'We'd do well to remember that students have a life and learn things outside of our classrooms'
A blanket of arrogance lies over the teaching profession.
With this arrogance, it is wrongly assumed that teachers are the only ones who can provide the opportunities and experiences that students need to develop as, at the very least, competent human beings.
Only with our encouragement can students learn to be resilient. Only with our guidance will students learn the value of hard work. And only with our gentle prompting will students engage with a diverse range of differing cultural, religious and gender perspectives.
For some, this shroud of solipsism brings a warm feeling of affirmation: "I am a teacher and I know what’s best."
However, this blanket of arrogance is stifling us. And we should consider kicking it off.
I recently published a photo of eight novels I’d be using for an extract analysis unit with my GCSE students in September. The list contained no novels by female authors and I was rightly – and gratefully – brought up on this. But then someone asked whether I’d included enough LGBT material. And then someone else questioned one of my picks, The Kite Runner, as not actually being as representative of Islamic literature as many teachers (yes, me) assume it to be.
I agonised over all this. My choices (or non-choices) prompted a Twitter debate that lasted all weekend.
All this got me thinking. While I believe it is my duty to provide students with a broad range of literary perspectives from a diverse range of authors, should this be a priority for me as a classroom teacher?
I mean, am I the only way students are going to learn about homosexuality? Am I the students’ only way into the murky world of female oppression? Is it my job to explore Islam with my students?
The answer to all these questions is, of course, "Well, er…sort of."
I must do the best I can. I recognise this. As one highly respected "tweacher" told me: "Many kids learn quite bad stuff about ‘diversity’ outside your classroom. Your silence is not neutral."
I agree with this. But then, someone else on Twitter said, tongue firmly in cheek: "Barking up the wrong tree, mate. Teach resilience in school. They can learn about similes and subordinate clauses at home."
And I understand what this person was getting at. My job, as a teacher, is to give kids the best opportunities I can. And, whether we like it or not, exam success goes some way to providing these opportunities.
So, do I need to be spending hours banging on about resilience? Do I need to be wasting time agonising over whether the texts I’ve chosen for study are representative of every aspect of what is a very diverse society? Do I need to ensure that inferior texts are given precedence over superior ones purely because they tick a sexuality shaped box? Because, if I spend all my time teaching these things, who’s teaching them metaphors, modal verbs and mise en scène?
Obviously, the answer isn’t clear-cut here. It’s about professional judgement and it’s about balance. But, while we’re on the subject, I think we’d do well to remember that students have a life outside of our classrooms.
And here’s why:
Hearing you bang on about Oranges are Not the Only Fruit isn’t going to be, for most, a student’s only meaningful engagement with homosexuality. Nor is a cringe-inducing poetry lesson analysing Jay Z going to give students any insight into "what it’s like to be black". The playground has come a long way; you’ll be surprised at how, on the whole, students are far more tolerant than they were when you were at school. We’ve come a long way since "that kiss" on Brookside. Refer to a televised homosexual kiss as "that kiss" now and students would reply with "what one?". You’d do well to remember that some of your students are already struggling with, exploring, and yes, enjoying their sexuality.
Some of your students already know about Islam because they are friends with real-life Muslims. Honest. And some of your students are exhibiting grit and resilience and all that other bollocks every day – day in, day out – in their home lives, at sports clubs, even in their online rants about why this band is better than that band. So rather than trying clumsily to impose your own, probably outdated, view of what is diverse, or what "tolerance" is, or how students can demonstrate resilience, see what they have to say about it and work from there. The things you agonise over, they may not even give a second thought. But do ask: it’ll show students that you care about them. And they may even teach you a thing or two.
Target Setting and Marking
In a 164-hour week, a secondary teacher might see students for four hours. This means that 100 per cent of your week is just 2.4 per cent of theirs. Because they have this life outside of your classroom, it’s unreasonable to expect your students to remember, off the top of their heads, the countless number of targets you are setting them – week in, week out – let alone to act on them, unless you instruct them specifically to check back, and do so during any given piece of work. I know schools where students are given three different target grades for every subject. And school leaders genuinely expect students to remember these when there are Pokémon to be caught and punishments to escape. What’s more, the pressure put on teachers to ensure that students care about these targets is, if not outrageous, unrealistic.
As for marking, just stop. A couple of ticks and one SMART target (as concise as you can make it), for one piece of work, per half-term will do. Honest.
This is a tricky one. It’s about low expectations and it’s about high expectations.
Many parents are doing all the things we’re doing. They’re trying to get the buggers to read. They’re clumsily explaining the refugee crisis and they’re dusting off, soothing and encouraging after endless scraped knees. They are. And so, when I hear teachers agonising for hours, martyr-style, over how they can best achieve their virtuous goal of improving the moral and psychological wellbeing of their students, I think this: just what low expectations do you have of the parents of our students?
But I also think this: shouldn’t we have higher expectations of the parents who don’t teach their kids to read; who don’t teach their kids that learning to ride a bike takes time and effort; who don’t say it’s OK for a man to kiss a man? Why should the sole responsibility for a child’s wellbeing rest on our already-weary shoulders? School leaders need to work harder on bridging the relationship between parents and teachers so that both can work together to achieve the end aim of healthy, well-rounded students who love lots and do nice things.