Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part1.
Only people living under rocks, or politicians in their infinite ignorance, are under no illusion that Education in many parts of the world is in melt-down crisis – the UK, the USA and Australia, to mention a few relevant systems that are entirely unfit for purpose and sadly in no danger of getting better any time soon. Who is suffering here: students and teachers. Whose voices are dismissed and not heard: students and teachers. After all, who in their right mind would ask those who know the most about anything what they think!!
This week in the UK stories are out again about the crisis in teacher recruitment – that for the third year in a row targets for recruitment have been missed. No teacher in the country is surprised by this – not one teacher in Oz or the US will be either. Too many experienced teachers are leaving before retiring and not enough young enthusiastic tyros are coming in the other end. The reasons for this, for both ends of the shortage problem are no surprise, have been clearly articulated for several years now, yet none of those in power are listening. They seem to think that slick advertising campaigns, bursaries for study and the much vaunted Teach First program will make a dent in the problem.
The powers that be seem to willfully ignore the issues and while they do, and continue to blame teachers for the ills of the world then nothing will improve.
Which makes me believe that perhaps they are quite happy with the parlous state of state education in their various parts of the world. After all, we aren’t really talking about private education here … No, we are talking about state funded, government education for the masses. The masses who voted for Brexit and Trump and brought Pauline Hanson back and even returned an Australian Liberal government that has continued to screw the worker and the less powerful since re-election. Think about that for a moment… If you think that right wing, conservative politicians care about the masses you are a fool. You need only look to the appointment of Betsy De Vos in the US to know that things are going to dramatically worsen in the States for students and teachers alike. She’s already said she believes teachers are paid too much…
If they cared, they would do something about funding state education so that it worked (yes, and the health care system too). So that repairs to buildings occurred, so that school supplies could be purchased for all, so teachers could attend Professional Development – especially in this massive time of change (yet a-fucking-gain) and so teachers were paid what they are worth. Yes, state education is a massively expensive enterprise and increasingly – as with health – governments are refusing to spend what is needed to make it work.
Teachers – maligned, over-worked, vilified – are what keeps the whole embarrassing mess from toppling over the edge of the abyss.
Teachers who care. Teachers who consistently go the extra mile. Who work all hours, who spend their own money to make things better, who ignore their own families and lives and even their health. If it wasn’t for caring teachers who go beyond their job descriptions again and again the whole creaking straining edifice would have crashed to the ground years ago.
Why is recruitment such an issue? The government here in the UK knows – God knows the teachers’ unions do enough surveys about work conditions and teacher ‘satisfaction’ for want of a much better word. The powers that be know, they just don’t want to face up to it. But let’s spell it out one more time in a simple, easy to read list:
1.Constant criticism from all – politicians, parents, celebs – essentially anyone who went to school and therefore thinks they are an expert on Education. This has been going on for years and continues – it is relentless and then ‘they’ wonder why people leave and why no-one in their right mind wants to step inside a cess-pit of blame and criticism. Really, would you choose a job where you are blamed for everything – where everything you do is wrong, but not the other people in the system?
2.Constant, relentless change to everything – curriculum, exams, assessment, Ofsted criteria – nothing has a chance to bed-in, let alone last long enough to be reviewed and assessed as to it’s worth. Change is not a new thing – I remember sitting in a meeting in around 1998 about the latest changes about to be introduced in the NT and thinking that there’s no point in getting as upset by this as my colleagues were, as by the time the ink was dry on this approved change, something else would be in vogue. I was right – it was an epiphany and it helps me cope here – to an extent. But what is killing teachers in England is the constancy of change – in the 9 years since I’ve been in London we’ve had 4 changes to the curriculum in English – no nothing has bedded in and the kiddies get caught out by it and they suffer more than we do. I won’t even mention the plethora of changes Ofsted has cascaded through to us…
2b. Test, test, test and then test some more. When did education become a series of tests and exams at every stage? What do tests do – tell us things we already know in different ways but what they do more significantly is raise stress levels in students and tell them they are failures almost from the moment they set foot inside a class-room. Oh, and tests/exams/SATs/NAPLAN – whatever you call them – tell teachers and schools that they are failures too. This bit of madness needs to stop too. 100% external exams means teaching to the exam. You ask any GCSE English or Maths teacher in England at the moment and they’ll tell you that’s all they are doing. Seriously, is this the sort of education we want? A legacy of yet another egotistical politician, our dear Michael Gove – dear in this sense meaning expensive and costly NOT beloved.
