Tom Bennett

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Educating Essex 6: Save me from myself

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‘We’re talking’.

‘Thank you for your hard work; you’re always such a pleasure to teach.’

Mr King

This week the spotlight fell on Mollie in year 10, and her startlingly similar-looking older sister Charlotte. In some ways we were looking through the microscope at the same thing we always do: pupils who could do well, but for one reason or another, aren’t. T’was ever thus. We focussed on Mollie though, the- apparently- very bright pupil who was on a collision course with..well, with anyone within kicking distance. As ever, I need to give some context to this blog: the real Millie and Charlotte, I don’t know. All I can comment upon is the edit we’re allowed to see. Still, it was revealing; in fact, this week was a particularly masterful creation from the producers, who gave us a three-act melodrama, with set-up, complication, crises, resolution, and some full-throated character arcs. And in the end, everyone learned something, and we got to see Mr Drew’s socks, which HAS TO BE some kind of bonus (Mr Happy, in fact. Presumably Mr Tenacity was unavailable).

TV Mollie, we were told by the voice over and by Mr Drew and Charlotte was very bright. I guess there are all kinds of intelligence then (and I don’t mean sodding de Bono either; Thinking Hats my righteous white ass), because when I think of intelligence, I don’t think of someone stubbornly setting their shoulder against the world for the right to wear a non-regulation jacket or a pound and a half of Estée Lauder. I don’t think of someone who blows up like thermite in a microwave every time someone asks them to not call a teacher a fucking prick. But I’m old fashioned.

I know that it is currently in vogue to describe every type of aptitude as an intelligence, even if the intelligence under discussion involves ping-pong or something (you can call it table-tennis all you like, it’s ping-pong to me). The great thing about this is that the word intelligence itself gets so inflated, and covers so much territory, that it essentially starts to mean almost anything. Oh, hang on, that’s a bad thing.

I think I’d rather go with, ‘Mollie displays signs of intelligence. And other times she tells people to go stick things up their arses, with very little persuasion needed, even if by so doing she turns ploughshares into swords and allies into enemies.’ I suppose it’s a sort of intelligence.

Oh, I know what they mean- she has an innate capacity to compute, to recognise, to discern; perhaps she has the talent to do subjects relatively easily. We know what you mean by intelligence. I bet she has stacks of it. But what one does with it…that;s the rub. I know many, many intelligent people stacking shelves in Asda. And, thanks to the somewhat brainless requirement of the last government, that 110% of all school leavers (or something) should go to University, I know plenty of very qualified people shaking fries at Fridays. Mollie, we are told, ‘Could be anything that she wanted to.’

And that’s true; but it’s just as true for the vast majority of our students: the only difference between their outcomes is what they do in between arriving at school and leaving. Some people have a bit/ lot more natural talent then others (see: Film Club) but I have rarely met a student who couldn’t get an A in just about anything if they were prepared to put the required amount of effort into it. I could climb Mount Everest, if I gave myself an early enough start. But I won’t: because I choose not to. Everyone has potential; that’s the damned thing. It’s our job to teach them to believe that, at the same time as we show them that potential means nothing without the sweat that unlocks it.

Mollie’s tragedy, as it is for so many of them, is that she could do well, but she keeps detonating every time someone asks her to put her pipe out; and her pipe smoketh eternally. Every time we see her, she’s impersonating Eyjafyallajokull (fuck off, spellcheck), usually punctuating her exchanges with (usually) Mr Drew with quips like ‘Oh GODDDDDDD!’ or ‘RGGGGHHHH!’. I can see why they say she’s bright.

In interview, she shows some sense of reflection. ‘I don’t mean to be rude..it’s like I got Tourette’s or something…’ Always love how we teachers have so perfectly absorbed the language of the market, the social worker and the pop-psychologist,  that our children have absorbed it osmotically. How many kids, twenty years ago, would have described themselves as ‘unable to work independently’ or ‘struggling for ways to manage their temper’? Not many. We have adopted the idiom of the diagnostic physician for so many aspects of our behaviour that previously on ER, would have been described as perfectly normal (if unusual) points on an expected scale: it breaks my heart to see how often we now offer our witless, worthless diagnoses of behavioural problems, as if they were viruses possessed by, and inhabiting the person of the student, rather than being descriptive statements about observed behaviours.

Where once I would have been castigated for being rude and hot tempered, now I can be said to have ‘anger management’ problems. I can be given special provision for my tendency to tell people to go fuck themselves. I can even get a statement, with the funding that entails.

I’m not denying the existence of real mental problems- in fact, I think that our society stigmatises and marginalises real mental problems of the human condition, although even seeing some of these as pathological is problematic, and probably says as much about our social relationship with the condition as anything else. Homosexuality used to be included as a mental problem; depression wasn’t. Swings and roundabouts, really.

