I have spent most of half term reading Frank Chalks’ AMAZING books on my kindle. I literally couldn’t stop and everything he wrote about resonated with me. At one point I was actually worried that in my sleep deprived state I might have actually written the books myself because everything was so TRUE and summed up so much of what I think about schools today.

If you haven’t heard of, or read them, Frank Chalk is a teacher writing about his experiences and grumbles with the education system. He works in a school very similar to mine and talks about all the problems he faces. I loved these books; he managed to put into words everything I have been thinking and whilst it is depressingly sad that these issues exist outside of ‘my world’ (or at least do with one other person out there!) it is extremely comforting to know that I’m not crazy.

Chalk speaks about how we have moved away from traditional teaching and how teachers are being taught ‘trendy’ methods that don’t work; group discussions, mind mapping, endless poster making, peer directed learning – all bollocks but great for making you feel like you are hitting all those new initiative checklist boxes though not very conducive to actual learning. As a teacher I am constantly being told different things by those in positions of power above me; these things change regularly and often contradict each other but we are supposed to adopt and embrace them regardless. Lots of new policies involve investing copious amounts of time with little return as before you know it we need to abandon ship and move on to the next big idea. Group work and independent learning is a big thing at the moment; teachers aren’t supposed to talk anymore; new guidelines suggest a 15/85 approach where we only talk for 15% of a lesson and the rest should be left to the students. Now call me crazy but what is the bloody point of asking students to discuss something they haven’t been taught yet? What if their knowledge is wrong or patchy? What about those who don’t join in the discussions? I am all for group work and think it has a place but my main problem is that students aren’t taught the skills necessary to facilitate useful group discussion; they don’t listen to each other, they often end up shouting over tables to their friends in other groups and the class quickly descends into chaos. Not much learning takes place. I have a really naughty year 10 class with whom a lesson tends to go like this:

They turn up in drips and drabs; I am supposed to stand at the door and welcome them in which is all well and dandy in theory but when you have the keen, good students arriving before the bell and the naughty ones turning up ten minutes in, it doesn’t work out very well.  I will have put the lesson objectives and a starter task on the board and the students will have their books in front of them – handed out by me during my lunchbreak because if I ask a student to do it they end up throwing the folders around, chucking them on the wrong desks, getting bored and leaving them somewhere etc etc and it wastes time. By this point, the good students will have finished everything on the board whilst others will still have their coats on. We are ten minutes in. A few students start to arrive, disrupting the lesson and with no reason for being late other than ‘ I just am.’ The good ones are bored now and starting to chat/draw on their hands/the tables/each other. I don’t blame them but it is frustrating. By the time I have settled the late comers, who feel duty bound to start calling out to their mates, refusing to sit on their chairs because ‘they don’t like that chair’ or arguing with me about taking their scarves and gloves off, we are 15 minutes into a 60 minute lesson. I try to introduce a task. ‘I don’t have a pen’ calls a student. Neither do I anymore as I have already lent about 8 pens during my earlier lessons. The number of students who turn up to school without basic equipment astounds me. So much time of every lesson is wasted by students claiming to not have a pen to write with and having to borrow from each other or me. I start rooting around on my desk for any half chewed biro I can find – the students start shouting to their mates – ‘borrow me a pen.’ 20 minutes in, everyone has a pen or stub of an old pencil to write with. I explain the task – it is simple; reading a paragraph and answering a few questions. It should take 10 minutes max and is designed to introduce some key terms we need for the rest of the lesson. ‘I don’t get it’ ‘It’s boring,’ are the shouts that I get. Shouting seems to the only way most of my students can communicate by the way. The task couldn’t be simpler but, used to being spoon fed everything, some of the class can’t do it. They can, obviously. Anyone could do this.  But they won’t for some reason. I start walking around and helping, prompting. Some students have finished already. Some haven’t even opened their books to write the date. Some are talking about last nights tv, some are shouting across the room to each other. 30 minutes in. I start explaining the next task so that the ones who have finished have something to do. Most students aren’t listening so I wait, arms crossed, for silence. I tell them ‘we can sit here all day if you want.’ It just gets quiet when someone will start laughing or talking and we have to start again waiting for silence. The good ones at the front are bored, frustrated. I am bored and frustrated. I start writing minutes on the board and the names of the ones talking. We have 20 minutes left and some students have still not opened their books whereas others have finished everything they have been given and are waiting for the next bit. Every lesson feels like a battle where the good ones have to fight to learn anything and the bad ones just fight. I am used to students shouting at me, swearing at me, storming out of lessons. I am even more used to nothing being done about it. What can we do about it? It is virtually impossible to expel anyone. Punishments include excluding a student for a day but hello? These students clearly don’t care about their education – they are willing to disrupt the learning of everyone around them for a cheap laugh from their equally disaffected mates. They spend most lessons drawing on the tables, talking to their friends, shouting over the teacher, ignoring the work set, ignoring the repeated requests to behave. Telling them that they don’t have to come into school for a day or two isn’t a punishment. It’s an excuse to stay home and play on the X Box without having to forge a note from their parents for a change. It makes a mockery of us as teachers as the students know we have the power to do sod all when they repeatedly piss around and drive us crazy. I know teachers who cry all lunch time because they feel so frustrated and unsupported. I have a student who every lesson swears at me, every lesson refuses to do any work whatsoever. He tells me I am unfair because I ‘always pick on him.’ Forget the fact that he walks in late and disrupts everyone, forget that he insults other students, throws pens and pencils around, regularly gets up and walks around the room, is rude and disrespectful to me – his punishment for this? He gets taken out of the lessons, gets to sit in another room and play on the computer for a few weeks and then I have to have a ‘restorative justice’ meeting with him to ‘discuss’ the issues he is facing. What he needs is to be told to shut up and get on with his work. Instead he is mollycoddled, told he is a victim and given all the support denied to his peers who have had to endure weeks, months, years of his disruptive behaviour holding them back in every lesson. My lessons usually end with me telling some students to stay behind – they wont or will try and leave quickly with the others. I have been pushed by students before who refused to stay behind. I once had a student grab my wrist so hard that he left bruises on me for a week. Nothing happened to him obviously. The student who pushed me got a day in internal exclusion. A nice rest for me and his fellow classmates but not very effective. He didn’t care. He didn’t change. I know teachers who have been punched or hit by students. I know a woman who was pushed when pregnant. The kids feel invincible because they are. They are protected by a system that fucks them up for the rest of their lives when they realise that no job in the world will allow them to get away with what we turn a blind eye to every day.

