Sunday 12 May 2013

The cold heart of primary teaching

TED lectures normally have their desired effect of leaving me feeling inspired, invigorated in thought and galvanised into action. But as well as these effects, one I have seen recently – an excellent presentation by Rita Pierson, a teacher with 40 years experience - left me also with a bubbling queasiness in my stomach. Rita Pierson hits the nail on the head when she speaks of the human connection between teacher and child – with the teacher as advocate, ally and champion – as being at the heart of what children need. As Pierson says, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. It is the key to good teaching and good learning. It is in those interactions that you find the glimmer of magic which allows teaching to become the most rewarding way to spend your working life.

And it is so depressingly low on our schools’ agendas that these relationships barely have time to take root, never mind come to fruition. If the relationship between teachers and their pupils is the heart of education, then it is a neglected heart beating anxiously, becoming colder with time, and it is beginning to affect the organs around it.

This isn't because of teachers’ lack of sensitivity, though it is fair to say that some teachers become so used to the demands of the modern classroom – the assessment, the AfL, the data-tracking, the reading levels, the next step marking, the APP – that the child fades away. It is not completely unheard of to hear teachers talk about the ‘teaching the 3Bs’, as an example phrase. These Level 3Bs are children, with lives and emotions, barriers to learning and hidden gifts, with histories and stories and aspirations... and names! But nonetheless, they are the 3Bs.

The daily lives of many teachers and their relations with pupils are far from the ideals they might have entertained when they became teachers. Nobody excitedly clutches their university graduation certificate thinking ‘Yes! Now I can help 5 year olds to identify split digraphs confidently’. The very appeal of teaching is the connection between teachers and pupils, but the contemporary classroom culture, which has been slowly fermenting for a few decades, has gradually weakened this bond, dehumanising the whole process of educating.

Being the teacher you want to be is not simply an individual task, to be solved by altering your own actions. There are so many obstacles which prevent the empathic bonds from developing – deep marking, for example, although carrying academic benefits for pupils as a type of formative assessment, drains away the teachers free time which might otherwise be spent building and strengthening these relationships. The whole apparatus of primary education could have been designed to prevent teachers from getting to know their pupils. I might know they can decode 79% of a list of ‘high-frequency words’ and might know enough to predict exactly how they might misspell a word, but I don’t know what they did at the weekend, or what they like to do, or how to pronounce their name properly. This is so wrong.

Partly, this is because of the maelstrom of expectations placed on our charges’ young shoulders, which guides every single action we undertake for them. We give the children time to read from the carefully tailored bookshelf in order to foster their love of reading. Great, but this then means the first chunk of the day is spent in silence. Some schools demand silence in corridors and when lining up. 

Every temporal nook and cranny in that timetable is packed full – guided reading, class assembly, current affairs talk, class council, silent reading. Every lesson is spent feeling the sands of time cascade, as content is pumped into their workbooks, in order to conform to illogical and unnecessary curricular expectations. A whole day could go by without ever interacting with the children, outside of lesson talk.

There are probably some who don’t see this as a problem. Maybe this pining for a better human relation with the children would be seen as some sentimentalist reminiscence from the educational backwaters, from the days of low ambition. Are these not just the gushy laments of an enemy of promise?

One week, there was a girl who came into my class every single day, wanting to share something with the class. In response, she received my “We need to do the register now.” or my “Now is our silent reading time, that’s what you need to be doing.” or my “Maybe later, if we get time.” or my “If we get everything done.”

We never get everything done.

Now in the end, all she wanted to do was share the fact that she had bought a new unusual pencil case at the weekend, and she wanted to show it off. She should be able to share these trivialities. All of the kids should. These ‘trivialities’ are their priorities.

One of my other kids came bounding in fifteen minutes early last week, before school had started, with a huge smile on his face. “Good morning Sir!” He jollied over towards me. In reply, I gave him a polite but clear “Out you go please, I’m busy.”

And then I felt like an absolute tosser. Our working culture is making tossers of all of us. Many of our kids have enough people who don’t have time for them at home, for whatever reason.

