Thursday, 14 July 2016

A Teacher's Report

Dear Mr and Mrs Parent, (I apologise if I am being presumptuous:  it could of course be Mr and Mr/Mrs and Mrs/Ms and Ms or even Miss and Miss),

Anyway, I'm sorry I was unable to see you both at the meeting last week - a colleague told me you became very frustrated that you had to wait in the queue for so long. The parents before you were admonishing me for having marked their daughter's class work in red ink. They told me that it had been tantamount to an assault on her self esteem and she had been sleeping uneasily on account of it ever since. They refused to accept my apologies and kept telling me, in no uncertain terms, as no doubt you could hear from where you were standing, that I should have known that red ink is strictly verboten in modern day schools and that, basically, my insensitivity was partly responsible for the fact that their daughter had suddenly become disillusioned with her schooling and was staying out late at night, instead of doing her home work. Once again, my apologies that you felt it necessary to make a premature exit, evidently irritated, judging by what I was told you shouted in my direction.

I do find these meetings frustrating at times - I mean, what I am I supposed to say to a parent whose opening gambit is: 'Why does she have to learn French anyway?  We never go there and, besides, everybody speaks English.' No wonder some of the children, sorry, young adults, in the class are reluctant to do any work.

Let me give you some details about your son and his progress this term:

I teach him only one subject, French, which I'm surprised he opted for, as young adults usually go for the 'soft' subjects these days, which present them with only a modest challenge . As our industrial competitors are churning out multi-lingual physicists and chemists year upon year, here in the UK we seem to concentrate on the 'lightweight' subjects, which prospective employers neither need nor want, but which, with the minimum fuss, work or brainpower, the young adults have a good chance of passing at GCSE. (The more passes at GCSE, the higher the school is in the league tables, hence schools discouraging their young adults from choosing rigorous courses).

Anyway, I see your son three times a week, as part of a heterogeneous (mixed ability) group, for 50 minutes at a time. As there are 29 other young adults in the class, this means that, if I did nothing else during lessons, I could spend about five minutes per week with him as an individual, to teach him, sorry, facilitate his learning, and, very important I am led to believe by those in the know, to understand him as a young adult. But, as you are no doubt aware, there are some young adults in his class who demand much more of the teacher's time, due to the fact that they have never had any proper behavioural boundaries set for them at home, and they have not yet been diagnosed with ADHD, at which point we can resort to a daily pill, prescribed by the local doctor, to keep them compliant. This inevitably means that some young adults will be left with none of my time at all and, unfortunately, that applies to your son.

I'll be honest, I can't recall the last time I  spoke to him but I know which boy he is because he regularly chews gum during my lessons. At least he doesn't use his mobile phone to send text messages to others in the room as I'm teaching, sorry, facilitating learning, which a number of his friends do. When I and a number of my colleagues suggested these 'phones should be banned from school classrooms, we were told by management that the young adults needed them in case there was an emergency at home and, besides, we should be considering ways in which mobiles could be used as part of the teaching and learning process. Mobiles, we were told, could be an important part of their 'virtual learning environment' (whatever this means).

Accordingly, it is difficult for me to offer any honest and accurate assessment of your son's progress, or, for that matter, of many others in his class, which is why at parents' evenings I usually opt for vague generalities and try to avoid names, because I'm likely to have forgotten them. (On one occasion, at last term's meeting, I had absolutely no idea which young adult's parents I was talking to but managed to bluff my way through to the end).

I teach twenty five lessons a week. Despite my best intentions, some of these lessons are pretty tedious, as to plan a perfect lesson can take hours. There are just not enough hours in the day to do this for every lesson I teach. If I'm told a member of the school management team is to observe me, I ensure that my benchmark grades are clear, my lesson plan is thorough and that my teaching is totally inclusive. No matter how well I feel the lesson has gone, there's always some criticism - last time I was told I hadn't done enough 'paired work'.

Schools these days are full of middle-management types. They tell us regularly that all the young adults have to be totally clear about their "learning objectives" and all we teachers have to plan precisely for each young adult's individual needs. It's called ''differentiation''.They believe that learning simply cannot take place unless every young adults' needs have been catered for.

What one might consider real work -  vocab and grammar tests, answering unprepared oral questions in the foreign, sorry, target language, executing prose translations and writing 300 word essays in the 'target' language  - these are all considered hopelessly old-fashioned and bordering on young adult abuse. Instead, they like almost anything involving interactive whiteboards, scissors and glue and answering 'bitesize' questions that have been given to them a week beforehand. And, of course, at the top of the list - the powerpoint presentation - vital in the encouragement of 'cooperative learning'. When computers arrived in the classroom 15 years ago, they were to be the panacea in education. We were told that standards would soar. A decade and a half on and we are still waiting, despite each young adult now in possession of a laptop.

