When I was at school and struggling with spelling, I could not spell complicated words such as ‘Armaggeddon’. This inability fed my young anxiety and I tried to cover it up so that others would not ridicule me. My RE teacher looked at my attempt and saw the concern upon my face.
“Don’t worry, Matthew, it’s not the end of the world.”
Little did she know that it was not only the end of it but the beginning of The End.
My love of all things apocalyptical was the springboard for my evolving religiosity and political beliefs. The end was a clean sheet, a time to wipe away and start again, a second chance. It was a world that had shed its cares and dreads. It was the real deal.
There is a book that I return to every five years or so and I have been doing this since I was in my late teens. The book is by Stephen King and is called The Stand and each time I set out on its adventure I am in a dual world of King’s post Captain Trips survivors and in the world of the novel’s soundtrack, the stuff I was listening to as I first read it: Murray Head, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Billy Joel. Okay, that took some balls to admit to Billy who appears to have been shorn of popular friendships since Uptown Girl. Nevertheless, the soundtrack is still playing as I remember the novel which I still hold as one of my favourite reads of all time.
I can see you.
I can see the pompous looks upon your faces as you read this. There may even be members of the dreaded English teaching fraternity amongst you and I know your type. Nothing is worth a jot if it is popular. Populism is the commercial root of all evil. It is an artistic sell-out, a supplication of one’s soul to the god of mammon and the masses.
I recently worked in a department full of such teachers whose sole purpose in life was the building of their own ivory towers and the belittling of all those who dared to disagree with their general elitist views of the world of academia. These were teachers in a secondary school that was careering out of orbit and towards special measures. Their world was one preserved in aspic and worshipped as the one and only truth. At a mere glance, they could gauge a person’s intellect or lack of it. And there was never a day when they would not all gaze collectively back to a golden age of learning within their department, although nobody knew the specific dates when this happened. In their world, King may never have existed. I felt like a heretic and finally sent myself into exile.
So, oh pompous ones, I like to read Stephen King. And I return to reading some of his books on a regular basis. I don’t read Jane Austen and I don’t think that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of all writers, thinkers and philosophers. I like Shakespeare but I couldn’t eat a whole one.
Just what is it about English teachers that makes my hackles rise?
Let’s say it is the worship of the written word. Literature is a subject for those of us who incline towards the cerebral. We like ideas and are eclectic in the way we harvest them. The world revolves around us. Indeed, the world revolves around those writers whom we choose to worship. We are rune readers, soothsayers, and keepers of knowledge. We have a way with codes and can break into a poem at will. We appear with books and disappear into them whenever we can. Occasionally we pen poetry or profound prose knowing that never will it be fit enough to publish. More than anything else, we establish the bar and measure our companions and colleagues against it. Words weigh us down so we struggle with exact meanings and interpretations. Conversations and meetings can last for eternities. Lastly, we tackle the most arduous of texts simply for the masochistic pride we gain from their completion.
Take Henry James for example:
The principal I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive – the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first ‘note’ of Europe.
This leaves me cold. I am supposed to fall to my knees and revere such writing, but I am cold with indifference because I am a heathen, unclean and undereducated. It’s a test that is not meant to be read. It’s an A Level text for personal study that is intended to be used as a pathway to the better universities. Literature sometimes does not level; it does not attempt to speak to all but just a few who are in the know. And this is what I hated about the last English department that I was to manage. The words, ‘mad’ and ‘Fascist’ were frequently used by many outside of the faculty to describe the individuals that I worked with. I was employed to break their stranglehold on the school and to bring them into the twenty-first century.
I thought it would be easy. I thought wrong.
My default position has always been about seeing the good in other people. I blame Atticus Finch for that. Like many of my literary, heroes there was a certain amount of misguidance involved in his teachings. Atticus was the quintessential liberal leader. He was good in the face of ignorant hatred and would never cast the first stone. Enemies were just misunderstood and evil was only a temporary state of mind. EMPATHY was writ large on all his teachings and I listened. I modelled myself on old Atticus and believed that one day I too would be sitting on a rocker on the porch of my timber house dispensing wisdom to all who cared to hear. All mankind’s troubles could be overcome with a little bit of Maycomb County Magic. Not so.