I want to be the person they run up to with a smile in the morning. I want to be the person they share their stories with. I want them to trust me enough to tell me what’s wrong. I want them to love being in my lessons. I want them to want to come to school. I want them to do well whilst enjoying school, not because I am forcefeeding them knowledge.  

This is what lots of teachers want and we shouldn’t accept anything less. As long as our working culture encourages us to see a room full of assessment data and target grades, rather than funny little critters with hopes and dreams, ripe and ready to share, we’re going to be doing a disservice to them.

We need to be hearing their poems and praising their drawings. We need to be hearing their qualms and calming their nerves. We need to be their reliable champions, not their pallid and data-obsessed jailors. 

Sunday 18 November 2012

Schools as Exam Factories

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have sagely announced that British schools have become 'exam factories' - conveyor belts endlessly churning out pupil-products ill-equipped for the world of work. The CBI should appreciate better than most organisations that have success in business involves cutting corner - minimum input, maximum output. Is it really surprising that after New Labour and the Conservatives have pounded the education system for 25 years with marketisation policy, is it really that surprising that schools end up behaving like businesses?

Businesses outsource their labour for greater profit - sure, this might not help Gwyn the Welsh production line operator, as he sees his job being produced by a robot or a Chinese worker, but it does cut costs and maximise the company's profit, which ultimately is what matters. Likewise for Gwyn's son at school - sure, being forcefed exam technique at the expense of more well-rounded learning is not overwhelmingly helpful, but it does mean he will pass more exams, which is what matters for schools and league tables.

And what is one teacher able to do? If you have a factory making losses, do you direct your ire at an individual cog in the machine, and suggest it has 'lost its way'? Hmm.

You know what, the CBI's report seems pretty sound-minded - league tables and a restrictive curriculum are bad things, and maybe children are coming out of school not as 'well-rounded' as they should be.

But whose fault is that?

It is because schools have been forced by politicians into a market model that they have been nudged into this situation anyway. It is because they are made accountable in order to become consumer-choices. It is because children's success in life is judged only in a quantitative rather than a qualitative manner. It is because schools that don't comply find themselves in the process of forced academisation and find themselves stripped of their autonomy.

Schools shouldn't be exam factories but the audacity of business to take the moral high-ground is quite sickening. It is because schools have been made into businesses that this has happened in the first place. It is because of the looming influence of market forces that children's exam's 'are' their learning, rather than being mere indicators of it.

Treat schools like schools and they'll behave like them. Treat them like businesses and they'll have no choice but to act like businesses.

Friday 26 October 2012

Why all teachers agree with David Laws.

Michael Gove and David Laws surprised the teaching profession today with the announcement of, for once, an accurate and sound-minded policy. Teachers refuse to work longer than the 9 - 3, and as we know, those six hours are dedicated to the systematic beheading of every child's hopes for the future. Children's natural buoyancy and resilience makes this an exhausting ordeal, and teachers' reserves of negativity are insufficiently full to finish their task: to drag down GCSE grades and ruin their pupils' lives, because teachers are lazy, vindictive and they hate children.

As such, teachers welcome David Laws' announcement that teachers are to blame for fostering 'depressingly low expectations'. Maybe now this has been recognised, teachers can be permitted to want their pupils to do ok for themselves, thus saving them the effort of whispering demoralising abuse into the ear of every child in their class each day, reminding them to never venture outside of their home towns (unless they want to attend a mediocre higher education institution, for these are permissible).

Wednesday 24 October 2012

The Words of the Teacher at 3:10pm

Right then! Ten minutes, what was it - ohyeah - ok!

Hand signal! Hand signal! Look at sir - TABLE POINTS! 


Right - you're not looking - ohhhhh kay. PENCILS ... ohhhhh dear. Pencils down, I shouldn't have to say that. Right, now we've been talking today abou-



Look at sir!! Table points!!!

Thank you - about liquids. We did our experiment and we thought about the particles. Tell your partner everything you know about particles. 

What do you know about particles. Party! Particles particles. What are particles. They're dots. What is particles?

OHHHKAYTHENLETMESEEE ... what do you think?

... Hmm, not happy, you had time for that. I will come back to you. Someone on this table then NOT someone... who has their hand up... ok.

Hmm! Not bad, sort of... How about - actually no, we'll come back to you now you've had a bit of extra time. What do you think then?

