Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pimp chic & classroom porn stars

Where should we stand on pimp chic, specifically kids dressed up as porn stars? (See today's Independent) I remember the horror I felt when a lovely girl in Year 8 turned up in mufti for a school trip with a t-shirt stretched across her chest baring the legend 'My place now'. She was then 12 years old and this was in the last century, before we all got enured to prurient FCUK t-shirt slogans. I was really, really upset by it at the time - did she realise that the t-shirt was advertising that she wanted to have sex? My colleagues were amused at how upset I was.

I have got considerably more sanguine as I have got older, so I no longer get quite as apoplectic as I did. I am used to 14, 15 & 16 year olds wearing clothes that advertise their fondness for intercourse, or that they are pimps or porn stars. If you challenged a young male teenager about whether he really wanted to be seen as a pimp, he would probably laugh in your face, in much the same way that boys do when you challenge them about the ethics of Grand Theft Auto, or the morality of The Devil's Rejects. Are we underestimating their sophistication? If so, we should shut up, act shocked in a sort of indulgent way, and be grateful that the arguements are about their clothes not their actual behaviour. Or is it our job, as teachers, to challenge kids to question whether they are being abused by a fashion industry that uses them to promote sexual abuse?

PS Anita Roddick's writing on the subject is here. [Google-searches-you'd-never-have-predicted #326 'anita roddick pimp ho']

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Well, I thought I had better take a few moments to explain my position on anonymity. I guarantee that

1) any detail of any anecdote on this blog that is not critical to its message is liable to have been changed. This includes the gender and age of students, the specialisms of teachers, the nature of institutions and the time at which an incident took place. I've only just started blogging and I've got years and years of stories to tell...

However, I also guarantee that

2) If I say something happened to me, it did happen to me. If it's something that happened to a colleague, I won't claim it as mine.

In these times of league tables, competition and the general disposition of the media towards education, I cannot reveal facts that would identify any of the institutions where I have worked.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Wisdom from Kentucky

I've just found this excellent web site called 'Rate your students' which apparantly started in response to web sites where American students rate their professors. (I searched and found there are many of them!) 'Rate your students' is a satisfying mix of rants, moans and deep reflection. This particular post really made me think, smile and feel as inspired as you can reasonably hope to be on a Monday evening with a pile of mediocre essays to mark.

Data on death and the death of data

On PM tonight, the Scottish Information Commissioner was interviewed about the publication of survival rates for patients who are operated on by surgeons across Scotland. (It's not on the website yet but Eddie Mair seemed to know all about it.) Apparently some journalists asked for it, and he saw no reason why they should not be given it. So now it's out there, in the public domain, and although no 'league tables' will be produced, it only takes MS Excel to create one. So how long before surgeons, like teachers, start to see the people who pass beneath their scalpel as part of a statistical game? I have often found myself looking at my A-level groups and calculating how many can leave college before my percentage retention rate dips below the national benchmark. How many of the C/D borderline GCSE pupils have to get a C to nudge the school passrate ahead of the other big schools in the area. Do you really want your surgeon's advice to you to be tainted by her having one eye on her running average for the year? Because the media and the watchdogs and the government are not interested in the subtle reasons that students leave college or kids fail GCSEs or patients die on the operating table, they are interested in the headline figure.

Data is a lot like humans: It is born. Matures. Gets married to other data, divorced. Gets old. One thing that it doesn't do is die. It has to be killed.
Arthur Miller

(from the wonderful page of quotes at sysprog)

Now those Scottish death rates are out in the world of data, they will never die. They will remain as a lazy person's way of evaluating the health service, much as school league tables are a lazy person's way of evaluating schools. I remember once when the head of History at a school where I worked made a mistake in calculating his pass rates for his yearly exam meeting with the Head. The Head was horrified and sprung into action, labeling the department as a cause for concern and talking at length about it at the next management team meeting. When the error was discovered it took several more meetings and a formal 'setting things straight' from the Head before the idea that History was a department in dire straits was replaced with a truer picture.

And now I come to write this, I realise the same is true of the labels we apply to kids.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

'Don't smile before Christmas' and other useless advice to NQTs

I was visting 'The Teacher's very honest and engaging blog about his experiences as an NQT. He started, like I did, trying to go the 'Don't Smile Before Christmas' route. Can I just say that this famous piece of advice is rubbish? My teaching style, like most of my most respected colleagues, is 99% enthusiasm. It is very hard to rave about your subject, be it physics, philosophy or painting, if you are trying not to smile. I would be fierce and blank-faced for about 3 minutes, and then break into an irrespressible grin once I started explaining the day's topic.

