|‘I have a guilty secret- I’m loaded.’|
‘You could be like, f*ck it, forget about it and I’m proud of every single fuckin’ person here.’
This, while foaming at the mouth over some inexplicable, invisible affront to her dignity, of which she has none. But more on that later.
Jamie’s Wednesday night gravity well keeps pulling the teachers towards it like cosmic dust, both at home and in the school itself, as new telly teachers rise up like ghosts from the Green Room. You would have to staple me to the space shuttle and press ‘go’ to prevent me from watching this now. It’s not just a great piece of teaching telly, but the best teacher programming I’ve seen in the last…ever, actually. It’s not just a piece of media whimsy- it’s a huge concave mirror, reflecting and magnifying issues within education, teaching and policy-making that makes it extremely hard to review, simply because there are so many topics raised. Manfully, I’ll do my best. It’s been criticised for inventing a narrative, for mangling complex situations into telly-friendly human interest stories, but that’s not the point (although undoubtedly true); the point is that this show probably pulls more viewers that Teachers TV Channel has for the last five years. Which admittedly might not be hard.
|Dream science teacher.|
This week’s episode was called ‘Self-discipline’. One of the things I find both charming and cringy about the program is that because the majority of the school’s staff are non-teachers, they walk into classrooms with the wide-eyed Bambi innocence of the trainee teacher, usually brimming with unrealistic ideas about what to expect, which are then dashed on the cliff face of the class’s indifference. And, exactly as in schools, the combination of naivety and optimism results in cynicism and resentment. We’ve all been there; we’ve all walked in full of high hopes and dreams of inspiring children, only to walk out the same day thinking, ‘The little b*stards, can’t they see they’re throwing away their futures? After all that work I put in!’
This is one of the reasons that many new teachers start to walk away after a few months- they genuinely don’t realise what it’s like, at least initially, in many schools. There’s been a lot of hoo-ha about Katherine Birbalsingh in the press in the last few months (remind me not to book any speaking gigs at party conferences, will you?), but it seems that a lot of what she said in her address wasn’t just true, but obviously so. You could see Alvin Hall, the affable financial educator, goggling in disbelief at the kids’ initial reaction to his lessons.
Speaking of addressing conferences, Alastair Campbell, clearly not giving a f**k about teaching any more lessons, decided to have a bit of a jolly (a common teacher gambit, I might add) and take a couple of kids off on a school trip. We’ve all been there Alastair, no shame there. Not that I think you have a shame problem, anyway. Interestingly he chose our loquacious heroine, Harlem, and Nanakwame, who distinguishes himself later on in the episode by assaulting his class mate Jenny, pushing her from a chair in anger because, and I quote, ‘I don’t give a sh*t, she were in my desk and that, and she saw my stuff here, and no way, that’s not on, took my f*#kin’ chair,’ or something like that. My universal translator was broken, but I’m sure it was something poetic.
So, the two ambassadors of Dream School were sitting in the audience at the Cheltenham, Literary Festival (described as a ‘literary lovers’ dream’ on the website) alongside a demographic of white middle-class people with an average age of sixty who presumably had come to applaud Alastair Campbell on his keen sense of propriety and international brinkmanship. He invited a question from from the United States of Oliver. Harlem didn’t disappoint:
‘If we don’t get no jobs…the young people and that….and we don’t get no benefits….I’m not bein’ funny, but how do we eat. And I’m tellin’ you, young people stick together and there’s gonna be a war.’
Withering. One fragrant audience member described her contribution as ‘refreshing’, which I suppose could be true, if it was as a contrast to carefully thought out and well-expressed opinion. I suppose you could call that refreshing, although you’d then have to call a lot of other things refreshing too, like racism and stupidity.
