Saturday, 30 August 2008

Dour Saturday

It’s Saturday night and these are the outpourings of a disaffected mind.

I’m sitting here trying to fill in a job application form that would take me back into Further Education where I would be teaching English Literature at GCSE and A Level. You might wonder why a man in my station would choose this path but it’s something I’ve always considered taking up at some point in my life. It’s not as high as my qualifications would allow me to teach but it’s better than Channel 4 and is a unique opening for a man of my peculiar character. It would also be good money and security for when Alastair Darling’s financial crisis hits the hardest.
Yet as I sit here and write, I’ve got the TV tuned to Channel Five. I’m watching ‘Britain’s Most Haunted’ hosted by Paul Ross. And therein lies the reality of my life. Here is my problem writ large.

The Channel Five studio is filled with a sample of the Great British Public, eager to hear of haunted houses and the afterlife. For whatever reason, the GBP buy into the scam. A ‘superfan’ is interviewed. She’s bought all the videos and DVDs, hundreds of T shirts. She’s invested money into this show whose message seems to be that life is only made bearable by the promise that death is just another state of being. I respond with my usual outburst of swollen invective that human longing makes fools of us all. We dream for the impossible, believe in the ludicrous, and invest in the ridiculous.

Nothing gets me more agitated than seeing desperate people having their fears exploited. It feels like we’re back with Chaucer’s Pardoner and I want to cry something obscene about his relics. I was in a bookshop yesterday that was advertising a weekly séance with a nationally known psychic. ‘More popular than the book club’, I was told. ‘Less homework and a bigger payoff.’

I can’t be like that but it’s the reason why I’m such a bloody awful position.
I’ve never been good at making compromises. I fail to adapt to situations in which, to use the term I hear so often, ‘I need to bullshit’. Even if it means money in my pocket, I fail to jump through those hoops. It doesn’t make me belligerent in a bad way. I’m easy to get on with in everyday life. I am what you see. There’s very little facade, not too many pretensions; just a sometimes gruff, often serious, but usually likable chap who is likely to make you laugh. But in terms of work, I’m unemployable. I have so many transferable skills that I don’t know what I’m cut out to do anymore. I have no career, just an excess of ability. I have passion but no professionalism. The nation is constipated by professionalism.

Let me give you the example that’s making it hard for me to fill in this job application.

There are two students sitting down to take a GCSE in English Literature. One student is one of those intelligent, sensitive types that have always traditionally excelled at the subject. He has a genuine understanding for poetry, has an ear for the language and can analyse poetry on the go, tying meaning with lexical choices. The other student struggles. He doesn’t enjoy literature but there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I’ll be honest as say that he goes into the exam with barely an original idea in his head. Both students answer the same question about a range of poems by some modern darling of the examining board. The student with a good grasp of poetry writes intelligently on three poems he has obviously read, internalised, and thought about. His answers are original and stunningly good. The second student, the one who despises poetry but has memorised the right things to say, answers on four poems. His answers are rehearsed and staggeringly unoriginal.

No here are the rules. Here is the crux.

Student 1 can never get over a grade C. To get higher, he needed to have answered on four poems. No matter how intelligently he wrote about three or the reasons for limiting himself to that selection, the examiners wanted an answer based on four.
Student 2 answered on four poems. He gets higher than a C because he fulfilled the examination criteria. Accordingly to the results, he’s better at English than Student 1.

Life moves on. The results stand. The injustice is served.

Now, how do I write a covering letter, knowing this? How do I explain why I want the job but also why I don’t want to be accessory to the crimes committed in the name of education? It’s why I’ll probably fail to get the post. I’d speak up when I think something is wrong. Do I want an income so badly that I’d be happy to break the spirits of independent young minds? Could I programme them for the end of year exam? I’d work my hardest to see them succeed, encourage them to achieve something meaningful in life, to make the most of their gifts. Yet the sad reality is that students are probably better off without my advice. They wouldn’t fulfil the criteria.

