Monday, October 07, 2019

A Day in School (1995)

From the January 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

The telephone rings. It’s eight o’clock in the morning. I am already up, dressed and have taken the dog for a walk.

I take the call. It’s the Head of a local primary' school.

“Can you come in to do a day’s supply work?” he asks.

“Yes, of course,” I answer, trying to sound as enthusiastic as I can while my heart sinks in dismay for, although I like being with children and “interacting with them in an educational manner", I don’t like schools - for moral, pedagogical and political reasons which I hope will soon become clear.

I arrive just in time and make for the office. As I walk through the grounds and enter the building, I am immediately assaulted by the sights, sounds and smells of the institution of school — where adults cease being “normal” human beings and become bossy teachers and where children cease being independent, free-thinking, individuals and become managed pupils — and instinctively react against its authoritarian ethos. But I keep these thoughts and feelings to myself.

After the usual pleasantries I am taken by the well-meaning but misguided and officious Deputy Head along tired, impersonal corridors to “my" classroom. I enter the room and quickly take stock of the situation: a collection of battered, old desks with lift-up lids surrounded by the usual uninspiring paraphernalia of secondhand learning. This will be mine and the children’s cell for most of the rest of the day.

After warning me that this is a “difficult” class, he leaves the room.

Regimentation begins

The first thing I do is find some chalk and write my name on the blackboard. While I am doing this, the bell goes. The regimentation has begun! The children, thirty-five boys and girls, aged between 8 and 9, start to wander in, depressingly dressed in their homogenising and boring school uniform.

I greet them with a warm smile, as they enter, but, when I see that they are not settling down very well —I am the second replacement they have had this term — but are in fact making "too much noise", I tell them in a firm but friendly voice to stop talking and sit down quietly, while I take the register. Thus, I start acting like a Teacher — a role that is forced upon me and all my colleagues in similar classrooms throughout the land — by the demands of the situation, where large numbers of poorly-motivated pupils are confined by law within an unsuitable space for long periods of the day.

Having completed this task, I then send them off to their maths groups — to be labelled, some inaccurately, “Good”, “Average”, and “Poor” (for the rest of their lives?). I will be having the “top set” in this room.

I manage the class reasonably well during the course of the next fifty minutes in as pleasant a manner as possible and they do, I suppose, learn something but, once again, I am left with the opinion at the end of this period that these are not the best conditions in which to encourage logical thought and numerical ability (or, indeed, any other aspect of all-round, personal growth and development). For, apart from all the various distractions, uninvited interruptions and lack of adequate resources and facilities, there are far too many children to give them all the appropriate help and attention they require as and when it is needed.

But do not imagine for one moment that the way to solve this problem is simply to reduce the number of pupils per teacher in a classroom. For such a liberal reform could never get rid of one of the main faults of our present, school-based system: the need/desire for the adult to be authoritarian. Only a radically different environment in which a healthier, more natural, i.e.. “libertarian”, approach on the part of the adult is made possible will achieve that goal.

Learning to respect Authority

The bell goes again. Everybody goes back to where they came from. (More time-wasting and disturbance.) The children in “my” class line up for assembly — alphabetically! I get them all quiet and facing the right way and, when I am sure they will not show me up in public by any displays of "inappropriate” behaviour — a powerful weapon in the armoury of the institution for ensuring that all teachers behave towards the children in the same, disciplinarian manner — we move off to the hall in silent crocodile lines for this daily dose of learning how to "respect” authority, be a “better person" and become part of “the crowd”.

At the door they are each given a hymn book. They then proceed to sit down in their customary places on the hard, bare floor while a piece of classical music is being played. When all the children in the school are assembled, the Head begins by saying"Good Morning" to everyone. “The masses” — for this is what they are now practising to become members of — chant back their reply, as if they were one. He then announces the number of the hymn and everybody starts singing. He follows this with a story from the bible and a prayer. (I start to squirm on my seat.)

When this is over, he gives out several notices, puts down one or two children who — surprise, surprise — are not paying attention, then finally reveals the number of points wInch each house has scored (for good work and behaviour) during the previous week and the winning captain comes out to receive the cup which he may keep for the week in his classroom. ("Get me out of here!" a voice is now screaming inside my head, as phrases like “No Gods, No Masters” come to mind and I begin to wonder if people like Godwin, Tolstoy, Ferrer and Goodman all lived in vain.)

Fortunately the music starts to play again and I begin to relax a little as this offensive and immoral occasion for religious indoctrination, further imposed control and forced "cultural" improvement at last draws to a close. The children file out of the hail, again in silence, and go straight out into the playground — for a welcome but limited moment of "freedom” and an opportunity to let off some steam — while I go off to the staffroom for a well-earned cup of tea.

Ten not very stimulating minutes later, I return to “my” classroom. On the way I pass children who have been told to stand in the corridor and face the wall as punishment for some “terrible” crime they have committed, while others are seated in the dining area carrying on with their work because they have not done “enough” during lesson time. (More fear, coercion and repression which will adversely affect their future development.) Then, as I walk through the building, I hear the clamour and uproar that is coming from the playground where all that pent-up energy — and, for some, hate and aggression, the origin of much bullying — is now being expelled.

