Is this going to be in the exam?

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.

My grandmother and mother in the 1960s

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.

L: Yes.

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?

M: …

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.


20 replies to “Is this going to be in the exam?

  1. This article urgently needs to be published in Britain’s newspapers. Just anonymize persons and locations. The public has to know the truth about the system.

    1. I agree that the public should know, although I fear teachers are being presented as complaining idiots at the moment which gives everyone a license to ignore us. But I have been thinking about writing something public on this for a long time and your comment gives me some much-needed encouragement. Thank you.

  2. Hi I came across your blog on a twitter search and I think it’s fantastic!! As a teacher did you ever become frustrated by the students who had potential but didn’t apply themselves? I think that’s a contributing factor as well.

    Great job thank you….!! Keep em coming

    1. Hi Nancy, Welcome and thank you very much!

      Yes, those students can be frustrating, and there are plenty of them, but I can relate to them because I was exactly the same when I was their age. In fact, if they end up in my A Level class then they’re already better than I was at the same age so I admire them in some ways. But no student is ever as annoying as the education system itself!

      So glad you like my blog Nancy. x

  3. Hello. I found this blogpipe fascinating, heartbreaking and enlightening. I can’t say enough good things about it.

  4. Okay, I actually want to hug this article, to the extent that I may use my college printing credits simply for the act. However if I happened to find myself in possession of such heresy on college grounds I’d probably find myself in a disciplinary hearing, because opinions are unimportant and don’t get you through exams…

    I can completely appreciate how awful this madness is for teachers that still care, and I wish all my teachers did, really. When I drag myself out of bed at 6am for College and have a little grin on my face because I have Biology first, the most crushing thing is walking in and everybody including the teacher looks bored.
    It’s depressing and leaves me with a clenched jaw staring at the celling wondering how I’m going to survive potentially another 4+ years of education. Then I recall, as long as I revise copious amounts and never use the W word I can smile and pretend that I don’t want to set fire to various bits of lab furniture quite successfully. However the moment you show even the palest signs of dissent or dare use the word ‘Why’ you’re immediately branded a problem.
    I wouldn’t think anybody was lying if they told me it was against college policy to think.

    I’ll stop rambling now, but I just wanted to say that there are a few humans who still believe in this learning business and I for one agree whole heartedly with you. Also I agree with everybody who says you should publish, if not this then in general, your style is brilliant!

    1. It’s so interesting to hear this from a student’s point of view, but very disheartening that you feel you can’t ask ‘why’. That’s the most important question in education, of course. Don’t ever let anyone stop you asking it, even though it can be painful! I have asked that question of management a few times and been told that even if I find things incongruent with my worldview I still just have to get on and do them. I can understand that to some extent, but too much of it leads to losing the will to continue.

      If I believed in revolution, I’d say “let’s revolt!”

  5. I studied to be a teacher for three years in Australia and bailed out of my last year. I too bought into the idea of being able to enlighten the masses and inspire them with creativity. The thing is the Education System doesn’t just take away the will to learn from students it also takes away the a teachers drive to be inspirational and creative. They are too busy handling huge classes, getting reports done and surviving the day. My friends who have become teachers survive on a day to day basis now, they love their kids and work hard but if a child is too difficult they are not given the attention they need.

    1. YES. It DOES take away the drive to be inspirational and creative! I couldn’t agree more. And the thing is that those are the reasons I wanted to work in the job, but we are more often measured on our ability to write things in Excel Spreadsheets. I am not very good at that.

  6. TON, Do as you’re damn well told and submit this to the Guardian. Stop being a big wuss.
    There, I said it!
    The time is now. Of course your words are valid and valuable and good enough for the nation to access via a newspaper, in print. Stop hiding yourself from the world. Perhaps you’re frightened of success, not failure. Because you’re amazing.
    Don’t be a stoopid-oopid. Do the thing. Now.

