Hysteria and Farce

It’s over. This school year is virtually over, before than expected, actually. It is about to end in the same hysterical way it started and progressed. Truly hysterical, as at first the great thinkers who are in charge of this ship called “School” meant  to prolong our sailing one month more, only to make it end eventually a week before. Why?  Well, it seems they ran out of provisions and had to disembark some young cabin-boys  who were recruited just to be able to finish the journey. To cut a long story short, they had no money to pay the substitute teachers – I wanted to stick to the metaphor, I do apologize -. By the ways, a trip to “Summer School” land was still in their plans with an investment of about 561 million euros, but when they understood that this plan would have been deserted by both students and teachers – whose only thought at the moment is to cut and run as soon as possible –  they steered to “Summer/Autumn School” land , where they had more chances to find somebody more receptive. After all, it is part of human nature to forget the past after a long vacation and be more responsive.

Hence, if the initial idea was  to extend the school calendar to recover, in a more relaxed way, the time that the pandemic had “stolen” from school, we have come to the conclusion that, after all, it is right to take away precious time from students. Just hysterical. The usual farce.

This year we have been asked to experiment everything and its opposite, without a clear goal, always navigating by sight . We have ended up crushed by a school system which has never been able to interpret the exceptional circumstances, keeping the old bureaucratic structure, typical of the nineteenth century school, intact, despite the many lockdowns, despite the quarantines, despite 100%, 75%, 50%,25 % on-line classes and  despite all this, we have found the same heap of useless papers at the end of our journey.  So, here we are, squeezed between the anxiety of evaluation and the rush towards  the secondary-school graduation examination scheduled for June 16.

Flying towards different solutions has been impossible, as we systematically crashed against the same big rock: the immobility of the school.  Italian school is a muscular, non-adaptive system  and even if the world around it changes drastically, there is  no way of reacting and curls up like a hedgehog. The maximum flexibility the system has been able to imagine has concerned staggered entrances or to extend the school year until the end of June, and – how I could  have forgotten this – one seater (useless) desks . Nothing more. School has turned up to be a place with no imagination and vision of the future and this gives an idea of the degree of the structural agony in which it has slipped into.

It is understandable that in these conditions many have called for a return to face-to-face teaching, because it is more reassuring from a professional point of view – for teachers – and from a social point of view, for students and families. The only true novelty that the school-system has forcibly introduced is remote learning,  which is not a small thing, unless the remote teaching effort is reduced to mechanically pour the same things that were done in the classroom into the container of digital devices, as it has actually happened in the majority of cases.  Not a changed schedule, not a changed program, just the blind obstinacy in seeking the same results with a technique completely unsuitable to obtain them. Only systems which are under a spell of some obtuse forces can think of transporting physical education hours into remote without even thinking about it. That is why teachers are not victims in this story but accomplices of the system.

In the never ending complaining for what we have been demanded to do in these circumstances, the majority of teachers have kept looking back to an ideal past rather than working for the future. I feel like we have missed the chance to take charge of the school system and demonstrate we were able to make it sail to more interesting and modern destinations. This pandemic has been a great opportunity for all of us to experiment new teaching techniques, but rather than putting them together and discussing all the best practices that many colleagues, I am sure, have developed, I fear most of them will be buried to be forgotten as bad dreams in order go back to a school where chalk and eraser must be always at hand.  At that point, we will be happy, safe, old.

What’s Wrong with Teachers

Few years ago my previous principal summoned me to ask my illustrious opinion about the introduction of the latest trend in matter of education, that is: CLIL. Our eminent thinkers, who people the aisles of the Ministry of Education in fervent industriousness, had thought that it would have been fine to introduce the teaching of one of the school subjects in English for at least 50% of the allotted hours, and this the last year of high school. Before my dormant reason could react to make me hold my tongue, I heard myself saying: “bullshit”. Yes, bullshit; because we have a few or no such teachers that can explain a subject like Physics, for example, in another language. Bullshit; because, that is the year of the final exams, and even if there were such experts, this switch in language would inconvertibly mean in a consistent loss in the quality of contents. Anyway, as I feared, I had gone too far – Mrs Tink is not used to such a language, after all – I looked at my principal blushing a little, but she only said: “I agree”, “ the matter is your hands”. Mine? Oh, my! And this is how I have been put in charge of CLIL organization in my school, a position which have held firmly for years as nobody wishes to snatch it from my hands .

