On bagging teachers

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On bagging teachers

I work as a relief teacher. At seven in the morning, or if I’m lucky, at eight in the evening, the night before, I get a call from a surprisingly calm sounding woman who coordinates the relief teachers at one of the high schools nearby, and she asks me if I’m available to teach, and I usually say, ‘Yes, I’d love to. What time do you need me?’

So I show up at school (after all the regular teachers do) in time for period one, and find my instructions, left by whoever I’m stepping in for (because of illness, or sometimes a class trip, or professional development…). Then I find my class and introduce myself and they invariably try to swap names or convince me they’re ‘usually allowed to listen to music in class’, but we plod on with their work and at the end of it they go to the next class, and so do I.

At interval, I sit in a staff room and watch and listen, and damn it people, why do we, as a society, bag teachers? Why is it that we just assume the problems with education (and therefore with all of society…) can be traced back to rubbish teachers? Because honestly, I can remember one or two less-than-stellar teachers from my entire schooling career, but most of them were creative, articulate, could think on their feet, deliver inspirational speeches at the drop of a hat, make us do way more than we thought we were capable of… These people work ridiculous hours and pour their hearts and souls into helping kids through school, preparing them for life beyond, propping them up when they’re struggling, just generally, frankly, being everyday HEROES.

I get it, teachers are a convenient target for government and media when they want to point the finger, but the more time I spend around schools, the more fed up I am with the lazy rhetoric, the scapegoating.

There’s a thing we do – all of us – we assume we work harder than other people. We can’t step into their shoes and live their life, can’t see most of what they do, the hard parts of their jobs, the complexity. We see the rewards perhaps, we see the pay-off, we see the appearance of order and meaning, and it is so easy to imagine they have it just slightly (or a lot) easier than we do.

With teachers it’s too easy. We see school holidays and nine a.m. to three p.m.. We see them as glorified babysitters, perhaps. We imagine it’s not that hard to give lectures and detentions to a room full of smelly, disorganised, apathetic teenagers with smartphones under their desks. We think you’d have to be an idiot to sign up for that shit in the first place. We think they put on a movie any time they’re not feeling up to it.

And then our own kids (or our friends’ kids) come home, tired and hormonal, and talk smack about how rubbish their teachers are, how out of control their classes, how they outsmarted the fool in charge. Do we believe them? Do we accept the job-appraisal offered by a fifteen year old who would rather be mine-crafting than wrapping his head around the causes of World War II? The teacher took his phone off him and gave him homework, and we take his word on how competent she is at her job?


And the shit teachers have to deal with some days, the cruel fragile-ego-driven shit teenagers deal out (it’s a phase, perhaps, not to excuse it, but we can probably all remember being less than lovely to a teacher or two). Teachers take that stuff, laugh it off, and put on their armour and go back to work, because they’ve got a job to do. These kids need to learn this stuff, pass this test, gain this credit…

The money’s not crash hot. The holidays are mythical. And nine to three… hah!

You want to improve education? Pay them better, give them smaller classes and bigger budgets and support staff to do all the non-teaching stuff. Start with the assumption that teachers are in it for the kids (because why the hell else would they be in it?) Start with the admission that if they’re not the best teacher ever, that puts education on par with every other profession, full of every-day-heroes who aren’t the best-ever at their job, but do pretty damn well in the circumstances, given the resources at hand. And most teachers are great learners – comes with the territory – they’re upping their game constantly. In fact, it’s required for keeping your teaching registration.

There are those who tick the boxes, disparage students, do the bare minimum – I’m sure there are, somewhere. I assume so because there must be, right? In any profession.

But I go into schools, I watch, I listen, and I’ve not yet seen ONE.

What I have seen are so many dedicated, creative, generous souls, giving up their lunch hours to help a struggling kid, doing research on their phone while eating a soggy sandwich, looking up a more engaging way to introduce a seemingly-dull but important topic, or finding course information for a kid who’s ready to quit school, or shoulder-tapping another teacher to compare notes on a kid who is often upset and is there something going on at home?

Unfortunately we have people in government, even those in charge of education portfolios, who’ve hardly spent any time in schools at all. Being in real schools with real teachers would soon put an end to all the teacher-blaming, and then we could start to talk about how to actually improve education in this country.

Okay, rant done. This guy does it better, and it’s possible you haven’t seen this because it’s a few years old now…

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Today is the first day of the new school year, here in France. They call this season the ‘reentre’ – pronounced like ‘entree’ – as in the first course of a meal – but with a soft throaty ‘r’ at the start.

