Goodbye to paper, hello paperwork

17th November 2000 at 00:00
THE hardest thing about wanting to be a teacher is that you're surrounded by people telling you not to do it. "You're mad," they cry. "The paperwork! The stress! The abuse!"

It's like being in one of the outer circles of Dante's inferno except that the souls who whirl about you howling their warnings aren't physically tortured, just weary-looking and habitually glancing over their shoulders.

They run about clutching at pieces of paper flying from piles so high they can hardly hold them. And they all walk by taking two steps forward followed by one back and one to the side.

They told me to return to the upper world, but this October

I ventured down a little further, into the next circle of the inferno, which is known as City amp; Guilds 7307. My destination is, or perhaps that should be was, to teach English literature at a sixth-form college.

After 20 years - girl, woman and exhausted mother - in journalism, I wanted a change. So last year I went back to university and took an MA. It was wonderful. And this year I'm doing a one-day-a-week, post-16 teaching course at the local tertiary college with a lot of other 40-something would-be teachers. It is not wonderful, at least not yet.

What's wrong with journalism? Well, everyone knows that news editors behave like psychopaths doing community service. But even the maddest of them never asked me to fill in a form or take part in a name game, and their most sophisticated idea of preparation was a few cuttings to read en route to the job.

There's a huge and obvious culture clash between my old job and my proposed job. Journalism requires little planning, is utterly without formality, and paperwork is tossing your dog-eared notebook into the back of the desk drawer. Being taught to teach involves all sorts of stuff which sends your average reporter to sleep or straight to the nearest pub.

And that's where I am right now - metaphorically at least. Four weeks into this course here I lean: elbow familiarly wet, getting sympathetic nods from the bloke operating the optics while a former colleague's cigarette ash builds up on the toe of my shoe. I feel alarmingly at home, and that's a long way away from the flipchart an overhead projector.

There are so many daft bits to the course. Such as having to sit back to back and describe a geometric pattern to my colleague so she could draw it - something to do with communication. Some of these things are a means to a sensible end, though why we have to start so far away from it I don't know.

But what has really sent me spinning into the depths and staggering to this bar is preparation. They do it with grids. Do you do it with grids? Ours has several vertical columns headed aim; outcome; teaching method; learning style; resources; assessment; evaluation. These have to be filled in for each stage of the process, marked by time chunks on the horizontal.

This is planning for its own sake, which surely can't be the point. It seems to me massively pompous and boringly prescriptive. How can you apply these columns and diagrams to teaching?

I suppose it might just about fit a night class on car maintenance, but I can't see how it will help me discuss The Merchant of Venice.

What are they afraid of? That a question might pierce their defences of columns, diagrams and overhead projector transparencies? Oh, how I long to disable the overhead projector. It reduces everything to a list prepared in advance, aloof from any class discussion. At the end of the session there it smugly sits, blurred and out of focus, but with "I told you so" all over it.

I'm not against planning, but surely this simply gives those teaching something to teach. The truth of the matter is for them depressingly intangible: the best teachers just have a special something. And you can't plan many courses round that.

I asked a teacher at our local sixth-form college if he did this sort of preparation and he spluttered something about 18 hours' teaching a week and not bloody likely before standing up in a shower of paper and going off to a class. That gave me a little hope.

Next week should be fun. We have to take in a learning resource. I'm thinking of something really radical - a book. Oh, yes, there will be a next week.

I shall see this thing through. After all, there could be good copy in the teaching practice.

Jill Parkin is a freelance journalist

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