Thursday, 17 February 2011

That would be a job well done

I'm following the debate sparked by US schoolteacher Natalie Monroe, freshly suspended for blogging about her school environment, her work colleagues, and the kids she teaches.

I hear she was fairly frank and judgemental about the limitations of the kids, and not much more forgiving about her co-workers, or the life of a classroom teacher.

In the media swell that's followed, she's (not surprisingly) striking a more questioning line and focusing on the US educational system. What do parents take teachers for? What do you want school to do? What role does education play in your society?

Admittedly, from what I've read, her starting point wasn't too generous. What with the insults, angers, swearing and resentments. And yes, it does smack a little of post-event rationale - like yelling Anyone aged over 70 is a miserable old bastard! Before adding, I was merely drawing attention to social perceptions of the elderly.

But she's turning it to good questions now, and she's bringing those issues into the mainstream culture, which I can't object to.

Of course she's not the first to use her experiences as a teacher for material. Teachers have been writing personally and provocatively about schools, colleagues, and kids, for years. Usually without the effing and blinding. Springing to mind is Edward Blishen, who wrote Roaring Boys (1955) and This Right Soft Lot (1969). They're autobiographical tellings of kids in an ordinary working-class school.

Blishen's books about school life could join dozens of others, but I guess that once you begin listing works that also use school as a background or setting, there'd be no end. School-referencing narratives inform hundreds of works in many genres. You could find the full range, from tales of lads and falcons, to tedious classroom research which dissects every utterance your child makes from his casual grunt to his lengthy discourse on Beckham.

Yet, despite this pervasiveness of educational referencing, and the fact that we can all recognise how school, teaching, and educational issues thread into so many narratives, education in itself - a subject in its own right - is usually apparent by its omission in mainstream culture.

Educational issues are usually marginalised; they're regarded as the supplements or special interest. People don't much tackle them, preferring instead to air opinions on safe, shared ground of poor discipline or media studies. Likewise, teachers aren't expected to discuss the inner workings and management of schools and, in the UK, any parent posing public questions - for example about school policies on racism or bullying - may as well go into voluntary exile.

I notice this in Hong Kong too. Here I'm surrounded by books which explain the English to the Chinese. Pick up these observational or anecdotal books about the English, British culture or UK society, and you'll rarely find any section devoted to education. Sure, chapters about transport, money, keeping pets, shopping in Asda, they're all considered suitable for a general reader, but not education. There's no chapter on that.

Once I start looking for works which set out to recognise the place of education in society for the general reader, rather than those books shared by educational theorists or PGCE students, then the omission is almost spooky.

For example, searching for a list of education blogs written for a mainstream audience is like wondering if they've been struck from the records. I couldn't even find a category marked education on the Wikio lists, although there's a whole section devoted to knitting. (I accept that could be my poor browsing skills.) Similarly, in the US I can find plenty of educational pages, but most of them are trying to sell me a college course or a competitively priced online tutorial.

This omission - straightforward narratives, insights, questions and explanations about education made available to the general reader - is to me simply odd. Especially when I can see that education - and particularly school experience - helps forms such a massive part of the adult psyche.

The gap, unfortunately, is filled by ideas which are popular but probably not much use in communicating educational issues with which teachers and your kids wrestle daily. We can be overdosed in either extreme: twee romanticised versions of interacting with adorable cuties (sorry, Gervase Phinn), or the sex and suicide of your average fantasy staffroom (Channel 4's Teachers). Neither particularly raise those questions Monroe is pushing people to think about: What do parents take teachers for? What do you want school to do? What role does education play in your society?

If the questions she's asking have an impact, if they cause people to think consciously about the education of kids - to raise it and make it an issue with its own clear identity in the adult mind - then I can't help but think that's a positive result.

And we could have a trend here that benefits everyone. Chua, now Monroe. Are they pushing education away from a marginalised, only-referenced place in books, literature and blogs, to a central, mainstream audience? If, through these provocative starts, people began to question their educational landscape a little more, instead of romanticising it, introducing a sex scene, or assuming they know all about education on the basis they went to school, then that could be a step along the way.

Personally, I'd like to see more mainstream discussion on the work of all teachers and the function of schools. I'd like to see less defence of school systems when they're going wrong. I'd like to see more informed comment and ideas about education in general, with more parents and other interested people discussing issues of teaching and learning, and all with less ignorant ranting.

If people educate themselves about education and can intelligently discuss questions like What do parents take teachers for? What do you want school to do? What role does education play in your society? Maybe then we'll also see education taking its place in the mainstream.

If it does, then there's my goal achieved. Alongside weekday school, would fall into place flexischool, distance school, home education in all its wonderful flavours - they'd all become normal mainstream choices too.

I suppose finally I could admit to having a personal interest. (Okay, it's not very interesting.)

In the 1990s when I'd finished with conventional schools, I wrote a range of short stories about the school environment, my work colleagues, and the kids I'd been teaching - working title, Mobile 57. It was the days before blogs. I wanted the stories to be written in a way that wasn't just for teachers, but that communicated ideas about how school related to education, how schools teach stuff (but not what you'd think of as an education), and how it all impacted on the lives of kids.

An agent for Peters Fraser and Dunlop liked the stories, and encouraged me to work on them. Then she got life-threatening sick. Without someone like an editor to dangle a carrot and hit me with a stick, I became subsumed by idlebastarditis, then dropped them. A few years ago, I thought, I'll do something about them now! and started to key them in again. Then the idlebastarditis got me once more.

Really, thanks to Monroe putting those issues out there, I'm minded to have another go. But if that's what it takes, then this time, I'll add some effing and blinding, and say, See now! What do you parents take teachers for? What do you have schools for? What role do you want education to play in your society?


Dreamingaloudnet said...

Love it idlebastarditis - thought provoking and hard hitting as always. I get frustrated about the lack of dialogue about education. It is my experience as a teacher and writer that what you say is true. See an unpublished article I wrote for the Irish mainstream press last year...

Michelle said...

Timely! Yesterday I came across a Washington Post article ( and thought the embedded video clip very interesting, subsequently going to the website concerned ( Quite challenging to the mindset most people have of what is the best thing to do for your kids.

Helen of SJ said...

Please do finish Mobile 57! I think it'll be great!