And let’s face it: who even gives a damn about literature these days? I have learned the hard way that ambition leads to disappointment. The world teaches us that the path of least resistance is the way to go. And we’ve got ghosts to chase instead.


katyboo1 said...

I had three literature teachers in my life that inspired me profoundly, two in school and one at university. I was clever at school, but struggled because I was opinionated and an easy target for bullies. I would often try to find ways not to go to school. Frankly the only thing that made it bearable was the breath of fresh air and hope that those teachers gave me.

Even within the system you can give people hope, a sense of what is possible and a taste of a world where imagination and creativity, open mindedness and outside the box thinking has a place. It has always sustained me and made me fight harder to retain my difference, my uncompromising stance and my belief that we don't always have to fit neat boxes.

The trick is to teach them to play the game, but to let the gifted ones see that it is a game and is just a way to getting on to a bigger freedom that is possible.

Do not give up.

Richard Havers said...

I'm not sure I like the sound of this!

The path of least resistance is the way to go?

Forgive me Dick but that's bollocks. I know!

To quote Barbra Streisand, as I of course do frequently - With all there is why settle for just a piece of the sky?

As someone who took two attempts to get O level English Language and an O level pass at A level English Lit I can speak from experience. I was crap at exams, partly because I now realise I have some dyslexia issues. Has it held me back?...not one jot, especially with spell checker :)

More to the point, I had English teachers that inspired me, taught me to love the subject, literature and everything about it. They also encouraged me to read way more than most people do. Teaching is not about exams it's about inspiration.

For me, the vision became the dream

Dick Madeley said...

Katy and Richard,

Oh, don't get me wrong. I agree with you. I would like to think that I am the sort to inspire. It's just that the system of exams, paperwork, and marking don't leave much room for that. It's not how good a teacher I'd be where I would fail. It's that I'm not a bureaucrat, with experience with all the paperwork. I would guess that all the great teachers that influenced us in the past would fail in the current system.

And I've still not managed to fill in this form...

Anonymous said...

i've considered this path at least a dozen times in the last 7 years, and each time rejected it. Teaching at university consists mainly of marking soul-crushingly tedious essays that are 90% just the regurgitated lecture notes. Probably the greatest thinker/writer i've met in the flesh was sacked from Durham 5 years before i arrived, for trying to teach properly. Another tutor, who later went off the rails with booze, said he calculated he'd marked 8 million words of essays; it wasn't necessary to estimate how many of these were interesting, it would have been one in ten at most (and this at Durham, mind you, imagine at Huddersfield or Sunderland...)

One of my tutor friends read about 2 books a year: the rest of the time was spent marking student essays and preping for tutorials by re-reading the curriculum texts. That's no way to live.

As for schools, i gather it's even worse, understandably since at least English undergrads choose to do it, even if only because they think "it's a doss innit". Schoolkids don't want to be there, even at A-level they're too young to have made any real choices.

So you have 30+ violent, sneering, crackhead children who have never known any form of discipline in their lives, who have not a shred of courtesy, politeness, decency, or morality, and who furthermore DON'T WANT TO BE THERE - and their schooling to this point has encouraged them to think correct English doesn't matter (that this is 'elitist'), that literature is pointless & boring...well, let's just say you can borrow my expandable baton if you get the job.

i've heard too many tales from PGCE students and teachers to want to do it. i know of 2 gifted teachers who quit because the system wouldn't allow them to teach: what they were required to do couldn't be described as 'teaching' - it was just Beckettian nonsense to please Nu Labour bureaucrats. Another PGCE teacher (and martial artist) i knew ended up using kung fu on the students when they attacked him.

i suspect Richard Havers is talking about schooling as it was pre-1997? Or even further back? Don't confuse some golden age of teaching with 2008, bub, you'll send Madeley to his death at the hands of 30 savage beasts.

Richard Havers said...

Elberry, you are naturally correct. But do we have to bow down to this bloody political vision of mediocrity as preached by those in power. I'm probably a romantic; no, I am a romantic . I believe that one man can make a difference...maybe it's Sir Dick!

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