Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The end of the next part of the beginning of the end

On my (early) arrival at school I met Frank (from the School on the Hill) and had a chat which meant that the morning meeting hit me in the middle of my photocopying and caused a set of Year 7 material to go missing.

The thrust of the morning meeting was an announcement of, or rather encouragement about “Teaching Excellence Awards” which the company which runs the school has decided to institute.  This is a belated initiative following their introduction in England and Wales.  The headteacher emphasised that nominations could be self-nomination or for another person.

I totally reject such messy industry-driven initiatives.  These are out of place in a professional environment and are viciously divisive.  They cheapen the teaching profession and make it tawdry. 

The prize-giving ceremonies are pale imitations of the Oscar shenanigans, and the fact that there are various awards for films and filmmakers does not mean that they are a justification for teachers.  There are “good” commercial reasons for having a whole series of publicity heavy festivals in the film industry.  Education is not an industry.  The commercial incentive is not there and the teaching awards tend to accentuate (vide “Teach as though your hair is on fire”) the “dedicated” individual whose entire life is given over to education.

The link to recognition of pupils’ achievements not only academically but also in sporting achievements as a justification for teaching excellence awards is spurious because teachers are providing a professional service.  To my mind it is akin to instituting best patient awards for those individuals who get better more quickly than others!  And just as useful.  Teachers deal with living, sentient beings where there is a reciprocity of effort and the quantification of that relative effort is difficult.

Do we really want payment by results?  With the sophistication of statistics we are now given a series of predictions at Year 7 level which indicate the probably performance at Year 11.  With the use of “Value Added” assessment we can tell if a school is performing according to the outline direction and make adjustments – awards in this context seem at best irrelevant and at worst positively destructive.

Superlative individual teachers are wonderful human beings and their reward, surely, is the reaction of their pupils and in the way that they learn.  I am much, much more concerned about the sturdy professionalism of the majority of the profession who do a good job and also have a life outside education as well.

The presence of teaching “saints” in a school whose hallowed status is recognized by an award automatically turn the rest of the staff into a bunch of second class citizens and create conflict where a collegiate should exist.

And, to the question about what would happen if no member of staff nominated any other member of staff for an award, the headteacher said that he would nominate teachers himself.  A more certain way to sow discord I cannot imagine!

As one person perceptively pointed out in the meeting, she was more concerned about a general pay rise rather than the recognition of a single person or small group of persons.  Too bloody right!

My OU teaching materials have finally arrived and I have started the annotation.  The web sites are up and running and there is some communication between members of the incredibly disparate tutor group that my tutor, Roza, has to cope with.  So far, apart from residents of the North of England, I note that there are people in Malta and Italy as well as my good self in Spain.  I do not think that the tutor’s hope that we will meet soon is likely to be realized!

Today, Halloween is one of those depressing days when the rain and overcast nature of the weather make you think that the sun will never again shine.  However, I have faith in the way that the Spanish climate works and this cold snap must have its end soon – even if it is winter!

I have been told by the school that my presence will be needed next week so I will probably be here for another four days.  Not five.

Today, to add to the jollity of nations, there is a bus, underground and taxi strike.  Next week on Wednesday there will be a General Strike - hence my four-day week.

This school, like the School on the Hill will probably be open in spite of the horrendous conditions that will probably prevail.  In my view the school should be closed purely for Health & Safety concerns but, as David always took great delight in reminding me, “Remember Stephen, this is not Britain!”

Many of the kids have dressed up in various versions of what might pass as costumes for Halloween with some inventive and effective attempts – especially in the area of face painting.

My single student for my lesson second period is now ensconced in the IT room doing first hand material gathering from the web for a case study on cyclones and I with, I have to say an uncharacteristic selflessness have released a colleague from the durance vile of supervising the study area for the sixth form.  Her expression of astonished delight was something to witness when I actually had to encourage her to leave!

The only two other classes that I have to take today are, as far as I can work out, are during the parade of Halloween which should see me sitting pretty and doing very little.  I feel I deserve a little space after giving of myself so generously!

I did not, of course, have that little space.  I was dragooned into being a judge of the Halloween Parade which took over two of my teaching periods and was, I have to admit, very enjoyable.

