I Am A Weapon of Mass Instruction
Chapter 9: Being a teacher is weird III
When I was a student, the point of school it seemed, was to do the work, try your best and at the end of it all you got some grades. Those grades might have been good, or they might have been bad, but they were yours to do with what you will. At the time I didn’t think about it too hard, it
was just something you did.
When I was training to be a teacher, some things had changed. The curriculum for one thing had gone through some changes and had become an actual, proper capital C National Curriculum no less, which meant that instead of keeping the exam in mind and doing things how you thought they should be done, teachers now had a plan to follow, and when I was training, also a method of implementing that plan: The National Strategy. As far as I could tell, the National Strategy consisted of breaking up your lesson into small chunks so the students could work more effectively. Nothing too alarming so far.
What was taught had also changed a bit too, and this did effect me a bit. Gone was the old Craft curriculum, although this had been changing while I was still at school myself, and had started it’s transformation by calling itself CDT - Craft, Design, Technology - and getting very excited about line benders and acrylic. I dread to think how many acrylic desk tidies were made in the late 80’s; they were terrible, useless things, but seemed exciting because it was made of bright, shiny plastic. Bright, shiny, plastic and a funny shape - words that sum up so much of the 80’s.
By the time I got to the other side of the desk there had been another name change and it was
now just Design & Technology, but essentially the subject was still the same old craft one, with -
if you were lucky - a powered plotting machine (which I always thought were a bit naff and did
my best to avoid at all costs). The only new addition as far as I could see was Graphic Products,
the subject that I would be specialising in, but as I started my training it didn’t take me long to
see that Graphics wasn’t mentioned anywhere in our textbooks and no one really seemed to know what it was about other than colouring stuff in and building stuff out of card. But, as long as you knew the exam syllabus and got the students there in the end, you were still free to do whatever projects you wanted and being a D&T teacher was a fun and creative thing to be.
By the time I left teaching, 13 years later (including my training year), things had changed considerably, and then had continued to change even more. Data was now king in schools across the land. Where before it was a badge of pride if you learned all the names of the students in your classes really quickly and could manage their behaviour well and you got good work out of them, now it was all about data. How I came to hate that word and what it came to represent.
We always had data on our students, but it was taken with a pinch of salt and if you didn’t agree with it, you were trusted to know what you were talking about. One of the amazing things I learned about teaching was just how much information schools had on their students, and that the kids were largely unaware of how much we knew, and how much we used it to help them in any way
we could. Having had some tricky times myself while I was at 6th Form, I now understood that my teachers knew exactly what was going on and were bending over backwards to help.
I said more than once to students who were fighting against everything we were offering that they would never again be in a time and place where so many people would be on their side and be willing to do what it takes to help and support them.
By 2015 though, data was far, far more important, and it ruled schools with a rod of iron. If the data said a student should achieve a certain grade, then that was what they would achieve. It didn’t matter that you knew your students well and knew from daily experience and the evidence of their work that they were never going to meet that grade because they just couldn’t (or wouldn’t), or even that they were being vastly undersold - the data knew all. It was fast becoming the case that some teachers were becoming blinded by the data and the targets that were generated from them.
If a student - even the Year 7s, some of whom were still a little shell-shocked by the transition to Secondary school even after the Christmas holidays - wasn’t hitting their targets, it would be noted. Not just by me, their classroom teacher, but it was passed onto my Head of Department. It was passed on with an abbreviated code giving the reason for their lack of achievement, and if necessary an action plan was put in place. If they were one of the older students, it was noted
how their lack of performance would effect the exam statistics for the school.
We even had sheets stuck to the front of every student’s book, with their targets prominently displayed and when we marked their work we put a tick in a green, orange or red column so that the students could see just how well or badly they were performing. That I did not like this is a mild understatement, but gone were the days when teachers could do their own thing.
It didn’t help, in the last term of that final year, when I was marking some books and I noticed that all the targets and notes to say whether the student was on target or not were wrong. These were Key Stage 3 books, so the students had rotated around the D&T team, and their work had been marked by several of us. Had the previous teachers been looking at the wrong grades? (We did all our data and predicting on a piece of software on our laptops - think a big, confusing spreadsheet. It was perfectly plausible that you might look at the wrong column or student.)
