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.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Sore Loser? Moi?

The BBC News website this morning reports that, according to a recent survey of 8-16 year olds and their parents, we are a nation of sore losers. What constitutes a good loser? Is it simply a case of hiding your disappointment?

Like most people, I think, I would like to consider myself humble in victory and gracious in defeat, but I know the man would beg to differ.

A few weeks ago he suggested a games night; the Wii or board games? My ears pricked up at the suggestion of board games, how about Monopoly? He was surprised. I have always refused to play Monopoly with him because it has a tendency to bring out a fierce aggression in me, rarely seen when sober. However, given that we had never played it together in our whole 12 year history, it seemed safe to give it a go. Boy, was I wrong.

The very second he rolled the dice and bought the first property he landed on, a station, I could feel my skin crawling with tension and gritted my teeth while he cheerfully explained he never usually bothers with the stations. Fast forward 1 hour and he has more money than he can spend. I have very little money in the bank and despite owning Park Lane and Mayfair, with houses on both, when I land on one of his greens with a hotel I say "That's it, you win." 
"But you haven't even counted your money, or you could sell some stuff?" He says kindly. 
"Nope it wouldn't be worth it, I'd still lose. Anyway, for the last half an hour I've just been waiting for a point when I could say you have won and you have now, OK? That was so boring, I don't know why we even bothered playing it in the first place. You can tidy it up. I'm putting the telly on." With a barely audible harumph, I put my feet up and proceed to ignore him for the next 15 minutes. Yep, I'm definitely a sore loser when it comes to Monopoly.

Last year at my son's preschool sports day I was talking to some of the other mums and was surprised to learn that often sports days now consist of uncompetitive games, standing around throwing balls to one another, giving the children a chance to do sport without having winners and losers. This all seems so tame, and frankly a bit soft. As much as I hated sports a child, I like to think it was character building. Quite what character it built I don't know, but it's one of those sayings us parents like to use along the same vein as "you kids have it so easy these days" and "you don't know you are born Mister", all of which can be roughly translated as: I had to do it, so why shouldn't you?

As a total under achiever in the PE department, the sports days of my youth were bone chillingly terrifying. There was nothing more humiliating on this earth than gullumping over the finish line last, bright red and sweating buckets, only to find the rest of the competitors were already chatting to their friends and checking their make up, barely a hint of sweat at their brow. Swimming galas were just as bad. I was in my local swimming club which gave me a perceived degree of proficiency (which I was most definitely not worthy of), and therefore was often asked to participate in the back stroke race. No one ever wants to do the back stroke race, because the same thing happens to everyone (OK maybe just me, but humour me here, I would like to come out of this blog post with a teeny bit of dignity). The whistle blows and you start furiously wind-milling your arms and kicking your legs imagining the crowd excitedly cheering your name and picturing the glory of reaching the other side first, only to find yourself 3 minutes later having gone diagonally across the pool, bashed your head on the tiled side, no where near the finish line, with everyone pointing and laughing at you. Getting out of the pool to find your swimming costume has gone completely see through in front of the whole school does not help the situation.

Maybe these experiences of my childhood have made me less competitive, I have a kind of "Well I'll do it but just so everyone knows, I'm going to lose" attitude to most games. Because lets face it, there's nothing worse than really trying to win something only to lose. 

The man is highly competitive, though he will dispute that until he's blue in the face. The smug satisfaction on his face of being pretty good at most things is enough to drive me to distraction, and has contributed to more than a few arguments. I don't consider myself a sore loser, but in the face of a self-satisfied winner I have a tendency to get a well-timed headache or attack of PMS.

Maybe it's not a case of us being sore losers. Maybe it's that we are becoming more arrogant winners. Competitiveness can lead to great ambition which I am all for, but repeatedly winning can make people conceited. So maybe the focus should be on making us more gracious winners. My son has a current obsession with being the winner. Whether it's finishing his dinner first, or being the first one out of the door (usually pushing me and his little brother out of the way to get there) he can't wait to cry out triumphantly "I won! I'm the winner! Ha, ha, you LOST!" I have tried to encourage him to be less competitive and stop seeing life as a constant race or competition but as yet, I am failing. Maybe it's a boy thing. But I do get drawn into the competition just by his very smugness, I have found myself responding by saying things like "Yeah but you cheated" and "Look, its not a race OK?" Maybe a better mum would allow him his glory.

One look at any parents race at any sports day, at any school anywhere in the world, and you can see the people who are there for the win. Some of them even wear special trainers and tracky b's to give them the edge over us less prepared mums who have arrived in flip flops and jeans. The whistle blows and it's elbows out, trying to get a head start. My first ever parents race I came second to last, but I wasn't even trying to win so that's OK, alright?

I don't want to be a sore loser, but I would much less like to be an arrogant winner. I find the best way to avoid being a sore loser is to not compete in the first place (a tactic which I have grown accustomed to using), which is surely defeating the whole point? If you care about winning something you're going to be upset if you lose. And if you win, you have every right to be happy about it. Maybe pointing at someone and saying "Ha ha, loser" is taking a bit far but where is the line between healthy competition and smugness? And for those of us used to losing at pretty much everything from a young age, it makes no difference whether the winner is gracious, frankly they're all arrogant gits. But bravo to them. Really. The smug, self-satisfied, arrogant, conceited...