Internet glitterati

13th June 2014 at 01:00

A new breed of teacher has arrived. Just as food can be subdivided into "food" and "Mamp;S food", teachers can now be separated into "classroom" and "internet" varieties. And what's curious is how much the students have a taste for the latter. They see online teachers as the aspirational must-have brand while we common-or-garden classroom practitioners have become the pedagogical equivalent of the local corner shop; we are where you end up on a Sunday night when there's no milk for the morning and everywhere else is closed.

It's easy to see why young people are attracted to the more glamorous online alternatives. I've checked out a few teachers on YouTube and they're a pretty impressive bunch. For starters, they have superlative subject knowledge. Actually, it's probably just the same as ours, but it sounds much more convincing when your grandiloquent exposition on tragedy isn't punctuated with, "Miss, can I lend a pen", and the sound of students eating crisps. Interestingly, what these online educators do provide is good old-fashioned teacher talk, which is something of a rarity in these "pupil dialogue" days. And the students seem to love it. Maybe because this is the first time they've actually heard a teacher in full flow. After the dripping-tap stuff they've been subjected to, it must sound like the rush of Niagara Falls.

I guess the online teacher's air of infallibility is also aided by the fact that you never see them trip over backpacks, misplace photocopying or forget Shakespeare's date of birth. In some ways, their rising popularity is a good thing - it shows that our children are trying to improve. But the fact that they invest so much trust in them is a real concern.

Teenagers like worshipping things. That's what makes them a pushover for religious cults, One Direction and the Scottish National Party. So when online teachers promise them A* salvation in return for a "donation" they unquestioningly join the throng, which is OK if the teacher involved is governed by a duty of care, but not all of them are. In the run-up to the GCSE English literature exam, one popular YouTube teacher (let's call him "Mr X") confidently announced his "predictions" for a forthcoming paper. That's not the worry - we all have a punt on the questions. But gilding your guess with an arrogant "I have been right two years in a row" is morally reprehensible. And any students checking Mr X's website would have been further convinced: it was packed with first-hand testimonials from those who had succeeded "against all the odds". One girl had gained an A* after her school had written her off as an EF; another proclaimed him a "God-send" [sic]. I suspect that when he wasn't writing exam materials he was teaching the lame to walk. Unfortunately, his predictions were wrong. In the Twitter storm that followed, instead of hailing him as a saviour the students wanted him dead.

We can all learn a lesson from this: wherever we teach - in a classroom, in a forest or on the internet - we share the same rigorous duty of care. And we need to remind our charges that behind all those licensed-to-thrill avatars, there's just a bloke with varicose veins, trapped wind and feet made out of clay.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham

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