When it happened on more books, I was concerned enough to take it to my Senior Manager - something was wrong, I just couldn’t figure out what it was, and knowing how important the data and the tracking of it was considered, I wanted someone higher up to help me figure it out. Unfortunately my Head of Department was teaching that lesson so she wasn’t free to give me a hand. The Senior Manager was just as clueless as me - the data just didn’t match. It was then that she remembered that someone even higher up had amended the Key Stage 2 data - the data that all our targets and predictions were based on - over the weekend, which had shifted all the targets.
“So all the targeting and monitoring we’ve done, and everything on the covers of the books is now wrong?” I asked with a certain amount of incredulity in my voice.
“Well, yes.” came the reply, comprehension dawning on her as well.
“So it looks like we’re complete idiots and have been doing it wrong on the covers of the books?”
I’d already resigned at this point, so to a certain extent I was beyond caring, but it frustrated and annoyed me all the same. We were putting so much work and effort into this data and the targets, but the higher ups didn’t bat an eyelid when it was changed and it made us look bad.
While this was professional pride coming into play, we all also knew that if Ofsted came in to inspect the school, the data and what we did with it formed a large part of their impression and judgement of us. If all the data we put on the students books was now wrong, we all knew how that made us look.
In the previous Ofsted inspection before our last one, having the students be aware of their targets was just coming into vogue, and they had stickers with their targets on their books. I only saw one inspector, and she came into my tutor group, so there wasn’t too much to see really except the relationship we had. One of my group however rushed over to the cupboard where their books were kept and showed her his book and said that he knew his target and he was working really, really hard to meet it. Luckily the bell went and my group trotted off to their next lesson. The only comment that the inspector made to me before she left as well was that the kids seemed nice, if a little too worried about their targets.
Everyone was becoming increasingly focused on data and meeting data-driven targets, and what the data said had to be believed, unless of course you were a Senior Manager.
The course that I had entered my Year 11s for was considered a Vocational one, and I was told several times by Senior Management that because of that, I was expected to get 100% of my students a Pass in the course. This was ludicrous. For a start, the grades for the course started at C, with no D, E, F, or G grades available. About a third of my class were predicted a D or lower, and the only reason we’d chosen this course was because it didn’t have an exam.
Our students were notoriously unpredictable when it came to exams, and if there was an option
of not doing one and relying on coursework (which we could control to a much higher degree), we’d take it. That a significant chunk of the students apparently wouldn’t be able to achieve a Pass was not a consideration when the course was selected. In meetings with my Head of Department and my Senior Manager, the data was blithely ignored because vocational courses had been perceived to be easier for years, so it was down to me to get the kids through. Not down to the students to work harder, it was down to me and how I coached them through it and the level of Intervention that I provided.
All the kids had to do was turn up and do what I told them, and there was no possibility of me not getting a 100% Pass rate - despite that I knew that it was never going to happen.
“That’s never going to happen.” I helpfully pointed out in one meeting, where prior to the meeting
I had yet again reminded myself to keep my mouth shut and just nod along to whatever I was told to do.
“Senior Management expect 100%” said my Senior Manager, choosing to ignore both the data
and my professional predictions throughout the year that certain students were not going to Pass.
I could have continued to argue, but it would have been pointless - my opinion was not wanted or needed here, and the data had been replaced by an even more important number: 100%.
Of course, 100% of my students didn’t achieve a pass, which I knew was going to happen all along, and which I had said repeatedly, but I’m sure that my Head of Department and my Senior Manager would still tut and comment that I hadn’t worked hard enough when they saw and analysed the results. Now that I’ve left and have a slightly different perspective on it all, I can be more forgiving
to my Head of Department and all of the Senior Team - I don’t even want to think about the pressure that they were under for the school to perform and to be ‘Good’, I’m sure it was far
more pressure that classroom teachers like myself were under, and considering that I was almost breaking from that pressure, they had to do what they had to do in order to meet their own targets. At the time however, all I could see were people who should have known better and seen the data game for what it was: something that was to a large degree pointless and a waste of time, and that got in the way of us doing our actual job.