This is my favourite time of year – or it was back in NZ, where it happens in February. It is throwing me off balance, more than usual, this being in the northern hemisphere where the seasons are the other way around…

Autumn has begun. The weather has turned, as if someone flicked a switch, but it’s warmer than it looks, as I discovered, sweating in my thin cotton shirt on the way to the hospital this morning. I had my birth-follow-up appointment (three months later because they take summer holidays rather seriously) with my OB/GYN. All is well, hurrah, enough information on that subject.

So, why is it that I love the going-back-to-school bit of the year? Is it just because I’m that much of a geek? Well, sure, that’s part of it. I always did like school – and then I went and became a teacher. The first term, with all it’s dreamy high expectations and endless possibilities, is lovely. The first few weeks, with all that crisp new stationary and all those books without dog-ears, all those lovely organised term and year plans, smooth and perfect photocopies, hole-punched and snapped into everyone’s brand new binders… ah, sweet nostalgia. I do miss teaching a little.

Of course it all spirals out of control and by the end of term the marking pile is higher than the computer screen and the roll book is no longer up to date, and I’ve started up email correspondence with too many parents, and veered from that lovely term plan. So I don’t miss teaching too much.

It seems like the time of year to be making plans and goals and resolutions, but I’m in the middle of lots of good stuff and don’t feel the need. I am fine-tuning my submissions to agents – going over and over and over my synopsis. I actually have several. There’s the blurb-like synopsis, which is very short and teaser-y. There’s the normal synopsis, with or without giving away the ending, which is about a page long. And I think I might need to write another one – a blow by blow, scene by scene breakdown, that tells the entire story and summarizes every conversation.

I found a few more things to change from my first chapter – which is good, of course, to find them now before I’ve sent anything, but also a little discouraging – my confidence that it’s ready to go has taken a bit of a knock.

But I will continue onwards. Tomorrow, I’ve decided, is the day I’ll actually send these over-thought, over-edited emails. And then I’ll be nervous and useless all day, wondering if they’ve been read, and if they have, what the agents thought, and if no news is good news. My scatter-brain-ed-ness will be unfortunate because our first french lesson of the new term is tomorrow afternoon.

Which reminds me, I must finish the homework this afternoon. I’m on the last chapter, but not far into it. As long as the babies stay asleep (I don’t think either of them actually are asleep but they’re quiet and, fingers crossed, headed that way) I’ll get that done now.

And then there’s the monstrous pile of dishes in the kitchen. I’ll need a coffee beforehand but I better save my pain au chocolat as a reward for after.

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a little like Dory

I could claim baby brain, but it goes back farther than that.

I’m a bit of a Dory. I only hope I’m as entertaining. I just wish I were exaggerating more about how forgetful I am.

I have a particularly short attention span at the moment. Sure, there’s often a child calling my attention away, but then I forget to go back to the thing I was half-way through doing. So frustrating!

I have like thirty tabs open at a time, on the computer. There’s a baby asleep in our bedroom and so the folded laundry is on the couch until I can put it away. There doesn’t seem much point putting away Mr Potato Head because Louis will play with it again when he wakes up.

There are usually a whole lot of things I could be or should be doing around this place – a rubbish bin needs emptying, the water in the flowers needs refreshing, the dining table is a mess, I’m hungry and want to make a smoothie, I’m in the middle of writing a new bit of a chapter of my novel, there are three new tweets waiting for me, a query letter to write and I’m half way through an episode of Wild At Heart – it’s paused on the television (I’ll watch it next time I’m feeding Elena).

I need to take some forms up to the securite sociale this afternoon, and I should get some bread while I’m up there. Louis has been inside all day, so maybe we’ll go to the park. I’ll take my kindle – but what will I read? I’m in the middle of several books.

I only just remembered, half an hour ago, that early this morning I told Luuk I’d send him a photo, as soon as possible. Oops. It’s a photo of our bedroom wall, which is badly water damaged, probably because the shower is leaking… which means visits from the apartment owner and plumbers and sometime I must remember to take photos of the water meter to gauge the severity of the leak.

I am determined to finish this blogpost before I get up to do ANYTHING else. Even the smoothie can wait.