3.Levels of responsibility – somewhere down the line it went terribly wrong. Teachers are responsible for it all – for students’ progress, for having the frequently mentioned fucking pen, for tissues, for them having breakfast and a good night’s sleep. Oh and we’re responsible for the exam boards whims. Oh, yes we are, as an Ofsted inspector pointed out to me 18 months ago when the grade boundaries were suddenly shifted and we missed our projections. According to him I should have predicted that and taken it into account. Yes, I had to so bite my tongue. That’s the nonsense level of responsibility we work within. Every other bastard in the system has an excuse, so classroom teachers carry the ever increasing can of shit. Accountability is all well and good and fair, but being responsible for everything that moves and shakes and sneezes and shits in your working world is plainly nonsense.
4.Life-work balance – we’re back in the dark ages of vocation, where people became teachers because they were ‘called’ to it and it would be their life and therefore nothing else mattered. When I first began teaching it was a lovely normal sort of job, where I had time to plan good lessons, kept my marking up to date and had a lively and interesting social life. I worked in the evenings or half a day at the weekend to make it all happen but it didn’t stop the rest of my life. When I had small kids I was Head of English and seemed to manage it all – family, friends, extra study, a husband. But now there aren’t enough hours in the day. The expectations are extreme. A number of my team struggle to keep all their balls in the air and it’s not because they aren’t good teachers who aren’t working hard enough. It’s because the system wants too much from them.
5.Behaviour and student needs – this is linked to the responsibility thing. An increasing amount of students are less and less inclined to own their own behaviour. They are not, for want of a better word, socialized – they do not know how to behave and have to be contained and controlled all the time. What do you think happens to learning then? And there is an increase in the needs of students – of students being identified as having ‘special needs’. There is an argument that this is progress, that students are no longer labeled at thick or stupid because they don’t understand or can’t learn in a particular way. Yes, that’s very nice but what about the poor teacher who already has 30 in her class and no support and has to plan for that child too? How do you think that happens? How do they find the time to plan for all the needs in the classroom??
6.Pay – while many teachers down-play this angle, I think it is significant. Teachers carry the future in their hands – we shape the future, for better or worse. So, if the future matters and if you want smart, driven, caring people entering the profession then pay them what they are worth. Education is at the core of a productive, intelligent, creative caring society. Teachers are the centre of that core – the magma of it all, so pay us what we are worth. Increase the status of teaching and people will stay and the right ones will chose it as a career. Remember Walter White from Breaking Bad would never have ended up wreaking all that murder and mayhem had he been paid a decent salary and was able to access affordable health care…
7.Trust – the system does not trust teachers – read this to be clear about that https://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/a-broken-system-progress-gcses-and-sats/ … Hence the constancy of criticism, the constant changes to stop us cheating or ‘gaming’ the system, the odiousness of observations and Ofsted, the prescriptive nature of the curriculum and assessment regimen. I am not trusted to select texts or topics suitable for my classes. I am not trusted to assess them fairly. I have to be observed frequently, my marking checked, paper work submitted to those further up the food chain. I have to have meetings to explain and justify what I am doing. And now, as mentioned in 2b I am preparing students for 100% external assessment by exams. Yes, because I am not trusted to teach and assess fairly and objectively. Never mind that the system created the cheating, no, blame the teachers (and the senior management who endorsed and encouraged this) who have to meet ridiculous targets and so cheat. What other profession suffers under such scrutiny, such a lack of trust in their professionalism??
This list is not a secret. It is not something I know and no-one else does. Teachers are unhappy people, their hands are tied by systems and people who know nothing about education, about children and their world. Our education system is run by people who don’t have the first idea of what it is like in a classroom. Most of them wouldn’t last 5 minutes in a secondary school – they would find your average teenager frightening and not know how to speak to them, let alone control them for 45-60 minutes and actually teach them something.
Where education is thriving in the world several simple things happen: 1.Teachers are respected; they are valued and important members of society and usually paid accordingly.
2.They are not blamed for the ills of society. The education system is centred on knowledge not testing, on the child learning at its own pace, on sound educational pedagogy – remember that, Piaget, etc??
3.And, importantly, the education system is about the relevant society, what it needs, what its aspirations and desired future is.
This is Singapore and Finland, the places we look to for inspiration. They are not cherry picking bits and pieces from other systems and mashing them together. Their education systems are thought out, considered, be-spoke for their needs. Changes do occur, but not with the whirlwind destruction and rapidity of ours.
Why don’t we stop this constancy of change and listen to teachers, the ones in the middle of the mess, the ones who have had enough, who know what should be happening? Why don’t we ask the students what they want, what they need?
*Next week: the student perspective. (Image from Private Collection)