Caught on the sharp end of lesson observation

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
"Not engaged? I'll give you not engaged!" She whirls the knife within an inch of several vital organs. "Oops! Look, why don't I make the sandwiches while you sip your camomile tea?"

"Sorry," she sobs, dabbing low-fat spread on the bags under her eyes. "It's just that he was such a cold-blooded bastard."

"Tell me about it," I say, by which I mean, "Say no more", but which she takes to mean, "Tell me about it."

To cut a long story short, my friend failed a lesson observation. It seems she did not engage all her pupils for all of her lesson. Likewise her observer - because he left halfway through, having seen enough in 30 minutes to condemn 30 years of practice to the dustbin.

There followed a short, emotional feedback session in which threats were made. What is surprising is not that she threatened the man (she's done that before) but that her pupils were not engaged. In my experience, pupils are always engaged: maybe not in what's being taught, but invariably in something - even if it's just messing about, even if it's just resolving social or emotional issues, or just sleeping.

Surely common sense - or Maslow's hierarchy of needs - tells us that children with real physiological or social and emotional needs find engaging with learning - even exciting activities such as ordering decimal fractions - quite challenging. "So you've had no breakfast? So your mum's boyfriend beat the crap out of her? So the police came round at 3am and you've not slept a wink? This is decimals!"

We're told poverty is no excuse because an infant school with 100 per cent free school meals got every child to pass the Cambridge entrance exam.

This, of course, is the exception. The rules for keeping your head above the sewage are: teach relentlessly to tests; push test administration guidelines beyond the limit; and do some creative stuff and pupil-shuffling for inspection purposes.

The real issue about disengagement has nothing to do with pupils - it's to do with education leaders not engaging with the reality of life in the classroom. Driven by an obsession with targets, they put the results cart ahead of the needs-of-the-child horse and thrash the hell out of the drivers, ie teachers, for going round in circles. They seem to think inspirational teaching can be done by numbers and that teacher assessment can be done by someone who hasn't taught in decades, using a checklist as long as a toilet roll.

Well let me say this: anyone who hasn't taught a difficult class in a difficult school in a difficult area should take that toilet roll and... "Will you stop waving that knife about!" cries my friend. "I've had one mastectomy. I don't want another!"

Steve Eddison's staffroom monologue "Locked Stockroom and Two Smoking Gerbils" is available for download at www.teachers.tvvideo

Steve Eddison is a Year 6 teacher in Sheffield.

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