Lesson 92. The Slough of Despond

Lesson 92 on Disillusion


After all the pressure and anxiety, then the overwhelming sense of relief, everything went flat.

Mr TopJunior’s reaction was to clear his room of everything to do with Ofsted.  Now the inspectors had gone, he felt free to say how angry the whole experience had made him.  The schedule for inspection had meant he had never been seen teaching his specialist subjects, and he had only ever been visited for partial lessons.

In vain I argued that he was manifestly competent, so there was no need for them to hang around.  He had experienced it as personally dismissive and disrespectful of his pupils for somebody to just walk in and out of their lesson without a word. And then, on the basis of barely 20 minutes observation, to pass judgement on them.

He couldn’t place any value their comments.  He cared so much about his work and invested such careful planning into it. He wanted his pupils to feel their efforts had been recognised. He felt let down.  He was an honest, positive person.  He’d never been cynical, but the inspection had soured his views.

It had been destructive of his sense of professional worth. He couldn’t feel he or his pupils mattered in the process. 

Harder than that to bear, were the negative comments contained in the detail of the report, to which he felt he had contributed.

The government’s pet priority that year was the importance of Standard English, so the inspectors had homed in on the use of local dialect in the classroom.  It had been critically noted that the staff had been heard to use colloquial words and phrases, which failed to provide a good role model for the children.

I had been furious about this. None of the inspectors had any expertise in the theory or practice of language learning, or of working in a multilingual environment.  They were simply toeing the party line. It was a politically required, shallow judgement.

The head just ignored it, and the rest of the staff weren’t too bothered either.  They hadn’t any intention of changing.  The general feeling was that the inspectors had to find something bad to say, and it could have been worse. 

The school worked in two languages, official standard English and the local vernacular. Different situations and contexts necessitated the use of one or the other. Words of comfort or reprimand were normally in the vernacular, praise in either depending on whether it was public or private, instructions in standard English, with a translation if necessary in the younger groups. Who on earth was going to be bothered about them saying “You’ll get wrong!” instead of “You will find yourself in trouble, if you carry on with that behaviour, young man!”

But Mr TopJuniors felt diminished by this slur on his background and professionalism.  It reinforced his suspicion that, despite his strengths, he wouldn’t ever fit the government’s approved teacher template.

Lesson 47. The People’s Princess and Us

Lesson 47 on How we learnt to be polite.

In Language Studies, everybody had recognised we could be shut out from opportunities by the way we used language.  It was important to work on improving our chances.

One morning a week pupils went into local nurseries and playgroups. Many children entered pre-school speaking only their mother tongue, so our pupils were useful to the staff in helping with language. While doing this they were to observe how the children built up their language skills, and what helped them develop.

In light of this, their next task was to study their own language skills, identify how they had learned these and work out what gaps in their knowledge needed to be filled.

This led to much discussion on how language related to culture and class.  Saying things in a certain way could be considered acceptable in one community and context, but offensive in another.  For a non-examination course, our area of study was fast becoming more like postgraduate research.

In the end we arrived at the conclusion that, to improve our life chances, we needed to be able to present ourselves effectively in a work environment in the UK.  We had to learn how to be polite.

For this we needed scenarios.  We had to work out for ourselves why one way of saying things was appropriate in a specific context, while another sounded too casual or abrupt or cheeky.  I produced worksheets of example dialogues for discussion.  We videoed ourselves acting out different situations to compare and contrast. 

I came across one of my old tapes years later and saw myself asking “Now, would Princess Diana say that?” – Princess Diana was all my pupils’ idol of perfection at the time.

While I had imagined my English as Second Language pupils would benefit most from these exercises, the indigenous pupils,who rarely ventured off the estate, found them just as useful.  Everybody gained in confidence and competence with regard to speaking and writing in formal situations.

In some other aspects of language learning, however, my pupils surpassed me.

When one of the group had an accident at break time, only our rule-defying Sondra had the initiative to run off down the road to fetch her mother.

“I knew she wouldn’t answer the telephone, Miss.  She can’t speak any English.”

“But how did you explain what had happened?”

Sondra reluctantly confessed that through her school friends (and enemies) she had picked up enough basic Punjabi to bring Mum hurrying back to school with her.

Lesson 46. Not Bloody Likely!

Lesson 46 on How nobody needed to be taught about exclusion.

The first discussion about using languages in the classroom changed the direction of study for the Non-exam Exam Class.  We began by looking at how language can let you in or keep you out of groups in society.

At that time there was a case much reported in the papers of a recently discovered feral child who had grown up in isolation from human communication.  We followed this coverage and talked about the difficulties which arose for this individual.

Immediately it became clear that everybody identified with a situation in which they could not follow what was going on around them and the powerlessness which this entailed.

One girl in particular, who normally never spoke in class, voiced just how it felt to be lost and alone, surrounded by talk and practises that you couldn’t understand.

When I mentioned this to Nurse afterwards, she explained.

Sukdev had been rejected by her family at birth because of a medical condition and put into foster care with an English family.  When she was four and her medical problems resolved, she was sent back to her birth family.  She didn’t speak a word of their language, she had never eaten their diet nor had any contact with their daily life.  They were complete strangers to her.  No wonder she understood!

Following up their interest in the way language could open or close doors to you, we collected examples of this.  The group had plenty of experience and ideas. In their twos and threes they listed situations where your ability with, or use of,  language stigmatised or limited you.

At this point I had planned to show an episode of Grange Hill, which was relevant to this, but just before the lesson I was horrified to discover that somebody had recorded over it.  I was desperate.  The Language Studies group was not easy to keep focused.  We needed plenty of videos to assist our deliberations and fuel our written work.

The only relevant thing I could find in the video cupboard was an old black and white film of Pygmalion. When I say old, it was very old – Lesley Howard starred as Professor Higgins. It was the original George Bernard Shaw script.  But I was desperate.  It was that or nothing and we had an afternoon’s double period to get through.

They were riveted to it.  They didn’t want me to stop it and explain things. They grasped the story straight away.  I had to promise we would watch the rest of it the following lesson.

They didn’t like the ending. It caused a great deal of discussion and heavy criticism of the male characters.  Professor Higgins had used Eliza callously, the friend had been too weak and wet to protect her, the father was a feckless drunk.

“What I can’t understand,” said one of the group, “Is why she couldn’t just go back to where she was before?”

“But don’t you see!” yelled Mandy at her, “She could never go back! That’s the whole point!”

And this was the Non-exam Exam Class, rejects all, arguing over George Bernard Shaw on a wet Friday afternoon in November.