I am becoming more and more disillusioned with the education system. We hear companies telling us that school leavers are less and less able, some can’t even read and write. I’m not surprised at all – by forcing schools to have mixed ability groups we end up with students who can’t speak English in the same group as someone who could achieve an A grade with the right support. Both student will be failed by the education system as teachers aren’t superheros. It is nearly impossible to differentiate effectively for all the abilities in any given class unless we have more time do it. I have five hours a week which is supposed to be all I need to plan, mark and create resources for 11 different sets. I teach four different subjects. Five hours feels more like a slap in the face than a help. I am paid to work 32.5 hours. I easily do 60 a week. I need to do 70 a week to keep on top of all the work we have to do. That A grade student will end up scraping a C – they will spend countless hours in a classroom disrupted by students who have no ambition or desire to behave. They have never been told to or taught how. The student will have to fight to learn; will have to struggle to be heard. It is a joke. My heart hurts for these students. I would love to have the time to sit with them and support them but instead spend a lot of time trying to get others to behave. If I  send a student out of a lesson for messing around, I get into trouble for not being inclusive or for leaving them out for too long. I can’t send more than 1 out at a time. We have a rota where someone else in the department will take naughty students into their lessons but all this does is disrupt two lessons instead of one. This happens to teachers all over the school. At any given point there will be naughty students in the hallways up and down the maths, science, humanities and languages departments but nothing ever changes.

 

I could cry with it all sometimes. I work really hard and love most of my classes. Too much to leave but not enough that it doesn’t make me scream with frustration every day. We have managers too concerned with ticking boxes, enforcing pointless rules and policies and furthering their own careers. Due to the marketisation of the education system, we are desperate for students in order to secure funding. This means we are at their mercy. We have to take students who have been expelled from 4 schools already. We have to take those excluded for violent behaviour or for carrying offensive weapons.

I once moved my classroom tables into rows. I usually have the tables grouped so four students can sit together as directed by management. The idea being that students will support and help each other’s learning. A fucking joke if ever I’ve heard one by the way; all it means is that we position them in the perfect patterns to conduct conversations about X Factor or Eastenders. The day that the tables were in rows was brilliant; the students couldn’t talk as easily. I could see every face so knew when they were on task or not. Anyone turning around was instantly spotted. Actual learning took place! But no. Group work is trendy. Group work is ‘inclusive.’ Some of my students asked if we could have rows all the time. The funniest thing about schools having to adopt every trend and whim of people far away from the actual hustle and bustle of a school and who couldn’t teach a lesson if their life depended on it, is that most of them don’t benefit the students. They benefit the agendas of the people who made them sure. But not the students.

