In September, I landed what I thought was a pretty good position. I was appointed to teach History, and a bit of Religious Studies, on a 60% timetable, which the school very helpfully slotted into three consecutive days. I had the usual meetings with people before starting, and spent the summer preparing my courses and getting excited.
A week into term, I was accosted by the Acting Head of Department. Was it true, she wanted to know, that I had set a test for my Year Ten class?
Yes. I’d given them some reading to do, two or three pages from the textbook, and told them that I would be testing them on the contents at the beginning of the next lesson.
Ah, she said. You shouldn’t do that.
The thing is, Mr Grumpy, these are very driven but very sensitive girls we have at this school. If you set them reading, they’ll do it. They’re very conscientious. But if you tell them you’ll test them on it, they’ll spend the whole weekend cramming. Possibly to the detriment of their other subjects, possibly to the detriment of their social lives, and possibly to the detriment of their mental health.
Really. You haven’t taught in an all-girls school before, have you?
Well, no, I hadn’t. I didn’t quite believe what I was being told, but at the same time I was ever-so-slightly intrigued by what I was hearing. If this was true, and all I needed to do was to look over my spectacles at a class of fourteen-year-olds, set some reading, and suggest that I would be disappointed if they didn’t do it properly, then we were going to learn a vast amount in the forthcoming weeks and months, and utterly smash these (I)GCSEs when the time came.
Now yes, this is a fairly selective independent school, which means that its pupils are doubly lucky: they were born with decent IQs into prosperous families and have had, on the whole, pretty good starts in life. But these advantages do not mean that they are not also fourteen-year-olds in the twenty-first century. I went ahead and set the test, on the basis that I’d already prepared the questions, and that any damage I had done was already done, and the results were, of course, exactly as I’d expected. A few had clearly done the reading assiduously, and got nearly full marks; most of the rest had cast their eyes over it, and got two-thirds to three-quarters of my factual questions right; a couple had quite obviously shrugged, decided that it was only reading, flicked through their textbooks in school on the morning of the test, and consequently done badly.
But schools are different, I know that, and so instead of the anger and disappointment which I would usually confect for such pupils I told the reprobates not to worry, that this was just diagnostic, for me to find out what they knew and didn’t know, and that we would go over the content to make sure that they understood it. I felt rather grubby, but I was brand new, and my boss was after all my boss.
A few days later I asked a colleague whether teachers at this school really avoided setting tests. She gave me a quizzical expression, I explained, and she grinned. Ah, she said, I heard about that. It was the first weekend for the boarders. The House Mistresses had arranged activities to help the old girls and the new girls to bond with each other. Some of the Year Ten girls didn’t fancy it, and used your test as an excuse for why they had to stay in their rooms and study.
(Any readers who are surprised at the use of the term ‘room’ instead of ‘dormitory’ should be aware that the modern fee-paying parent demands a rather more luxurious experience than is traditional in these establishments.)
This reassured me. The Acting Head of Department had clearly been tackled by a House Mistress, and our exchange had been intended so that she could go back and say that yes, she had indeed had a word with me about it. So I didn’t think any more of it. Not until later.
A couple of weeks later, as part of the usual induction process, I was observed. I delivered a decent lesson to a Lower Sixth class, but in the feedback session I was told that while the teaching had reached a ‘good’ standard, the learning was only ‘satisfactory,’ and that this was therefore a cause for concern. Why was it only satisfactory? Well, because I had taught the lesson from the front. Where were the opportunities for the pupils to learn independently or show what they could do? Where were the different activities? It was all very well for me to ask questions of individuals in the class, but what were the other pupils doing when I was asking one of her peers? It was all too passive.
This was where I made a fairly significant tactical error. I assumed that I was dealing with someone who was not particularly bright, trying to demonstrate that she was doing a job properly, and had not quite got it right. The criticism was, after all, of exactly the kind of thing which she’d have been told on her PGCE was Bad Teaching, and on whichever ‘Middle Leading’ INSET she’d attended, the importance of being Very Professional about lesson observations was no doubt emphasised. “They can’t just be tick-box exercises,” goes the spiel, “and you are responsible for pupil learning, which is a tremendous responsibility, and you have to be prepared to have difficult conversations.”