Anyway. I only mention it, because the inevitable result of all this labelling guff is that kids start to feel that they’re not responsible for their actions. Why? Because when you describe a personalty trait as a condition, then it becomes alien to one’s character, and something you’re not to be judged for. It’s like a fat man patting his belly and saying, ‘I’ll need to get rid of this.’ It IS you! Worse, teachers fall into this game too, and say, ‘I know you’re nice, deep down’ as if there were two people being discussed, instead of one with the capacity to act well and…less so.

In the end, what you wish you’d done is bullshit: we’re judged by what we do and what we refrain from doing. Someone who acts appallingly one moment and angelically the next, is a bit of both. Jekyll and Hyde were parts of the same whole. When the child realises this, the adult starts to emerge from the rubble of character. Some people never get this far. And sometimes it’s because we treat them as if their behaviour and their character were somehow two different things, rather than one being the progenitor of the other. Unless we accept responsibility for our actions, we are doomed to go through lives believing ourselves to be helpless conduits for our whims, and deterministic robots, devoid of moral shame or blame. To Hell with that. Either we’re moral beings, with free will and the capacity to choose, or we are not. If we are not, then our entire culture makes no sense, life has no meaning, and do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.

So I prefer to imagine that we’re responsible for ourselves. There is no universal escape clause. There is just us, and the things we do. It takes guts to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did that,’ especially when the actions are shameful. But the flipside is that we can be proud when we act well. Any other way is soulless.

Vic Goddard, preparing for assembly

‘The words just come out,’ admits Mollie when she is asked about her outbursts. Mr Drew nails this point to the wall when he asks  Edina about why she called a teacher a prick. ‘Would you call your granny a prick?’ he asks, in what you might have presumed was a conversation ender. Alas, Edina concedes that she might call her her Granny a prick, after all. Which is nice (Note to Edina: don’t expect Harry Potter Lego in your stocking this year).

But the point is still made: if you can refrain from clobbering Gran-Ma-Ma with a blunderbuss of cuss, then you can do it in other circumstances.

We witness this all the time in schools: the child with EBD who is perfectly capable of behaving in subjects he likes, for teachers he responds to. The ADHD pupil who gets a B in one subject, but Xs in everything else. People, for the most part, are perfectly capable of controlling themselves when they want to: when they see a reason; when they feel enough pressure to do so. The motivation might be self-interest; it might be duty; it might be compassion. Whatever.

To my eyes, Mollie’s outbursts were perfectly within her power to restrain; which isn’t to say that she likes to do them, but that, deep down, somehow, they make sense to her. Her back story, which is common enough to be mundane, but painful enough to generate sympathy, suggested fractures at home, and a displacement of attention as she moved from being one of three siblings, to suddenly becoming one of a Baker’s Dozen of children, dislocated from the nuclear role she occupied and suddenly, to a young mind, peripheral to the love she needed. Who knows? I won’t insult her or her family by further speculation; all I can do is offer conjecture about what I saw on TV- a young girl who doubted herself so much that she behaved in a way that got attention from adults, and possibly proved to everyone that she was as much trouble as they thought she was.

The relationship between her and Drew was touching: he was the scratched record, the hard-ass who could always be relied upon to toe the hard line with her. At first she predictably kicked off against it like Osama Bin Laden in the Playboy Mansion (which is where, incidentally, they should have locked him up: that would have shown him); over the weeks of report, she seemed to acquiesce. And that , my friends, is why we do what we do: provide boundaries, electrify the fences, and just..repeat ad infinitum. It’s called being reliable. It isn’t sexy (unless your tastes are very niche); it isn’t exciting, and it doesn’t get you invited to many motivational speaker gigs (God save us) but it’s 50% of what teaching is all about: being a reliable adult.

Now what was it called again..?

That means turning up on time, doing what you say you will, and being fair. It means being tough sometimes, and putting people on the naughty step when they deserve it .It also means wanting the best for pupils, and letting them know it, at the time time as you keep them behind, call their parents or give them a detention. Tough love, I will say until the Last Day, is still love.

Drew, it seems, is a Jedi of this skill. It is, I might add, enormously encouraging to see senior staff being given such a strong pastoral responsibility in school and the time to do something about it. I’ve no doubt he’s rushed off his titties, but at least he appears to be master of the naughty room, and allowed to inhabit the space. He steals my educational crown of the week this week. Also, because of his comment to Mollie when she finally reached his desk for the first time: ‘I’m not interested in why you misbehave.’ Which is exactly right- by this point the student needs to start taking responsibility for their own actions, and fast. The understanding has preceded that point, for months and months; by that point, a child needs to see that only they can turn the situation around, and sometimes that means cutting off the cuddles and turning up the compulsion.

