teacher Barbie? BASTARD

Good to see a strong emphasis on numeracy and literacy in Teacher Barbie's classroom (did I say classroom? TWO students? Sounds like a tutorial, maybe. Or some ghastly private Montessori confection). 'What's one and two?' says Teacher Barbie, and child 1 goes, 'Two?' like every little sarcastic bastard has since time began and teachers congregated in stone age class-caves, striking over fair allocation of brontosaurus meat. 'No!' says the permanently icing-glazed maven, 'Try again!' Nice take-up time, nice friendly encouragement, finished off with a drop of appropriate praise to habituate good learning habits. I wonder what she would have done if the child, as some are wont, just repeated wrong answers, as their nursery gang mates sniggered sympathetically. 'No! Try again!' only lasts so long, before the penny drops and something dies inside the teacher, never to be reborn.

'Teacher Barbie rings the bell- for recess fun; and hugs all round for jobs well done!'

Teacher Barbie lives in a school where SHE decides when the lesson ends, which is pretty cool. Might be a bit tricky if there 's more than one teacher in the school, otherwise the corridors would be like the fire escape of a brothel when the police smash the front doors in, but I'm sure she knows what she's doing. LITTLE bit more concerned about the hugs. I'm all for positive reinforcement, but does everyone who does well get a hug? What happens if they tire of hugs? What if someone misinterprets it?  Recipe for disaster.  Do NOT hug your students: first rule of Teacher Club. See, Teacher Barbie, you just haven't thought this through.

Finally, while it's loathsome to append any portrait of a woman with a discussion of her physical nature (nobody, for example, weaves comments about Michael Wilshaw's f*ckability into Sunday supplement articles- at least not the ones I read: 'Still toned and taut despite his advancing years, Sir Michael crosses his legs like a panther as we speak, perhaps unconsciously drawing attention to the crisp line of his....' STOPSTOPSTOPMAKEITSTOP) I must pause for a moment at Teacher Barbie's idea of appropriate attire. What on earth was she thinking? The enormous cheerleader skirt that doubles as dungarees, teamed with the shirt and tie, and dear GOD the faux Mondrian print. She resembles the stunt double of Kevin's mom in Home Alone. But she harbours a dark secret; while she may appear to be the kind of teacher you could trust with hugging your children, this page explains the horror of what lies beneath: she has NO undercrackers. I have no idea what the Professional Standards are for sin-linen, but I imagine that the minimum knicker expectation would be 'some.' Hussy.
Not a fan of conceptual art, probably.

2. 2002 Art Teacher

Fast forward seven years, and apparently Mattel think that teachers dress like Daphne from Scooby Doo. Also, the students now have to dress identically to their teachers, which would be, in most circumstances, a sartorial tragedy, as gloomy, humiliated children all around the country had to wear inexpensive polyester suits from ASDA paired with novelty Simpsons ties and shirts (ironed at the front only), or sensible shift dresses five years out of fashion. Ha ha, actually, I think I'd like that. Label bullying: terminated.

Also: a worrying inclusion of some kind of 'rubbing plate' accessory, and I'm not even going there.

3. 2011 I can be...Art Teacher


Stephen King once wrote that every horror writer should write, at least once, about the idea that beneath our concrete world of certainty and reassuring monotony, there pulsed a transcendent underworld of unimaginably vast, ineffable horror. Come with me now to the  realms of Cthulhu as we dig through the foundations of the rabbit hole: I can be....Art Teacher Barbie. With this, 'Little girls can explore different lifestyles, careers...it's a lot of fun.' Really? You should give these out to careers advisers/ TTA. 'Thinking about being a teacher? Here, play with this for a while, try it on for size.'

Actually, maybe that's not so far from the truth these days: the gap between the adverts and the reality is an abyss. Many an NQT has stepped into a room of bedlam and thought, 'Hmm, my tutor didn't mentioned they'd all be shouting at me. Perhaps I didn't play with the role-play dolls enough.'

'Teach your students about art! Art teachers help students learn about art styles & tools-and encourage them to express their creativity! Teach your class by creating cool art in a classic style. When you're done, print out your masterpiece!'

Ah, I get it. She's all about the creativity. I BET she like Ken Robinson.

