We Must Do Better Than This

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 6th October 2017, adapted and developed from an earlier post of mine,)

The cup slams down on to the desk. Lukewarm coffee splashes onto the pile of documents I’ve yet to read. I don’t sit down in my chair, I collapse into it. The chair doesn’t invite me. I surprise it. In revenge, the wheels send me backwards into a cabinet. Three ring binders, piled precariously, fall to the ground. I can’t be certain but I’m sure my sighs can be heard in at least three adjacent classrooms. I stare at the ten e-mail requests I have received since the beginning of that last double period. This can’t be what it’s all about. It just can’t be.

‘What just happened there?’ should be the question most on my mind. ‘Why did that lesson go so badly?’ I should think about the endless planning I did for this lesson; the immaculate resources I prepared; the constructive yet essential use of ICT. The clear outcomes set, the challenging but achievable goals. Everything was perfect; it should have been perfect. And, of course, I should have been thinking about these questions. But I wasn’t. I had ten minutes to get ready for the next lesson. Another one I had planned for ages. I didn’t have time for questions.

That the rest of the day went well doesn’t really matter. They usually do. However, when I’m driving home, when I’m eating dinner, when I’m spending time with my wife discussing normal things, I know damn well I’ll be thinking about that lesson. I’ll be blaming myself and punishing myself and coming to the conclusion that I cannot and never will be able to be much good at this teaching thing. I’ll be back at my desk for the obligatory two or so hours of marking and preparation. I’ll be in school at 7.30 next morning to go through it all again.

Perhaps this portrays the reality of an impossible job. Perhaps it merely confirms the reality that you never stop learning. Reflecting on what goes wrong makes us stronger. However, nineteen years down the line I’ve finally arrived at the point where I know that, no matter how hard I’ve tried to get over it, that feeling never leaves you. Twenty four hours a day. I’ve dreamt of bad lessons, of troublesome students, of difficult colleagues. I’ve woken up at three in the morning worrying about course work. It never goes away.

I generally love my job. In all those years, there have rarely been days on which I wasn’t excited about getting into school. Recently though that has been a lot harder. The increasing awareness that the big and bold project that is Curriculum for Excellence is nothing but a pipe dream, crushed under the weight of poor implementation and bad decision-making; the inevitable new strategy added on to the pile of those we barely had time to implement last session; all added to a creeping feeling that, despite everything, nothing much has changed in Secondary School. We attempt to develop a Broad General Education from S1 to S3 without any real commitment to changing our timetabling structures. So we resort to what we know. Exams. The tail wagging the dog, once again.

We’re told things must change though.

The First of September was a quiet Friday, it seemed. Like many teachers, I’d been back a couple of weeks and just getting used to a new timetable and new classes. I might never have noticed it had I not been sent a link on Twitter, but there it was. Another major report released quietly on a Friday afternoon, lost in the maelstrom of the school day. The Teachers Workforce Planning for Scotland’s Schools document has much to discuss, much to debate.

The report suggests that – and as an English teacher I raised an eyebrow at this – new teachers, unless they wanted to teach English, wouldn’t require Higher English on entry to Teacher Education but at the point of exit. I wonder how this will go down with those who see TeachFirst as a way to attract ‘high quality’ graduates? Shouldn’t we expect high levels of Literacy to be in place when a student leaves school?

There were interesting comments on a return of the much-maligned Chartered Teacher Programme. Recognition that promoted posts were scarce and teachers were leaving, or planning to leave the profession, due to lack of opportunity, is important. However, there are many whose progress throughout the Chartered Teacher Scheme was curtailed last time round.

But that’s not really my concern for the moment. If you’re like me, you’ll sit through meetings about this and smile. ‘Of course, we’ll read that document. Of course, we’ll reflect and discuss the main points.’ Of course, we won’t, probably. I’ll add it to the workload document I didn’t have time to read, and the follow up report. That one is underneath the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan.

Oh, there are the new Literacy Outcomes that came out in June; the Education Governance Report that came out in June; the Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education Delivery Plan which also came out this year.

Excuse me while I slam my coffee cup down on the desk again.

You’d never guess from the media coverage, but we teachers are utterly fantastic at what we do. We teach kids to be better than they ever thought they could be, work harder than they ever thought they would. And we do it every day. Enough with the documents though. I’m like that drawer in your kitchen, full of carrier bags. You know it’s so crammed full that you can hardly open it but you keep cramming another one in now and again.

I want to get back to loving this again. There must be a better way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Our Texts Carefully

I suppose it’s the nature of reading, being an adult and a reader and having a pile of books that never seems to diminish, but I never read enough children’s or young adult fiction. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of or happy about but there you go.  Finding books for the kids in my classes is a hugely important and rewarding part of my job so keeping up-to-date with what’s new should be something I keep on top of. And there shouldn’t be an excuse. Walking through your local High Street bookshop, you’ll see an explosion of colour as books for young people are marketed so beautifully now; some of them are even fabulous.

I had the great privilege of reading two such books recently, both of which were linked thematically and blew me away. The first one is a book I’m teaching for the first time: Patrick Ness’s ‘A Monster Calls’. The second, ‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ by John Boyne called out to me from a shelf in the school library. Both dealing with the difficulties of coping with loss and family illness, we follow the lives of our protagonists through mystical, magical worlds as they struggle to face up to family tragedy.  Both are beautifully written and heartbreakingly moving.

Like many, I first came across  John Boyne with the publication of  ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Despite the unsettling nature of the subject matter I found it extraordinary. The beautiful tale of two young boys and the friendship which see them through horrible times is both shocking and tragic.

‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ has a more mystical feel. Noah runs away from home and finds himself in a toyshop run by an elderly man. The man’s stories allow Noah to reassess his choices and face up to the real reason he leaves in the first place. Slowly, we begin to see through the fantasy and see a little boy struggling deal with a painful truth about his family. ‘The thing is, she made me a promise, you see. And I think she’s going to break it. And I don’t want to be there when that happens.’ It’s a powerful and moving novel, and a hugely important one. The denouement will leave you stunned with mouth agape.

There is also a similar element of tragedy in ‘A Monster Calls’. Like Noah Barleywater, Conor is struggling to face up to his own monsters; the truth about his inevitable future. He is visited by a monster at 12:07 at night, with tales intended to help him. Conor fights against the monster until, slowly, the truth begins to emerge. ‘Many things that are true fell like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers’ daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving’. Patrick Ness seems to have nailed that ability to create characters struggling to find their way in the world. His prose is mesmerising, characters wholly believable and I love his writing.

The power of great literature provides us with opportunities to approach difficult subjects in the classroom. Our compassion for both Noah and Conor results in powerful conversations with children; conversations which allow them to develop empathy and, perhaps, to begin to understand challenges in their own lives. We must never underestimate the importance of what we choose to teach as, beyond the story, we can engage, affect and influence our learners and open them up to worlds they may never visit.