So here is my alternative advice for NQTs, admittedly first draft:

1) Develop healthy self-esteem. Despite what the government says, it may not be entirely your fault the kids didn't learn anything today.

2) As far as humanly possible, never talk if your pupils are talking. Cultivate the mental conviction that everything that comes out of your mouth is a pearl of pure wisdom and they should damn well listen to it.

3) Following on from 2), don't wind your class up by going on and on and on. Know when to shut up. When you've told them to read the book, answer the questions, copy off the board... let them get on with it.

4) Carry a really big bunch of keys and (if your college/school permits it) a large mug of coffee or tea at all times. The keys say 'I run this place, not you.' The coffee says 'And I am quite comfortable here, thankyou.'

5) Learn the basics of body language and voice projection. Ask someone to watch you and be ruthless about your verbal and physical tics. Work out the best place to stand in the room and find out if you are loud enough and clear enough. Try asking a friendly drama teacher. (As a general rule, drama teachers know the secrets of the universe. Be nice to them.)

6) There is nothing wrong with an OK lesson. You can't teach a fantastic, grade 1, all singing, all dancing lesson every time. Kids need to learn that life is sometimes quite mediocre.

7) Don't worry overmuch about how much respect you are getting from your top two classes. They'll be gone a couple of years and they will never really treat you as you deserve because they've been in the school longer than you have. Concentrate on the lower classes. Then, when they get to the top of the school, they will still carry with them, deep inside, the way they felt when they first had you in Year 7.

8) Use every single support and advice system available to you. That's what they are there for.

9) Watch as many different teachers as you can - but don't try and be someone you're not. I spent six months unsuccessfully modeling my classroom management on a tough, ruthlessly efficient, quietly stern man I really respected - until I found a spontaneous, witty, clever, persuasive and canny woman to copy instead.

10) When dealing with bad behaviour, as far as humanly possible, divide and conquer; think before you speak; never humiliate anyone in front of their peers (there are plenty of kids who would rather be expelled than take their hat off when told to in front of their mates); and remember whenever possible that they are the teenagers and you are the adult!

Above all, remember we are teachers. We are supposed to believe that you can learn things. Even how to be a better teacher.

P.S. Many very, very wise and brilliant teachers taught me all these things. Unfortunately, I can't credit any of them because this blog is anonymous. So if you see yourself here, smile. Either you taught me this, or you taught someone who taught someone who taught me this. Whatever, I salute you.

Drugs education

OK, it seems to me that most drugs education in this country is carried out by teachers in their role as 'form tutors', in a compulsory slot they deliver once a week, along with sessions on HIV, alcohol and bullying. Is it not odd that most schools and colleges insist that qualified people deliver lessons on the nuances of ox-bow lakes, litmus, the Tudors and the use of speech marks; while when it comes to issues that might actually be the difference between life and death, we rely on amateurs?

My own philosophy of drugs education, as one of these amateurs, is entirely based on something my Mum once said along these lines:
'The problem is that you say to these kids "drugs will kill you and they are horrible and scary". Then their friends say to them "drugs will make you feel fantastic." So the kid takes the drugs, feels fantastic and does not die. Therefore they conclude that the teacher was lying and the friend knows better, and never listen to the teacher's advice again.'

My lessons therefore involve writing lists of both 'reasons to take drugs' and 'reasons not to take drugs' and I try and get them to move away from mouthing platitudes back to me, to being honest. Drugs feel fantastic, they won't necessarily kill you. But here are a whole load of reasons not to take them, and you can believe me, I'm telling the truth.

P.S. I'm told that the only established finding on drug education is that scaremongering tactics increase drug use. I'm told.

OFSTED chicken

to play OFSTED chicken (v): to stand in the corridor outside the inspectors' base room and have a genuine conversation about, for example, a problem student or current management hot potato. See how loud and how honest you can be before someone flees. Obviously the further up the management scale you are the more respect your indiscretion will earn.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

OFSTED says - be nice to late students

OK, staffroom-wisdom-unconfirmed-rumour-come-government-dictat: OFSTED inspectors will mark you down in a lesson observation if you aren't nice to late comers. At the post-16 level, when they don't have to be in school all the time, lateness to lessons is a huge issue. But according to official rumours, you have to make sure that latecomers are helped to settle in to the lesson, that you sit them with a nice kid to help them get on stream as quickly as possible, and the teacher should make sure that they end up getting all the content they missed by being late, presumably by taking time out from teaching the others or maybe staying late at lunchtime to help them catch up.

So, kids, as part of your preparation for adult life, we will incentivize lateness by rewarding it with private tuition and extra one-to-one input, while students who make the mistake of arriving on time and ready to learn will be disincentivized by being made to sit next to their most irritating and feckless classmates. Ah, OFSTED.