Art Teacher Barbie is dressed like she's going for ice cream. Also: heels in an art room = health and safety concerns. The Stepford demonstrator in the video above explains that she 'comes with everything,' and I'm thinking THAT IS MY KIND OF ART TEACHER before I realise that she means accessories, including a magic canvas where the picture just appears. Which makes me think that her classes probably aren't that hard if you can just chuck a bucket of wet at your paper and clock off for a fag. Maybe she teaches modules? I imagine her A*-C rate is pretty impressive- 'Here, just drop some Evian on it, presto bongo masterpiece!'

She also has the oddest lever/ arm motion I've seen outside of the Six Million Dollar Man toy (youngsters, avert your gaze): a 'painting motion' apparently. Both she and Steve Austin look more like they're rubbing off a pygmy, but we all create our own realities.


4. 2006 Collector's Edition Teacher Barbie

'You haven't done your homework, have you? You're PATHETIC.'
The Barnet! The Bow! The Humanity!

I don't know what the boys from Mattel were getting off their chests when they designed this rather fierce puppet, but I hope they all felt better afterwards. This, then, is what the teacher of 2006 was like. I believe the working title for this stern dominatrix was 'Complete Bitch Barbie.' If you can see past the puffed cuffs, the tight-laced waistcoat rearranging her kidneys, and the geography classroom from the ending of 2001, there remains the final level of Dante's Hell. I mean the tartan manual clasped under her arm, known only to the damned as, 'A polite lady,' it says. If anyone can source this textbook for me, I'd be keen to review it.

And for some reason, she needs a tomato to teach it. Curious.

Other points of horror: the product description says the glasses are 'cerebral'; and the doll is 'not for use with other Barbies'- presumably because they'd all immediately HATE her, or she'd get them all at each others' throats in five minutes. Finally, it's described as 'for adult collectors' and something sinks deep in my pelvic saddle, and not in a good way.

On second thoughts, maybe we shouldn't let kids play with Teacher Barbies any more.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

What would you like me to ask Charlie Taylor? #asktaylor

Remember #askgove? Of course you don't, it was a fraudulent merkin of a listening exercise, designed to give the appearance of consultation but with all the structure and definition of a collapsed duodenum. Teacher Voice, as regular readers might already know, is somewhat of a hobby-horse of mine, inasmuch as it occupies my every waking thought and damns me in my dreams in a feverish chase. Quite simply, there are next to no (*checks*....sorry, that should be just 'no') effective avenues for the opinions of the teaching profession to be communicated in a meaningful way. Any consultation is ad hoc, cherry picked and designed to confirm the desired answer. C'est la guerre.

Any opportunity to match the profession with those directing the course of the profession is something to be seized. So I was unusually happy to be asked to host an on-stage interview with Charlie Taylor in this year's Festival of Education. Who him? Shame on you; he's been christened the Behaviour Tsar by the PR wallahs/ compliant news vendors, and is the DfE's advisor on behaviour management. Man; 'behaviour czar'- I was stuck with 'guru'. That makes him, like...an archduke or something.

This blog is a request, a simple one: what would you like me to ask him? Unlike some special advisers, he's a man of the profession; I like a lot of what he's said, to be honest, and take issue with parts, so I'll do my best to unpick and unpack the thinking behind the man who has the prestigious and prodigious ear of M-Gove.

Leave your questions in the comments below (with a name if possible), or send it to me on Twitter, and I'll line up the best ones.

Your servant

Tom

PS I will be blogging and live tweeting the CRAP out of this year's festival. Possibly even during my sessions.

PPS While 'Have you ever gone full pelt with a tranny?' is indeed an excellent question, it regrettably will not make the cut, for reasons of time.

Some links to Charlie Taylor:

DfE advice on behaviour management
'Bad behaviour should be identified early'
Guardian feature

Festival of Education. Book NOW, earthlings. I'm also doing a 'workshop' on behaviour management and education in general there. What more could you ask for? Come along and say hello.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Teachers- what kind of reality judge are you? Voice or BGT?