This doesn't restrain the technological bullies: if this lot had their way, we human learning facilitators would become surplus to requirements, so the young adults, after staring at a screen at home until the early hours, could carry on doing so as soon as they arrived at school. The techno bullies think that young adults should be permanently ''plugged in''. The idea that this may be an assault on their brains is to think the unthinkable in modern British schools. The result so far is your son, like the vast majority of his contemporaries, is digitally fluent but has serious difficulties coping with even basic speaking, reading and writing in French (and, so I am led to believe from a colleague, in English as well).

Many in this class, and I see no reason why this doesn't apply to your son, are of the firm opinion that anything that isn't fun is not worth learning, which is backed up by management, who seem to think we learning facilitators are equivalent to circus performers. We are told, if the young adults misbehave, it is our fault because we have not made the lesson entertaining enough.That's why I show your son's class lots of films from YouTube. As long as it has a tenuous connection with France, or the French culture, I can get away with it.

All work for young adults needs to be 'scaffolded', i.e. done for them. The very notion of giving a young adult a task they might fail is considered another example of young adult abuse. Every task must be able to be completed within about ten minutes and we can't even mark the young adults' work without recourse to a prescribed formula.

As far as lesson plans are concerned, we learning facilitators are no longer able to stretch the young adults' minds, instead we must adhere to a specific exam-oriented formula (with about 70 exams per young adult in year 11, we spend only a modicum of time feeding their minds but, instead, are constantly weighing them, if you understand the analogy).

I am sorry to inform you that, having hardly spoken to your son this year, when he returns to school in January, he'll be attending class only on rare occasions because all young adults in year 11 spend practically all school time in the exam hall during their final two terms. Part of the reason I have had little to do with your son in the scheme of things is because he is not in the GAT (gifted and talented) group, nor does he have EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties) nor does he have SEN (special educational needs).

This endless use of acronyms (actually, it has just occurred to me an acronym has to spell out an actual word, not that any teacher under the age of 50 would know this because grammar hasn't been taught in schools since the 1970s)....this endless use of 'initials' is another obsession in modern day schools - we are deluged by them - AFL (assessment for learning, whereby in a History lesson, for example, instead of taking 5 minutes to give the young adults the principal details appertaining to the Battle of Waterloo, there now has to be some sort of dramatic re-enactment of the event); LSA (Learning Support Assistant); BESD (behavioural, educational and social difficulties); ADD (attention deficit disorder - an acronym!), plus its offshoot ADHD; EAL (English as an added language) and ECM, which stands for 'every child matters'. Yuk! Oh, and I nearly forgot, TUP, i.e. 'Thumbs Up Plenaries', whereby at the end of each lesson the young adults acknowledge whether or not the lesson objectives have been achieved by the use of their thumbs pointing up or down.

There is no point complaining about any of this because any teacher who dares to put his head above the parapet is accused of ''breaching protocol'' and would have to face the consequences. Even if that teacher is a particularly effective one, this cuts no ice. Indeed, I often wonder whether it'd been better had I been useless throughout my career because, this being the case, the school would by now be offering me early retirement, affording me a generous lump sum and subsequent healthy pension. I recently met one of my ex-colleagues, generally regarded as inept in the classroom throughout his undistinguished career, who told me he was now teaching only three days a week at a local junior school but, with his generous pay-off from us, supplemented by his pension, he was taking home more money than when he was working full time.

I digress. I apologise if I seem a bit of a curmudgeon but, having been working in schools for more than three decades, I'm finding it difficult to reconcile myself to the myriad initiatives which flood my life as a modern day learning facilitator. Common sense and trust in face-to-face communication are being forced out of the profession. As playwright G.B. Shaw once stated: 'common sense is not so common' and, as for communication, it must ALL be done electronically nowadays.

The status quo is just fine for a lot of middle and senior management: it allows them to wield power, justify inflated salaries and be recognised by their peers as being "outstanding" teachers (even though they rarely stand in front of a class, being too busy in their cosy offices with their one-to-one interviews).  Never mind. They never really liked teaching children, sorry, young adults, that much anyway.

To sum up, your son is making satisfactory progress, I think. My report is principally based on the fact he rarely comes to my attention.

Simon Warr, M.A.

P.S. Would you forbid him from bringing gum to school? I did mention this to my young Head of Department and he told me it could be a cry for help.

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