Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Death of Teaching

One of the worst moments in your life is when you come to realise that you are not happy in your job anymore.  There can be varying reasons for this and it may be a passing phase in which case the feeling itself  passes and you are able to continue your job as you have done in the past. It's something else when you realise the job itself and what it demands of you is changing and it's no longer what you want.

I think of myself as an 'accidental' teacher.  I didn't have any plans to go into teaching, it's more of something I fell into after leaving university.  I had a Master's degree in English Literature, but I had no particular training in anything.  A couple of years' of teaching would look better on my CV than a career in waitressing, I thought.  How little was I to know that I would spend the next fifteen years in the job.

Teaching is a profession that grew on me. I didn't always enjoy it at the beginning, but I came to enjoy it immensely.  When I thought of changing career before, it was usually due to monetary reasons, but I realised the flexibility that teaching gave me (like the ability to bring my children to school while I did afternoon activities) and the fact that I wouldn't have to work when my children were on holiday, could not be found in another job.

It has become something of a cliché to say that teaching is not a particularly well paid job, but the great moments are when you are thanked or when a struggling student makes a sudden breakthrough.  I don't disagree.  I have never been particularly well paid and there is certainly a misguided sense that teaching should be a vocation and done for the love of it.  So should being a doctor.  I have also had numerous moments when a student has thanked me for getting them through exams or a past student has written to say they are glad I was their teacher.  These are great moments and most sincerely treasured ones.

The problem is that they are becoming fewer.  Perhaps I have lost my zing?  Yes, I'll agree with this to a certain extent.  When you teach full time, you really do work all the time: evenings and weekends are taken up in marking and planning and then there are activities and duties to attend to.  This is hard to maintain when you have a family to look after as well and I have often noted how teachers' children are some of the most neglected in schools.

However, the reason that thank yous are becoming so few and far between goes beyond my own limitations.  The fact of the matter is that schools have become businesses and businesses provide a service and nobody ever says thank you for a service.

More and more, schools, even in Africa, are becoming result-driven.  We are a good school: we can offer your child the best education.  The proof of this is in the results.  If you don't get the results, it's not because your child is incapable or slow or suffering from mental trauma, it's because the teacher wasn't good enough.

Thus there is now a continuous push to get through The Syllabus.  All lesson planning must take cognisance of The Syllabus.  If you didn't get through point D today , then why not?  The fact that you got through points A, B and C is irrelevant. It's also irrelevant that you answered a student's question about something not absolutely related to the topic and this led on to a discussion about why so many poets and writers suffer from depression or how the representation of women in film has changed over the last seventy years. 

Many interesting discussions on marriage have ensued from the reading of Jane Austen's novels; and many more discussions on the presence or absence of God have followed on from reading Wilfred Owen's poetry.  Perhaps English is a subject in which it is harder not to digress than other subjects.  However, is that not what makes a lesson exciting?  It is obviously important to get through the syllabus, but it is probably what a student learns along the way that sticks with them for the rest of their lives.

In an interview  for a teaching job that I went for about fifteen years ago, the Head told me how he wanted a Robin Williams type teacher.  'You know,' he said, 'Dead Poets' Society.  Captain, my Captain.  Carpe Diem!'  I was a little taken aback at the thought.  Robin Williams in a couple of scenes in which students stand on the desks and feel the power of poetry shooting through them, is a little different to teaching the same class for two years - standing on the desks may become something of a chore after the fifteenth time.  The irony nowadays is that not the many heads would be looking for a Robin Williams type.  In fact, he is unlikely to get his foot in the door.  Schools don't want teachers who break the rules or who don't follow a written plan.  'Carpe Diem' would have to come attached with aims and objectives; there would need to be 'peer discussion', followed by a plenary.  Homework would have to demonstrate the pupils had a clear knowledge of what was required of them.  As for standing on desks?  Health and safety would take care of that one.

Gone is the eccentric, the teacher who quotes from his or her vast knowledge of poetry - because he or she  actually reads it and loves it beyond the requirements of The Syllabus.  Gone is the Character - the teacher remembered years later by his or her teachers for their interesting way of teaching or dressing or thinking.  Teachers are no longer there to make you think, but to pass exams.  Ironically, this may mean that teachers demand higher pay because the sense of the vocational has been lost.

It is one of life's peculiarities that in a world that encourages freedom of speech and expression, we are all becoming very much the same, little clones setting off into the world to make more clones.
If teaching is the profession that creates all others, the future is a scary prospect.