It was, of course, irksome to be satisfactoried. But I’ve been observed teaching exactly that kind of lesson on so many occasions in my fourteen-plus years in the classroom, including by several Head Masters, none of whom were renowned for their softness, and one of whom you might even have heard of, that I just did not take this development seriously. (It was also exactly the kind of lesson I’d taught in the interview lesson.) I assumed that the observation sheet would be filed, that I would be observed again by someone senior (as was due to happen as part of my induction), that I would get a Good, and that everything would be fine. I didn’t like the idea of working for the Acting Head of History, and she clearly didn’t rate or like me, but the Head of History who’d appointed me would be back from maternity leave in the summer anyway.
This was when my employers did something a little bit naughty.
At the start of the year the Acting HoD had asked the members of the department to observe each other. It was to be informal, and not necessarily for a whole lesson, but we were to jot down a few things that we thought were examples of Good Practice, and one thing which we would use in our own lessons.
A couple of days after my feedback session I had an email from the Head of Politics, who was also a history teacher. Could he pop into a Year Nine lesson of mine in a couple of days’ time? Sure, I said.
Yeah, you’re quicker on the uptake than I was. The thing is, I’d never been treated like this before. I’d never been subject to the Hostile Observation. I knew that they happened, but they’d never happened to me; and, like many a conservative, I suppose I thought they never would; I was obviously good in the classroom, and this had protected me, and if I’m honest I suppose I should admit that I therefore considered my own good fortune to have been the consequence of my own virtues rather than chance.
A couple of days later I had another email. Was I free after school for a brief chat about the lesson? He was keen to talk to me about it. Of course I was. And so that afternoon at four o’clock, into a classroom I strolled; and there, waiting for me, with notes, were the Head of Politics and the Acting Head of History.
He proceeded to levy the same criticisms. “Hang on,” I said, “have informal observations suddenly become official performance management?” They had. “My background is in Learning and Teaching,” he told me, and that’s when the fun really began. He was so concerned about the impact my appalling teaching would have on the students (because of course he called them students) that he felt he had to raise a concern.
Oh, and when I told the pupils about slave marriages? (In particular the changing of the wedding vows, something which I saw in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, to “until death or distance do us part.”) I had said something Really Inappropriate. I didn’t quite remember this, so I asked. Well, he told me, you said “don’t get married, you’ll ruin your life.” That’s not in keeping with the religious character of the school.
That was the point at which I observed that a department in which the institution of the Mock Slave Auction was going on was not one in which the leaders should be dispensing advice on inappropriate comments in class.
You can imagine how well that went down. But now I was in the zone. Look, Mr Learning and Teaching, you claim to be knowledgeable about this stuff, so you must be familiar with the work of Tom Bennett or Daisy Christodoulou.
Well, he said, of course I don’t know individual researchers. Raising my eyebrows and saying that I felt like CP Snow delivering his Two Cultures lecture was probably not the right response, but by that point I was past caring.
(The reference was, of course, wasted on them, but to know neither Bennett nor Christodoulou is surely the educational equivalent of not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
“Have you even,” asked the Acting Head of Department, “heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy?”
I had to snort. All right, I said, I can see where this is going. Which senior member of staff do I need to see about this?
There have been complaints about you, Mr Grumpy.
All right, well, then I’d really better go and see … who is it?
The Deputy Head Academic.
So off I went to see her.
Apparently, there had indeed been ‘concerns’ raised. A parent had emailed to complain about my traditional methods, which were not what her daughter was used to. How about the other complaint? Well actually there had been several. From other members of staff. Could I have an example? I got one: you called a pupil ‘a colossal disappointment’ in class.
