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Monday, September 07, 2009

Thoughts from the Third Floor!


I am an exile.

I sit in my lonely corner of the universe with only the music from my ipod playing in the background and a few drinks from the fridge to reach which I do not have to leave my seat to keep me company.

OK, the balmy air drifts gently against my cheeks as the subtle tintinnabulation of the halyards against the masts from the Maritime Club at the end of the road forms a gentle accompaniment to whatever pretentious music you assume I am listening to (and believe me, you probably wouldn’t guess, it’s that pretentious) and I think I’ll have a Bitter Kas now as the lights in the neighbouring pools flicker on and the shimmering of the water looks almost too inviting to resist.

But two floors below the TV is now showing a basketball competition. I refused point blank to watch it as I understand that Great Britain has recently been defeated by some transitory country from the ever irritating Balkans. It it’s not basketball then it is some version of football and Barça seems to be actively involved in at least a dozen different competitions and is collecting cups like some sort of pantomime genii. It all takes television time and Toni wants to see all of them.

Now it is true that I know more people in the Barça football team than I have ever known in any sport at any time in my life. I even have favourite players and, even more shocking, I have opinions about who should be played and where!

It is mildly amusing to observe Catalans go berserk as Barça wins yet again and even more amusing to see them exercise a completely spurious restraint in their merciless goading and mocking of Real Madrid as they struggle manfully to retain their cup-less trophy cabinet in this most arid of seasons for them. But I’m not that interested in the game itself and the more I see the less interested I become.

So, exile to the third floor it is; and now the aircraft have started flying low to keep me company! I am sure that Charles Ives would heartily approve of the musical mix that iPod, boats, planes and people create. I think I will resort to headphones.

School today was generally unstructured and that gave me time to start ‘preparing’ my text books for the forthcoming term. ‘Preparing’ basically means using the answer book to write in the correct responses in the text book itself. This is important as with the English Language it is often the case that there are many ‘answers’ to linguistic problems. This is not the approach that we as a department adopt. If the book says that there is a right answer then that is the answer we teach because the books are directed towards a specific set of examinations and we are an examination led school. Philosophically I might have problems with this approach but, as Spenser Tracey said about Method Acting, “I’m too old, I’m too tired and I’m too rich to bother!” Well, one out of three is good enough for me!

The one timetabled activity today was when we had a tutor from the British Council to take us through a two hour session on the use of the new interactive whiteboards.

After a shaky start when the idea of two hours of a stuttering idiot seemed more than the human frame could stand, he settled down and proved to be an amiable course leader. But – isn’t there always a ‘but’!

He was not actually familiar with the software that we are going to be using and so most of the material he had work not work interactively on our machines. It also turned out that his lack of familiarity meant that he didn’t know how our software worked. This is a bad thing for a tutor.

In the even the work that we actually did was so basic that we didn’t stretch anyone’s capabilities – though changing the colour of a piece of text which had been magically changed from handwriting into print proved a little tricky.

It turns out that we have two systems of interactive whiteboards in the school with different software with each one. It may be that material produced for one will not work with the other. As all of us teach in both parts of the school we will either need to produce duplicates of what we need or, in the words of the tutor, “Not bother, because it will be a waste of your time.”

What amazed me was the astonishment expressed by the tutor that two mutually exclusive systems doing the same thing might be established in the same school.

I don’t know what sort of schools he has worked in but I have never worked in a school in which there was an integrated system using any technology of any sort at any time. Take, for example computers. When there was only one computer in a school then things were fine. As soon as another computer was added then things started to diverge. In my last school at one time I think that there were as many as six or seven completely separate network systems operating at the same time. The IT teacher who was obviously unacquainted with the Myth of Sisyphus started an audit to find out where everyone was and then, the plan was, that he would suggest a system that everyone could subscribe to. Nice try!

The only way that the Myth of Sisyphus can be altered is by using another Myth that of the Cleaning of the Augean Stables: a radical solution but one that would have worked if a Cardiff river had been able to have been diverted to wash away the Byzantine complexity that was computer use in the school!

My solution to this problem would be a fairly simple and (in the long term) a fairly cheap one. All teachers should be issued with a small laptop. The school would provide all central programs like word processing, publishing, archive, spreadsheet etc that were necessary and would insist that only that particular machine could be used inside the school. Subject specific programs would be authorized by the school and different levels of memory need etc would be assessed by the school too.

I’m already bored with this idea because as I type I can see that it isn’t going to work. Even with a full time, dedicated and knowledgeable technician machines will breakdown completely or be stolen or lost and replaced with the latest model which will be slightly different in what it offers and be differently styled and will, inevitably lead to jealousy and resentment from those people who have the old machines! I see rivers flowing with much blood!

No doubt we will muddle our way forward as teachers always do making the best of inauspicious equipment and material and compensating with their professionalism for the inadequacy of their resources.

What finished my experimentation with the interactive white board was a bulb. The projector used a bulb; a bulb with a limited life. When that life was over and the bulb needed to be replaced it was discovered that the cost of a replacement was absurdly high – well over two hundred pounds! And no one would buy it!

If things follow the normal pattern then there will be a year when people try out the new technology and the staff room will ring with enthusiastic voices regaling their fascinated colleagues with ‘The Story of My Struggle to Show a Web Page on the White Board’ but this bon mots will soon pale and be replaced by sullen resentment at technology that doesn’t quite work because The Person Before Me in the Classroom Left it Unplugged – or some other variation.

I know this. I have been there.

But with my permanent contract tantalizingly close and retirement just over a year away, I can afford to take the long view because I need only to be going there for a relatively short time.

Like some of the appalling vacation jobs that I had, their dire quality was always mitigated by the fact that I was being paid for what I was doing and I knew that I was not going to be doing it (like the poor souls around me) for years and years and years.

If I count the months, there are 14 before that magical date in October 2010. Take off July and August of next year because they are holidays and that brings it down to 12 working months; one year. 356 days, minus of course 52 x 2 for weekends, so that’s 252. Allow an extra 20 or so for holidays and we have 232. Divide by 5 to make the working weeks and we are left with 46 and a bit – and counting!

This is possibly not the most positive calculation to do days before the term starts in earnest, but it is realistic and it makes the days and weeks ahead part of a declining statistic and when it gets to zero then I have a decision to make.

As I feel at the moment I can consider the idea of continuing beyond the retirement date and that is certainly the impression I have give my school. It will be interesting to look back in October 2010 and read through what I have written here and see what the reality looks like rather than the speculation.

I wonder.
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