I have a little to-do list app on my phone which tells me I need to pump – that is express some breastmilk. I try to do this every couple of days so that Elena can take a bottle if/when I go out. Why not just do it the day before I plan to go out? Because if I do it regularly it doesn’t mess so much with my milk supply.

I remembered to sterilize the bottles and stuff – at least that’s something. Kitchen’s a mess though. Luuk’s picking up takeaways tonight so that we don’t have to add any more dishes to the chaos. And after eating our takeaways, we’ll do the dishes. And then maybe watch the special features on the last season of The Wire.

We just finished watching that show. It certainly throws my little slice of chaos into perspective. At least I don’t have to deal with any of that kind of crazy – drugs, poverty, corruption, violence… though a little part of me still wants to be a reporter. Maybe one day.

For now, I will write in my current circumstances, with all of these priorities to balance and decisions to make. In just a year or two things could be entirely different.The future is so hard to imagine. And yet, at the same time, I’m fairly certain that I’ll teach again. I doubt I’ll ever go into politics, or not far into it anyway. I’ll always write, though the genres and medium will probably shift. The babies will grow and parenting will involve fewer nappies (hallelujah!) and more negotiation… hm.

But for now, right here, I’ll write. I’ll post this, then make a smoothie, toss a diaper in the bin, wipe down the kitchen bench, drink my smoothie and then keep on editing that novel. If I can tick off all that – oh, and change the water in the flowers – before the babies wake, then fabulous!

That’s the goal.

Off I go.

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A(i)m High

The motto of one of the high schools I went to was “I Aim High”. Naturally, the ‘i’ in aim had been erased from most of the signs…

Expectations weren’t so high at Penrose High, in general, but I had a maths teacher who took three of us out of the crowd and set us off with text books two years advanced. We didn’t sit the official exams but we all passed the practise exam. We got much better grades a year or two later when we were really ready, but I learned an awful lot more when I was challenged than when things were easy.

When I was at teacher’s college they talked about setting high expectations – for behaviour and for learning. This was much more difficult in the classroom than in theory, of course, but I found that my year ten english class enjoyed and learned a lot from Pygmalion, my social studies class engaged and grew while studying democracy and social action. These were tough, complex subjects and well “beyond’ them, but they learned a lot more than they would have had I pitched to the middle of the group. I had a wide range of abilities in the classroom and at least when I pitched high it was a bit much for all of them (and quite regularly it was a bit much for me too: curly questions a-plenty!)

Now, they didn’t do higher level assessments, and they probably didn’t do much better in their assessments than they would have otherwise, but at the tender age of fourteen they grappled with important topics and did some amazing stuff – raising money and awareness for various human rights issues in their social action assignments, for example.

I’m realising it’s not so different with a toddler. Yesterday, leaving the playground, he bid the others ‘Au Revoir’ and it occurred to me, he knows to say the french word to the french people!

At home he always says ‘bye bye’ when he, or someone else leaves, but at the park, and the bakery, and other french places, he says ‘Au Revoir’. At church and when we’re with english-speaking friends he knows to use ‘Bye bye’ and will only say ‘Au Revoir’ if prompted.

What’s going on in there? 

It’s easy to assume, simply because his communication is limited, that he doesn’t understand things, but that’s simply not the case. I could dumb down my communication ‘to his level’ but to be honest I don’t really know what ‘his level’ is.

As the teacher in Ballykissangel said, “If it doesn’t hurt or confuse I try to give an honest answer.” And I’d like to say the same with regards communicating with Louis. It’s a challenge every day, heck, every mealtime, every time he wants my attention and I’m feeding Elena… or a million other things I might be doing. But I want to keep trying to explain, trying to talk to him with respect and honesty.

“Louis, you can throw the soft toys and the balls, but not the hard toys.” This is usually followed by a demonstration of what soft and hard mean. And then he goes and throws the toy car anyway.

Drives me up the wall, but so did explaining democracy thirty times in a term. Didn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile.

The other obvious application for this is my writing – of course. I’m realising the importance of integrity in this field. There’s a lot of focus on marketing and setting up your ‘platform’, on publishing, and success. Now there’s a time and place for all that, there has to be or there’d be no books, and no writers making a living… important considerations.

Focussing too much on that stuff will make us sell-outs. I’ll stop doing something well for the sake of doing it well, for integrity and self-respect and because I have something important to say – or its important to me at least. I’ll grow resentful of successful writers, of agents and publishers, and eventually of writing itself.

So, here’s to doing things well, to aiming high, just BECAUSE.