Data and targets came to influence us to such a degree that everything became a numbers game.
I began to see students not as individuals, but as little chunks of the whole. In that last year I saw each of my Year 11s not in terms of their abilities or how hard they’d worked, but that each of them was about 3% of my results and that if I could get just one more a Pass, then my predicted results wouldn’t look so bad. Still not 100% but better than some of the other exam groups in the Department.
It wouldn’t be so bad if we were all good at analysing data and working with numbers, but we weren’t, we were all pretty much making it up as we went along, and we should have remembered that we were not statisticians working with numbers, but teachers working with young people.
By the time I left teaching, there were a few often-used phrases that I had learned to hate. Let me qualify that statement a little. I’m a teacher, and a Graphics teacher at that, I know all about words and the power they have. I don’t like to use the word ‘hate’ because I know just how strong a word
it is, but I’m deliberately using it here because I mean it.
Two of my most-hated phrases were ‘Ticking the box’ and ‘Jumping through the hoop’. Just like working with data, doing things to tick the box or jump through yet another hoop became an
aspect of the job that I saw as taking me away from things I should be doing.
I think it all started when the whole teaching profession got a little too obsessed with Ofsted and their judgements. It got to the point where things were done just so that the school would have evidence to show the inspectors if and when they showed up, and everyone from the lowly classroom teacher like me right through to the Headteacher had multiple hoops to jump through and many, many boxes we had to tick.
Now, I have no problem in having to do the more onerous aspects of any job - if it has to be done
it has to be done, but the problem with all these hoops and boxes was that we were all intelligent people and it became increasingly clear to all of us that we were doing them for the sake of doing them, and they didn’t actually help us do the job.
A nice example was a session of ‘training’ the staff had to do last year. We all trooped down to the hall after teaching all day, quite a lot of us prepared to zone out for an hour or so then get back to what we needed to be doing. I think the Senior Team had started to realise that enthusiasm for training had slipped somewhat because I’d noticed that cookies and sweets were making a regular appearance at our training sessions. I’m not saying that they were there as minor bribes to ensure our attendance, but I’ve never known a teacher to turn down free food either.
This particular training, I found out - we were all given a schedule of training each term, but I never really paid much attention to them - was about what the Governors really did. The Governors were the next level of authority above the Headteacher, and seeing as I’d been a Governor for our school for three years, I had a better understanding of what they did than others, but it did perhaps make me even less enthused about the upcoming hour. That there were bowls of sweets on each table added to my sense of gloom.
It wasn’t the worst ‘training’ I’ve had, I’ll give it that, but it wasn’t the best either, and I wasn’t the
only one to heave a sigh of relief when the session drew to a close. What did put the nail in its
coffin though was when the Chair of the Governors thanked us all for coming at the end, but
then, slightly foolishly, added that we now had some evidence to show Ofsted that the staff had
a greater understanding of the wider governance of the school. I was not the only one to be a little astounded that apparently the reason we’d sat through the last hour and a bit was in order to tick
a box rather than because we actually needed to know it to make us better at our jobs. We were also a bit dumbfounded that the Chair had said it was a box-ticking exercise in front of everyone.
It looked like there wasn’t even the pretence of hiding the box ticking for anything other than what
it was any more.
Both before I left and since I left teaching, I have been speaking to many people about why I left. There are many reasons, but one I always say is the box-ticking. It got to the point where we spent more time doing things to prove that we’d done them, doing them so that we would have the evidence on hand to show inspectors than actually doing what we should be doing: teaching. Being in front of the kids, producing work and them doing better.
One of the odd things about being a teacher is not being yourself. I’m sure there are lots of teachers who are completely themselves and don’t pretend to be anything else. My friend Miss T is a good example. She’s as mad as a box of frogs and doesn’t even try to hide it. She has a loud, braying laugh that is brilliant, and she’s a passionate working artist who wants her students to be just as interested as she is in their work. She doesn’t pretend to be anything or anyone other than who
she is and there’s no reason why she should. Not everyone is like that though, and I completely understand why - for over a decade I played the role of Mr Austin, the slightly insane and unpredictable Graphics teacher, but Mr Austin is a very different person to Warren, who I actually thought I was.
