Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Teaching - Part Two: Testing, 'Standards are Falling' and Career Progression in Teaching

This is a long post...and as I'm of the internet-blogging-opinionated generation, I'm aware that reading loooooong paragraphs is less palatable online than it would be on a book (wait 'til I write a book!) So, I've broken up this post into the areas that have been occupying my mind. They're kind of related - in that they're all about teaching; I'm just not sure if they'll flow together that well. it's the day before results day (A-Levels that is). Testing might seem like the best place to start...

I suppose results day is the culmination of my hard work; the point at which I get measured as a teacher.

The free-marketeers* out there would probably make a case for performance related pay for teachers based on the results their pupils achieve. I wonder if that's realistic? Would I be willing to put my neck on the line to that degree? I think it would probably encourage all sorts of dodgy 'creative' practices - anything to get a higher result. We'd end up with highly prescriptive syllabuses, lots of testing to measure pupil progress, a system of comparing schools to see which are producing the best results (a league table perhaps?), targets for schools, departments, and pupils, schools choosing subjects that are 'easier' to get higher grades, teachers 'teaching' to the exam...etc. etc.

Hmm...that is sounding oddly familiar to me...oh shit - that's what's happening already!

I have to say, sometimes I think over-emphasis on testing, and achieving results stifles pupils and teachers. My A-Level and AS-Level boys have taken exams. I know some of them are not looking forward to tomorrow. I've said to them - every single one - your best is all I'm asking for as your teacher. I've provided everything I can for them, and I want them to achieve all they can. And you know what? Some will, and some won't - that's natural.

But teaching isn't all about getting an 'A' grade in an exam - although that's definitely what some of my pupils (and some parents) think. Getting an 'A' grade is no guarantee of success in life either. There are enough entrepreneurs to demonstrate that.

Surely teaching and being in school is all about learning - not having a bunch of facts in your head that you can write about in some shitty exam!

Psychologists sometimes say that all IQ tests measure is how good you are at IQ tests. Perhaps all exams do, is measure how good an individual is at exams. In other words, exams measure how good an individual is at following the current educational system.

It's got nothing to do with learning.

That's why I'm quite happy that my lessons meander all over the place (yes it's true - ask some of my pupils). I always have a point that I'm putting across, I've got a clear structure of what I'm teaching, and I'm covering the required material, but my teaching still has to be set within these parameters. That's why I think young people get frustrated - not because they don't want to learn - but because they have to shoe-horn their heads into an educational system that doesn't value learning, but values knowledge, and being able to pass exams.

Like I said - I want my guys to do their best, and that's going to be individual to them: not everyone can or will get an 'A' grade. For some - a 'C' grade is going to be the pinnacle of their achievement. But I feel the current climate of testing devalues some pupils' efforts, and discourages them from trying.

And don't think the pupils don't know - they're fully aware of the system and the situation. Some are willing to play it to get into university. Others say, that school doesn't teach them anything useful.

The truth of teaching involves taking the dryness of a government prescribed syllabus, putting it across to young people whose default setting is 'I don't want to learn' in a way that engages them, and get them 'A-C' grades.

If we don't, we're failing. If we do, standards are falling.

Ah yes - the other yearly headline 'standards are falling' - sometimes I think it's a bit of a catch-22 for teachers and pupils. How does a 18-year-old feel? Imagine the situation when they've put everything into revision and their exams, they're happy with their results, and some (dumbass) older person they know says something like "of course it was much harder in my day, standards have fallen you know".

They'd probably feel like shit.

As if they don't have enough to feel shit about already. Anyone who thinks that teenagers have it easy have forgotten what it's like being young.

But also, when (older) people go on about kids taking O-Levels and not being able to do them (I'm sure there was a channel 4 programme about this...) they're completely missing the fucking point. The world now is a very, very different place from what it was when O-Levels were taught in school. It's an impossible thing to do, but I'd like to see some teenager who took his O-Levels in the 80s, attempt his GCSEs in the noughties - as a teenager.

I think they'd find it really difficult.

I'm 31-years-old now, and the world was a very different place when I was 17-18! I didn't have a mobile phone, the internet barely existed, and I wrote my essays with a cartridge pen.

Young people nowadays are media-savvy, technologically-literate, highly socialised (and sexualised) beings. I think peer pressure is huge issue - not helped at all by the media and big business foisting images of sex, violence and family breakdown everywhere. Films like KiDULTHOOD, Bullet Boy, Kids, and Thirteen explore these issues - every parent and teacher should watch these films.