Making rules for Nigel- setting boundaries
One of the themes of this week was John D’Abbro (or Dabbs, as he undoubtedly doesn’t like to be called by the kids. Or maybe not- he came across in the first few episodes as a bit warm and fuzzy.) getting medieval on the kids- which for him meant saying, ‘I’m very cross, and I’m going to have to sleep on what I’m going to do.’ Actually, I warmed to him this week, mainly because he started getting a bit tougher with the school as a whole (and let’s remember, we’re talking about twenty kids here- not an Alcatraz of pirates and horse-rustlers), and we saw him deal with adults a bit more (just thin-slicing his interactions with Starkey and Hall this week, it was immediately obvious that he has a terrific rapport with adults; he strikes me as being a master of negotiation, diplomacy and democratic leadership, but with an edge of authority).
The trigger for him drawing the wagons in a circle and declaring war on injuns, was the fact that after ten minutes, nobody had shown up for Hall’s first maths lesson, and after twenty, less than half. Hall, I might add, had flown in from America. The kids, it would appear, have but to tumble downstairs or across the road or something to get there. Still, as the tall Beiber-alike patiently explained to the irate Head, ‘Yeah see, we both set alarms, but one was silent and the other one didn’t go off…and…and…’ etc etc, until your head attempts to screw itself off in an act of self-destruction and nihilism.
|Tonight’s star prize…sorry, scholarship.|
So he called an emergency assembly. It was odd to see him ask Hall and Starkey to sit in for back up; it made all three of them seem, unlikely as it sounds, like a unit of teachers, like a real staffroom. For a minute I expected Starkey to scurry off to the kettle, saying, ‘I’m gaspin’ for a brew.’ From the second he started to lay down the law, Harlem’s eyes started rolling back in their sockets like the wheels of a one-armed bandit. If she’d kissed her teeth any harder she would have literally imploded, like a dwarf star. I’m sure that in real life she’s a Disney Princess, but on my telly she appeared to be auditoning for Stars in Their Eyes as ‘Confrontational Bitch.’ Holy Cow. One word from the head and she…was…OFF!
‘Why you got to talk to me like that? Why did you even say that? I ain’t signin’ no f*ckin’ contract….this is, like, back in mainstream school…’ and so on and so on. If you saw her, you’ll know that she just spiralled and spiralled in an ever increasing whirlpool of fury and malice, drawing in perfectly innocent bystanders as her storm brewed, until she was being held back by her peers before she spannered poor Jenny.
The Head didn’t need to do anything- she was fighting with herself, with anyone, with the breath in her body, anything, anyone. Actually, Dabbs made, I would say, a bit of a mistake by engaging with her far too much initially. She started to kick off, and his full attention was turned on her, which meant that she was setting the agenda, and he was responding to it; with hindsight, he could have asked her to leave much earlier, and carried on with his general message, dealing with her later.
But hindsight isn’t granted to us in advance (funnily enough) and it’s easy to be the armchair judge. We all have our own styles. But in a class of twenty-thirty kids, we simply don’t have time to get involved with every kid who wants to vent a little bit of what they’re carrying around. If we did, there would never be time to teach, so we deal with it hard and fast at the time, and dissect it later.
After she melted down she was went out, and she stormed and huffed and howled at the world, at the injustice of it all, and essentially, how everyone and everything could go f**k themselves. (I told you it was sweary this week). Hall and Starkey said it first, and said it right- she should never be allowed back in. This is, after all, a four week experiment. She’s been through 14 years of free state funded education. If she doesn’t want to play by what are pretty easy-going rules, then frankly, she can stick her attitude, her vanity, her arrogance, her petulance, and her poor self control up her backside.
I have nothing against this girl personally, but her telly persona encapsulates the perfect, awful narrative of the national education strategy. We have decided for a number of reasons- compassion, the social contract, self-interest, enlightened egoism, human rights, social justice- to both provide and make compulsory a certain diet of education for everyone in this and most countries. And congratulations, say I.
