Education: Personally speaking - Ian Roe

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The Independent Online
As the government's current recruiting campaign asserts, good teachers promote warm memories. But many teachers are cynical and disillusioned, worn down by constant conflict and obsessed with control. Not good for them, nor for schools, warns Ian Roe

Once I became a deputy head some seven years ago, I stopped having difficulties with pupils. Oh, I'm always there when one of them needs sorting out. It's just that they are, generally, easy to deal with. The problems which disturb me involve teachers.

You see, for some of my staff, teaching is no longer a co-operative activity. It is now about order and control. Sadly, this inspires an element of inflexibility which means that some incidents are caused by the teachers themselves and not the pupils. Sometimes they cannot recognise that they are inconsistent, and sometimes they back themselves into a corner by being unrealistic about work or behaviour in confrontations which otherwise might have been avoided.

Why does this happen?

Teaching is a hard job, particularly in difficult schools like mine, which demand so much from the staff. It's no surprise when they become tired and ratty. Through years of social disintegration, teachers have been reminded that they will slip into wilful incompetence if they are not constantly watched and criticised. It pains me to see what is happening to them in these circumstances, their confidence eroded, their self-belief destroyed.

Their own specialism is mangled or abused by adolescent minds consumed by rights, not responsibilities. The things that once inspired them are declared to be "crap" by their students. By extension, the teachers themselves are similarly labelled.

In an atmosphere where their personalities are assaulted, they struggle through lessons, trying always to stay calm. Battling against petty acts of ill-discipline is not why my staff became teachers. The pleasures of the job have long since disappeared. They now elevate classroom control above the need to pass on knowledge. As a result of this, they develop a poor self-image. Their pride as specialists crumbles and their conversation becomes deeply cynical. Colleagues grow older together and they reflect upon their careers, how they started out in hope and yet ended up here, energies spent.

It seems to me that society is expecting more and more from teachers, who have less and less to give. At the same time, pupils tell them that they must be bad teachers because the school is at the bottom of the league tables. Other schools must have better teachers. Of course, this is deeply ironic, for the reverse is generally true. But immature minds, striving only for effect, add to the process that grinds the teacher down. A sense of despair grows ever deeper in the staffroom. And I can't do anything about it.

In the end that is what I find most difficult in my job. I try to be cheerful and lively because the pupils deserve and expect that, but the joy has gone for many of my staff. All I can do is watch in sorrow.

I know what I need. It's a younger staff, because the ones I've got are burnt out. They have been all used up and should be allowed to go with honour. They cannot. The fact is that they have to keep going because young people are not joining the profession. So we consign generations to be taught that the world isn't about wonder and exploration; the world is about disillusion and problems, not solutions. And no one should underestimate the effect that teachers have upon their pupils. I mean, doesn't the government's latest recruitment campaign acknowledge this? Or have I got hold of the wrong end of the stick?

The writer is a deputy head in an inner-city comprehensive. He is writing under a pseudonym.

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