No            you can not. Time waits for no man, not least you. 

Very sad.

I want to choose someone else then, maybeeeeeeee - WHAT, is it so urgent you need to - of course it is. What then? 

Honest to God. You are nine you really ought to be able to control your bladder a bit more than this. YES, of course you can go, I don't want - oh forget it, just please go now. Thanks. Be quick! Right, oh. Erm - right so I was sayiiiiing. What you need to do is - PENCIL DOWN - oh ok a new question can you IF YOU DON'T LISTEN                           you won't know the question will you? Exactly, so what do you need to do? Yes.

Right - actually, you know what, I'm good at telling the time, I know what time it is. No help needed thanks.

What was I saying - ah! OK, last one then - show me you learned it - can you name any liquid - any at all - talk to you partner.

Can you name a liquid!!! LIQUID LIQUID!!!! Liquid. Birena and lemon. Coke. Juice. Oil. My wee. No my wee. Rain. What ... what was the question. IS IT HOMETIME YET? Show me.

OH KAY THEN. Right, I'm lookinggggggg for...

Ah, you look like you're listening hard - can you name me any liquid.

No. Are you seri - no, chimney is not a liquid. Right just line up.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Lesson observations are good, in theory.

Lesson observations are good, in theory. The problem is that leadership teams don't necessarily give much thought to theory.

If delivered sensitively and formatively, only the paranoid and the brazenly unprofessional teacher need fear observation. The issue is that all too often, schools do not operate in the 'community of practice' mindset whereby colleagues co-operate and support one another - schools have whispering walls and as the salary gap between classroom teachers and school leaders has expanded, so to has the professional and emotional distance. Rather than being seen as an opportunity to support good practice, 'learning walks' are often perceived as intrusive snooping. Sometimes the suspicions are correct.

There is no wonder that teachers and their unions are touching cloth over the abandonment of the three-hour annual cap on lesson observations - too many schools are run through a culture of fear which is wholly incompatible with the reflective practice that observations should promote. The perfect outcome from a lesson observation could be that a struggling teacher identifies and discusses the areas of weakness in their teaching. From this point, plans can pieced together and constructive targets can be set. It's a shame then that so many teachers work in schools where admission of imperfection is tantamount to putting the noose on yourself to save the executioner's time.

Here's my confession. I love a good observation. I even love a bad one. Maybe it is the luxury of being a trainee, but I feel quite able to highlight my weaknesses and I think my teaching has become stronger as a result. I've known what needs to improve and I've worked on it.

Observations are potentially one of the cheapest and most effective forms of CPD could offer, and all teachers would benefit, but so long as Wilshaw is telling headteachers that good leadership is all about eccentric fear-mongering bastardry, teachers will be understandably and justifiably hostile to observations.

The culture of schools needs to change before any genuine benefits can be experienced by teachers.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Teacher's heartfelt apology to the government

Dear Cameron, Clegg, Gove and ilk

I didn't want to write this letter to you but I've had one too many restless nights and I hope this little letter, sealed with good intentions, will serve both as atonement and catharsis.

Let me contextualise.

I've been in a muddle. I'm not saying life was ever enormously rosy, and I can't isolate one day when things started to change, but all I know is this: I've been riddled by this heavy sense of confusion for the last few months. Like an invisible leaden saddlebag , I felt as though I was carrying something around with me - on the Tube, to the library, to the school - some great unknown was dragging me down.

I agonised.

The children looked at me differently. Was it me, I thought. Was this ethereal shackle that groped at my leg beginning to show its effects on my once youthful face?

And it was then, looking into the sullen eyes of the questioning child that I realised exactly what it was, which demon I had been shouldering as I hobbled to the staffroom for my fifth coffee before the morning bell sounded.

Cameron, Clegg, Gove and ilk, it was guilt.

The newspapers said so forever and all the warning signals were there. I should have read those withering editorials and should have lapped up the sound-minded wisdom seeping out of Wilshaw's every pore.

Let me say it in bold capslock, so nobody can doubt the sincerity of my penance.


 It feels good to say it, thanks. Let my remorse gush on.

