Familiarity and contempt

I’ve used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation’s favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he ‘likes to taste his friends, not eat them’. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it’s a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don’t see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I’ve just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn’t seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I’m certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It’s like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there’s some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I’m on holiday at the moment, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I’ve been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I’ve read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that’s a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney’s case, I’ve read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic ‘Bright lights, Big City’. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he ‘makes you feel as though you are the genuis’. It’s a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I’m being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn’t the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that’s the key: to die before one’s output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn’t have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you’ve seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there’s a limit to creativity, and it’s best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.

All about the parents?

I’m afraid it’s Jamie’s dream School again this week, so for those who are bored of my rantings about this particular piece of water-cooler TV, there’s no need to read on any further. The programme has turned out pretty much as expected, and I’m not surprised that the star of the show is David Starkey, a man who looks and acts more like his ‘dead ringers’ cariacature every time he appears. Watching him, kid gloves and all, handling the Staffordshire hoard like a newborn child was to observe someone totally in love with his subject; he then looks expectantly up at the class of brats in front of him, only to note the look of total disgust on their faces. This was sad, though hardly unexpected. He’d have been better off unveiling a bottle of 20/20, which would at least have gotten their attention.

But I’ve already said enough about the failings of the programme. I’m more interested in the enormous elephant in the classroom that seems to be continually ignored by Jamie, and all involved with dream School. We are told that these pupils have been failed by ‘the system’. We’re never quite told what ‘the system’ is, only that it has failed these children. The reasoning goes thus:

1. The pupils all have no GCSE qualifications.

2. The pupils are clearly quite clever.

3. Therefore, the teaching they received was not good enough. They weren’t engaged, enthused or educated.

Conclusion: the pupils have been failed by their Schools, and by their teachers within those Schools.

I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but here’s an inescapable truth: there are good teachers in every School and there are bad teachers in every School. It’s true that teacher effects dwaf whole School effects, such that you are far better off having the best teacher in a lousy School than having a feeble teacher in a superb establishment. But clearly these pupils haven’t just had the bad teachers. The main problem with them is that they are unteachable. They are feral. They have never been taught how to behave. The general rules of life do not apply to these pupils. And whose fault is this? I’d absolve the pupils from blame, just as one absolves a non-housetrained dog from peeing on the carpet; it simply doesn’t know any better. Surely the majority of fault lies with the parents?

Malcolm Gladwell notes that pupils at high-achieving Schools don’t actually outstrip pupils at low achieving Schools by that much during term time i.e. the time that they actually spend at School. Instead, their education develops far more during the holidays, and this is where they move ahead of the low achieving pupils. During this time they are encouraged to read by their parents, to take an interest in sport, music, film, theatre, to debate, discuss and to challenge the world around them. They are not allowed to spend long days on the xbox and eating junk food. This is a generalisation of course, but it’s the general point I wish to make.

On this week’s episode, we were told that one of the pupils had grown up without a dad, had been kicked out by his mother and was living in a council flat on his own. The only time we were treated to a look inside, he was getting hammered with his mates on what looked like cheap schnapps. Failed by the system? Only if the system gave birth to him.

We can talk all we like about what needs to change with education, from curriculum reform and studying Latin (Toby Young) to discipline in the classroom (Katharine Birbalsingh), but why do we never talk about good parents and bad parents, and the effects of parents, rather than the effects of School and teachers. Young people need to be aspirational; they need to feel as though they can make a success of things, and they need the love, nurture and time investment from fantastic parents. How about Jamie’s dream parent School – get the parents of these youngsters with potential and teach them how to do a good job?

Just a thought, channel 4?

Staying in Control

Since I started blogging I’ve had a go at food, sport, music and low-grade humour. I clrealy have a way to go before I’ve mastered any of them, and reading Malcolm Gladwell on the train today confirmed the enormous insurmountable chasm that exists between me and he. I’m not sure what makes him quite so good, but I’m pretty sure it’s the fact (as I read in a review somewhere) that he makes you feel like you’re the genius. He makes things that you weren’t interested in seem interesting, and he makes things that you hadn’t even thought about fascinating. I bet he’d make a great teacher, because this is all teaching is really about. If you can explain things to people, and develop their interest at the same time, you’ll have done your job. When Arthur C Clarke said that ‘when people are interested, education happens’, he knew what he was talking about.

When people ask me whether they’d make a good teacher (most people seem to have thought about the profession at some point), I always say that all you need is the capacity to work hard, and you also need to be an interesting person. Since most of my friends are interesting people, I end up telling them that they’d make good teachers. It’s not quite as easy as that, because there’s a lot more paperwork these days (our litigious society has seen to that), and it can be stressful, and hard to turn off. If I ever thought that my friends were serious about going into the profession, I’d probably give a little more thought to the advice I gave, and the most important thing for any new teacher is this: stay in control.

The feeling of losing control of anything is terrifying (cars and bowels come to mind), but losing control of a class is about the worst thing that can happen to you during the School day. We all get by with a mixture of bluff and bravado, and with the realisation that the system only works if the traditional pupil/teacher relationship holds. We as teachers have complete power over the pupils, but this power is based on nothing at all. So a pupils wants to walk out, and swears at us on the way past? So be it (this never happens where I teach, but I’m sure it does somewhere every day). Power and control zapped in an instant. What keeps the pupils in their chairs is the illusion of power and no more. I am one of those teachers who has to be in control all the time, a control freak if you will. I had just enough of a taste in my early career of what it felt like to be on the edge of losing control, and I didn’t want to go back there.

In reality, it should be quite easy. Pupils generally have no plan B, whereas we have the opportunity to have plan B, C, D and any others that are required. Easy enough to stay ahead? Maybe, but there’s quite a few of them and only one of you, and you need to stay ahead of all of them. Pupils don’t have a lesson plan, and it’s our job to have a response to anything that may be thrown at us. Need silence? Have a 10 question spot test in the bag.

Now I work at an idyllic place; it’s hard work, but it’s control of a different sort that I thought about earlier today, and it’s the control associated with management. What I liked about running a department was that it was easy to stay in control. You had your little corner of the School, your team of teachers and a section of the School population that committed to your subject every year. You could plan out your year; sometimes the admin got on top and it was enough just to keep up to date with everything and make sure that the ship stayed on an even keel. At other times, with no deadline pressures you had the opportunity to be creative, and the blue sky ideas could flow. After a year or two in post, you knew when it was time to baton down the hatches and get through the rough stuff, and when it was time to unfurl the sails and let the wind take you. Such is the joy of an academic department.

I have great respect for middle managers on the academic side, but that’s a job I could do. Middle managers on the pastoral side have a whole different set of challenges. How do you stay in control? I’m not sure it’s ever possible to do so. No matter how good and watertight the systems you put in place, they can be blown apart by one unpredictable incident, such as never happens on the academic side. Your job is reactionary, and no amount of pro-activity will ever make it any less so. For this reason (and I’m sure there are others) it’s not for me. The thought that something (anything) could happen at any time is exciting, no doubt, but if anything is going to interrupt university challenge, I’d like to think that it’s something I could have predicted.