Hugh Reilly: Classroom treadmill is self-defeating exercise
IN VICTORIAN prisons, the treadmill was considered a key component of the institution’s liberal-minded rehabilitation programme. For hours on end, the actors in this macabre scene would tread the boards, grinding nothing but fresh air.
By comparison with a hamster, which can choose its own pace or even decide to opt out of a spin class, convicts had no control over their wheel of misfortune; for example, asking for a smoke break to allow one’s shoes to cool down only excited a warder’s ire.
When I was a teacher, I often felt I was on a treadmill. On the ringing of a bell, the river of rapscallions hurriedly drained from my room only for the floorspace to be inundated with a fresh tsunami of 30 or so over-active adolescents. Only the nirvana of a few periods of non-class contact time, often mistakenly called “free” time, saved me from troubling my doctor for Prozac pills.
On the few occasions I met with international colleagues, I was always struck by their more laid-back approach to teaching. Now I know why. According to research by the OECD, Scottish teachers, both primary and secondary, spend 855 hours in class. The OECD average for primary dominies is 782 hours and for secondary teachers it is a trifling 658. Put simply, the typical Scots comprehensive school chalkie and chalkiette has almost a third more face time with teenagers than our counterparts elsewhere in the developed world. To nullify any loose talk that Alba’s teachers have a burgeoning workload, it should be pointed out that the new figures represent significant improvement in their lot – in 2000, teachers worked 893 hours per annum.
Of the 36 countries surveyed, Scottish secondary teachers just missed out on the bronze medal for class contact time, coming a gutsy fourth. If only Glasgow Council’s proposal – made a few years ago – that teachers should work longer hours had been accepted by government, the nation could have basked in gold medal glory.
The problem for classroom teachers is that their employer interprets the maximum hours of class contact to be the minimum. In schools across the country, council bean-counters have efficiently reconfigured timetables to ensure teachers do not get away with the heinous crime of being, say, 30 minutes under their class teaching time. Hence we have the ludicrous situation where the close of the school day varies according to the day of the week. Many schools now have “short” and “long” days, which causes much confusion, especially among recalcitrant pupils who, silly billys that they are, wander off halfway through the afternoon in the mistaken belief of it being a curtailed learning day (apparently some staff make the same error).
In the past, practitioners toiled at the chalkface for longer periods but life, in my opinion, was a tad easier. The tawse helped condition pupil behaviour in a positive manner and teachers dealt solely with mainstream students.
Under the banner of social inclusion, which I welcomed and still support, kids with physical and mental disabilities were absorbed into the general school population. Promises of support for such children, whether that be technological or in the form of classroom assistant resources, have not always been kept, for one reason or another. This has led to the position where present day staff are often are placed in High Noon “challenging” situations arising from having several kids with EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties) in the room.
A few decades ago, the job of a teacher was to pass on his knowledge of a subject. Today, much more is expected of him. He is obliged to be involved in cross-curricular work, an important element of the Curriculum for Excellence. Every lesson must be a milepost on the journey to excellence. Thanks to the homework police, issuing after-school tasks is perceived to be mandatory.
The tyranny of the Tannoy has been replaced by the information highway to hell: vapid e-mails from a management team with too much time on its hands, pupil “alerts” to highlight concerns, pupil progress tracking programmes, school bulletins crammed with nonessential reading.
And let’s not forget the nod, nay, headbutt to home/work/life balance by the imposition of a 40-minute lunch on frazzled teachers by some councils.
Improved education outcomes could be achieved by increasing the quality, not the quantity of a teacher’s time spent in the classroom.
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