I'm sorry that my unwaveringly low aspirations for my pupils is putting them on a production line to prison.

I'm sorry that my lax discipline and the fact that I have my top button unbuttoned caused the London riots.

I'm sorry that by virtue of the fact I am employed by you, rather than some fusty old good school that children pay to get into, I am genetically a Marxist terrorist.

I'm sorry that I am a feckless workshy scrounger and, but for my magnetism towards the long holidays that constitute 'teaching', that I would rather find some other non-commital job for lazy feckless moaners, like nursing or social work.

This is really invigorating Cameron, Clegg, Gove and ilk.

Hope you don't mind if I rag out the last dregs of my remorseful pap for you to inspect.

I'm sorry that during that one particular bad day a couple of years ago, I took my eye off of the ball and because of my personal mistake I caused a global economic recession. On behalf of schools up and down the country, let me say that I am pleased - nay, proud! - to take the spending cuts on the chin. I know that it was me, little me getting a bit overzealous with my photocopying and a bit wanton when buying my red pens, who caused this mess and I am honored that you would offer me the chance to venerate myself of this guilt by scalping the aspirations and opportunities of every wide-eyed little child who has the misfortune to be sinking into the intellectual cesspit which is my classroom.

 You can doubt my intelligence. You can doubt my professionalism. You can doubt my commitment.

But please, please, don't doubt my sincerity when I apologise.

Don't doubt my sincerity when I apologise for personally knocking on the front door of every house on every council estate in the UK to remind every parent who opens up that their children are destined to fail. Don't doubt my sincerity when I apologise for those few bad days when I've expressed a wimpering gripe about being a bit stressed out - I was just being weak (not like you real men!). Don't doubt my sincerity when I apologise for leaving my station by the whiteboard to trundle about with a placard once or twice; it was a bad phase in my life but I have clearly - as you can see from this uplifting letter - seen the light.

I can't thank you enough for allowing me, as a teacher, to publicly shoulder the blame for creating the festering sodden blitzkreig which is Britain in 2012

Keep up the good work all of you.


Saturday 21 April 2012

When teaching as a 'calling' means 'put up and shut up'

To be an outstanding teacher almost inevitably requires you to spend heaps of your own time, unpaid, putting in the extra hours. Whether it is through meticulous marking, the planning and creation of inspiring lessons and resources, the barrage of constant detailed assessment or even the sleepless nights spent worrying about a child's welfare, being a teacher is anything but the 9-3. As the children and their parents wake up, the teachers are there - in school - laying out resources, organising assessment, beautifying the class. When the children go home, the teachers grab onto their coffee and settle down for another 3 hours of work. There can't be many jobs where unpaid work is expected to quite the same degree: if a teacher worked only the hours they were paid, most would be inadequate.

Yet when teachers complain - either verbally or through union activities - they are castigated with a venom reserved usually only for Tube drivers and rubbish collectors. What links the teachers, the tube drivers and rubbish collectors? They are taken for granted. You dump yourself on a train platform and expect a train to transport you. You dump your rubbish outside the front door and expect it to disappear. And you dump your kids at the school gate and expect them to be occupied for 6 hours.

This phantasmagorical six-week break - ignoring for now that the start is often spent tying up loose ends of one year, and the end is used preparing the next year - serves to shut down any argument a teacher might make.

 I am being asked to work longer hours for, effectively, less pay.
But you get loads of holidays.  

I am being forced to stay in school beyond my working hours.
Yeah, but it's only a few weeks until the next holiday.

In dribs and drabs, teachers' working conditions are being eroded while the pressures, workload and expectations are raised. Teachers already work ridiculously long hours - certainly most that I know. Anyone who lives with a teacher will know that it doesn't 'stop' when you leave the building - your lessons, your children and your classroom come back with you. Why is it like this? Why are teachers working for free so much, and why then, despite this, are they continually being asked to do more and more, without so much as a passive querying peep of dissent?

Because it's a 'calling'. Because it's 'more than just a job'. Because it's about 'making a difference'. Because it's about 'changing lives'. Because it's more a 'vocation' than a job. Because it's more of a 'lifestyle' than a profession. Tied into the cultural idea of the teacher is the idea of selflessness, almost sacrifice. So much of what we do can be justified by the phrase 'I'm doing it for the kids'.

