Before I could start my teacher training, I had to spend a week observing lessons in a school. I went back to the secondary school I attended, and they were kind enough to accommodate my compulsory observations. I saw a range of lessons in different subjects, but what stands out in my memory is how appalled I was at the behaviour of students in one particular lesson, and the teacher’s lifeless indifference to the whole fiasco. I have no idea what she was teaching, because every student in the class had been given licence to talk throughout the teacher’s attempts at addressing the class. For a whole hour. That was with an outside visitor in the room. That lesson must have been the same every time, every week: a cacophony of teenage voices, talking about anything but the topic of the lesson. I felt sorry for the teacher and pretty angry at the children. Instinctively, I wanted to intervene, but of course it would not have been appropriate for me to do so.
When people think about my town, or talk about it, they think of the working class, poverty, gangs and drugs. My town is the butt of a number of snobbish, classist, tasteless jokes. There is a meme that compares my town to the “shadowy place” in the Lion King that Simba must never visit. Occasionally, I am sickened by well-off teachers from outside of my town (often married to a wealthy spouse working outside of education) but teaching in its schools, who make snobbish jokes about the rundown and undesirable areas in my town. And in this town, where there is an absence of culture, a lack of aspiration, high rates of disadvantage and an ingrained apathy towards the education system, I saw a completely ineffective teacher. Her mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear a word. She was talking into the wind and the cycle of under-privilege was being perpetuated right in front of me. Those kids were getting nothing from their education. They were victims of the circumstances of their births. They couldn’t learn in that environment, where no one valued education, even if they wanted to. They couldn’t know that they were destroying their own life chances. No one had taught them to value school.
The first school where I was employed, in one of the wealthiest towns in England, showed me how the other half learnt. Before my first year was over, I saw scores and scores of children collecting nothing but A*, A and the occasional B grade, in an event that was grander than my own degree presentation. My time at that leafy school would show me that the children there were simply easy to teach. They were from financially successful, nuclear families. Their parents held degrees and they valued education. Their vocabulary was built at home as much as it was at school. There was no poverty. There were no gangs. There was financial and educational privilege everywhere I looked. To begin with I was resentful, and I started to hold an attitude of inverse snobbery. These high achievers were spoon-fed. It was, and remains, a cycle of privilege. Average students would get the top grades by virtue of the fact their education was not disrupted, because the students generally value learning. Even the teaching at this widely celebrated institution wasn’t that great. It didn’t need to be. It was VAK nonsense, discovery based learning and other gimmicky progressive stuff that has no proven efficacy. But with children who are so agreeable to the education process, and parents who can afford to plug the gaps by paying for tutors, it was hard to get it wrong. I should know. I was there.
Meanwhile, in schools like the one I went to as a child, it is going wrong every single day, and the cost to the children is much higher. I like the analogy shouting into the wind because it works on two levels. On the more obvious level, the teacher isn’t being heard by the students in classroom. They have decided she isn’t worth listening to, and so the noise of their off topic discussion becomes the wind that swallows up the struggling voice of the teacher. It is the very image of futility. And sadly, this image is a microcosm that represents the reality of whole communities that don’t value education. In this bigger picture, the lone drowned-out voice is the voice of education; the noise of the wind is a toxic collective of social ills: disaffected parents, peer pressure, low expectations, financial distress, broken families, violence, gangs, food poverty, cultural poverty, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and so on. You can’t expect these kids to drink at the Pierian Spring; they are too broken down though enduring the punishments that issued forth from Pandora’s Box.
I can’t offer a solution to the utter disparity I have seen in education, in towns less than 30 miles apart. I do think that teaching in schools where disadvantage is prevalent needs greater incentive in order to attract the best teachers. If you are trying to make a difference for disadvantaged children, you are heroic.
And here’s a little food for thought: if you are a successful teacher in a well-off school, don’t congratulate yourself too much. You are swimming with the tide.
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