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  • Simone

    So let me get this straight – you can’t set your classroom out how you want and you have to teach mixed ability groups?! Wow. A hell of a lot has changed in the 10/12 years since I left school.

    I’m going to look up some Frank Chalks and perhaps get his books for my teacher friends, although they teach primary school it sounds like they’ll be familiar with the management strategies put in place by well meaning manager sorts!

    • em

      Most school are all about mixed ability now as apparently it is more ‘inclusive’ than setting which is seen as divisive and low self esteem building by those in power. I think it’s bollocks to be honest; being in a group where you can all be pushed and work at the same level is infinitely better for all involved than being in a group with everyone at different levels struggling to learn. In any one group I can have a range from people currently achieving a U or just scraping a pass to those who are working at an A grade and the problem with that is that I can’t effectively teach anyone without trying to lead six different lessons at the same time! It would be so much better for students to be grouped according to ability in my opinion. I think its far more damaging to be in a class where those around you are working to a higher level and you are too scared to ask for help or are worried about seeming ‘stupid’ or to be much more capable than the work set but having no way to be pushed or challenged. We are forcing teachers to teach to a ‘middle’ level which is too easy for some, too hard for others and only hits some of the class. It frustrates me beyond belief.
      We are told how to lay out our rooms to ‘optimise’ group work and ‘learning’ – basically, it’s ‘trendy’ to have them in groups so we must. Some teachers have rows but are considered outdated and old school. I love Chalk’s books; they are funny and well written! xxxx

  • http://charponnaise.blogspot.com/ Charponnaise

    When I was at school (13 yrs ago) I used to hate group work, and grouped tables, etc etc. I guess maybe that was when it was starting to come into fashion? I didn’t skip to school singing my heart out, but once I got there, I was competitive about my marks, and didn’t want some dickhead at the next table dragging my mark down in a patronising group exercise simply because they couldn’t be arsed with it, or having to work slower than I knew I could. Our school was 150 years old and the science rooms were the old fashioned kind, with rows of long wooden benches fixed to the floor and built-in bunsen burner pipes; it felt like a serious atmosphere, and the science teachers seemed to command the most respect in the school (pity the poor geography teachers who had the modern classrooms with group arranged tables).

    Our groups were ability based but there were still awkward kids in the top sets. There was one duo who disrupted every single lesson. I was stuck next to them in science – joyful! Only one of them came to 6th form college; the other dropped out after she got pregnant. The one who stayed on suddenly became this super-high achiever, totally concentrated on her work; losing that disruptive influence made such a difference.

    I can see that policy makers don’t want to make the lower achievers feel ‘thick’ by putting them in slower streams, but if the current alternative doesn’t improve their marks and makes it worse for the smart kids, it’s not working. You do have to think of the awkward ones but I can’t see how giving them a cuddle and a group discussion really helps. I think clear goals are a start, and I think the earlier you can harness kids’ attention at school, the easier it is later on. They should be reading as soon as possible, for a start.

    • em

      I completely get what you mean about group work – I used to dislike it too thinking about it so it is interesting to think that I am potentially ruining some students’ experience of my lessons! We are told to do some group work in every lesson and after a few years, it has become such a big part of my planning that I barely stop to think about how enjoyable, or not, it may be. It is completely messed up that these policies are introduced with little, or no, consideration as to how the students will deal with them. Group work is great for some – those who are confident, or those who like to sit back and take credit for nothing for example. I try to vary it up a bit and have some independent work, some paired work and group tasks in every lesson. The lessons in which I think students have learnt the most though, tend to be the ones in which they have been allowed to work at their own pace and just get on with it.

      I had a debate with my year 12s about setting and the majority thought it was good overall but some said it was unfair on the lower sets like you mentioned. I think that the issue with ‘bottom’ sets is that teachers expect bad behaviour and poor effort and so are rewarded with it – self fulfilling prophecy and all that. They tend to pitch the lessons lower and plan lessons with less effort or variety of tasks. It’s hard. Teaching feels too hard at the moment!

      xxx

      • http://charponnaise.blogspot.com/ Charponnaise

        I think the loud kids tend to get the most from group work. If you’re quiet you get shouted over, if your ideas aren’t met with enthusiasm by the loud kids you get shouted over, if you’re not popular you get shouted over… you get the point!

        One thing I found really offensive (and it made me think of your post, so here I am again commenting!) was the Ofsted boss’s comments today about how teaching ‘isn’t that stressful’, or something equally risible. The man’s delusional.