Why are you getting up at half past five to get into work early?
I'm doing it for the kids.  

Why are you sat in on a Saturday night cutting out paper caterpillars with connectives on them, while others in your age bracket are enjoying a weekend of socialising on their juicy pay-packets?
I'm doing it for the kids.

Where is this argument going then? Am I going to argue that teachers shouldn't care about their work once they leave the school building? If I am, I am surely and thoroughly an uncaring selfish braggart who shouldn't work with children, right? Do you see the bind here? Ultimately, teachers are restricted to two choices, they can either continue to carry on taking on more and more of a backbreaking workload (all for the kids, obviously), or they can protest it (not in the benefit of the kids).

There is research behind this. Stephen Brookfield writes that  
Teachers who take the idea of vocation as the organizing concept for their professional lives may start to think of any day on which they don't come home exhausted as a day wasted...Thus what seems on the surface to be a politically neutral idea on which all could agree - that teaching is a vocation calling for dedication and hard work - may be interpreted by teachers as meaning that they should squeeze the work of two or three jobs into the space where one can sit comfortably.

We are in the uniquely restricted position of being expected to do whatever is asked of us, uncritically, or else not only is your work ethic called into question, but you are perceived to be weak (because it's an easy job anyway, right) and - most importantly - you are seen to lack devotion, love and care for the children you teach.

So maybe we should start questioning what it means when the pressure is heaped on, for the good of the kids.

Of course we want the best for the kids - for the kids in our class, we want it more than anyone else. It would just be better if providing a great education didn't mean grinding down the mental health and working rights of teachers.

How is it in the children's interest to have a pallid drained zombie for a teacher day in day out? How is it in the children's interest to have their teachers come into work resenting the place, as staff morale drops? It isn't.

It is in the interest of the cost-cutting government who want to pay the smallest number of staff possible to do the greatest amount of work. Headteachers might be the ones asking you to do it, but they don't have so much choice either. It starts at the top. Brookfield speaks of a 'self-destructive workaholism' which some teachers, proudly devoted to their careers, may wear like a badge of honour. I'm still very happy in my school, although there are constantly increasing but sensible pressures, but I know of many in other schools who are being driven to despair. But still, when they are on their knees, they will defend their school as 'doing it for the kids'. New recruits into the profession have been heard to bicker with braggadocios about how little sleep they have had, as though competing to see who can survive whilst being pushed the furthest. It's absurd.

We need to question these assumptions if we want to do what most of us became teachers to do - to love teaching, to love working with children and to help children to achieve their potential. Otherwise, it will only get worse.

Saturday 25 February 2012

All teachers should have access to academic journals

If I was feeling more artsy I would title this post 'The Frosted Mirror', because it is about teachers being unable to reflect properly. Pedagogical theorists place high esteem on those teachers who can engage with scholarly literature and incorporate research findings into their classroom practice. I agree with them and I think that the ability to draw upon high-quality research would be invaluable when striving to become a good teacher.

The government continually harp on about the low standards of entry into teaching and Gove has sought to professionalise teaching; if it is the teachers' subject knowledge that they wish to improve, then they should provide access to the educationalist journals to all teachers.

The venerable cast of educational theorists will be familiar to any trainee teacher - Bloom and his questions, Maslow and his hierachy, Vygotsky and his zones - but there is no expectation for a continuous engagement with classical and contemporary theory and research throughout one's teaching career. This absence is seen most clearly with the example of the notoriously restricted access to academic knowledge in lay society. Whether the desire is there or not (and it may well be laying dormant from understimulation), the point stands that teachers are unable to access the theory which undergirds good practice.

Those working towards their QTS are expected to synthesise theory and practice in order to demonstrate their competency, and though this is easily manipulated and made artificial by the 'snapshot' observations, the need to use - for example - Bloom's Taxonomy to differentiate questions within a lesson does breed good habits and good practice.

Policymakers who perceive, rightly or wrongly and for whatever reason, an underskilled teaching profession are faced with the decision of whether to focus their attention on attracting highly qualified new recruits to the profession, or embarking on retraining of current teachers. Compromise would always be the best option, but opening up access to academic journals to all teachers is not only a gesture of trust in the commitment and abilities of the profession but it would be an instant and invaluable resource.