Now again, this is true. In a Year Eight Religious Studies class, a pupil had asked to go to the lavatory right in the middle of a particularly good part of a lesson on concepts of the soul. You know how sometimes you’ve just got a really good flow going, and pupil after pupil asks good questions and gives good answers? That sort of lesson.
Such interruptions are, of course, essential to keep a teacher’s feet on the ground. You might think you’re teaching a terrific lesson, but there’s probably some kid just hoping for it to all be over so she can go to Chemistry. That was indeed when I said “oh Edith [no, obviously not her name] you are such a colossal disappointment. Go on.”
Now, this sort of thing is all in the delivery. You can say that in a borderline-abusive way, or you can say it with a twinkle in your eye and an indulgent expression, and you can believe me or not believe me when I say it was the latter. Did I get particularly unlucky in being overheard by a colleague? No, because of course, that’s not what happened. The next time a pupil in that class wanted to go, she put her hand up, asked, and then grinned at me and said “I know, sir, I’m a colossal disappointment,” and I couldn’t help but laugh … and thereafter, whenever a pupil asked to leave, whether to go to the lavatory or to go to a music lesson or any other reason, the whole class would gleefully bawl “you colossal disappointment!”
And yes, I know, some of you are there shaking your heads, thinking that I got what I deserved. Tja. The zeitgeist is on your side. But I don’t agree.
Anyway. The Deputy Head raised her pedagogical concerns. I told her that as she was my boss I would, if ordered to, deliver progressive lessons, but that I didn’t think this would be getting the best out of me, and I thought she was profoundly wrong. She told me that I needed to accommodate the pupils’ learning styles. I gave her a look, and repeated “learning styles? really?,” and her expression was one of shock that anyone would question the concept. It was almost as though Twitter didn’t exist, and the high priests of educational progressivism hadn’t retreated from the silliness of VAK.
This stuff is robust. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: people still consult astrologers hundreds of years after the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.
I was told to plan some progressive lessons, and submit the lesson plans for approval. Just to complete the bingo card I was also ordered to include references to differentiation, by ability and by learning style, on those documents. For a couple of days, I did so. I had that Lower Sixth class do some ‘research’ on some Cold War topic or other and present back to the class, and was reminded just what an inefficient teaching method this was. And then I was summoned back to see the Deputy Head. “I’ve been thinking about what you said,” she told me, “and I don’t want people here whom we can’t get the best out of.”
And asked me to resign. So of course I did.
I know what you’re thinking. There must have been more to it. Well, quite. Or at least you would have thought so. But I can’t tell you what, because I don’t know.
There are lessons here, and I’ll blog about them soon. For now, I’m going to end with a touch of vanity. I didn’t say anything to any of my classes, but the story that I was leaving got out in the last week of term. A couple of pupils came to me, separately, in tears, asking why I was leaving them. It was a bit Mary Poppins: Mr. Grumpy, will you always miss us, will you always love us? You think this is all tremendously self-indulgent, and maybe you’re right, but let me tell you this: when one of these kids told me that she was going to drop IB History, but only carried on because she loved my lessons so much, and that she’d never been so excited by any learning before, and I was her favourite and best teacher … well, the temptation to reveal her form tutor’s and her other history teacher’s part in my departure was very strong. I did resist.
I got several emails, which I’m so tempted to screenshot, saying how terrific I was and how sad it was that I was going. And I felt so bad because while this was upsetting for them as well as for me, I was also feeling some much-needed validation and vindication. (No, I’m not proud of this feeling.) And then that Year Ten class, the one which had unwittingly started all this, got wind that it wasn’t my decision, that my services were being dispensed with. And on our last day, this class, which I’d only taught for a term remember, brought me several boxes of chocolates, wine, home-made cookies with my favourite little sayings on them, and cards, and a couple of them had a good cry right there in front of me; and once they’d gone, for the first time ever in a classroom, so did I.
Yes, that’s me; no, I don’t smoke cigars; and no, of course I don’t approve of the sentiment: they’ll be fine without me. Nice cards though.
This post originally ran on The Grumpy Teacher Blog.