Young people are emerging from childhood far faster. It's part of the gotta-have-it-now culture that surrounds us. A bit like force-ripened fruit.

Yes the world is a very different place, and the older people - the policymakers who grew up decades ago - would get eaten alive if they were teenagers now.

That's not to say it's that different from any other time - young people and older people will always be different. Bob Dylan said it best with his song the Times they Are a Changin' in one verse:
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

What's different now is the pace of change. I read somewhere (I wish I could remember where I read all this stuff) that one of the measures of a civilised society is how it takes care of its young. (I think there might be some other parts to that idea...not sure what they might be).

With Testing and 'Standards are Falling' teachers are under pressure to produce. I mentioned before about teaching being in a Catch-22, but I keep asking myself about the future, and my own career progression in teaching.

The thing is, it varies wildly from school to school, and from person to person. Some of the earliest advice I got was to choose your school carefully. In these times of the 'credit crunch' it would seem as if teaching is a recession-proof career.

But, as I've hinted at in earlier posts, I can't shake the niggling feeling of whether I'm doing the right thing career-wise. Perhaps I'm just looking for reassurance from people around me...perhaps I'm just putting myself under pressure to earn enough money to start a family...or perhaps I'm just responding to the frustrations of being in the classroom that I've outlined.

I don't know.

Every month (it's relatively often now), I do have the thought - I should forget about teaching and get a better-paid job in industry.

It might even be linked to the vague background feeling I sometimes have of cynicism. I changed careers almost on a whim. I mean it started with me just saying I was going to become a teacher, and the rest 'fell into place'. But now I have doubts about my effectiveness as a teacher. I'm not sure about it. I think as far as my career progression has gone, I'm used to being a little bit out of my depth - in a good way! Like it forces me to develop. I suppose being out of one's comfort zone is what calls forth development.

Sometimes I feel it might be that teaching isn't giving that to me right now.

Or maybe I'm just not good enough.***

Teaching as a career does offer lots of areas to progress: head of department, head of year, exams officer, timetabler - there are a range of things that need to be done to keep a school going. Teachers I have spoken with rarely have a 'conventional' career-path - from previous jobs to doing lots of different things in one school to moving from school to school.

Another recurring thought is that I've done all I can in my current school, and that's part of my frustration. The space for progression is limited in a school that doesn't change much over time. It seems as if the typical pattern is that young teachers are employed (because they're cheaper**) and they stay for a few years before moving on to bigger and better things at other schools. Meanwhile, the people established in middle and higher management only change when someone retires.

Yes my concern is that as I approach my first wedding anniversary, I need to be earning more money to buy a house and start a family. Yes I'm worried about my ability to provide that with a career in teaching.

Ironically, the number of teachers is set to fall as more and more approach retirement. Hence the current government incentives to encourage record numbers of people to train - and they all mention money (in true Capitalist style!*) But reading the teaching press, it seems as if lots of people train to become teachers, only to leave the profession a few years later. There 's someone I know who did just that. Some of the reasons cited included pupil behaviour, work overload, lack of progression etc.

Do I add myself to that list?

I do wonder where has my initial enthusiasm gone. It was enthusiasm (combined with sheer bloody-mindedness, and yes a commitment to educating young people) that sustained me through 'cause for concern' forms, lack of support, debt, and my own inadequacies. Would I just be wasting that if I stopped now?

I'm not even sure I could change careers again - I mean I'm in my early thirties.

I do have a choice - commit myself to teaching, rediscover my enthusiasm, and forge my own path, or go back and find a job in industry.

The annoying thing is I've experienced choice and commitment as moment by moment things. I've been there and wanted to eat loads of chocolate, or not go for a run, and two-stone later I've got the results consistent with those choices and commitment.

But with teaching - it's almost as if I'm waiting for the profession around me to give me something, to validate my experience, and tell me I'm ok. When I guess the thing to do is shit or get off the pot...

And I'm just one teacher.

What a wonderful profession I'm part of!


PS: I think today has been an opportune moment for me to get these thoughts down...bear it in mind as you read the papers tomorrow...all this stuff has been swirling around my head for a while now, and I'm glad it's out.

PPS: Any advice or thoughts - post a comment.

* I think it's obvious I'm devouring with great glee Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine - a post will follow...

** As a school in the Private Sector, the drive to stay profitable takes on extra importance. Some people say it's the driving reason for policy decisions: cost-cutting, maximising pupil intake etc.

*** For those in the know - and they're aware who they are - it's a deliberate choice of words.

This post was written by: fear and doubt, wonder and worry about the future, and shitty fucking teachers.