But how far do we go down the road of providing this before we admit that sometimes, just sometimes, some people aren’t very god at perceiving opportunity, or of making the best of their circumstances? I can just about buy it if someone tells me that a three year old can’t help themselves if they act badly. But that excuse melts away like mist when we’re talking about 17 and 18 year-olds. These aren’t infants; these are mostly formed personalities, human beings who can vote, and fight, and drive, and drink, and couple (possibly simultaneously). How far along the road of compassion do we walk before we look at someone like Harlem, screaming and howling because the world won’t bend over backwards to kiss her ass, before we say, ‘Nope, you’re mental. There’s the door.’?
I ask this because we have to balance these kinds of concerns every day as teachers: the vast majority of teachers I know are torn between these two extremes- wanting to provide the very best for everyone, but realising that not everyone can have your sole attention. We make utilitarian choices every day, and frankly, although sometimes the decisions are hard, sometimes they get made easier for us when people like Harlem make it so hard to want to keep trying. We’ve all got kids who work their socks off and try their best; we all have kids who look at you like you’re something they just sneezed into a hanky. Guess which ones eventually leave with the good references and, usually, the good grades? I’ll give you a moment.
This point, and others, was made just as neatly with the Biosphere task. Again, we had a crop of hand picked (by Robert Winston, no less) yoots were selected for an incredible experience- three days in a specially constructed biosphere with Jane Poynter, the renowned environmental biologist who was there to show them some experiential science in a mini-Eden. It was, I must say, a chance of a life time. Except that after about five minutes most of them couldn’t see that- they could only see the privation; the chemical toilets, the absence of television, and worst of all, no smokes. It was tragic seeing all but one of therm storm off the first morning they could, simply because they were Jonesing for a Silk Cut; oh, the horror, the horror. This was perfectly summarised by the sight of the alien, expensive plastic octagonal greenhouse hand built in the playground, with the words ‘Fuck this’ written in condensation from the inside.
The Power of One- How peer pressure smashes individuality
But in every night, a candle glows: Danielle, who missed a year of school through illness, talked about her own school experience, comparing it to her present one with Mr Oliver:
‘It was awful- everyone mucking about so that nobody got anything done. And eventually you just joined in because that’s what everyone else was doing.’
But she chose not to, and my heart nearly burst for her. She stuck it out, and seemed to form a bond with Poynter. It was interesting to see her talk about how maybe, just maybe, Hair and Beauty might not be the ceiling of her aspirations. You could see Paynter restraining herself from doing a cartwheel of agreement at that point. How awful to think that many children, for want, perhaps, of effective role models, and advice, accept the first role that society offers them, or that appears to be suitable. I think a lot more girls need to meet a lot more women like Paynter, and show them that there’s more to life than the non-aspirations of some of their more thuggish peers.
And yet, it;s not as simple as that. There are no heroes and villains here, because this, despite the program makers intentions, isn’t a narrative: it’s a collection of human beings with their own subjective perspectives, none of whom cast themselves as the antagonist. Danielle admits that she was also a bit of a handful when she was at school. Connor showed moments of insight and agreeability. Kwame, a hooligan earlier on, showed a shy flicker of ambition with Hall’s enthusiastic, tender approach to mathematics (and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). Jenny was all about getting in people’s faces last week- this week she was calm and motivated (‘Four weeks isn’t enough!’ Love it).
It’s the same in schools that present challenging classes. Very rarely will you get a child so belligerent and isolated that they won’t respond to some serious but concerned attention in a one-to-one situation, and often the point of detentions, after their punitive intent, is to establish some kind of rapport of understanding between the teacher and the offender, so that everyone understands that it’s easier to cooperate than it is to conflict. But there’s a tipping point, past which good behaviour is hard to achieve for a teacher- put simply, when there are more than a few kids mucking about, it starts to escalate, as the culture unconsciously tilts towards chaos and hedonism. Put one naughty child in a great class, and you’ll often see their behaviour normalise, as they take their cues from their peers. The reverse is also true. What Jamie has right now is a class where there are still several major players bent on disruption and my-way-or-the-highway. Until they’re dealt with (liquidated, sold off as scraps, buried in the basement, whatever) then the whole class can still come crashing down around everyone.