The students always got a kick out of knowing a teacher’s first name, and I never had a problem with them knowing my first name, they never used it anyway as it was ingrained in them to call
me ‘Sir’. I’ve kept in touch with a few students after they left school and apart from one who immediately started calling me by my first one, it’s always taken a good while for them to get used to calling me anything but ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Austin’.
I understand not being yourself though. Teaching is a tough job, an emotionally and physically demanding one, and you needed armour to protect yourself from it, and not being yourself was
just another form of protection - you couldn’t be hurt if you weren’t yourself. There are teachers who are animated and funny and entertaining and inspiring, but it’s all an act - just as I was far, far grumpier at times than I really ever was, and that act helped me manage my classes and make the job a bit easier.
This wasn’t something that I was taught in my teacher training, it was just something that I figured out, and I figured it out fairly quickly. I think part of it came when I was allegedly teaching electronics in my training year. I had to act that I knew exactly what I was doing and was a calm, competent, responsible, knowledgable adult when in fact I was barely controlling my anxiety and panic because I knew for a fact that I was only about five minutes ahead of the students in terms
of knowledge. I knew this because I’d read the text book just before coming to the lesson and I
knew I’d read just a tiny bit further on than where the students were - but I had to pretend and act as if I knew it all. Kids are like sharks smelling blood in the water - if they sense even the smallest bit of doubt in your voice or manner, they’ll zero in on it in a frankly scary and predatory manner, so being able to act is a very handy skill indeed.
I’d also seen something else in my training year that had given me an inkling that acting was part of the job. It was while I was on my second placement to the school I’d attended as a student. It wasn’t even in my subject area, and I only passed this particular teacher a couple of times, but what I saw had a strong impact on me and how I taught. I don’t think I even knew his name, I certainly can’t remember it, but he was one of the History teachers.
Apparently he was ex-Army which might explain things, but whenever I saw him he was calm and composed, and in a way very, very guarded - he had what I came to call the Teacher Mask. He wore a mask that hid what he was thinking and feeling, and allowed him to be a teacher rather than just a person. I saw more than a few teachers at the school I worked who had the same mask, and I believe it allowed them to perform this role of ‘teacher’ while protecting themselves. ‘Teachers’ don’t get flustered or upset or excited, they just performed their job calmly and with great control, and the mask let them do this. I can’t say that I wore this mask of calmness myself, but I certainly acted my socks off at times during my career, to the extent that playing the role of grumpy Mr Austin came a little too easily in the end.
Speaking of acting as part of the job of being a teacher, here’s a story that I swear is not made up
in any way at all. Some things you can’t make up.
Like all schools, we had a steady turnover of staff, so every year we had new faces in at least a couple of departments. One year, it was the turn of the Maths Department to do the honours,
and the new staff member seemed like a nice guy, if perhaps a little on the quiet side and a little
too stereotypically a ‘teacher’: unkempt hair, beard and even a jacket with leather patches on the elbows.
I didn’t know too much about him, and because we all had our own department offices in the new building, we tended to stick in them rather then meeting up in the staffroom at break and lunch time, I didn’t get a chance to get to know him better. What I gathered from the kids, who were always prepared to tell it like it is and to let you know who they did and didn’t like among the teachers, he was ‘Kinda cool’, but wasn't their favourite yet. It was all good.
He must have liked us though, because soon enough his wife joined us as well… or possibly his girlfriend - this is where things start to get a bit interesting.
'Mr J' as we shall call him started to have the odd day off here and there, something that was always frowned upon as teachers preferred to tough it out if they were feeling ill, but if it was bad enough you couldn’t come in, then that was how it was, but it was noted that days off were being taken. Then his girlfriend - or what it his wife? - began to have days off too; not the way to make friends and influence people in the educational world.
