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The Reading Ban (Part Two)

January 11, 2013

Course I was enthusiastic about the reading ban thing from the start. Course I was. For one thing, I have a natural sense of enthusiasm which is just what employers demand these days, and for the other, I was lucky enough to get my very first teaching job in the very first Non Reading Academy in the country!

It wasn’t my first job ever, of course. Before that I’d been a Provider for one of those firms with the thankless task of delivering the government’s latest Job Programme. When I wasn’t forwarding ads from other agencies I’d meet with each customer about once a month, do my best to lower his or her expectations and persuade the little shirker to fill any vacancy, even if it was unpaid and only for “a trial period”.

That company’s contract wasn’t renewed but working there for two years gave me experience of dealing with fairly young people and a range of transferable skills which I was able to bring to education via the “have a go at teaching” initiative. My enthusiasm, good contacts and some lucky timing were enough to land me a job teaching English at Reading NRA, with a promise of rapid promotion as soon as any “veteran” teacher retired or got pushed out.

Not having to deal with books or other printed matter certainly suited me, but then there was the problem of how to fill classroom time without them. The new computer software designed to fill this gap wasn’t ready for weeks, so I had to rely on the school’s old stock of material. Even in the junior groups there were smart alec kids who complained that, for instance, Word Searches involved some reading but I was able to argue that just recognising a word needn’t involve understanding it or having to place it in the context of a sentence and, as most children like nothing more than doing Word Searches, I was generally able to carry this point. Other child friendly exercises (cunningly disguised as games) included “copy the illustration” (hastily corrected to “copy the picture” after I got some stern words of warning from the Head of Department), match the objects (by shape or colour or, for some advanced groups, by category) and the ever popular “cut it up and stick it in your exercise folder”.

The school’s new syllabus assigned each of these activities its own special number and it felt pretty good to show each group’s progress by filling in its own wall chart, which could be seen by visitors as a clear sign that this Non Reading Academy was achieving great results and real success on its own terms.

Free from previous restrictive practices, it wasn’t too hard to claim a 100% success rate. If, for example, a kid accurately copied a picture of an apple, that was an obvious achievement in itself. If he or she got the colour or shape wrong and ended up producing something that looked nothing like an apple, I had to exercise my ingenuity and find a way or praising their creativity or originality. That was handy but generally things went better if the kids copied each other as closely as possible.

Older groups brought me the problem of delivering “classic texts” in a non literary form. Fortunately the school had plenty of copies of film versions of old favourites such as “James and the Giant Peach”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Of Mice and Men” etc etc, and allowing a little discussion plus the usual delays meant one could string out this alternative to reading the things for weeks and weeks, at the end of which every student’s box for that attainment could be ticked.

So things went pretty swimmingly, but of course there were a few characters who seemed determined to make things difficult for me.

Despite the disruption they threatened to cause, it might surprise you to know that I actually have quite fond memories of these reprobates, as they did add a little variety to my day and getting them to toe the line, turning the rest of the class against them or beating them down in some other way did give me a lot of personal satisfaction. What’s more it was handling these very students that ended up teaching me the most and, as I’d said in my interview “Good teachers actually learn more from their students than their students learn from them”.

There was Chloe, a very pretty Year 8 student with big blue eyes and long blonde hair. She always looked very neat in her uniform and she wasn’t ever disobedient or disruptive, so you never expected her to be a problem, and you couldn’t have her removed as you could do with others who slowed the group down. But Chloe’s problem was that she truly loved to draw. She was one of those in the class who turned their noses up at using sketching software and insisted on working by hand.

When she had to draw an apple she would make it look a hundred times more detailed than the picture she’d been given to copy, and nothing could persuade her to take short cuts; it had to be just so and shaded to perfection.

I tried the odd sarcastic remark: “This isn’t an art class Chloe”, tried appealing to her conscience: “Look class, Chloe’s making us all wait again”, tried undermining her confidence: “Oh Chloe, you had it just right a minute ago and now you’re spoiling it!” But once she was engaged in drawing something she would not stop until she was satisfied. If you really tried to press her she would get quite tearful and I hate that, not to mention that it put me in danger of being accused of bullying.

She was a real problem and others in the class were beginning to get too fussy about their work as well.

In the end, though, I found her weak spot – all those coloured pens and pencils she was so proud of. I hit upon the strategy of getting her to lend things out, usually the very pencil she was drawing with so laboriously, or the pink one, always her favourite. She didn’t argue but nine times out of ten her precious things were returned used up or damaged or weren’t returned at all and over time Chloe’s stock of equipment was noticeably reduced and she got less keen on showing it off, until she ended up tackling most tasks with a single lead pencil.

She wouldn’t take the praise when she was among the first to finish the latest task, and complained, “It just doesn’t look as good as it should do.”

