Cycle of despair

17th February 2012 at 00:00

It's that time of year when staffroom talk turns to new year's resolutions. My resolutions were limited to the usual. Keeping fit. Actually, getting fit. I don't smoke, but I've resolved to carry on not smoking. I need less alcohol and more carrots. That type of thing.

There are two major problems with keeping the "get fit" resolution. One, it's no bloody fun at all. Two, when you spend your entire working day being followed by other people's children, you return home with that nervous twitch and wide-eyed look that only a large GT can dissipate.

Well, I called off the affair. My lovers Mr Jack Daniels and Sailor Jerry were cast out, and it was all health, health, health from that day forward. I turned my excesses into my new fitness regime.

I started exercising with a quick set of hurdles over beer crates in the back garden, followed by running the 100 metres down my road with wine bottles stuffed down my jogging bottoms for weights. Cardio done, I moved on to strength work, where I held three bottles of rum in each hand and squat thrusted.

It was an exhausting regime. But I live in my school's catchment area and I also had to endure local youths shouting "That's Miss!" as I jogged around the park. It was with some regret that the awful truth dawned on me. There was nothing else for it. I had to join a gym.

I was shown round by a nice-but-dim girl who dotted her i's with circles. Everyone was very fit. No one looked battleworn from a day wrangling with teenage strops and complex sentences. Everyone was super healthy and super sweaty. These are not my people, I thought.

While running on the treadmill I started to think in rather clangy metaphors of how state education has become one long conveyor belt of box ticking and bureaucratic nonsense, and no matter how much we continue running we don't seem to be able to move in the direction we want to go in. And where we want to arrive is not the same place as the government wants us to be: ever increasing exam grades and results.

I might be able to run on the treadmill for 20 minutes, but because the gym bunny next to me is able to run for 50 minutes, on the uphill setting, should my shockingly good attempt be diminished?

This is what we do to pupils by constantly judging them by a set of criteria that demands they are equally good in maths and English and get at least a C in five subjects or more. And most, sadly, rely on spoon-feeding techniques to get the exam grade they desire.

I glanced at the packed spin class, rising and sitting like a sea of cult members. They are like our pupils. They will do anything the instructor asks to achieve. But the irony is, the higher the exam results, the higher the chances that pupils learned by rote rather than independent enquiry. We are teaching them that to succeed is to rely on being told what to do in order to think and write in a way that will help examiners tick off criteria in a box. And if we don't do something to stop the cycle now, there will be a lost generation of children who don't know how to think for themselves.

I realised the gym wasn't for me, but on the way home I passed many off-licences. I didn't go in any of them. And if that isn't progress, I don't know what is.

Amy Winston is an English teacher in the West Midlands.

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