Then, they both just disappeared and never came back. There were whispers of some vague, but entertainingly shocking misdemeanour that had forced their exit, and that was how things were left for a little while as we had kids to teach and exam results to secure. Things were left, that is, until someone discovered a new nugget of information.
When you join a new school, there’s various bits of paperwork to be done, and as part of that, the school takes copies of your certificates and your passport. Apparently, Mr J’s certificates were - how shall I say this delicately? - a little dodgy. As in they didn’t match what he’d put on his application form.
Now, I’m not one to gossip… okay, I totally am, but this was a cut above the the usual gossip we had which generally concerned which teacher had had a meltdown and ranted at some of the kids, or which one of the students had lost the plot and sworn at a staff member. That this mild-mannered guy had basically lied on his application form and gotten away with it for a while wasn’t something you saw every day.
It get’s better though.
Allegedly, it wasn’t just his certificates that were a bit dodgy, but it turned out that he wasn’t even qualified as a teacher! (This happens more than you’d think. If you had an international teaching qualification there were some hoops you had to jump through so it was recognised int he UK. Another colleague taught at our school for years thinking he’d done the necessary paperwork,
when in fact said paperwork was sitting at the bottom of a stack of forms in his house, and no-one realised until he’d left.)
It was also suggested - and this was the real kicker - that there were a couple of significant discrepancies concerning his passport! Yes, we had employed a spy in our school, on the basis of
a fake passport and counterfeit documents!
Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but what else were we to think? Unassuming guy, questionable documents, days off and then sudden exit, it all added up to spy. Or international jewel thief. Either way it was clear that 'Mr J' - if indeed that was his name (doubtful) - had needed
a quiet place to lay low for a while and our school had been the perfect hiding place!
Despite all the insanity the kids caused and all the jobs that you knew you really should be getting on with, now and again there was a boring patch in being a teacher, and it was little episodes like this that spiced things up again.
My chum Sandra and I would have a variation of the same chat now and again: how although we both had extra responsibilities on top of our teaching load, we had put in the time and worked our way there. You could perhaps say that we were a bit old-fashioned in that view, and I don’t think that either of us would disagree with that. We both saw benefit in having paid your dues, of having done the time and as a result gained the knowledge and experience to do the job well and move up if you wanted to.
I knew myself the perils of doing a job that I was not really prepared for and didn’t really have
the experience to do well - my time as a Team Leader had been stressful and draining, and I
would have been better off securing my teaching practice before setting my sights higher.
But it was something I would see again and again in my time teaching: pure, naked, unashamed ambition, whether the person involved had the skills, temperament, or experience to do the job successfully or not. I always found it odd that we were (on the whole) very good at being able to assess our students and whether they were ready to move forward, but that some of my colleagues were completely blind, and in some cases completely deluded, to their own skills and limitations.
I’ve said it before: teaching is tough. It’s tough even without taking on extra roles and responsibilities, and my hat goes off to every single teacher who does so and manages the resulting juggling act with ease and skill; I did it to a certain extent, but I always felt it was always more of a variation of keeping many plates spinning, dashing madly from one to another as they begin to wobble. Sandra also did it, and she still does, and with more skill and control then I would ever have, but I see the toll it takes on her, and even after years of knowing her, I still have no idea how she functions when she only seems to get about four hours of sleep a night.
There were other colleagues though that seemed to move though teaching as if there were a formula to it and they were just ticking off each role so they could progress and move higher up the ladder.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ambition, and it seems like a sensible thing to have a plan to get you where you want to go, but… but such obvious ambition seemed - I struggle for words here, so I ask myself what I always said to the kids when they were stuck. What do I want to say?
I want to say that such ambition seemed forced and wrong. I want to say that in some cases, and
in a few that I had very direct experience of, it seemed misplaced and mistimed. There was a time for ambition and for getting on, but there was also a time for acknowledging that experience sometimes won the day.
There was one staff member who it was widely known that he applied for every job and role going so that he could put it on his CV. There was one Head of Department who was in the role in their second year after qualifying. There was another Head of Department who was in the role, and in fact was on to her second job as Head of Department and in her third school after only five years
of teaching. There was an unspoken sense that they were there before having put in the time, and that while they were coping, an inevitable fall would come sooner or later - it was implied that experience won out over ambition every time.