For those teachers with the drive, ambition and/or know-how to research independently, they can get started immediately. For those who would benefit from extra help, it should be provided.

Despite the pessimistic zeitgeists which seem constantly to cast teachers in a bad light, across the educational profession you find levels of commitment which go way beyond most other professions. Dedication to pupils and their learning is the motivating force behind nocturnal planning, the spending of weekends trimming caterpillars out of A4 and requesting that everyone you know saves their cereal boxes for you. Good teachers care enough about their work to put in the extra effort. The precedent is there.

Theory and research are too valuable to be available only by those studying at university. If academic knowledge was connected to the classroom, it would facilitate the innovations, drive and deeper commitment that - in a rare triumvirate of agreement - teachers, politicians and inspectors all wish to see.

Friday 8 April 2011

'The Gayest Kid Ever' - Gender, Sexualities and School

When in primary schools, I've quite often heard it said that a child is really gay. More recently, it was said that one boy is the Gayest Kid in the World. When a teacher says something like this, I usually doubt it carries any malicious intent and it is rarely said in an overtly condemnatory manner, but it remains a fixed character judgement and one which is harmful.

It is a textbook example of the concepts of the heterosexual matrix and normative heterosexuality in action.

The heterosexual matrix is the lens through which individuals in society make sense of the world through presupposing a coherent identity - eg male (sex), masculine (gender) and attracted to women (sexuality). By thinking through the heterosexual matrix, any deviation from the norm is one category affects how people conceive of the others. For example, an individual with an indeterminate biological sex becomes suspected of having a deviant gender, or an abnormal sexuality - see the sexual fetishisation of Thai 'ladyboys'.

Normative heterosexuality works closely with the heterosexual matrix, and provides a hegemonic validation for certain sexual and gender identities - making some identities normal and some abnormal. The processes of normative heterosexuality may be quite difficult to identify; this is exactly why they are so potent. In the establishment of a sense that certain genders are abnormal or unnatural or immoral or ungodly, you see the deployment of different discursive paradigms - in turn psychiatric, biological/eugenicist, ethical or delusional - which seek to present heterosexuality as the norm.

Back to gay kids. The first hurdle is the entrenched presumption, ingrained in Western culture since Rousseau, of childhood innocence. The willful (willed?) ignorance of child sexuality is something which has been problematised by Foucault in theory, and by the research of Emma Renold, among others, in educational research. The lengths to which schools and adults go to prevent displays of child sexuality stand in hypocritical contradiction to the denial of its existence - why strain to prevent the manifestations something which doesn't exist?

Children have sexualities and sexual cultures - most of you need only think back to when you were 9,10,11 to know this - but this isn't the topic here.

When the teachers say that a certain child is - as I have recently heard from a teacher - 'the gayest kid ever', they are quite clearly not talking of sexualities whatsoever. They were not implying anything about the sexual practices of the particular 7 year old boy - instead, the teacher makes the potent conflation of sex/gender/sexuality.

In my time in schools, I have not once heard a teacher refer to any of her young female pupils as a big lesbian, certainly not the biggest lesbian ever. In only a handful of schools can I recall girls policing other girls so explicitly, using terminology of female homosexuality. It appears to be a phenomenon curiously weighted against male children that they must prove their straight sexuality, rather than have it presumed or rendered invisible, as with girls. The Gayest Kid Ever's gendered identity is only problematic because of his biological sex, and because of the 'asymmetry' between the two. Male (sex) children should act like boys (gender); sexuality is called into question for those who don't.

In terms of gender identity, the school and the playground are dangerous places for a boy in the process of constructing his sense of self, his subjectivity, in the situated context of the different masculine identities available to him. Most boys will play the game of masculinity. They will go out into the playground or sports field every lunchtime without fail for an hour of football: they might not be in the mood for it, it might have been played unfairly for years, they might want to do something else, they might (shock horror) dislike football, but most will still play. Not the Gayest Kid in the World though. Having seen the procession of injured peers pass by him, and witnessing the bullying and fights, he decides he'd rather have something else as a hobby. But if football is a site for the construction of masculinity, to be playing outside the touchlines positions the Gayest Kid in the World alongside the other excluded people - the girls, the younger kids, the women, the disabled and the bullied.