I have always attempted to look for the good in people and have always tried to help those who most need it. It is one of my greatest personal flaws. Altruism is a poison that affects those who choose to dispense it. An interesting development in the Mockingbird saga has come about as a result of greedy publishers printing Harper Lee’s original unedited manuscript. In that, Atticus is not written to be as saintly as he was later to become. Indeed, ‘racist’ and ‘intolerant’ are words that some reviewers have used to describe him. Perhaps that was the truth, perhaps that is the truth; perhaps nobody is that wise and compassionate. So, was it unwise to have believed in his teachings and to have tried to take those wise words to class after class of students hoping that their very nature would be altered by the alchemy of such a sacred tome? I have no empirical evidence for a belief that I hold dearly, but I do believe that the novel has helped to soften some of the less crystallized opinions of some young people who have encountered it. For others, it was probably just a stranger passing in the dark.
Teachers are just grown up kids, PE teachers aside, and they suffer from the same foibles. Many have only known school as the mainstay of their lives. Some, who come back to it from elsewhere in later life’ fall into a Neverland of their old school times. Teachers become slaves to the system and their lives become ruled by the clock, the terms and the forever changing faces of curriculum requirements. They become experts and sages in their own right (classrooms) and get the chance to show these qualities with examination results, coursework or in moderation. The latter is where my departmental adversaries excelled.
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is either resilience or madness. I was back in the pot, stewing with a group of individuals who thought they were originals; few of us are. I had met this grey menace many times before and had mostly shunned the chance to spend significant time with it. My new bunch were spikier than many I had come across before. Their collective ethos was that of cynicism, believing it to be a much-underrated quality. On their own, they were somewhat eccentrically amusing in the fashion of dogs barking at their own reflections, but together, meeting in the safety of numbers and their bunker of an English staffroom, they were as funny as contagion. I didn’t quite know it then, but my own grip on reality was beginning to falter.
I have witnessed communal madness on many occasions. It generally manifests itself in violence that can only end once the shared energy has burnt itself out. This type of legalised insanity was useful in wartime when sacking an enemy city. Let loose the dogs of war and all that. Under such obligations no soldier was obliged to be anything other than a psychopath. I have seen it in the police, during riots, with both sides devolving into savagery. I watched it on TV news when two undercover soldiers stumbled into the middle of an IRA funeral with the result being as profoundly disturbing as any other thing that I have witnessed. But there is a group madness that has been created to form our beliefs and central core of values. ‘Education, education, education’, whilst sounding good, rings hollow. It’s about society’s need for the younger generation to be afforded those life choices that only the previously privileged ever received. It became the battle-cry of the newly empowered to combat the criminally negligible in the classrooms; those assumptions, assertions and institutions that were blocking the way of the great unwashed in their attempts to reach classless nirvana. After a decade of well-intentioned and innovative research, the accountants replaced the academics and accountability became the word of God. The Crusade had travelled the length and breadth of the sceptre’d isle and faced off the false believers in a fury of fulsome righteousness. Some of us saw it as a chance to make anew a system for mass enlightenment whilst others rode darker steeds and chopped away at anything that was not measurable. Then there became established the realm of the educational barons and the rest is history: The Federation, The Conglomerate, The Alliance, The Gamma Quadrant.
In the midst of all of that chaos, I had found a home amongst a small group of unlikely educators who were able to turn around the fortunes of a struggling school in the north of England. We were a stone in the run of a river but the river couldn’t move us. No matter how high the flood, we remained steadfast under the leadership of a brilliant individual who would have been diagnosed with any number of syndromes, if they could have caught him and tie him down to a bed for experimentation. Some forces, though, cannot be resisted. The end was coming and the constituent parts started to pull away from each other. As with all endings, a number of individuals sensed the wind and changed their personal tack. The rest of us were crestfallen, still believing in a pre-lapsarian idyl, so did not notice the changing of the guard.