'I'm not feelin' this Ofsted.'
A hundred years ago there used to be a Saturday night humiliation-fest called Blind Date, where gormless ninety-somethings (in IQ) would volunteer to tenderise their dignity on the pounding board of prime time. It was a somewhat more coy version of Take Me Out, although to be fair, most things are more coy than TMO (motto: let no entendre go un-doubled).

I was, of course,  a participant. I don't like to talk about it.

It was hosted by Cilla Black, who in those days was hotter than Simon Cowell, Graham Norton and Alan Carr in an enormous Human Centipede of light entertainment and populist whimsy. It was on just after Gladiators, in which I also harboured a dream to participate (my battle handle was going to be 'Plato', who incidentally was a wrestler before he realised the big bucks were in moral cognitivism).

It was an early precursor of the tsunami of cheap humiliation fare we currently describe as reality TV. Joe Public is cheap, unsophisticated, and liable to do something stupid to appear interesting. It's a long way from Masterpiece theatre, but there we are. One picker *points to self* would ask three smart-bomb questions to to the three lovelies on the other side of a sliding door, and true romance would be determined in this way. One of the most common questions would be something like, 'If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?' To which the normal reply would be something like, 'A Ferrari because....I go red and cost a lot of money,' or something. It was that kind of experience. I have wiped it from my data banks.

Dear GOD oh JESUS CHRRRRIST
Nowadays of course reality TV has turned its Death Star laser sights onto people who essentially want to graduate, like favoured mortals in Greek myths, to the status of demi Gods by being selected by the Simons and Dragons: deification from what Bruce Forsythe probably still refers to as 'members of the public', revulsion and condescension dripping from his grizzled maw like Smaug. I love how easily the entertainers of my childhood would drop that phrase into conversations like everyone on Crackerjack was initiated into the Cosa Nostra.

Currently there are two Big Beasts rearing up against each other on Saturday prime time: Britain's Got Talent, Cowell's application letter for membership of the Illuminati, and The Voice, BBC1s kindler, gentler Next-Gen spin-off/ rip-off from same. As I watch them both- and this is a shibboleth for the teacher who wants lazy analogies to crowbar into his lesson- I am struck by the lessons these TV gauntlets can teach us about ourselves as a profession. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you....

Teachers- What Reality Show Judge Are You?

You can almost feel the chemistry from here
Simon Cowell- You are an authoritarian control freak. You may not have blood in your capillaries. You will dress in an odd manner, but no one dares to mention it. You turn up to your lesson late. Curiously, although you are dead inside and are merely counting the minutes until Satan claims the shreds of your soul for the pit of reaving and tears, your sense of invincibility can lead you to bravado feats of honesty. Namely, you don't give a shit what anyone thinks. This superpower causes people to comply instantly with your every whim. You may also have a fondness for relationships with women possessed of unusually large Adam's Apples and broad hands. Or you may not. *checks with lawyers* You do not.

Amanda Holden- You are the teacher who still tries hard to convince others that you are twenty-five. You fool no one, but some sixth formers are naive enough to turn up early because of your earnest attempts to dress as provocatively as staff dress codes permit. Another feature of this teacher is that they are possessed of no discernible talent whatsoever. Of course, in the topsy-turvy world of the classroom, this means that you are the one in charge of evaluating other teachers, who can barely conceal their surprise that you are qualified to do anything other than ask sailors if they need their 'tummies tickled'.

David Walliams- The kids think you are funny. They also think you are gay. If you are this teacher, they will ask you this openly; if not, they will merely write it on the desks in permanent marker. You will spend a lot of time having shy young men in drainpipe jeans and eyeliner leaving poems on your table 'accidentally'. Also, you are the kind of teacher who thinks that every kid is brilliant, and deserves- and gets- and 'A' for every paper. You may teach a Humanities subject.

Nicole Scherzinger/ Carmen Elektra etc- You are a supply teacher. You believe that the way to get the kids working is to inspire them, and being as positive as possible to everyone. Because they know you won't be around next week, many kids will ask, 'Who are you?' and 'Are you a REAL judge?' You often don't know how to reply to this question, although you are asked it twenty five times a day.

