Last weekend I went to an escape room for a friend’s birthday (think The Crystal Maze meets the Krypton Factor run by a pale bloke in specs and you’re there). We opted for the magical room where we were introduced to our quest by Grand Wizard Horace the Magnificent who remained on the speaker to interject when we went hopelessly adrift in our endeavours.
To say we didn’t entirely cover ourselves in glory would be something of an understatement. Ten minutes in we were still grappling with the first clue and Horace was struggling to keep the contempt out of his voice as he reminded us for the fourth time to “use the number you found under the box”. However, teamwork prevailed and we finally made it out, beating the clock by a mere 37 seconds.
I got out of there on the coat tails of others. Some things in life – logic puzzles, rotational symmetry, number crunching – seem completely beyond my reach. I can actually feel my brain refusing to compute.
This, for a teacher in 2019, is something of a problem. We all teach within a system. It’s no good just to know your children well and talk about next steps, everything has to be viewed in the context of a grand data plan: a “bigger picture”.
Only what this plan looks like is a hazy mystery, a shape-shifting image that refuses to come into focus. I’m no good at the lingo. In fact, the longer I stay in teaching the worse I get. I sit in meetings and listen to discussions that my brain genuinely refuses to comprehend.
As far as I can tell, there are two worlds. One is made up of stuff that doesn’t change: spelling words, long division, using capital letters for proper nouns. Running alongside this is a world of acronyms, evidence and percentages, calculating progress points and covering writing in post-its and highlighters to demonstrate mastery of modal verbs. All of these things are in constant motion. What they look like in one school can be completely unrecognisable in another.
“You can still teach how you like, but sometimes you’ve simply got to learn to play the game,” I was told recently by someone who patently understands the game better than me. I think SLT are at a distinct advantage in this area. It’s their job to know the system inside out, to live and breathe graphs and data. The rest of us are too busy chasing up reading books and trying to get Jamie to remember his times tables.
I remember once, back in the APP years, coming out of a particularly lengthy staff meeting where the senior leaders were introducing us to a new method of assessing small steps progress in maths. It was touted as a “simple time-saving method” but the fact you need a special app, eight different colours, three lengthy sets of statements and a spreadsheet to implement it showed that it was anything but.
“Did you understand all that?” I asked one of the staffroom veterans as we left the room.
“Not a word,” he told me. “I think that’s the point of it. All these new buzzwords and whizzy methods are just designed to make teachers like us feel completely useless and past it.”
I could see his point. It’s hard to remember a year where something new didn’t enter in.
Maybe it’s because I’m part-time so I don’t get enough practice. Maybe I’m no good at second guessing the mindset and machinations of inspectors and external moderators. Maybe I’ve simply run out of energy. If there’s a game, I’m not sure I want to play anymore
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary teacher in the West Midlands