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Teachers put pain to paper

The winners of the TES New Columnists competition 2006 bring to life the ups and downs of teaching. Peter Wilby looks at what makes a good columnist and what's bugging the profession, while Adi Bloom talks to the winner and three of the runners-up.

What makes a good columnist? As a judge for the TES competition, I looked for a vivid phrase, an unexpected insight, a flash of humour, an arresting start, a strong punchline, and an ability to use the particular to illustrate the general. These are (or should be) the qualities of any regular columnist.

But writing a column is not just a matter of putting words together in a clever way. A column should also convey something of the writer's personality, and of his or her knowledge and experience. A columnist writing from inside schools - whether a classroom teacher, a head, an assistant or a midday supervisor - should give us the flavour of their working life, of hopes, fears and preoccupations at the sharp end of education. A TES reader should be able to say "yes, that's what it's really like!", but also, ideally, "I hadn't thought of it in that way before".

Many of the 270 entries to the competition met most of these criteria. But the overall winner, Jo Green, grappling with unmotivated teenagers who suffer "low self of steam" (a phrase that made me laugh for days), produced, to my mind, an exceptionally vivid picture of classroom life.

From that, she derived remarkably thought-provoking insights into the contemporary adolescent mind and its mutually uncomprehending relationship with authority.

This theme - of how to cope with children who seem to have been turned off education - occurred again and again in the entries.

Low-level misbehaviour and lack of motivation is what bugs teachers most.

Those problems have always existed to some degree. But the principle of "inclusion", dominant for the past decade or so, has clearly made enormous extra demands. Several entrants, sympathetic to disturbed children, nevertheless wondered about the effects on other children who witnessed, as one put it, "daily episodes of shocking madness".

Another recurrent theme, particularly among heads, was the extent of outside pressures on schools: prescription, inspection and paperwork. "It is so easy," as one head put it, to think that "getting through the letters and circulars is the purpose of the day".

A third theme was that teaching no longer carries the status it once did.

"I'm a head, but where once I was proud, I now dread people knowing," wrote one entrant. Clearly, it's not just the pupils who suffer "low self of steam".

* Winner: Jo Green - supply teacher, Middlesbrough.

Runners-up: Claire Bentham - primary teacher, Southampton; Charles James Murray - Whitehill primary, Gravesend, Kent; Roger Pope - Kingsbridge community college, Kingsbridge, Devon; Martin Ransley - Highbury Fields comprehensive, Islington, north London; Ewan Smith - St John's RC primary, Rickmansworth, Herts.

Read the entries in full from all five runners-up at: Peter Wilby is a regular TES columnist and was formerly editor of the New Statesman and Independent on Sunday. He is married to a primary teacher

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