The key factor in the whole enterprise was the control and restraint of the kids – high as kites at one moment and then brought back to reasonableness the next.  I shudder to think what the whole experience would have been like in an inner city secondary school in Britain!

My three-day week is now over and I am as exhausted as if I had been there since September!  Today has been one of those complex days when various things happen any one of which might have been sufficient to make the day interesting.

Firstly I have agreed to go back on Monday for a full week of supply.  This was certainly not my intention when I went there this week, but the request was made and it would have been churlish to have refused.  I think.

I also made the acquaintance of a part-time teacher was is a published authority on Art History and who has publishing links with David Hockney and who could talk about art and did.  She latched on to the fact that I could string together a few sentences on major artists with the sort of avidity that I would have shown if someone had said that they had been a fan of Nielsen’s orchestral music!  It was a delight to talk about art with someone who had worked in the National Gallery and who had also seen that precious jewel in exhibition terms, “The Post Impressionist Exhibition” in the Royal Academy.

My conversations with other teachers were valuable and refreshing and I feel as if I could have a place in the school – but an extra week will be more than enough.  And, in any case, I am off to the UK a day or so after the General Strike which is now in about a fortnight.

I even managed to get a scrap of learning done by making a few brief annotations in my first course book!

A day well spent.

Now to gird myself up to luxuriate in a four-day weekend!

Monday, October 29, 2012

School! Why?

So, here we are again!  Sitting at the front of a class – albeit an empty one – hearing the sound of chattering children echoing down the corridors.

The timing of the school day is a little more civilized than that which I had to endure in the School on the Hill, here it is nine-to-four with an hour for lunch and a mid-morning break with eight forty minute lessons.

As a total luxury I have the first period in the day as a chance to orientate myself and get any photocopying done that I might need during the day.  Everything looks to have been set out for me to take the Geography classes that are the timetable of the lady whom I am replacing for the next three days.  Everything looks in place and I am waiting for the first thing to go wrong.  “Events, dear boy, events” is the normal way of life of any school so it is not “if” but “when” that makes life exciting!

I have decided, in a half-hearted, backward-looking homage to what used to be, to go for a swim after school.  I have rather let my determination to swim every day become an aspiration rather than a reality so this is one way to get back on track and feel virtuous again!

It is an odd feeling to be back in harness, because there is nothing in this particular school environment which seems out of place.  As the language of the school is English I am looking at walls that have posters entirely in that language.  Yes, there is a section on Barcelona, but next to that is a section on the London Dockland development and next to that Manchester and The Salford Quays!  A home from home in academic terms.  It feels the same as a British school, it looks the same and it even smells the same!

I am confidently expecting my OU teaching material to arrive when I am here in school: it would seem like a poetic realization of my frustration in not getting my hands on them until now.  Especially as I have been informed that the official start of the course is November the first, which is in four days time - and counting!

My first class are now with me and they total five pupils!  I have done what every competent teacher should do with a new class and given them the opportunity to cut and stick paper.  They should be mine for life now!  Oh, and in lesson one things did start to go wrong.  The kids had done the work set for the first periods and when I went to photocopy the next set of work the photocopier decided to start eating paper.  Situation normal!

I think that the real problem with these three days is going to be one of boredom and finding something to do without obviously appearing to read!  Typing, however and whenever you do it always looks business-like and worthy – whatever rubbish you are actually typing.

I now have twenty minutes before the next class and I have to consider that I take this miniscule class another twice during today.

I am not convinced that I am going to be allowed to follow the timetable of the lady whose classes I am taking, as her timetable for these three days is somewhat sparse in places.

The second class is now in front of me and they are a year 11.  The numbers are still encouragingly small but these are a little more feisty than the previous class.  These I have after break as well and they look as though they might be something of a problem.  Well, a problem in terms of this school which is not the same as being a problem in the UK in most of the locations in which I have taught!  They have now settled down and are working with only a few of them attempting to whisper their way to insubordination.

Again, there are twenty minutes until the break when I can get a much-needed cup of tea!

The cup of tea was a problem; I should have gone with my gut attitude and brought my own mug in together with a tea bag.  As luck would have it, however, the tea-machine man was there and he kindly went into the insides of the machine and made it give me a cup of hot water, someone else gave me a tea bag and I stole some milk.  This must be better done tomorrow.

