Friday, 8 April 2011

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher

Whatever goes on in our lives we are all a product of our education just as much as our parental upbringing, if not more so. When I heard that teachers from a school in Lancashire are striking due to allegations of violence and misbehaviour from kids, it begs the question: should we blame loud and raucous kids or just simply bad teaching?

If Jamie Oliver is to be believed it's the teaching. His Dream School series on Channel 4 is setting out to prove that with the right teachers, even the most difficult kids can become perfect students. On last weeks episode Professor Robert Winston (a famous infertility doctor) asked one of the students masturbate in a petri dish so they could all have a look at his sperm under the microscope. The kids were enthralled by this (not at the masturbating, this took place in a private room but still, THAT could have livened up Science classes). To me this proved that getting kids interested is less to do with subject, and a teachers passion for a subject, it's about how it is taught. 

Teachers get a bad rap from everyone. They have one of the most important jobs in our society and because of their position they get blamed for how our kids turn out. But I think it's a common misconception that anyone can be a teacher, that simply by taking your teacher training you become a good teacher. There was a saying a while ago "those who can't, teach" which has been rehashed by the Education department as "those who can, teach". Either way, there's a totally false belief that if you are good at something, you can teach it. To me, teaching is an entirely different skill all on its own. Some of the teachers on Dream School have been shockingly bad, totally unable to get any kind of control or interest out of the kids, proving that you can be brilliant and highly intelligent and really care about a subject, but that doesn't mean you can teach it well or appeal to a large number of students.

I remember very strict teachers at school who had the quietest most well behaved classes but they were still bloody boring. They were the old school style teachers who ruled by fear. We kept our mouths shut lest we got a black board rubber chucked at our heads but were we really engaged in the subjects or simply listening with half an ear while thinking about pooling all our dinner money to buy ten B&H at lunch break? I fear it was the latter.

The best teachers were the ones who were a bit batty. An old English teacher Mr K (god rest his soul) was a case in point. He would get the class going with just a clap of his hands. Precariously balanced on the back of the chair with his feet on the seat, looking like he could topple over at any minute (and occasionally he did, before jumping up grinning, much to the delight of the class), he wasn't only passionate about his subject, he was passionate about teaching. He wasn't young or cool, you knew not to misbehave because he was strict but kids always looked forward to his classes. He was a brilliant teacher.

Maybe fifty odd years ago, kids sat silently in class and obediently did as they were told. School wasn't fun, get over it. But something has changed. It's becoming clearer that kids these days just don't fit into the same boxes as each other, it is not a case of one size fits all. No longer can we expect kids to want to sit and listen when they have so much more seemingly exciting things to do with their time. Computer games, the internet, mobile phones, telly... maybe previous generations were so bored shitless that sitting around listening to some old dude drone on about Pythagoras seemed more interesting than any available alternative? Or maybe it was simply the fear of the cane that kept kids in check.

Let me make myself clear, I am not blaming bad behaviour on bad teaching. Everyone is responsible for their own behaviour, children included. My opinion is simply that if kids were being properly motivated in class maybe they wouldn't have time to misbehave because they'd be too busy learning. And I am not blaming teachers, I am blaming those who trained the teachers, those who set the curriculum and those who employ teachers who don't have the passion or skills to excite the kids. I have to agree with old clever clogs Oliver here, I know he's being crucified for his Dream School (which admittedly may not be going brilliantly) but he's got a point. We need to do something to make kids interested again. And as he has proven, just because someone is clever, famous or even brilliant at what they do, if they can't engage a class and fire imaginations, kids won't listen.

Teaching is one of the hardest career paths to take, with it comes huge responsibility, stress and longer hours than anyone gives teachers credit for. Maybe some of these teachers once were exciting, brilliant and engaging, but bad behaviour, having to cope with an ever changing curriculum and rapidly evolving society has made them lose their passion. You can't blame them.

Admittedly maybe any teacher is better than no teacher. We don't have enough good teachers, we don't have enough good doctors, we don't have enough good anything in this country. But unless we start getting education right we never WILL have enough. I firmly believe that there are plenty brilliant and exciting kids out there to fulfil our future needs for great teachers, doctors and so forth, but one look at Dream School and the fact that we have teachers unable to do their job because of bad behaviour should surely be a wake up call to curriculum makers and school boards everywhere.


  1. I get where you're coming from, Beth, but dare I suggest that when it comes to Mr K you may be just slightly biased in his favour as English was a fave subject of yours?? I loved English too, but at least once a week, Mr K gave us a word search or a crossword or some other photocopied word puzzle which seemed like a cop-out to me, and a chance for many in my class to piss about. A few of us were fond of Mr K, but we all chuckled at his mad trousers with the buckle on the arse, his comb-over, and his secret fags in the supply cupboard probably while we were word-searching!

