I am a teacher. For a long time I tried not to be a teacher, but I found that you can take the girl out of the school but you can’t take the school out of the girl. I resisted the call to the classroom for a couple of years while I pursued my dream of becoming a pop singer or some sort of singer/song writer in the manner of Suzanne Vega (except that I didn’t like the hours overly much and I had no desire to travel around Germany in a VW camper accompanied by greasy men wearing Megadeath t-shirts),and then again after my children arrived, but it was not to be.
When I had a baby it was the ideal opportunity, it seemed to me, to make my escape from fate. I had slowly developed that awful feeling that teachers suffer from, that of being like a hamster stuck on a wheel that spins ever faster and faster, so my first maternity leave came as a bit of a relief. When the boy arrived, my world turned upside down, and I found that I couldn’t muster up much energy to care for other people’s children in the way I had before. When two more babies arrived I found that I didn’t have time to care for other people’s offspring, let alone the energy.
But after pushing ten years at home, I started to feel that maybe getting back to work might be a good idea. I thought about a different role in a school – but what? I’m not really the sort of person you would want to have in an office. I have a tendency to put things down in random places and I can’t decide where things, in particular paperwork, should go. I wondered if maybe I could be a Teaching Assistant, but then, after all that time at home, my in-charge-ness had kind of got out of control.
So back to the chalk-face it was for me. Except it isn’t a chalk-face any more. It’s more of a PowerPoint-face.
Everyone kept telling me how much it had changed, how much more rigorous it was now, and I thought to myself, ‘how different can it possibly be?’ Children are still children, they still smell the same (a sort of mix between washing powder, sweaty plimsolls and wee), they play pretty much the same games in the playground, they have the same arguments and difficulties over English spelling and punctuation. When I first started teaching again it didn’t seem so different, but now that I’ve been back in the game for almost three years I think I know what they mean, and it hasn’t got anything to do with rigour.
For a start there’s OfSTED. What’s going on with that? It was always a scary thing, but when did they turn into some sort of black-patent-leather-suited secret police, whose demands dictated everything that went on in your classroom, regardless of your own particular style? Was its r’aison d’etre always to be the enemy of individuality? I know it was always about ‘rooting out bad teachers’, but when did it turn out that all teachers were bad? When did it become the acceptable canon that the teaching profession, my lovely, caring, passionate profession, is the whipping boy for all of society’s ills?
When did it become the done thing for educated adults, such as those who write newspaper articles, to fall back on that old chestnut of 9-3 and long summer holidays, ignoring the blend between educator, surrogate parent and social worker, ignoring the hours that all teachers put in, over and above their contracts because, funnily enough, they are not motivated by money, to join in the approbation, right at the end of the longest, darkest, hardest term? The term in which we have struggled against coughs and colds and vomiting to put on nativities and carol concerts, pantomimes and plays so that all of us parents can oooh and aaah and feel our bosoms swell with pride at the talent and gorgeousness of our offspring, displayed by people who ask for no recognition for themselves.
And data. Oh. My. Word. I’m really not a detail person (give me broad brushstrokes any day), but it seems to have got completely out of control in primary schools. When did a child turn into a 1c or a 3a? When did it become the expected thing that children made ‘three sub-levels of progress every year’? When did children’s learning suddenly become a linear thing?
And this performance related pay thing. What’s going on there? While I have no problem with accountability, after all I’m a parent myself and I want the best for my own children, how is it that my pay is tied to the performance of small, random beings? Have you ever tried to get a recalcitrant child to do anything? And what about those with special needs? I’m worried that the pressure I, and my fellow teachers, feel to ensure that the children in our care make the required progress will be passed on to the children – they, after all, will have to do the work.
And the teaching of writing. Don’t get me started on the teaching of writing! What on earth is going on with this higher and lower level connective nonsense? In our desire to measure and tick off and show and prove that children have made the correct amount of progress we have reduced the art of writing to a set of rules that must be obeyed; where purple prose is valued over and above teaching children to use their own voices. Where the joy of creativity and thinking for themselves, of breaking the rules, is sucked out in favour of checklists of sentence types and a variety of openers.
And while I’m on a ranting roll, although I have no problem with sharing with children what they are going to be learning in a lesson, sometimes, just sometimes, I would just like to get on with the doing, rather than the talking about the doing, and checking we all know what we are supposed to be doing, and seeing if we learned what we were supposed to be learning. After all, children with special needs very often have no idea what it is they are supposed to be doing in the first place. Rather than the lollipop licking itself, they need to be doing the licking.
And then, just like when Sam learned to crawl because he wanted to play with a ball that kept rolling away (funny that), they might get on with learning what they need to learn, just for fun. Just because they can.