I had obviously become as mad as the collective we were. I didn’t arrive so much as wash up on the shores of my next school; the school that initially offered sanctuary but turned into a nightmare. My cold sweats have stopped occurring now so I can think about it rather more rationally. At first it was pleasantly quaint, a throwback to a time before the changes. It had older teachers where soft-faced babes ought to have been. The classrooms smelled of the 1970s as did the staff. It was bumbling and pleasant in the manner of a nursing home. This, I thought, was where old teachers came to spend their time before they moved off into retirement. I didn’t notice the groans emanating from the galleys. It was lost in the vast expanse of time, but time would find it.
From Pink Floyd’s The Wall
Time did find it and it came with a venomous Ofsted report.
My original judgement of the school being in need of improvement was rubbished by the savage findings of the battleship of a lead inspector. Teachers couldn’t teach, nobody was making any progress, the toilets were unsafe and the kids walked on the wrong side of the path. Some of what they wrote had some basis in fact whereas the rest required certain flights of diabolical fancy to design. The bottom line was that anyone in any position of responsibility would have to grovel for forgiveness. The truth was that many of us were dead men and women walking, something that became all too apparent with the arrival of the school’s saviour, a multi-academy trust under the governance of a jack-booted executive head and her hastily assembled invasion team. What made matters worse was seeing the quislings begin to rise to the dual tasks of informers and collaborators. Occupation of the school was completed within weeks yet the sleepy natives still hoped for a happy ending. Only in Star Wars does such an ending occur and that with fluffy Ewoks.
I had had a period of extended sickness but was determined to return unbroken. I had weaned myself off the hard stuff and was feeling moderately okay. The other thing that I was thinking was how I had let everybody down and how I would put everything right. Jesus and his complex had returned. Oh, and let’s not forget one particular Year 10 class whom I had grown to dread. A few students in this wonderful group had issues that went beyond anything that I could properly cope with such as: trying to sleep during lessons; drawing anything on exercise books; refusing to read anything (especially out loud); sighing when I spoke; constantly asking to change groups; never seeing the point in anything that was done during lessons. These guerrilla tactics have been employed by many groups of students as a way to undermine the one at the front of the class, but I had rarely encountered them in such concentrated numbers. When I have, I have been able to make a stand and tough it out. In time, most students appreciated my teaching. But this group, this collection of disgruntled individuals, had better tricks; social media and Rate My Teacher. I was being bullied and I felt it.
Today’s kids have it on a plate. Schools have turned themselves into open democracies where the voice of the student is valued more than that of the teacher. We are there to serve. We are in the job (no longer a profession) to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of each new group and child that passes into our care. The leading powers have employed the perfect weapon for monitoring and evaluation and have called it Student Voice. In short, what students said was paramount. After all, don’t they know what makes a good teacher and a stimulating lesson? And if you fail to get the popular vote, you are failing…FULLSTOP.
Am I wrong? There will be some of you out there who certainly believe so. Am I so very, very wrong to question the value placed on student evaluation of their teachers? As Frau Academy told an SLT meeting, when students like you and say so on student voice, good teachers will feel valued and positive about their contributions and performance in the classroom. Poor teachers wouldn’t. But hey, who cares about those who waste the valuable time of leaders and learners?
When do we get our say? When can ordinary teachers be allowed to fight back against the growing tide of criticism? Resilience is the current buzz word that conjures itself into being just by its very whispering. Indeed that is what education has become, incantations, half-understood connotations, and the chanting of the newly found words. Of all the ideas that could have been gleaned from the works of Guy Claxton and co, it is this one that has stuck in the gullet our unelected leaders who prize the quality of taking the knocks, putting up with ill-fate and not giving up even when your most needed marlin is being torn to shreds by a bunch of shitty sharks. I am thinking my way back to the trenches again and wonder how to tell the downtrodden Jonnies that they need not despair at the nightly bombing, sniper attacks, fleas, rats or mustard gas, no, all they need is a stiff upper lip; resolve, resolution and resilience. Some of them might swallow it. Some may listen but then forget. Some, however, may want to shove that old horse manure back where it came from. What’s wrong with revolutions? Resilience means acceptance of one’s predicament, a belief that that is the way of things and that resistance is not only futile but is somehow cowardly.
What would have happened if some of those Jonnies decided not to follow orders? Okay, they would get shot as cowards but if enough of them rebelled who would man the trenches?