Getting your bribe on- incentives for performance
Danielle, for her perseverance, won the cheers of her peers; perhaps more interestingly, she also won a scholarship- although when Jamie said ‘scholarship’, all the kids could hear was ‘Free holiday in Arizona.’ It was a terrific bribe/ reward, and potentially then kind of experience that change the direction of her life, which would be fantastic. Of course, as regular teachers we don’t have access to these kinds of bribes- I try to keep reminding them of the real goals of what they’re doing in school:
1. It’s useful to them
2. It might be interesting for its own sake
|New LEA advisor on curriculum policy|
3. Flourishing as a student will assist their flourishing in life.
These are all profound, and true, but they’re a lot harder to sell than two weeks in America. The danger with that kind of explicit, Deal or No Deal prize, is that the remaining kids get real motivated real fast in the hope that they too walk away with the motorboat or the family car. And wouldn’t that be a sad way for the program to go? I could probably get every single kid in any school working pretty well for three weeks if they felt there was some enormous, immediate tent-pole of a prize waiting for them. The point of this experience, I had assumed, was to try to turn them back onto education, not just bribe them by appealing to their sensual instincts. Surely?
When we have to say goodbye- realising that we can’t do it all for them
The program finished with Harlem and her mother watching the playback of her earlier confrontation; her face, as she saw herself screaming like a boiled dwarf was, I must say, a picture. It spoke immaculately of regret and reflection, although you wouldn’t know it when she opened her mouth; ‘At least I didn’t hit her,’ she said, in one of the least convincing attempts at self-justification since Cain told the Big Guy to mind his own business.
Even deflated, even knowing she was wrong, she still did what she knew best- she battled, she blasted, she lashed, she argued. My heart wept for her poor mother, who came from a different generation, a different culture; and she knew, she knew that her daughter, whom she had instinctively, lovingly supported from the start, had been a prize plonker, probably not for the first time.
As teachers we see this all the time: the antagonistic pupil, who then races home to tell their parents how awful the school and the teachers are being. the parents, thus primed, then dig their heels in and, if you’re not careful how you express yourself when you call home, can become one with their child. Every teacher needs to take a deep breath and speak with enormous civility when they call home- remember, the classroom firework that went off in your room earlier on, is someone’s son or daughter, and no ground is to be gained by going in like the SAS. If parents and teachers can both see that they share the same goal- the educational well being of the child- then enormous progress can be made. And parents that ‘stick up’ for the kid as a default might think they’re doing the right thing, but in many cases, they’re undermining the educational future of their children.
It’s heartening to see that Dabbs knows that the school can’t be run without rules, and that rules don’t happen without penalties for disobeying them. Believe it or not, that simple proposition is actually quite controversial in some circles of education, as some teachers have bought into what appears to be a rather odd and somewhat counter-intuitive idea that rules only oppress us. Hmm; I suggest that these people take a stroll into a maximum security prison during a riot and see how agreeable life is without rules and their enforcers. We sacrifice some liberty for a lot of security, as Hobbes would say. There’s nothing to be gained by denying it.
I’ll leave the final word to Alvin Hall (it was going to be Harlem, but I thought it might be novel for her not to get the last word; besides, it would probably be ‘f*ck’):
‘I’ve been told these kids are bright. I don’t know if there’s a different definition between the US and the UK about that word…..I would say that some of them are clever….some of them are wily….some of them display emotional intelligence. But not bright.’
Welcome, Alvin, to a culture of education that celebrates mediocrity as long as it is preceded and succeeded by sub-averageness. Where all achievement is relative, and where other people are blamed when we fail.
Roll on next week. I saw the ghastly Cherie Blair stalking the corridors this episode, so not long now…