Saturday 29 September 2012

Like A Candle

A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others.

I don't know what it is about teaching an A2 class. More so than any of the other classes I teach, these students get to me. Perhaps it's the fact that I am their only biology teacher for two years, but even the Year 2 BTECs don't have such a profound effect on me.

This year is taking a lot - my wick is burning very quickly at the moment. I have high achievers who need to do better in their A-level Biology exams than I ever did (I scraped a B, which made my decision to do Natural Sciences (Physical) a stroke of genius), because they have a realistic punt at Oxbridge or medical school. I have some at the opposite end of the spectrum who I feel like I'm hauling up from a D or E to a C using the world's most inefficient pulley. I have some coasting in the middle, who I want to grab by the shoulders, shake and scream "Why won't you work? You could do so well!" And I have my fair share of utterly heartbreaking situations.

They're all under my skin, despite half the class asking me in my first lesson when their other teacher was coming back from maternity leave (honest answer? I hope never, because I don't like sharing). I know if I let every year continue like this, if I come home every Wednesday and Friday and cry my eyes out for what they're going through, then I'll burn out way before I'm too old for them to want to go down the pub with me after their final exam.

On the other hand, I can't make myself put up an emotional barrier to them. Some of them won't talk to their tutor or the counselling service, and I'm fighting a losing battle trying to get some to see their doctors about depression. I'm all they've got. And I can't separate the caring and support from the emotional involvement. I don't know how other teachers do it.

I'm consuming myself trying to light the way for my students. It will be the end of me. But like the candle, it's my sole purpose in life. So I'd better keep burning.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Up The Creek

One of my little darlings managed to transmit a rhinovirus to me this week, so while my immune response takes care of it, and the Golgi apparatus in my nasal epithelia work overtime to produce how much?! mucus, there are some thoughts based on news in the past week or so.

A bastarding rhinovirus, currently making me feel like arse

Paul was affected quite badly by the AQA GCSE English scandal - he looked at the grades his students got, and what they could have got had the grade boundaries not been screwed, and at least two of them could have got a C. No mean feat for a class of students every school in the borough decided it couldn't or wouldn't teach. He's been following it more than I have - I don't teach GCSE, and haven't for over two years. It's all he teaches.

So, having fallen into that dangerous 10pm sofa snooze last night, I was woken by Paul saying "GCSEs are gone". News was carefully passed on to tame right-wing newspapers leaked that Gove would be replacing GCSEs with O-Level style exams in 2015. The Grauniad picked up the story when it could. Some of the chatter on Twitter last night offered further details, that it would be graded 1-6, with 7 being a fail. Paul pointed out that wasn't Gove recreating O-Levels - he's bringing in Scottish Standard Grades. Recreating his own childhood north of the border perhaps?

There will apparently be a consultation. I suggest everyone who has ever been to, has any children at, plans to send any children to, or feels like employing anyone who has ever been to a school in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at some point, submits their responses to this consultation. Too many people are confusing rote learning with rigour, and the two couldn't be further apart.

Every year, I and my students get a good bashing from the media and pretty much everyone not involved in teaching, to say that exams are getting too easy, and that we are sending idiots off to their universities unable to do the basics. The sensible response of universities to any perceived grade inflation would surely be to raise the offer level? After all, when I went to Cambridge I had to get AAA. Earlier generations had to get AAB, and now students are routinely asked for A*AA to get into Natural Sciences at Cambridge. Seems like a logical and rational choice if one feels that an A grade isn't a true representation of a clever and able individual.

So the Torygraph proclaiming that students are accepted onto degree places with E grades simply makes me wonder whose fault it is that universities are getting students unable to cope with the basics of their subject. Some of my students with D and E grades did get into university - however, with my blessing they've mostly gone to do foundation courses that will give them a further chance to get that grounding, and they'll be better graduates at the end of it. Let's face it, when the shitty syllabus from Edexcel waffles on about plant stanols at the expense of the ornithine cycle, there's not a lot I can do to give the students that grounding is there?