  7. Absolutely brilliant and agree you should publish. Like you I wanted to get into teaching to make students life better than my own. I only trained as a teaching assistant, not a teacher, but was pushed out of every job I ever had through trying to make learning fun, and/or sticking up for my students.
    On a different note, when my youngest son was 4 and in reception class, he had a teacher who was newly qualified. She use to give the children homework every night!!! Only colouring in and easy things…but several pages and every night! at 4 years old!!!!!! I complained to her several times and got no where, so went to the head who told me that the said teacher was her best member of staff as she followed the ‘rules’ and had all her reports on her desk every week on time. I argues that reports and statistics didn’t equal good teaching and happy learning and told the head and the teacher that I wouldn’t be making my son do his homework as he was only 4 and when he was home it was fun time, not more indoctrinated learning! They weren’t happy but there was little they could do.
    One day when I went back to my sons classroom after dropping him off as I’d forgotten something, I found his teacher screaming at him and 2 other little children for not doing their homework. I naturally went crazy and took him home. I was then threatened with the Truancy officer! I said I’d allow him back if he could go into another class but they wouldn’t allow it. His teacher even admitted to me that she hated me, and therefore hated my son as she saw me every time she looked at him! Stupidly I put up with this for the year he was in her class as I didn’t know I could home educate, and couldn’t move schools as his Aspergers brother was very settled and I couldn’t risk disrupting him, and couldn’t get to two different schools each day at the same time.

    2 years later I moved them both to a new school and had more problems with the new targets being set. I finally discovered home education was legal and took them both out and taught them at home…..BUT, my Aspergers son was very bright, and they begged me to keep him on for his SATS. I refused, but he actually WANTED to do them so I allowed it and he got the top marks. I realised later they only wanted him to stay on to improve the grades of their school in the SATS!

    I know none of this is really related to what you’re blog is saying, but it proves how early on this all starts. I didn’t like school myself, but I can actually remember a lot of what I learned…some of it was fun and it was the days before targets!. Yet training to be a teaching assistant, where I had to remember useless facts, and quotes to pass my exams, I don’t remember at all now!

    Sorry for long reply!

    1. The long reply was very welcome, Daisy, thanks!

      I think different institutions deal with the targets & grades culture in different ways. At the place I worked at previously, everyone put humans before statistics and didn’t always follow the rules rigidly. It was a much happier place to work, but it was seen as a problem area by senior management because the students tended to get the sort of grades they probably deserved rather than the grades we could have got if we’d pushed and pushed and did all the things people do to achieve unrealistic targets.

      The pressure on teachers to achieve targets is absolutely intense, and new teachers like the one you described are more likely to try to comply. She probably had no idea whatsoever why you were being difficult! She’d probably been entirely brought up in target culture and genuinely believed that was what teaching was all about. You were SO RIGHT that a four year old should NOT have homework!

      I think more and more people would home educate – or do it in small groups – if it wasn’t for the fact that so many people can’t afford to survive without two full time incomes.

  8. I think you stopped by my blog – thank you. I also have a fellow blogger who thought I might enjoy reading your blog. She was right. The education system and the situation for teachers and students is about the same here in Sweden, but I think it’s even worse in Britain. I went to Scarborough for a week and met a charming, but disillusioned, teacher with whom I had many discussions.

    I’m still here, but many new teachers or teachers in the making drop out before they have even started. .I’ve been told there were only 30 something who graduated the science teacher program last year. When they face the real life out there it quickly turns out not to match their dreams. Soon there will be not enough new teachers to pick up where we leave. Maybe somewhere there the system will wake up?

    Our school is now being scrutinized by the authorities because we deliver too many F’s – which in our system means that the student is not qualified for the final certificate.( As you say, it already comes from their former school..).The students in year three (last year) must do a 100 hours project on their own to pass their final exam, and many students don’t manage it on their own even if they’ve got a mentor to help them. They simply don’t come to school and do it. According to the authorities we (the teachers) should take our cars and drive to the studens’ home and force them to come back to school and finish their work! They are 19 years old! We are not allowed to do anything from the moment they turn 18.

    I wonder how many teachers out there who still would give them an E – just to save the school from being held in charge and maybe to save their jobs. We used to. But now, me and my collegues are fighting it. We don’t know the outcome yet.

    If we all only could agree on striking, or if the unions only where stronger? Or if…

    If you haven’t yet posted – do now!

  9. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that it is so similar in Sweden as well. In my place of work, if students don’t achieve the grades that they have been predicted then it is the teachers whose capability is questioned.

    How are you going about fighting it? I would be very interested to know what you are doing, and what the outcomes are. I wish you very, very good luck with your fight, and I admire you for doing it.

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