Tinker, tailor, soldier and a sailor

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Last term I decided to do a topic on "the world of work" with a low-ability English set of 14 and 15-year-olds. I wanted them to meet some working adults so we invited a sailor, an undertaker, a professional footballer, a psychiatric nurse, a paramedic, a coast guard, a journalist, a policeman and a supermarket manager to come into school.

The format was the same every Thursday: for 20 minutes or so each guest described his or her job; the remainder of the session was a question and answer free-for-all.

In my brief to the students, I'd emphasised that this topic was not a submerged careers course, but much more to do with broadening their concepts of community. In the final session, I encouraged them to look for similarities and differences in the jobs of the nine workers we'd met. I was hoping that terms like "commitment", "responsibility" and "reliability" might emerge.

As it turned out, the main preoccupation during the questioning of our speakers was with sensation. Both undertaker and paramedic were quizzed along the lines of "What's the worst sight you've ever had to deal with?" And the paramedic duly responded with a graphic account of a pile-up during the Isle of Man TT races.

The supermarket manager was bombarded with enquiries about the detection and dispatching of shoplifters - to the point where I became concerned about the possible subtext.

At the end of the topic, the debrief was followed by written responses from each student. In their eyes the policeman's job was the "most attractive" since it involved "action". Most jobs had big disadvantages - the undertaker and paramedic had to deal with dead bodies; the footballer had to scrub boots and make tea during his apprenticeship; the nurse was subject to personal violence and the rest were very desk-tied.

I was quite surprised by their reactions. But these are 15-year-olds who consider themselves to be prisoners in the classroom every "working" day of their lives. Hardly surprising then that their fantasy escape route would take them to an action-packed tomorrow.

I considered making a teacher my final speaker but I decided I couldn't inflict their mass prejudice on a colleague, however courageous.Their attitude to the job I do each day is, at best, indifferent. In their eyes I am desk bound, task bound and professionally impotent. They seem to think that what I do doesn't significantly change anything - that I don't make things happen.

Few consider lack of qualification as an obstacle to job entry. Their perception isn't about whether they will be permitted to do a job, but whether they'll want to do it.

But, blessed as they are with the naive belief that the world is their oyster, it's hurtful to find that they generally consider teaching to be on a par with the source of irritation which creates the pearl.

Unexpectedly, the topic taught me just how much work we have to do if we are to raise the comparative status of our profession in the eyes of underachieving students. On the other hand, if we could be more effective in abolishing underachievement itself, our status might improve of its own accord.

Alan Combes is an English teacher at Pindar High School, Scarborough TES2 MAY 3 1996 * Features 3,4n ArtsSet books 5n The Arts Crafts Movement 7,8n Children's books 8 n Primary 9 including Curriculum materials 10 and Resources 14 n School management 17 n Governors 18n Secondary curriculum materials 19n Curriculum 20 n Media 21 n Computers 22 n TV radio 23 n My best teacher: Jackie Trent 24

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