We are all guilty and deserve to be ticked off

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
There's a key scene in the first instalment of the new Liverpool-based television drama, Hearts and Minds, when Drew, the rather improbable student teacher, whose Pilgrim's Progress through a comprehensive we shall all soon be hooked on, stops meticulously marking a pupil's homework and simply inserts a big tick in each exercise book.

In so doing, he's merely following the advice of his more experienced - and inevitably more cynical - colleague, but the pained look on his face tells us that for Drew this could be a defining moment. He is strategically withdrawing from the moral high-ground and joining the shoddy pragmatists on the chalk-face.

In that moment, Drew has become a cheat: he's cheating the kids out of the careful marking their work deserves.

Note that in so doing, he's not "hurting their feelings": indeed, his colleague has already told him that the pupils want a nice big tick (rather than detailed corrections). So he's meeting their expectations.

But Drew knows, and so do we, that this doesn't make it any less of a deception; in fact, it's even worse because in so doing you are allowing these false expectations to continue. And what sort of example is that?

How many of us cheat like this? How many of us recognise Drew's dilemma - you have to cheat to cope? Of course, in reality, as opposed to drama, there's unlikely to be one single moment when we so self-consciously start cheating: it probably comes with the "tricks-of-the-trade" and short-cuts which we accumulate throughout our careers, and which many of us are rather proud of, in a sly sort of way. (I bet there were a lot of knowing smiles when Drew selected the Big Tick option.) You see, most of us at some stage, sooner or later than dear old Drew, realise that teaching is a zero-sum game; the more you put into the students, the less you have left for yourself. Burn-out is the price of ignoring this.

So we develop our coping strategies. We leave the bright ones unstretched, conspire with the not-so-bright ones that their work is "OK", and avoid eye-contact with the ones too nervous or inarticulate to seek help. And to the disruptive ones who simply don't show, we offer a prayer of thanks, when we should be converting them.

So we become expert cheats. And we all know that the real drama for Drew, and all the other wide-eyed student teachers he represents, is just how much of a cheat he will become, given time.

Malcolm Preston is a teacher from Sussex writing under a pseudonym.

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