When a teacher says that a child is the Gayest Kid in the World, what I think they are trying to do is somehow 'apologize' for the gender of the child - the hushed-tones way in which the 'information' about these children is given to me, as an outsider, almost seems like I am being given a disclaimer. There isn't usually any overt malice, but the child is nonetheless barricaded into this paradoxical master status. The atypical gender performance of a 7 year old boy - be it through something as stereotypical as being 'overdramatic' or things like disliking football or being tactile - calls into question their sexuality (which is thought not to exist).

Nobody benefits from this. From being told about his 'gayness' I know nothing more about the child, other than that the teachers perceive him to be different enough from the rest of the boys that he warrants his own label. As male children (sex) who perform their gender differently by not behaving like the other boys (gender) are gradually pushed to the side and silenced, all that remains to be seen is a narrow vision of boys doing their gender 'properly'. These boys get into fights, argue, don't voice their frustrations except in outburst and the same teacher who would label the Gayest Kid in the World would explain away these conflicts with "Boys will be boys".

So long as teachers are complicit in constructing the one-sided battle between Real Boys and the Gay Kids, boys will be boys, but these boys might not want to be boys in this way. So long as schools perpetuate the heterosexual matrix, gender violence will be inflicted on their children.

Wednesday 28 July 2010


More than anything else, with this post I want to highlight a strange discrepancy in political rhetoric about people's eligibility to teach. The idea of a 'Troops to Teachers' programme, following the lead of the T3 programme in America has been floated around by the Conservatives for a few years now, and after a report by the Centre for Policy Studies seems to be pushing the idea towards a reality.

I am not against soldiers. What I find unsettling is the idea that the sole fact that they are soldiers, that they have gone through military service, makes them particularly eligible to teach, and particularly so in inner city schools. I'm sure that some ex-servicemen would make great teachers; I'm sure that some would be awful. But likewise for ex-shopworkers, ex-mechanics, ex-doctors, ex-hairdressers, ex-anythings. The Conservatives' unerring love affair with discipline, usually to the detriment of creativity, seems to posit soldiers' militaristic obediance and hierarchical structure as some form of 'ideal type' classroom.

I'm not sure about your experiences in school, but with me, the lessons in which I learnt the most, and in which the pupils most engaged with and liked their teachers, were those lessons which we led by teachers who interacted with us, who 'had a laugh' and who respected our views. Conversely, the worst lessons were those in the chalk and talk mould, which involved the lone pedagogue reading from a textbook to his charges, who had been threatened into stillness and silence. Now obviously, I'm not suggesting that all 'troops to teachers' will necessary fit into the latter teaching style, but from how I am interpreting it, this is what the Conservatives are heralding as the major innovation of such a programme.

One final point, about suitability. If a candidate has a criminal record, although the crimes may not relate to one's suitability to teach, they nonetheless must be declared and the employers make a decision upon that knowledge. You can imagine the uproar if the parents, or - God forbid - the redtop press, discovered that somebody teaching their children had committed a murder. Yet the government, and I would expect they would have the backing of the Daily Mail, Express, Telegraph etc, positively encourage soldiers into their schools; the vocation of a soldier is to 'defend the realm' and this often means killing foreigners. If you are killing in the name of the Queen you are a role model for disaffected youth, if you are killing anybody else you are unsuitable to be in contact with children.

I just wonder whether ex-soldiers are the best solution for 'high-poverty, typically violent inner-city schools'. Maybe I'm overly Gandhi-fying this, but I would rather children and young people were discouraged from guns and violence, rather than having their interest gently assuaged towards a 'legitimate' use of that violence. Should the role model for inner city kids be a soldier? Does this not deepen the stratifications through which pupils in affluent areas go into safe, prestigious, well-paid work and through which pupils in deprived areas go into manual, underpaid, dangerous work.

As I said, some soldiers will be great teachers and some would be awful, just like any profession-switchers. My own view is that military service certainly should not make somebody more suitable as a candidate to teach in modern schools.