“Cheer up Chloe,” I told her, “It’s good to be outstanding but it doesn’t pay to stand out,” which I still think is good advice, not just for school but for work and life itself.

At the other extreme was Marvin, who was only in Year Seven but was already a born trouble maker.

“I don’t understand” that was his mantra whenever he was asked a question or even just to comment on something.

“For goodness sake Marvin, it’s a video, you don’t have to understand it, you just have to watch it,” I’d say, but he’d caught on to the fact that his stupidity amused the rest of his group and wound me up, and he soon began playing up to it.

Marvin wasn’t the best looking kid; in fact I’d describe him as pig ugly if that wasn’t unprofessional, but he had a fixed determination which won him grudging respect from his peers, who often took his side when I tried to get him on task.

“Come on sir,” they’d say, “He’s trying his best,” when obviously he wasn’t.

It was a tough situation because Marvin was just the kind of student Reading NRA was supposed to be helping. We knew he couldn’t read when he came in. Who knew he couldn’t do anything else either?

Despite being thick as a plank Marvin did display a certain cunning when it came to maintaining a balancing act between getting on my nerves and being disruptive in a manner which would get him removed. He left it to others to turn his inability to respond appropriately into the kind of disruption that got other teachers knocking on my door to enquire what the problem was.

When I got the chance I had a quiet word with the little so and so.

“Look sonny,” I said, resorting to a phrase often used by teachers in such circumstances, “If it’s a fight you want you should know that you can’t possibly win.”

Marvin looked straight into my eyes with an expression that made me think he might not be so thick after all.

“I’m not trying to pick a fight, sir, but if you are trying to threaten me I can assure you that my mum will not stand for that.”

I could tell he meant what he said and, not wanting to undermine my own position, I did back off from him a little and stopped asking him questions or to do things.

Marvin settled down a little after that, and seemed happy enough to be left to play with his iPad. The hell of it was that I still had to give him a pass for his year’s work, to keep his group’s average up.

Marvin was a right pain, but the worst student I had was Julie, a grim faced, dark haired Year 13 who had been corrupted by years of studying the old fashioned way, actually reading the prescribed texts, using an electronic reader once she’d been caught sneaking printed versions into class.

She thought books were some personal crusade or something and would always bang on about how “nothing could replace an original text” and other such nonsense. Her parents must’ve read to her when she was a kiddie. She even had the nerve to criticize Mel Gibson’s performance as Hamlet.

Following my senior colleague’s advice, I did my best not to rise to her bait, and simply encouraged her to perform the same tasks as everyone else until, while the rest of her group were enjoying the duelling game based on Act 5 which was giving them valuable keyboard skills, she cracked.

“We should be getting insight into the characters’ psychology and motivation,” she said, though these were already listed by the software and could be accessed at the touch of a button, “And getting a sense Shakespeare’s artistry, his language, themes and the values and context of his historical period, not playing stupid games about how to chop Hamlet’s head off or turn him into a zombie!”

This was use of language described in the school’s charter as “hateful” and was totally unacceptable, obviously.

I made it very clear to Julie that she had gone too far.

“Sod you then!” she said, and actually stomped out of the classroom.

It gave me a worrying couple of hours, but when I spoke to the Head about the incident and showed her the way I had written it up she promised me her total support.

“We want our students to be happy and enthusiastic,” the Head told me, “And if they’re not that’s bad for them and bad for the whole school.”

I didn’t see Julie after that, and learnt later that luckily for her her parents had just managed to get her transferred to another, more traditional Academy, that catered to the demanding kind of student she’d turned out to be.

So all in all I was feeling pretty happy by the end of my first year at Reading NRA, and pretty positive when I went for my end of term assessment meeting with my Head of Department. But I was in for a bit of a shock.

“We’ve decided not to renew your contract,” she said, coming straight to the point as usual.

My stomach tightened into a painful knot.

“I don’t understand,” I said, “All my completing students have achieved a 100% success rate.”

She tried to look sympathetic.

“Yes, that’s a good achievement. But I’m afraid that’s no longer good enough. You achieved that last term and, as you know, schools and all the teachers in them are expected to improve year on year, term by term.”

“So how can I achieve more than 100% success?”

“There’s no need to be impertinent. We are working very hard to find new ways of defining success, so that we can be even more outstanding next year.”

Obviously my number was up, for whatever reason, probably to do with budgeting. I can’t pretend it wasn’t a blow but there was no point in protesting further.

It was a drag not to get the promotion I’d been promised but I soon got over that. To be honest, teaching was beginning to bore me anyway. It just wasn’t challenging enough for someone with my abilities So I accepted a promise of an excellent reference with my usual enthusiasm and, as one must in the modern working world, started making plans for a new career path



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