    That aside, I don't believe that teachers should be expected to deal with violent or aggressive behaviour at all. Manners and good behaviour should start at home. Lessons should be engaging, but what appeals to one pupil will not do anything for another, so it's not an easy job, and certainly having a less-than-engaging teacher or a boring subject is not an excuse for back-chat or worse. I, and the majority of my school-mates, would never dare to cheek a teacher. We may not have agreed with everything they said or did, but with the exception of a few, we respected their authority, and knew when to keep our mouths shut. Sadly, it seems that young people today (and I worked with many teenagers for nearly ten years in my previous job) feel that it's perfectly OK to be mouthy and defensive all of the time with anyone they come across in life, well, more fool them! When they join the Rat Race, they will soon realise that their attitudes will do them no favours in the work-place, that's providing of course they manage to get a job in the first!

    I firmly believe that manners and respect should be taught at home. They are the basics required to become a civilised human being. School is not a creche, but sadly many parents treat it as such. We should be grateful for our good teachers and give support to those who want to be better.

  2. What a fantastic comment! Really got me thinking.

    Thanks for your insight about Mr K, sadly he only taught me for 2 years (as a yr 7 and 8 so hardly , so much of my memory of him is based on that alone. I actually cut an entire paragraph about how he wore only underpants on school sports day and the random items that could be found in his store cupboard! When I talk to my school mates about beloved teachers everyone seems to remember Mr K fondly, maybe he didn't teach us as much as we remember but his memory lives on because of his sheer craziness.

    I have to say that my experience of English teaching (and indeed in a lot of subjects) was sadly lacking, I was not left inspired to do anything more with my life than get drunk, have inappropriate boyfriends and think about my latest hairstyle. Maybe teachers wrote me off, because of the above, thinking I would amount to nothing and therefore didn't waste their time on me. Maybe it was my fault for acting like a dick (we have a chicken and an egg situation here which I cannot begin to unravel, I just want it to be noted that I take full responsibility for how I turned out). "Careers advice" consisted of a pencilled in form, fed into a computer suggesting I could go into social work, then a random county careers advisor (who did not know me nor anything about me) refusing my insistence that I wanted to write, telling me there was no money in it therefore I should go into accountancy or the armed forces. Thanks to that, frankly useless, careers advisor I ended up with failed accountancy and economics a-levels, disillusioned about life and believing there was no such thing as following your dreams, or being inspired, just do any job that gets you enough money to pay the bills. It was only 2 years later, when I suddenly got the impetus, off my own back (my epiphany moment!), to take English a-level evening classes and get myself into university to study my art.

    That was my story, others may have a completely different view of the education we received but my feeling about school was that we were living in such a confused time (Thatcher kids: you can have everything you want, money, money money, yet we were living in a recession - how does that figure?), and teachers just couldn't relate to the issues I was facing, nor have the time or energy to help me to nurture what talent or inspiration I had. We still are living in a confused time and outdated school systems (nor wacky new age trials) do not prepare kids these days for the world we live in today.

    So how do we resolve it, if the old system fails us, yet radical new ideas might just be too radical to risk?…
    (continued in next comment)

  3. You are right, manners and behaviour begin at home, so why does it seem that the current generation of teenagers think that they can get away with such bad behaviour? I can speak only for myself and the man as parents, but our number one priority in bringing up our boys has always been manners. A parenting book suggested (when I was struggling with son number one at 2yrs old acting like a thug) that you should decide on what is most important to you as far as behaviour is concerned and concentrate on that. For us, it is manners. But I don't doubt that not everyone places the same importance on courtesy and respect that we do. And to be honest, we find the whole job of parenting so overwhelming that maybe other bad behaviours are being overlooked. Maybe education needs to begin with the parents? Is it too late for us as parents? If so we need to teach future generations of parents how to do it well, and that starts with a curriculum that reflects our current state of affairs.

    Forget Jamie O and his sailing lessons, kids need to be taught how to conduct themselves with honour and dignity, ethics, morals and so forth. To say nothing of debt (and how to avoid it), how to run a household budget, how to change a nappy, better sex education... the list goes on.

    I agree that wholeheartedly that no teacher, or anyone for that matter, should have to endure any level of rudeness or violence whether at work or elsewhere. I firmly believe in the cause these teachers are fighting for, I just don't see what good it can do? Good teachers are few and far between and those who want help to be better definitely deserve our support, but what exactly do we need to teach them to do? As I said in the post, I just don't know.

    My point is SOMETHING needs to change. Whether that's helping parents to do better or teachers to be better, it just seems like we're in quite a mess and I don't see how teachers striking is helping? Is our government so crap, the support for these teachers so non existent, that this is what they are forced to do just to get the support they need to do their job?

  4. P.s. Can't believe that my comments nearly equalled the same length as my original blog, don't you just love a bit of politics on a Friday night? :-)