Alesha Dixon- You used to be one of the kids at school, and you came back a few terms later as an NQT. Secretly, you worry that there isn't enough distance between you and the kids you teach. You are often mistaken for one of the sixth formers, and not in a good way. Graffiti that YOU wrote is still visible in the school.

Form a queue, ladies
Tom Jones- You are a legend; a veteran of the school. Corridors hush as you enter, like Darth Vader, but instead of fear (see: Cowell) you inspire admiration and respect in even the most expellable of students. You may have had several affairs with the dinner ladies, but for some reason, you are only respected more for this fact. You have survived at least five head masters, and the SLT are too scared to cross you, so you operate in a pocket universe of your own. Your skin is darker than your hair.

Jessie J- You listen to phat urban beats, wear Skechers and Top Shop, and believe that you can use ghetto slang with impunity, because you imagine you understand the kids. Theh kids pity you for this. You scorn lesson plans, and encourage creativity; examinations are just a way for the system to disempower left brain thinkers. You are the teacher most likely to have a party and invite the students. You are also the teacher most likely to allow prize students to snort toot diagonally from your bum cleavage.

Prince Will-i-am. (Ed's note: check)
Will-I-Am. Similar to the Cowell-teacher, you are possessed of boundless self-belief. Children, you believe, should be taught in a blend of media. The Microsoft Kinect is your default teaching style, and all your homework is communicated through virtual learning platforms. Every Monday, your form group Skypes their partner class in Lithuania in the form of a rap battle. You once made a comment about toilet paper that dogs your reputation to this day. Behind your back, students discuss if you aren't a little bit old for multi-coloured leather jackets that say 'WIN'.

Danny O' Donoghue- You have boundless enthusiasm for every child in the Universe, and you want everyone to be on your team. Sadly, no one knows who you are. You may be an LEA consultant, a member of SLT, or an educational blogger.


Cast your votes. *warning- voting has now closed; your vote will not be counted but charges may still be made to your BT landline*

Friday, 6 April 2012

Nights in White City: On the BBC Breakfast Sofa with Charlie and Louise

'Missed him again!'
Somewhere there is a Rolodex with my name on it. Because I am a teacher who hops up and down on the hilltop, pretending anyone reads me, I sometimes get asked to do rentagob spots on TV. It's always very enjoyable, although it does little for my sleep pattern the night before (editor's note: the Talisker may be a contributory factor. Memo to self: ask science, later).

THE CALL happens the day before, usually speculative at first- they sniff out where you stand on an issue to establish if you've got breakfast chemistry, I presume (swearing, corpsing, streaking, being deal breakers, I imagine). In fact I can usually tell when it's the BBC because it comes up BLOCKED on my phone, which either indicates the Auntie or a significant creditor, so I play roulette with my day and answer. I'm thinking of having a large red Bakelite phone installed that flashes red, just for these occasions.

When I first started doing this a year or so ago, they sent you a taxi there and back; in these days of fiscal anorexia the offer stands one way, unless I presume you are important, or Graham Norton. Relax, dear reader, your tax dollars aren't being wasted.

I needn't tell any teachers out there how odd it is to be in a suit and tie during the Easter holiday, let alone rising in the dark. Equally it never fails to feel odd driving into the old White City folly of Television centre, laser-carved into every Briton's genetic memory as the home of broadcasting, Blue Peter, Swap Shop and poverty-bashing Telethons. It's also one of the few postcodes that most people over thirty could recite by heart, like a Jungian archetype: W12 8QT (did you get it right? Answers on a postcard). It's an old Stalinist heap, the Gordon Brown of architecture, but lovable like an old dog with a cataract in one eye and a happy smile, wagging its tail.

Seizing my moment, I POUNCED
Once through the gates, it's empty as the My Family fan club inside (seriously: does Robert Lindsay own stag negatives of Mark Thompson?), when you might think it would be like the newsroom you faintly see in the background of news reports. The Green Room is tiny (danishes, coffee, water; no toot) , which is fine, because they turn and burn guests on the show like tables in a rollerskating-diner. There's the lovely feeling of watching the show you're about to BE on as you sit down, and it makes me feel a bit like Mike Teavee from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as you see large, 3-D people remove themselves from the sofa, shrink down to the size of a mid-price Sony wide-screen before your very eyes, before returning to human ratio a few minutes later.