As the narrative progresses, we’re allowed glimpses of Mollie coming round to the system’s needs. Because that’s what she needs: to understand what battles to pick, and when to pick them. Fight the battles that are worth fighting, and not simply fighting everything because you’ve got a pair of paws and they’re in reach, which is what she seems to do in this episode. And, eventually, she ends the year with 5 A*-C GCSE grades; impressively early. They could have ended the episode with Drew hurdling the benches of Harlow while grateful children try to keep up with him, as he shadow boxes up the steps of  the Harvey Centre and yawps with victory. Instead we got Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s my life.’ It’ll do.

And of course, that’s what all the effort was for: weathering every gale of rudeness, every storm-in a tea cup. Because every teacher worth a damn wants the best for the kids, and wants them to leave with as many qualifications as possible to make their life as close as possible to their flourishing.

THAT SAID, it’s only possible to provide an environment for kids like that when someone has the time to look after them; to indulge their outbursts, and to act as a conduit between their poor choices and their better ones. In a school where such pupil behaviour is more common, we pass a tipping point where indulging such behaviour leads to the demolition of the educational space: I’ve written before about the silent majority who want to learn and don’t get all the attention, because some band of arseholes has commandeered the lesson for their own amusement. Nurture groups and individual interventions are only possible when they are the exception, rather than the norm.

Good luck to her, and her simulacrum sister; Mollie was, despite her foul temper and childishness, charming. Mr Drew ended up seeming to be her in-school father; and he proved it to her by being the one person who was prepared to keep telling her she was wrong. She was fortunate indeed, to have the services of such a man. Despite his socks.

Although was it just me, or did she end up wearing the jacket she was forbidden from wearing at the start of the show. Either there were pixies in the continuity, or the rules changed over time. Still, it was beautiful to see her walk up to him covered in, no doubt, top class slap, and wait for his reaction.

Clear off, scumbags.

Other highlights:

‘We’re not so different, Drew and I.’
  • ‘Do I look sophisticated?’ she asked, sporting her Harold Lloyd Gregory Pecks. 
  • ‘Do I look like an Essex Girl?’ she asked, wearing the same face furniture. I don’t understand how she went from one to the other.
  • Drew’s Taxonomy of what constituted the great and the good: Snooker players who admit fouls; that guy in front of the tank of Tienanmen Square; parents.’ Priceless. It was the combination of Burmese opposition politicians and Hurricane Higgins that got me.
  • Steps’ greatest hits blasting out in the office: Mr King’s note-perfect hangdog reaction to Katy Perry’s Firework. Which is, admittedly, completely shit.
  • Charlotte, one mark off a C: ‘Yessssssss!’ *hands in air, fist-pumping. Who said the art of succeeding gracefully was dead?
  • Drew’s Scatter Graph of Fail. Every study support room should have one.
  • Vic Goddard, doing his Johnny ‘Man in Black’ Cash Impression. Also, sporting a dandy tan from the half term, no doubt.
  • Tina’s soothing strategies: Stan’s co-pilot in a room that must reek of desperation at times
  • Mollie’s contribution to Student Voice: ‘I’m sure that if you took a survey of all the students, they’d…tell you how uncomfortable they were at school…’ Which is another reason I hate Student Voice with EVERY ATOM IN MY BODY UNTIL THE END OF TIME.
  • Drew, attempting to remember what the remake of Fantasia was called. I think it might have been Fantasia 2000. Might be wrong.
  • Mollie: ‘Mr Drew and me…we’re quite similar people.’ AH YES, AUSTIN POWERS, WE’RE NOT SO DIFFERENT YOU AND I! Ah, Moriarty, will I grapple thus with thee forever?
  • This week’s montage- the Cleaners. Props to the cleaner massive.

6 Comments

  1. Fran says:

    You don't 'alf talk sense, Mr Bennett.

  2. Lethandrel says:

    I shall always recall from my MA studies the report of a Japanese teacher's response to a Western researcher asking if a boy was acting up because he was really rather bright and just bored. The response – 'If he was that bright, he'd know how to behave.'

  3. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Fran Merci, Fran. Seems sense to me….

  4. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Lethandrel Exactly. Nice contrast.

  5. Richard says:

    Shows how well she has absorbed her SEAL lessons; she can recognise her poor behaviour and talk about it. Now we need SEAL part 2-where they learn how to control their behaviour because the authors and pushers forgot that bit.

  6. David Nevin says:

    Is Mr Drew a rugby player? (4.02). If he is, I'll bet my house / wife / career that he's a really mean, underhand nasty old prop, in order to balance his day to day patience and kindness. I bets ya.

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