Of course, this meant attending tedious meetings at the Ministry of Education, of which I only remember the most amazing lasagne ever tried. I still recall myself attending boring conversations without saying a word , but with the corner of my eyes I endeavoured to spot the next tray carrying, more steaming lasagne to dart over them. Of course, as if the morning sessions were not enough, I was afflicted by  afternoon meetings too. I could hear no word that could convince me of the goodness of the project, till, one last speaker caught my attention, which was still blurred by the enormous  quantity of carbs swallowed. More than a full concept, it was a word: mission. Wait a minute, wait a minute: “How did we get there? What mission are we talking about?” I whispered to my neighbour. They were talking about money and career. This new figure, which they meant to introduce, was actually over qualified for high school, hence, somebody had enquired about which benefits such teacher would have had, in short: “what’s in it for me?”.  “Well, nothing”, he answered. “Let’s call it …. a mission”, he replied candidly.

A mission. This is the greatest trap teachers have fallen into these last years. We have been led to believe that we are not qualified professionals but something more, missionaries, that is people who have received a divine call at the service of education and because of such vocation are expected to grow accustomed to whatever situation or to respond to any requirement students, parents, politicians may develop for……nothing, of course.  That is why for teachers there is not a real career or any prospect of wallowing in gold, we are supposed to be content with the outcome of our vocation only. And whose fault is this? Ours,  just ours, because in time we have abdicated to our original nature of educators to become a sort of hybrid with no more defined identity or clear goal. When did it all start? I don’t know.

The events during this pandemic have made no exception. We have been asked to acquire new skills, mostly technological to tackle remote learning at the best and we did it. Once back to school, we have become computer technicians, Wi-Fi experts, Zoom and Meet masters, but that was not enough yet.  When we realized that the computers we had given or the line did not work properly, we instantly started to bring our own devices or to use our own router Wi-Fi, as it was our impellent mission, of course, to make things work anyhow. When school closed, even if our efforts were actually doubled, or privacy annihilated, for the public we had become do-nothing privileged, who should have gone to work to school in any case, taking the example of supermarket cashiers who never quitted their workstation, real heroes of the situation.

Now, think about any other worker. I would like to know which company requires its employees to use their own devices, or to buy more gigabytes in case the Wi-Fi does not work and use private routers. But we are missionaries, we are expected to find a solution to make things work with nothing in return, and if you dare say something, you are reminded that you are lucky enough in these days to still have a job.

In time we have accepted all this and the pandemic has made it only more clear, if possible . Yielding to all kinds of expectations, different from educating, without even attempting to a fight, has greatly contributed to the breakdown of the old education system, which was mostly based on merit, discipline, effort, to supplant it with a pointless approach where subjects have been replaced by projects, discipline by a maternal, over protective attitude and effort, well, it is a word to be used only for sport, nowadays. We teachers are also responsible for all this and the possibility of a change is all in our hands. I think and it is high time we take off the  – I fear for many comfortable – disguise of  missionaries and change direction; a little exercise could be of help : let’s try and remember what made us want to be teachers and I am sure it was not a matter of vocation , but something more. We have to go back there, from where we started.

Escape

I still remember a question one of my teachers asked us on our first day of high school:
“What’s the use of studying?” “Who can answer this question?”
We were puzzled and stayed silent for a while; nobody actually dared to utter those words of truth but not exactly of wisdom we had in mind, that  is, we had never thought about it, we were there because we had no other choice. He was waiting.  Someone eventually attempted to give some vague answers like : “to have a job“,  “to be better people” etc., but he wasn’t satisfied at all and kept shaking his head. When none of us could come up with fresh ideas, he said with a smile at last: “to escape from prison“. We looked at each other in amazement.

