I wonder how many texts in the whole history of the world have begun with the phrase, “My grandmother used to say…” Probably millions. It’s probably a phrase that should be avoided at ALL costs. They probably run creative writing courses specifically to train people never to use, “my grandmother used to say” in their Great Works.
My grandmother used to say that I should be a teacher. She thought so from the time when my lifeyears could still be counted in single numbers, and she continued to think so right through my delinquency and out the other side. Or if not a teacher, she thought I should at the very least be be a journalist. One of the two.
She was quite wise, my grandmother. She did say less sage things sometimes, such as when she compared the back of my neck to a fruit and regularly observed that the best way to keep a house tidy is to take something upstairs with you every time you ascend. Small brother was troubled by the potential outcome of this – that fairly soon everything you own would be inconveniently upstairs. But still, she was mainly a fount of wisdom, just as grandmothers are supposed to be.
So when I finished being a delinquent, then stopped waiting for my bewildered spouse to suddenly become a city financier and finally realised that if I wanted to have a ‘normal’ life (one with a toilet, a letter box and furniture), I would have to do something about it myself, it was to teaching I turned. In fact, I awoke one morning with an evangelical urge to save teenagers from the fate I had experienced – a decade of addled pointlessness – and immediately phoned a local college to find out how someone with a YTS in Photography and a couple of English ‘O’ Levels could qualify herself to inspire the young and lead them onto a path of righteousness. I was a Born Again Educator.
Four years later I had a First Class Honours degree and shortly after that I had a teaching qualification and a job in a college. Ok, that makes it all sound ridiculously easy, which it wasn’t, but I’m not admitting to you that I once got so knackered churning out essays that I forgot to remove my knickers in the loo. No. That’s far too personal. And anyway, that’s not my point. My point is that I became a teacher. In fact, I thought I’d landed the dream job teaching ‘A’ Levels in the FE sector. I mean, all my students were at least reasonably equipped with active braincells (surely?); I wouldn’t have to shout at kids to straighten their ties; mostly students were attending voluntarily so would be partially well-behaved (surely?) and I would get to motivate their young hearts and tempt them with the iceberg tips of knowledge that had blown me away at university. I was an eduslut. An evangelecturer. You get the picture.
For me it was all about giving young people a place to think, and to recognise that their ideas – no matter how ‘radical’ or seemingly socially unacceptable – actually have an important place in the history of thought. I wanted to show them that education is not about shutting up and believing what they are ‘taught’, but about grasping the skills to learn for themselves whatever it is that interests them. I wanted to engage them in the history of ideas and give them chances to look at things from different perspectives, pursue their own trains of thought and to give them all the links and tools to do so. Nothing would be out of bounds as a topic for consideration. And I mean nothing.
I know I was naive, but I truly and unequivocally believed education was about enlightenment. I haven’t got a clue what gave me that idea, but that’s what I thought. My, how I laugh now when I think of my idiocy.
The first time a student ever said to me, “is this going to be in the exam?”, I took the question at face value and didn’t quite grasp the implications of it. But after it had happened more times than I could count, it dawned on me that, for the bulk of these students, none of this stuff mattered unless it would help them achieve the grade they wanted in the final assessments. The things we were ‘teaching’ seemed to them to be in a whole separate category from the lives they led outside college. The whole point of being in the classroom for them was to find out how to get grades in a process absolutely removed from anything they cared about in the real world. The kind of intellectual curiosity teachers dream of inspiring in their students was/is a very rare commodity indeed. In every class of say 24 students there are usually one or two (if any) who are genuinely interested. Many can raise some interest for the duration of the lesson and many will work very hard to learn material, but only a very few are absolutely engaged and able to bring their own ideas, reading, thoughts and experiences to the table.
I am not blaming the students for this state of affairs – not at all. Those very students who sit in classes with facial expressions resembling potatoes will often spring to life when discussing mechanics or music or flying or whatever it is they like doing outside formal education. Something has happened to them, and it’s not necessarily terminal brain damage. Our system seems to have created a disconnect between ‘education’ and genuine learning for the love of it. Somewhere along the line – as home educators have been saying for years – our young people lose the curiosity they are born with and become processed grade-churning machines, and it’s we who have made them that way.
The trouble is that, no matter how strongly we believe this, and how much we teachers want to reverse this process, the entire education system is now dependent on grades. Schools and colleges that don’t get the grades lose students and funding and can no longer continue. This leads to a vast underground of troubled teachers finding ways to get students through qualifications that they’re not really equipped for because they’ve been processed-not-educated through their formative years – in other words, we have to continue to process-not-educate.
As an A Level teacher I constantly marvel at students who come to me with C (and above) grades at GCSE and who cannot string sentences together and have never read an entire book. Speaking to teachers from the primary and secondary sector I realise that the same thing happens all the way through schools. A primary teacher told me that it starts the minute targets are set and SATS are taken. Teachers are punished if they don’t get students to meet targets, so they teach to test. Students move on to the next stage without the required knowledge and skills and so it goes on – all the way up – teaching to test and excessive guidance with coursework. Teachers have no choice. I see it all the time, and those that don’t do it are labelled bad teachers and undergo capability enquiries. Their livelihoods, sense of self-worth and careers are in jeopardy if they don’t comply.
Here’s a version of a conversation that took place between a friend of mine (L) and her manager (M):
M: This student’s only got a D in her coursework.
M: What are you going to do about it?
L: Give her a D.
M: But there must be something you can do.
L: I have. I’ve done one-to-one sessions with her to help her, and she got a D.
M: Couldn’t you get her a C?
L: She doesn’t care about the grade – she’s only doing this course because she wants to learn.
M: But you could do a couple more sessions with her.
L: I’ve done nine already. She is happy with a D. Do you want me to write it for her?
When my friend told me about this conversation I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It crystalised for me everything about where we have gone wrong as a system. L had a rare student who actually just wanted to learn for learning’s sake, and she was STILL being pressured into achieving grades. WHO was that grade FOR?
This made me finally realise I don’t believe in it all any more. So even though my grandmother was right – I probably was born to be a teacher – and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being in the classroom – it’s probably time to try journalism. Or something.
All offers of gainful employment welcomed.