Last night I went to a Christmas party where I talked to and mixed with a fantastic group of people who work in widely differing fields. As we ate, drank and talked, we invariably chatted about our working life. We hadn’t all met before, and well, it’s one of those things you do, isn’t it?
I mentioned I am a teacher, which seemed to interest a number of the people there. I think this is because it was a pretty international gathering and so experiences of education, albeit in various countries, was one thing everyone had in common. As we chatted I became aware that what I was describing sounded bizarre. The people I was sitting with had good, very good, jobs. They had got to where they are by sheer hard work. They had started as graduates and gained their positions by proving themselves capable. They had studied and put long hours in, with the express purpose of achieving some goal. They had become graduates by studying hard. They’d got to university in the first place by putting the effort in whilst at school.
They had worked hard for what they had achieved.
And there I was, explaining that I spend my days ensuring that the pupils I teach gain those same achievements that the people I was dining with had worked so hard for. That essentially I, and thousands of similar teachers, work to ensure that those who will not work gain those ever important qualifications.
“But surely the kids have to work? It’s their own fault if they fail – if they don’t bother, isn’t it?”
Well, no, it isn’t.
Because if they fail due to lack of engagement or hard work, it’s because my lessons weren’t stimulating enough. If they misbehave in class, it’s because my lessons aren’t fun and aren’t tailored to their learning styles. If they become disengaged with education and fail to get a job when they leave, it’s because my lessons aren’t relevant to them.
“Isn’t it their own responsibility to pay attention and learn?”
No, apparently not.
“That’s ridiculous. If my team turn up late or don’t bother to do all their work that’s their problem. They’re the ones who get fired, not me. In fact, I give them the warning, but the rest is up to them. If they’re rude, they’re out.”
But in teaching, of course, that doesn’t apply.
If the pupils are argumentative, poorly behaved, rude, disrespectful, lazy, or simply non-academic, it’s somehow the result of a problem with my teaching. It has no origin in the personalities of the children themselves, their natural inclination or disinclination, their use or abuse of drink and drugs, or their personal home circumstances.
It’s all, and only, a result of how entertaining my lessons are.
Up to a certain point I can concede that teachers have a responsibility to ensure that the pupils do well at school. They are children after all, and can’t be expected to know what the best options really are. If they could, 11 year-olds would have the vote. There’s a good reason they don’t.
But I cannot, will not, be held responsible for those who wilfully sabotage their own chances. Those who expect to be given answers because they can’t be bothered to think for themselves. Those who demand their rights, but deny their responsibilities. Those who are given every chance, every opportunity, and yet who expect ever more – those who are prepared to give nothing in return.
And yet I will. I’ll wake up tomorrow and start all over again. I’ll be shouted at, verbally abused, accused of not knowing what I’m talking about, have disparaging comments thrown at me and be threatened with being reported to the head for some unspecified offence. And then I’ll see the children out of the room, and welcome in the next class for more of the same. At the end of the day I’ll be drained and wonder why I put myself through this. Until the next day, when it starts all over again.
Madness? Yes, possibly. The people at the party certainly thought so.
“What,” one of them asked, “is the point? If the kids haven’t got the willpower to do their own work, what value are their qualifications? If they’re rude and lazy as kids, who’ll want to employ them as adults?”
I couldn’t answer that. I don’t know anyone who could.
But perhaps that just reflects on my friends, and their attitude to hard work and personal responsibilities.