Ignorance is a prison”, he added , “because inside that prison you don’t understand and consequently you don’t know how to act. In these  5 years we have to organize the biggest escape of the century. It won’t be easy. Remember, they want you to be dummies, but if you climb over the wall of ignorance, then you will understand without asking for help and you won’t be deceived easily. You will be free. Who wants to join in?”

This episode came up to my mind when I read that only one adolescent in twenty fully understands a text. And I think of the other 19, who struggle to escape the prison and risk to be sentenced to be ignorant for life. A democratic country must save them, above all because it is right, but also to avoid the greatest risk : weak minds demand “the strong man ” to guide them.

(free adaptation of an article from Corriere della Sera)

A Certain Something

Teaching is a profession of a peculiar kind. It is not only about the transmigration of data from one mind to another, but rather about educating new generations, moulding personalities, thus giving them the basis for future opportunities. If this is the delicate goal to be achieved, upon which criteria teachers ought to be selected? 

Here in Italy, for example, it is enough to have a university degree and pass a competitive  exam, where mostly the knowledge of the subject you mean to teach is tested. Then, after a probation year, during which apparently your teaching skills should be carefully verified, but practically nobody cares  – unless one day you screw everything up and yield to the impulse of strangling Pietro, who has kept annoying you for an entire semester, thus clearly demonstrating your inaptitude – you become a licensed teacher at last. But is this selecting procedure adequate?

Best education, best grades, don’t necessarily make you the the best of teachers, and even training courses, refresh courses, developing courses are of no use, unless you possess that something which truly makes a teacher, which is  a natural disposition you’ve been born with and that cannot be apprehended on books. Somebody might object that this could be the same for any job, but, of course,  I disagree. If you don’t search that sense of gratification that you achieve when you arouse the pleasure of understanding in others’ minds and if you cannot communicate your passion and the genuine intent to involve them, teaching will make you miserable for the rest of your life.The necessary effort of understanding those minds means being aware of the fact that, as students grow you must grow with them, thus accepting to re-invent yourself, your style, update your  language and ready to put aside what once was useful, as generations change and quickly. All this should not be felt as frustrating, as it often happens, but rather, challenging. But still, it is not on books that you learn it.

Teachers should be above all charming people, let’s use a more trendy word: sort of “influencers” and this is incontrovertible to me. Enchanters, mentors and leaders at the same time with the great ambition of making students enjoy what they learn rather than just do it. I dislike those pages on the web run by the same  teachers, where we are mostly described as ill treated, underpaid miserable bunch of people, in a form of a joke. I don’t mean they are telling lies, of course, a lot ought to be done and spent on education, but reinforcing the common idea that teachers are losers doesn’t make really any sense as nobody wishes to emulate a loser. We should set the example, but a successful one. 

We won’ t be considered more just saying we wish to be so, we must act, create another story telling, which is the truth for most of us actually, that is : even if there is neither big money or success, teaching is a privilege and a great one. And when we are attacked on our few prerogatives like, for example, having two months of holidays every year, rather than feeling guilty and be on the defensive, acting like losers in the effort of explaining how much time we spend on extra work, grading, burnout danger and so on, take my example and reply : ” I am sorry, but you are wrong, I have THREE months of holidays and even more, since our mayor has taken the habit of closing schools, when it is likely to rain!” This kind of explanation allows me also to kill two birds with one stone, as it could be for many a very good reason to choose another mayor next time; after all being a little subtle constitutes an essential part of being a teacher.

Hence, if you keep complaining and truly believe that what I have said so far is not required or essential, trust me, choose another profession,  if you don’t want to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life; if you feel underestimated, please change, you are still in time ; if you are hungry for money and success, go away, especially if you are young, the school is not the right place for you, if you are looking for popularity, why choosing the classroom as stage, when there is the vastness of the web; if you have all or only some of these ambitions and you still want to be teacher, your working life will be like hell.

So long the selection procedures of teachers will be focused mostly on knowledge rather than personality or attitudes, so long you believe that attending training courses may be a remedy to deficiencies in character, thus making a good teacher, I am afraid, you’ll only have a teacher. Schooling needs new life blood that only strongly motivated, passionate, brave educators can give, but those ingredients can’t be found on books, but in their hearts.