In media land the only news is bad news

9th November 2012 at 00:00
Why do reporters look for tales of despair when there is so much to celebrate? asks Jo Brighouse

Last week I got an email from a journalist friend of mine. She had been approached by a writer on a national newspaper on the lookout for tales of chaos in the classroom and had promised to forward his message to every teacher she knew. "We're particularly looking for teachers who have to cope with such challenging behaviour that they're thinking of leaving the profession," he said.

I know teachers do quit because of disruptive children, and there are classes out there that make Lord of the Flies look like Just William, but it's symptomatic of the media to go looking for these stories. The journalist's invitation to spill all on the horrors of the classroom came with the strong implication that the grim reality of teachers' lives will finally be revealed to an unsuspecting public. I find this a bit rich given that the email came from a newspaper whose standard contribution to education journalism is to run articles with headlines such as: "Why your child's lazy teacher is refusing to collect dinner money even though they're always on holiday and finish work at 3pm", sandwiched between a story about the Queen's favourite corgi and how living next door to an asylum seeker can make you obese.

I know it's in the nature of the media to zoom in on the worst aspects of mankind, but the media stereotype of young people is about as subtly depicted as a drawing of a burglar in a stripy top carrying a bag labelled "swag". The one exception to this rule is for the privately educated. In media land, if you pay for your education and go off the rails while receiving it, it's much more likely to be the school, or society, that has let you down.

The trouble is, people believe what they read. "I don't know how you teachers do it," a friend of my parents told me last week. "All those children swearing and fighting and answering back." I tried to explain that holding up the stars of Jamie's Dream School as representative of their generation is a bit like describing Harold Shipman as "just a typical GP", but all I got was a knowing smile and a disbelieving look at my pitiful attempt to defend a lost generation of mindless hoodies.

In my experience (and I don't by any standards teach in leafy suburbia), the vast majority of children are polite, enthusiastic and desperate to please. Even when you have classes that drive you round the bend, you only have to sit through a couple of parents' evenings before you realise how many lovely children are being overshadowed by the rogues.

Yes, children can be lazy, obnoxious and addicted to mobile phones, but they can also be polite, helpful and a lot kinder and more open-minded than many adults. These children are much less likely to find themselves in the media spotlight. It takes less than a minute to make headlines by pulling out a knife, but years to achieve the same effect by winning an Olympic medal.

Perhaps we're all conditioned to moan about children from the moment we cease to be one. A few weeks ago a colleague showed me a quote that proved the "young people nowadays" rant is by no means new. It said: "Children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority... They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents... cross their legs and are tyrants over their teachers."

These words, attributed to Socrates, were written around 400BC. Clearly some things don't change.

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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