I should imagine that I am going to experience a whole range of teaching in different classes as it is perfectly acceptable to expect a supply teacher to fill-in the timetable with other classes rather than have the luxury of a free period or periods.

I am now with my last class which has been bought with the loss of a free period – and that is the sort of bargain that I expect to be subjected to for the rest of the week.  Tomorrow should be especially interesting as I have a supposed afternoon of nothing.  I did notice one of my colleagues in the staffroom today moaning about a bad stomach and I confidently expect her to be absent tomorrow – so that’s my afternoon seen to!

As I have only twenty minutes left of my first day I suppose that I should attempt some sort of evaluation of the school.

There is a generally positive atmosphere and the pupils are polite, or at least interested in what you have to say.  In the penultimate lesson of the day I reverted to type and managed to whip up a class of Year 7 into a sort of frenzy when I went into overdrive about The Big Bang Theory and attempted explanation of Einstein’s theories.  Not, I might add what we were supposed to be talking about but, what the hell; the teacher isn’t coming back and who is going to check over my approach to geography!

I was visited in one class by two kids that I had taught in the school on the hill and, after their greetings, they demanded that I stay.  A pleasant incident to brighten the day!

As the time gets nearer I am beginning to strengthen in my resolve to go for a swim: it replaces one form of tiredness with another and is an altogether satisfactory end to the day.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A newly old experience

I have to believe that what I am doing is for The Greater Good!

Tomorrow I go back to school.  Not, admittedly to the school on the hill, but rather to my local English speaking school to do a tad of supply work.

I could look on this unscheduled return to work as a way of paying for a lapse.

The Kindle Fire has come to Spain - after settling itself in well in other more fortunate countries of the world who get to grab hold of the latest technology rather earlier than we do in Spain.  As it was an electrical gadget it was something for which I felt an instant and sincere attachment.  My only problem was how on earth to justify it given the number of computers of various shapes and sizes that I have managed to acquire over the years.

Toni (for it was he) came up with the “it would be easier for you when you are travelling” excuse, which I grabbed hold of with both hands and bought one.  It is smaller than the I-pad and obviously more portable – but we are dealing with nuance rather than reality here, but I am much enjoying playing around with yet another gadget to keep me off the streets!

But three days more in school!  It has given me pause for thought, along the “If you can do three days then . . .”  But I think that the shock to the system will be salutatory and I will need Thursday and Friday for deep R&R to bring me back to normal.

It will be interesting to see if I can detect a difference in the kids from when I was last teaching in the school.

I also understand that there has been a building programme to enlarge the school itself so it will also be interesting to see how the dynamic of the place has altered to take account of the altered building layout.

I will be taking Geography classes for which, I have been assured, the “work has been set”.  I shall make no comment, even though the whole of my past experience screams out that the four-word phrase is open to many and varied interpretations – virtually none of which make the life of the supply teacher any easier.  But I get ahead of myself.

Thus evening I have spent clearing out the rubbish in my school case and decided what, if anything, I should take with me.  And a clean white shirt and tie and trousers.  I have been in shorts (and still am) for months and I have left it too late to wash any crumpled remnants than I might find!

My OU teaching material has not turned up yet, and the start of the course is three days away.  Today I received an email from my tutor for the course with the information that the tutor group comprises students in the North of England and Mainland Europe – which I am sure says something about the mind set of the OU, or perhaps the way my mind works when I speculate about why these two areas are lumped together!

Early to bed to compensate for the change in time which has not yet fully worked through the system so that I can be bright and early for my first day.  Again!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Every year I try, for personal reasons linked to my birth, to pump myself up with bubbling enthusiasm for the only real inclusive international organization that exists in the world today.  It is, after all, the only forum in which the so-called democracies and the bloody awful dictatorships can blend their voices and come to conclusions based on the UN Charter which, after bloody all, every single nation has signed before it is allowed to join.

And every year my enthusiasm becomes more and more forced as the terrible reality of the leaders of our world flamboyantly failing to work together for good (thank you Ruskin) becomes more and more apparent.