I could be being completely unfair and mean-spirited here. All this could be sour grapes on my part that other people were succeeding and being promoted while I trudged along being just a teacher, but if I take a mental step back all I can see is the ambition and not a desire to perfect the craft of being a teacher. It was not uncommon to hear the criticism that those in management roles had been so long out of the classroom that they’d forgotten what it was like to have a full teaching load. A lot of teachers will say that the best thing about the job is being in the classroom and being in front of the kids, so to show such a blatant desire to move away from that and get into management implied that you weren’t really a proper teacher in some way.
'Proper' teachers had a full teaching load, had stacks of marking up to their eyeballs and could only tell what day it was by checking their timetable, and they took pride in this - to be a manager meant having fewer classes to take, it meant you had an easier time of it, it meant that you weren’t really
a teacher any more and wasn’t the whole point we got into this job was to teach? Teachers were supposed to be humble, not ambitious.
One of the things that the older, longer-serving teachers said was that if you stayed in teaching
long enough, the same strategies and ‘innovations’ would come around time after time. There
were a few staff members I worked with who had been teaching for 30 years, and it was with
a certain amount of wearied glee and satisfaction when we were informed about some hot new strategy that would be implemented that they had tried this 𝑥 amount of years ago, and it hadn’t worked then either.
Even I saw that some things did the rounds with generally the same results each time. When we met as year-based tutor teams at the beginning of the year, you could almost set your watch by the time the team leader would suggest that at least one session a week would be devoted to silent reading. Which was greeted every single time by at least one member of the team (if not all of them) sighing and rolling their eyes. We’d all tried to do silent reading in the past and we’d all realised very quickly that it wouldn’t work because the kids hated reading, but more importantly they hated being silent even more - but we’d be team players and we’d give it yet another go.
The same could be said for other educational strategies - to set by ability or to have mixed ability groups both came in and out of vogue in a regular way. To have year groups or to have vertical tutor groups. That the 6th Formers should dress smarter. To teach in a holistic way or to follow
a checklist, to give written comments rather than grades or to focus on the grade and level of the students, it all came, went and came back again.
The only thing you could really be sure of in teaching was that something would be changing soon. Change came in such a regular and sustained way that even though it could be said that I hadn’t actually been in the job all that long by the time I left (12 years was relatively short to the 25-30 years some of my colleagues had put in), the teachers who were entering the job as I left were trained in a completely different way to the one in which I was trained, and did things in a completely different way - just as I had compared to some of the older teachers. It was just an expectation that all of us would cope, adapt and successfully change with every new idea and strategy, even though we were rarely given any time to properly absorb and learn about those changes.
Some staff members did cope and adapt well, or at least they seemed to - I suspect that a few of them wisely just nodded and smiled at the right times and quietly carried on with what they had always done. Other staff members - and I’d put myself firmly in this camp - just got fatigued and
a bit lost amid all the changes, as a lot of them seemed to be change for the sake of change, for having something bright and shiny and new to show off.
For most of my time in the D&T Department I was lucky to have a wonderful Head of Department - his name was Thackery and he managed his team with a quiet wit and gentle but firm hand. He
led by example, and when he left our school for another and it was sprung on me that as the next-longest serving member of the team that I should do his leaving speech, I barely managed to mumble out a few words because I couldn’t quite express how much he had influenced both me and the team, and what a loss he would be to us.
To me, Thack had been what a Head of Department should be: quiet, calm and had tried to do the best for his team and the students. He was genuinely interested in design and pushed the students to do amazing work.
Sadly, the same could not be said of all Heads of Department, and it was an unfortunate thing indeed if a department had a Head who caused more issues than they solved.
One of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless to protect the identity of the innocent, openly chose to hide in their classroom rather than use their department office as that would mean coming into contact with their Head of Department, who could charitably be called ‘direct’ by some and ‘annoyingly dictatorial’ by others.
Another HOD regularly made another of my colleagues cry by being similarly ‘direct’, although my colleague would write this off as the result of having high standards for the team. She didn’t seem to understand that while high standards were a good thing, making your team cry in order to achieve them was not.
