We Are All Phonies

I reread ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for the umpteenth time recently. I teach the novel to senior pupils -16/17 year-olds – but still read it for pleasure just the same.  And it never fails to hit the mark. Thirty-odd years after reading it for the first time it still haunts me when, at the end of the novel, Holden sits, watching his sister go round on the Carrousel, and contemplates his future. He doesn’t have a clue what’s about to hit him. It’s why, unless you read it at that point in your life, it never makes any sense; but, if like me you did, it hits the mark every time.

I get why people don’t like the book. It’s at times a rambling narrative of a confused, yet spoiled, teenager, who’s never really had to worry about wealth or status. He has had it easy. Oh, apart from his brother dying. Apart from that. Apart from his belief that everything he’d ever known was disappearing as he left school behind and was being catapulted into  an adulthood which terrifies him. Apart from that. But I get that, if you didn’t read it when it would have had most impact, it perhaps doesn’t mean as much to you. Holden is every teenager on the verge of leaving school and, for me, personifies everything that literature can give us.

Holden believes that every adult he meets is a phony and you can understand why. Teenagers on the verge of leaving school are sold a vision of life which could only every be an imaginary one to them. Our school systems, despite our idealistic beliefs, wrangle them through an exam system which will always have winners and losers. Even with a certificate with lots of good news, how can they possibly know which one they’ll be? But, for me, it is Salinger’s beautiful prose which cries out with teenage confusion and anguish which sings to me. Holden’s revelation to Phoebe of the title’s significance is heart-breaking; his inability to understand what he is going through, profoundly relevant.IMG_0750

However, when Holden crosses the road, worrying that he might fall and disappear, Salinger had hit on a feeling that sixteen and seventeen year olds genuinely experience at the end of their schools days. They have been fed a line for thirteen years and are coming to the end of the one constant factor in their lives. Everything they’ve ever known is about to, in their eyes, disappear, and they have no idea what is on the other side of the road. Perhaps as educators we forget that, for them, qualifications are only the first part of a long process.

Holden is messed up for a number of reasons. Perhaps kids get disillusioned with the  line we feed them because they see that exam results are more for us than for them; that schools barely disguise the fact that good exam results are important because they make the establishment look good, more than the pupils. And, in that sense, Holden was right. We are all phonies. If we have created a system where, as teachers, we worry that our exam results are primarily a reflection on us, then we are phonies, no matter the reason. Our system is flawed if that is the case. Our new exam system in Scotland doesn’t seen to be changing that. We will still have young adults who are terrified that they’ll disappear; and they’re probably right.

Embracing the Spirit of Teachmeet

It is probably true that, on occasion, we get carried away with ourselves a bit on Twitter. We have discovered a world here which does not exist for us anywhere else, a sort of Second Life for teaching. Because many of us are crying out for a more focused approach to Professional Development and to be part of a community of educators who want to engage with new ideas, we spend more time on Twitter than is probably good for our health and our relationships. However, while blogging and tweeting might allow us to feel that we are affecting change, the reality may be somewhat different.

Since the inception of Teachmeet a few years back there has been a slow change in delivery of professional development. Very slow. In the world of Twitter, though, you’d think it was rampant. A constant stream of Teachmeets and Teachmeet-style ‘events’ keep us informed of great things going on around the country. But, and it might just be me, when I return to school in the morning, I see little change. I don’t see the structures which might encourage changes in approach; I don’t see the hunger and craving for changes in approach. And that worries me.

Teachmeet was about teachers getting together and sharing in a very informal space. It was about teachers sharing ideas, having a voice which was equal to anyone else in the room. It was about teachers tearing down the barriers to proper discussion where they could talk about their practice in an open and helpful manner. It created an enthusiasm for learning which many had thought lost to them. I worry that that spirit is being eroded. Nowadays I see Teachmeets with huge sponsorship, with big name speakers, with prizes. I see Teachmeets for which you need tickets. Some of them even cost you. It’s Teachmeet but not as we know it.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’ve been to these events and learned loads. I’ve listened to inspirational speakers and come away with amazing ideas. However, I don’t see an event which would encourage most of the teachers I know to get up and speak; and that’s what the spirit of Teachmeet is all about. There are no egos, no sales pitches. They are about classroom practice, lead by classroom practitioners. That’s the spirit of Teachmeet and that’s the spirit we need to generate on our own schools every day. I think it is the only way we will see a mass change in approaches to Professional Development and enhanced teaching.

If we can break out of the mindset that teacher development needs to be delivered; if we can break out of the mindset that some of our teachers will never want to do it anyway; if we can break out of the mindset that things are so entrenched that they can never change; then, I thunk we can see amazing things. But it will take persistence and positivity, breaking down barriers, doors even, and it will take a lot of heartache and pain to get there. The spirit of Teachmeet, and for that matter Pedagoo, is the spirit for which I aspire in my school. It’ll be stolen away from us if we’re not careful. Let’s steal it back.

‘At Least She Got Something’. And other tragedies

We could argue all day about whether things are harder for school kids today than they were for us, whatever generation from which we might be spawned. In my day, I was vomited out of the end of school with ‘O’ Grades, then a couple of Highers. Some of my mates got further in the race, some of them dropped off much earlier than me. In the intervening years there have been changes to exam system but, pretty much, people still get further than others, some drop off early. Still. So, surely, the experience of the ‘weaker’ students, the mates who would normally have dropped out of sight, has changed hasn’t it?

For the last twelve or so years in Scotland senior pupils could still achieve the Holy Grail of Higher English but those who couldn’t reach had the safety nets of Intermediate One or Two to fall back on. At least they would get something. Sigh. We convinced ourselves that Achievement for all was better than what had gone on for years and the ‘less able’ left school with more than they had ever expected. Maybe that’s true. However, is there a chance that we have sold these kids down the river by missing the point? Are they leaving school any more educated or prepared than they would have been when I was at school? I’m not convinced.

Perhaps it is the baffling lament for these Intermediate courses that troubles me. We are currently in the mind-boggling scenario of developing National courses at the same time as we are delivering them. Every teacher in Scotland is feeling the pressure; fingers are being pointed; tensions are flaring up; staffrooms are boiling. With the new Nationals courses there is no safety net for the ‘less able’. There is no opportunity for the ‘poor wee soul’ who worked so hard and was delighted to get her Intermediate One in English. We all know a story like that. ‘At least she got something’ we might have said. At least she got something. And what a tragic indictment of an education system that is. At least she got something. The poor wee soul.

But we feel better about ourselves that the ‘poor wee soul’ can take her Intermediate One certificate away from school and consider herself more of a success than she might have been. Really? That we might conveniently forget that that same fifteen/sixteen year-old ‘poor wee soul’ was a poor wee soul when she was four or five and ten years in our education system did nothing to help her situation is nothing to celebrate, I’m afraid. It should be a reminder that our system changes nothing for those already up against it. That’s what we should be getting angry about. Not a sad, mournful glance back to the good old days of Intermediate One.

Change is always hard in education. I’m developing more grey hairs as I try and negotiate the new National exams. We should be having those conversations; those debates where we hold our educational and political masters to account for that mess. However, before we start to get our knickers in a twist about any exam at any level, can we please remember the reason we do this in the first place. It’s not to make the best of a bad situation. It’s not to ensure that at least the kids ‘get something’ from it. It’s to ensure a fair and equitable society for all, starting from the early years. We should be furious that there still are ‘poor wee souls’ at the end of their school lives not whether we can furnish them with meaningless bits of paper. Let’s get mad about the right things.