Syria, for example shows up the frustrating pointlessness of diplomacy.  It is very easy to paint China and Russia (and one or two other nations that I will not pollute my mouth or rather my fingertips with) as the “Baddies” in the Syria Saga – and indeed their actions seem to me to be contemptible. 

But the “Goodies” are secretly delighted that those two nations stymie all attempts to actually do something about the crisis because then the Goodies would have to be seen to do something.  Which they don’t want to do because they are terrified of getting themselves involved in yet another insoluble situation in the East. 

So our Foreign Secretary wrings his hands and sheds crocodile tears, as he and our country do virtually nothing as our hands are tied as resolution after resolution in the UN is vetoed.  And tens of thousands of Syrians die.  And the situation of the surrounding countries gets ever more perilous.

However, what would the situation be like if there wasn’t even the fatuous game show of the United Nations in New York to allow at least a little of the animosity to be released in words and also some sort of diplomacy to exist, even if the absurd posturing of diplomats is like a particularly arcane version of a Japanese Noh play.

One comes back again and again to the wisdom in the old saw, “Anything is better than nothing” so, yet again, I will contain my scepticism (nowadays bordering on downright disbelief) and continue to celebrate the organization which, although it shares my birthday, is older than me.  I wish it well and I wish it was well!

My OU material is now officially lost.  The faint hope that it might be lurking in the recesses of the Post Office here in Castelldefels has been extinguished and I will have to wait for replacements.

As well as being United Nations Day it is also the day on which my OU course web site opens.  The computer, as you might expect, is an essential tool in the make up of the course.  Tutorials, essays, information, exercises and group work all rely heavily on the computer.  The range of information and the access to the OU electronic library links each student into world class learning resources.  I find it quite disconcerting, so it must be absolutely terrifying to neophyte students who are not fully computer literate.  It is an adventure!

The web site has revealed that all of the printed material also exists as PDF files and so I have been trawling my way through and found myself being alternately being delighted and appalled by what I am going to have to do in the twenty weeks following the start date on the 3rd of November.

I have been allocated a tutor – which makes everything much more real.  

The deadlines of submission dates for tutor marked assignments have been set.  

The date of the examination is set, though not where I am going to take it.  

The OU system is gearing up to get going and then it should carry you along (in theory) and spit you out the other end with a number of credits which you are then able to add to, and finally create, a degree for yourself.

Toni’s contribution to my study has been the purchase of a book.  Yes, Toni has actually bought me a book.  I got him to write this fact on the flyleaf and sign it!

“Mil Obras Para Descubrir El Arte” is one of those large heavy Larousse books into which you can screw legs and use as a table.  I love it – even though the actual writing is in Spanish.  My Spanish vocabulary to describe painting, architecture and music keeps on growing – though it has to be said that some of the words are as useful as the Italian that I know from Operas!

We went out for lunch in Sitges – a lunch I might add that seemed good value when we looked at the beguiling list of what we would get for our €12.50, but which turned out to be almost double that by the time we had a drink and a cup of coffee with the meal.  The swine even charged for the bread!  And our sea view was limited! 

Having had a fairly substantial meal at midday we do not want to have a festive meal this evening so we are finally eating part of the Red Cross parcel that Toni’s mum left us which consists of a lentil concoction in a glass jar.  We will accompany this with a cream cake with a candle in it surrounded by thawed out red fruit and topped with vanilla ice cream.  I know how to celebrate!

I had an email from one of my ex-colleagues in the school on the hill who has a disturbing facility for remembering people’s birthdays.  She remembered mine – and I’m not truly convinced that I even told her!  Creepy!

I’ll end where I began, railing at the infuriating character of the human species.

I phoned up the Philatelic Bureau to question the non-arrival of a set of stamps that were issued in late September.  I was told that everything is late and that I shouldn’t worry, my first day cover would get to me to due course.  I then said that I would like to put on record my gratitude to the Bureau for their gift of a free album complete with pocketed pages for the collection of Gold Medal Winners.  It seemed to me to be a piece of simple courtesy for a generous gesture.  I was told my the operator to whom I was speaking that the “gift” had been the subject of complaints! 

I didn’t ask what these complaints were about the “gift” that they had been given, I merely sighed and thought of United Nations Day.  If the giving of a gift caused complications how the hell did that organization get through a day without bloodshed!

Makes you think!