Other HODs were openly acknowledged to just be a bit rubbish, particularly when it came to organisation and paperwork, to the extent that it was often quicker, easier and less painful to talk
to the Second in Department if you actually wanted to see anything get done.
Perhaps the best, if bluntest, example of how a Head of Department could influence their team
in a negative way comes from my training year and one of my fellow trainees. Very early in the
year he got to sit in on a Department Meeting. Department meetings are best compared to pulling off a plaster from a cut. Everyone knows it’s going to be painful but you have to do it so it’s better
to get it over and done with as fast as possible. Thackery used to time himself and see just how quickly he could conduct his meetings because he knew we all had things that we'd rather be doing, like gouging out our eyes with spoons, or finally getting around to tackling the mountainous pile of student work in your room that you’d been ignoring in the hopes that it would magically mark itself.
To start off this meeting the HOD, who was not particularly well-liked, thought he’d be all carey-sharey and get some input from the team. He asked them to all suggest one thing that would improve the department in the coming year.
The first to respond was an experienced teacher and ex-tin miner who was one of those teachers who had seen strategies come and go and come back around again, and was a touch jaded to say the least. He also did not like the HOD at all.
“So, what’s one thing that could make the department better?” asked the optimistic HOD.
“If you f***ed off.” came the somewhat direct reply. Without missing a beat, or letting his smile waver for even a second, the HOD swiftly moved on to the next member of the team. It was an interesting start to my friend’s training year, and served to show that not all teams were happy ones.
The last thing I want to talk about in this chapter ties into the other points, about the data and the ambition and the various strategies that did the rounds again and again.
More than one colleague in my time teaching came out with,
“But remember, it’s all about the kids” on various occasions, to reinforce that that was why they were doing this job - it was all for the kids, and there was no personal gain or ambition in their motivation. These colleagues were veritable martyrs who sacrificed their needs for those of the students, or that's what some of them would like you to believe anyway.
Undoubtedly, there were teachers who were motivated by doing the best they could for the students. One of the people I had the pleasure to work with worked incredibly long hours as part
of the Safeguarding team, and would literally do anything for the students, and her example was
an awe-inspiring one, and it wasn't as if she was the only person I could name who did this. What got me was the people who trotted out ‘It's all for the kids’ when they barely disguised their naked ambition, and who pulled out every trick in the book to make sure that they looked as good as they possibly could - it seemed that although they claimed it was all about the kids, in reality it was all about them.
I’ll admit straight up that for me it was not all about the kids at all. I got into the job because I
loved learning stuff and had a fantastic time doing it. I also thought that my subject was the most important in the entire school (every teacher thinks this). What I wanted to do was to get the kids
to become students and to love learning and my subject as much as I did, a perhaps somewhat unrealistic goal I’ll admit, but I didn't kid myself that it was for any other reason.
As the job changed more and more the longer I stayed in it, it became clear that ‘It's all for the
kids’ became an increasingly hollow phrase. What we did for the students became more and more about what the students provided the school with: funding so that we could carry on for another year, a set of results that hopefully proved that we were better than other schools and would keep the inspectors from our door as long as possible. It became more about that we could prove we’d gone through certain motions rather than knowing that I’d tried my best (and it became increasingly clear that my and our collective best was not going to ever be good enough) and I had dragged my students to their target grades by hook or by crook rather than them doing their best and achieving the grade they deserved as a result.
The really weird thing about being a teacher is that all of these different perspectives and attitudes and ambitions exist side by side, and the whole teaching machine rumbles on. We bitch and we moan and we complain, but at the end of the day we all try and do the best we can, whatever we individually believe the ‘best’ to be. Strategies come and go and come back again; sometimes every child as an individual matters more than anything else before you’re told in a meeting the next day that the current Year 11s have to collectively reach a certain percentage of grade Cs or above, and you desperately look at the numbers rather than the individuals. All you can do is take each day and each class as it comes, and try to stay as sane as you can amidst all the insanity and strangeness that is an average day in a school.