I love teaching, I do. Being in the lab or classroom is where I feel most alive, and I really enjoy my work when students have those "I get it" moments. By and large, I agree wholeheartedly with this article about being a teacher. I also have no desire to go up into management. Anything taking me away from my students is bad (though I am happy to have a couple of hours remission to coordinate our HND course).

That said, I did object a little to this paragraph:
I'm very fortunate to be teaching English. If I was a geography teacher I might need pupils to have understood Oxbow lakes, if I were a maths teacher I might need them to know about surds but as an English teacher I want them to understand more than using English devices to generate rapport: I get to give them the opportunity to be a better human being.
Now, English teachers get a rather rosy treatment in Hollywood, what with Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Dead Poets Society and so on. But English teachers absolutely do not have the monopoly on being inspirational teachers, giving students the chance to be "better human beings" or getting their charges climbing on the desk shouting "O Captain! My Captain!" (though my lab technician would be furious if she found footprints on the benches!).

We all think we teach the best subject in the world. Otherwise we wouldn't be teaching it. But with Gove doing everything in his power to utterly destroy the education sector and the lives of the young people passing through it we could do with a little less point-scoring and a little more presenting a united front.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Three Days In

This year, I think all my colleagues share my feeling that we all started on the back foot. There was so much to do before the students began classes that there was very little time for planning. So this week I've been playing catchup.

My timetable is up in the air a bit, but the best case scenario is taking on two HND groups and losing BTEC for the year. That would be nice - nothing but A-level, HND and Access.

I felt rusty starting up on Monday morning. More than previous years it was striking how much easier teaching is when you know your students. And unusually, I didn't see any of my previous students in any of my Monday classes, or at all until this afternoon. It was something of a relief to see the A2 class - I felt back on top of my game. It helps that I have lucked out again with the students in my A2 class. They even met Hypnotoad, and screamed like a bunch of big girls' blouses when he lunged for his food. And we were studying succession, which as you may imagine, is one of my favourite topics to teach.

(Incidentally, since I get a spike at this time of year from A2 students all over the country googling "succession" or "stages of succession" to do their homework, I recommend going to this website instead.)

Other things I am learning - there are many different ways of getting from the staffroom to the print room if you spot a student you really don't want to speak to near the main entrance to the building. Astonishingly, sometimes Level 2 BTEC groups take better to microscope work than AS classes. And no one brings lead pencils, colouring pencils, rulers or calculators to a biology class anymore.

Also, Paul and I have realised that we have pretty much kissed goodbye to our social lives until at least half-term. We're both working 10-12 hour days in the college, plus whatever we do at home. And weekends are back to one full day of planning and one full day to do every single thing that needs sorting round the house - business as usual. Perhaps the only surprise is that it doesn't bother us at all.

Thursday 6 September 2012


The students are back. The new bugs have either been inducted or induced (never 100% sure which is the more appropriate past participle), they have been shown the important places on campus (cafeteria, pool tables, smoking area), and they have been dispatched with their timetables. Tomorrow is the freshers' fair, which was compared (perhaps unwisely) by a senior member of staff to Just as well we're giving the students condoms then...

I find it easier to set New Year's resolutions in September than in January. It makes more sense when dealing with northern hemisphere academic years. So here are a few things I'll be aiming for in the 2012-2013 academic year, related to teaching.
  • I will get my arse in gear and finally apply for Registered Scientist (RSci).
  • I will get some fish for the lab. They will be resistant to sulphuric acid.
  • I will ditch the bullet-point slides and draw and write more on the whiteboard.
  • I will get ALL my A2 students blogging and tweeting.
  • I will not let my new responsibilities as a curriculum leader make me less effective as a teacher.
  • I will not eat burgers from the canteen.
  • I will fill every windowsill in the biology lab with variegated Pelargonium plants.
  • I will bring evolution into all aspects of the biology I teach, so the evidence is in place when I cover it formally.
  • I will mainline Hot Lava Java on a daily basis to keep me at the top of my game.
  • I will continue to be as sarcastic, terrifying, insane and sweary as I always have been (apparently), and fearlessly overprotective of my students...
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