“We can do better than this" I think to myself as I re-enter “my” area of this kiddie-farm and hear the bell signify the end of playtime.

Sticks and carrots

The children start coming back in, some in a fairly high state of excitement. I settle them all down again, and, when I am sure they are all paying attention, “entertain” them with an English lesson on expressions, e.g. feeling “sad”, “happy”, “cross” etc. In order to make the exercise more real and interesting, I get them to make faces demonstrating various emotions and, after we have “discussed" these — but how can there be a proper discussion amongst so many children? — they draw on A4 paper folded into quarters and then write why the person whose face they have drawn is looking that way.

Ten to fifteen minutes later those who have finished start to bring out their work. One whose drawings and reasons are very good asks if she can have a house point.

“No, I don’t believe in them.” The words are out of my mouth before I realise what I have said.

“Why?” she asks.

“Because I believe you should only do things because you want to — not because you have been bribed.” (Or frightened, I could have added.)

She accepts this answer, a bit disappointed but without too much complaint, and sits down, repeating what I have just said to her friend, while I think about how well school with its methods of behaviour modification based on a sticks-and-carrots, threats-and-artificial-incentives approach corrupts the emotions and provides an excellent training ground for life after school in a capitalist society.

“What shall I do next?” another one asks who has successfully completed this first ask.

Once again, as in all the schools I have taught in during my long and varied acquaintance with life in the classroom, I am confronted by the appalling lack of initiative and independence that is the result of an education system which is based on continual direction and imposed control, but a good thing for a society which requires a constant flow of uncritical producers and consumers who are ready to accept everything they are told by those in authority, i.e. "the boss, the priest and the politician”, as soon as they have left school.

Forced, therefore, into spoon-feeding those who have finished this first exercise with further, suitable activities (instead of being able in this authoritarian environment to encourage them to think and act for themselves), I keep the class "constructively occupied" until lunchtime and, when the bell goes at mid-day, I send the children out to play and/or dinner.

I immediately leave the building and go to a local park where I eat my sandwiches, walk around in its open spaces and breathe in some fresh air — away from all that compulsory attendance, repressed energy and unnatural growth, all that imposed discipline, open/hidden indoctrination and lack of freedom.

Built-in level of failure

I return to the classroom with just enough time to get ready for the afternoon session and look at their writing which they did in the morning. As with their maths, I find many mistakes and errors. This leaves me once again with the feeling that this system has deliberately built into it a certain level of failure, especially for those who come from a “working-class” background. (And for good reason. For who else would fill the lower echelons of its hierarchies, if everyone was educated to the same “high standard of performance”?)

The bell goes and the children start coming back in after the long lunch-time break but, before I can start the afternoon session, I have to settle a number of arguments which have spilled over into the classroom from the playground (where, in its bleak and barren spaces, the “law of the jungle” often seems to prevail.)

After resolving most of these problems (or, at least, sweeping them under the carpet), I ask for and obtain the necessary peace and quiet in which to take the register, following which I tell them all to read a book in silence for the next twenty to thirty minutes, as is required of them every day at this time by that wretched timetable.

I follow this calming-down period with a Science lesson on Water, a topic prescribed for these children at this stage in their schooling — whether they like it or not — by that strait-jacket of free thought and human development, the National Curriculum.

Thus, instead of invoking the children in a topic in which both I and they are interested — if ever that were possible with such large numbers — I embark upon a lesson which has something to do with Water and fits in with their previous work. I choose “the inhabitants of the seas".

Competitive individualism

To begin with I keep the lesson fairly formal but after a while I decide to make the exercise more creative by getting everyone to draw, decorate and cut out their own underwater creatures. These they are then encouraged to stick, without too much direction from me, onto a large piece of blue paper which I have fixed to one of the classroom walls and a reasonable underwater collage begins to emerge. But it is obvious from the result that they require much more practice at this kind of art-work. For their efforts are not very inventive and their choice of materials limited Also their behaviour while this activity is in progress and the arrangement of their creatures on the paper reflect exactly what their experiences both in and outside school are leading them to become, i.e.. unimaginative, disconnected, competitive individuals who know very little of self-control and social cooperation.

Soon the afternoon session is drawing to a close, so, after clearing up, I read them a story. I have brought with me The Twits by Roald Dahl. I like reading this book to children because not only does its “weird and wonderful" contents immediately grab their attention but its title, I feel, is particularly apt in these very unsuitable surroundings (for, surely, such a label must apply to those who are responsible for providing — and delivering? — this adult-imposed, keep-me-occupied-and-under- control education.)

I am half-way through a chapter when the bell goes for the end of school. I find a convenient point at which to stop, get the children to put their chairs on their desks and then release them gradually and gently from their chains. 

Colin Millen

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