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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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Postcards from the chalkface: There Is No Plan

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This is the second of an occasional series by a former secondary school teacher reflecting on the realities of education today.

‘IF A beggar came to my door, I’d f****** stab ’im,’ Toni says with a snarl, ‘they’re all scrounging tramps. I’m not giving money to charity.’

‘Try not to swear, Toni.’ I tell her, in as non-judgmental way as possible. ‘It’s rude, it’s unbecoming and it shows a lack of respect for me.’

She sniggers.

Her eyes are blank.

I want to tell her that her constantly aggressive attitude is becoming tiresome, her general classroom disruption is a pain that I can do without and that, sadly, she smells a bit because her mum doesn’t wash her clothes, which makes me wish she wouldn’t stand so close while I’m checking her work.

But I don’t.

We’re currently reading a novel about homeless people and I’ve been encouraging the students to think positively about giving to charity. Admittedly, Toni’s comment isn’t typical of the class, most of whom are very much of the opinion that we should help out those in difficult circumstances. But it is in line with her approach to life in general, which is one of aggression mixed with dumb insolence, and fuelled by the simple get-out clause that tells her to run away whenever the consequences of her behaviour lands her in trouble, as it inevitably does.

‘Does your mum work, Toni?’ I ask.

‘Naw. She’s on the dole.’

‘You do realise that people on benefits are receiving a form of charity, from those people who are working and paying taxes?’

‘I don’t care,’ she mutters and walks away, after I’ve finished marking her book.

We’re using green pens to mark books again, as it was decided that red pen is too aggressive, too negative, and upsets the less able students. Two years ago we switched from green back to red, because it was felt that red was more assertive and gave a clearer indication of what needed to be done, but the new Deputy Head, Kim-Il-Ken, has had us revert again. I pondered how much effect the change in pen colour will have on Toni’s educational performance. Not much, I’m guessing. Her older brother Jack was excluded a couple of years ago for assaulting a teacher, and if she weren’t so puny, borderline malnourished, I’d guess she might be dangerous too. As it is, she’s just an irritation in a class that is otherwise quite nice to teach.

I love teaching, love being in the classroom, and even occasionally enjoy teaching students as awkward and aggressive as Toni, but I really wonder what we’re doing with kids like her. I wonder what the long-term plan is. As far as I can tell, she has no future in any form of paid employment; she’s not special needs or anything, she’s just not interested in working, and is from a background where no one cares about her future and no one has a job. And even if she wanted to work, actually wanted to earn her keep, there are no unskilled jobs that she’s capable of sticking at. This is a problem, I think to myself, because the nation is running out of money to support her as it has supported her mother’s generation, for decades, no questions asked.

Not that Toni cares.

Maybe I’m missing something, I muse. Maybe, like Baldrick, the Government of our nation has a cunning plan for the tens of thousands of Tonis who leave school every year, unskilled, uninterested, able only to claim benefits, and qualified only in causing long-term, low-grade havoc. Maybe the government has something more useful in mind than a GNVQ in Travel and Tourism followed by a lifetime on the dole.

A few minutes later she’s back, telling me, ‘Did you know my brother Jack’s girlfriend is going to have a baby?’

‘I’d heard, yes.’ I can’t quite bring myself to say ‘Congratulations’. Jack, her brother, is not yet 16 and rumour has it that his girlfriend is 14.

Maybe my face gives something away as she tells me, ‘It wasn’t an accident! It was all planned. They’ve been trying for six months.’

‘That sounds lovely,’ is all I can manage to say.

As I think about her family situation, it strikes me with a sudden clarity that There Is No Plan. Not for Toni, not for her brother Jack, not for his girlfriend, or their child, or that child’s grandmother who presides over the whole brood. There’s no plan at all. I look at Toni, who is actually quite blameless in all this, and my heart softens a little. She’s the innocent victim of a family that doesn’t know how to raise children, an educational system that doesn’t know how to deal with, never mind teach, kids like her and a country that has no use for the end result.

There Is No Plan, I think. Oh, there’s lots to keep us teachers busy; there are targets to meet, boxes to tick, emails to answer, meetings to attend, there’s that great oxymoron, professional development, which requires me to be constantly measured and assessed by people who would otherwise never venture into a classroom. There’s also an endless series of forms to fill in, especially since Kim-Il-Ken arrived with his new seven-point-star lesson structure, and that’s before I start to think about actually teaching.

But for Toni, and for Toni’s generation, the one that’s outworked, out-produced and out-motivated by every third-world country with access to a classroom, I’ll say it again.

There Is No Plan.

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Daniel Ken
Daniel Ken
Daniel Ken (pseudonym) is a former secondary school English teacher. He has published two books about his experiences in the classroom: Bog Standard and Must Try Harder.

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