Charlie: Busted.
Make up. Every man will testify that this is AN ENTIRE WORLD OF WRONG (unless you're Eddie Izzard of course). I sat down in the chair and said, 'Make me handsome, hahah,' in an attempt at congeniality, before I realised that I had probably committed the make-up artist's equivalent of the 'What time do you finish?/ Have you been busy?' cliché of the taxi driver. The first time it happened, I didn't wipe the foundation off my boat race, and one of the kids at school later said to me, 'Sir....are you wearing make-up?' wide eyed. It was a uniquely Mrs Doubtfire moment. I couldn't even say, 'Yeah, got it from off one of the waitresses.' It wouldn't have sounded right.

The studio itself is quite small, and no, there is NO newsroom behind the sofa. You get led swiftly on in one of their many twenty second clips, wired and miked in seconds and before you know it, you're being gently grilled (more sautéed) by, in this case, Charlie and Louise. It's hard to make something so tightly synchronised run so apparently effortlessly, and given that my guts were full of snakes and self-doubt, I'm amazed they come back each day and do it over and over.

My first couch co-pilot was Matthew Taylor, RSA Chief Executive and former Chief Adviser to Tony Blair. So, no pressure then. He was an old pro, of course, and there's always a sinking second in the hospitality room before you go on that the person they've picked to contrast your views with might be adversarial, but quite the opposite. He was an engine of practised charm and efficiency. My experience of RSA thinking hasn't been terribly positive; like all well-meaning organisations their hearts are absolutely in the right place, and they have the best interest of the kids at heart, but then, doesn't everyone? Don't we all? It's all a bit, 'Teach them 21st century competencies' and 'Group work not drone work', which I've dealt with elsewhere as being two of the great legerdemains of the faux-progressive educationalist movement.

Matthew: LOVES group work.
Have you noticed how many non-teachers have quite strong opinions about what goes on in schools, and how to teach kids? The RSA is guilty of this kind of thing; child-centred theory that sounds lovely but is made of good intentions and clouds in practise. There was little of the gladiator arena in our discussion, but when he started to say that schools didn't do group work, I nearly choked on my own tongue, and would have exorcised that myth, were it not for Charlie's soothing 'That's all we have time for.' THEY CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH.

I also liked when he made a, 'Which is why great teachers like Tom, here...' comment. And I thought, you OLD SMOOTHIE. You could tell he'd been in politics.

I was on an hour later, so I had forty minutes to chain smoke outside and update Twitter, which by this point was melting with kind people. There's a TARDIS outside (sorry- THE Tardis) opposite a life size photograph of Will-I-am, Jessie J, Tom Jones, and the useless one no one knows, from The Voice. I resisted taking a picture of myself 'hanging out' with them. I failed to resist the TARDIS shot though. Of course.

The Green Room: impossibly glamorous.
The second round was easier than the first (Nicky was a pleasure to talk to- it was a regular couch love-in), and in between slots I had the pleasure of meeting the recently expelled candidate from the Apprentice in the Green Room, who oddly enough seemed to have a handler, like he was Tinchy Stryder or someone. Nice enough chap, with the most carefully sculpted eyebrows I have ever seen on a man outside of Captain Hook in panto. I couldn't take my eyes off them. Alas, Surallun was not impressed, so here he was with me. And his handler.

And that was it; escorted out by the efficient, agreeable men and women of the Beeb. My ants-eye perspective was that it runs a very tight ship, at least on the ground. I couldn't see any Bohemian Boardroom profligacy at this level. I really admire the institution; having seen what commercial programming looks like in other countries, I marvel that we still have this bastion of anti-monetarism left for us.

I do hope Cameron and his pals in the League of Super villains don't sell it to anyone beastly.

*I asked people on Twitter how to download my recording of this onto a computer. I got a few responses, all useful. A few days before I 'crowdsourced' (read: too lazy to Google) a request for two words to be translated into Latin. I got THIRTY FIVE people who were lining up with offers to help, up to and including MARY BEARD FROM JAMIE'S DREAM SCHOOL/ CAMBRIDGE UNI (delete depending on cultural touchstones). I think I need more techies in my life.