Wish you were here – @theprimaryhead in Cuba

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Whilst holidaying in Cuba I stumbled across a primary school. Obviously, I went in (thinking that if I took enough pictures I could get the trip paid for by my employer claiming that the whole holiday was in fact ‘professional development’) where I was met by the school’s Headteacher. The children were on holiday but I was welcome to look around if I had any money to donate as the school didn’t have enough money for pencils. ‘Welcome to my world’ I laughed in slow English as I patted her on the back and got her to pose for a selfie.

Cubans value education enormously. You can tell from the fact that whenever you’re in a taxi the driver will excitedly point out any school or university that you pass with levels of patriotic pride generally reserved for national monuments, of which Cuba, let me tell you, is not short of (you can barely move for statues and murals of men with beards – if you don’t know your communist history you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a national hipster convention.) Some drivers asked if I wanted to stop so I could take a photo of these beacons of education and, to show respect, I said I’d love to-as long as the photo could be taken with me sitting in the driving seat of their classic American car with the school, university, whatever, in the background.

I also went on a tour of ‘real Cuban life’. You know the drill, where you see real Cubans off their maracas on white rum, smoking cigars and dancing the Rumba. Actually, this tour was a little different. It mainly consisted of walking into ‘quota’ shops to see everyday Cubans queueing up to spend their government issued tokens that entitled them to their weekly allowance of flour, eggs, meat, butter and fruit. As I took a selfie of me, posing with a confused looking elder standing in front of the shop’s counter, I was asked by my Guide if there are such places in England. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘We’re a rich capitalist democracy. We have food banks instead.’

As we continued along the tour I found out that my Guide was in fact a teacher himself. Well, he was, but he gave it up as he found he could make more money as a tour guide than he could as a teacher at the university. ‘It also became frustrating,’ he said. ‘The government expected more and more from teachers but they refused to give us any more resources or money to achieve their demands.’ He continued to explain how he could not afford to live in the main part of the city, where the university was, meaning he had to spend hours traveling to work, sometimes by horse and cart, to teach an ever-expanding curriculum in order to hit an impossibly high set of targets. ‘Welcome to my world’ I laughed in normal English (he was a professor in English and throughout our tour kept on correcting my appalling diction and frequent misuse of the formal vernacular) as I patted him on the back and took a photo of him next to an Instagramily decrepit building that was ‘so’ Cuba.

I asked him about the curriculum. Children learn a lot about Cuban history and the Cuban way of life. This is very important. Through direct instruction they are taught exactly what the government wish them to learn. I asked my Guide if children could question the information that they were presented with by their teacher. ‘Everyone has freedom of thought,’ he explained. ‘But this does not equate to freedom of expression.’ A child asking questions or showing curiosity that may prod the expected norms or challenge the natural (national) order of thinking is not something that you would see in a traditional Cuban classroom. It’s not ‘not allowed’ but it is unlikely it would occur as it would be perceived as getting in the way of the teacher’s knowledge and, therefore, the truth. ‘There are signs that this is changing though in higher education as more young people are asking more questions that challenge the status quo.’ He asked me about education in this country. Four hours later he said that although he still didn’t understand what a progressive teacher was, he did understand that they were a threat to national security.

Cuba has changed much in recent years. Since 2008, Cubans can now run their own businesses, travel more freely, own a mobile phone and stay in hotels. These changes have come as the country has battled with its economic sovereignty and it is likely that, after 2018, the country will see more economic and social changes that will alter the Cuban way of life immeasurably. Some, mainly the older generations, do not yet have Cuban-Fever over this prospect. You can’t blame them. They’ve already gone through one bloody revolution and are satisfied with the circumstances they now find themselves in. The younger generations however want more freedoms, a wider set of life-experiences, the opportunity to question the world they live in so that they may improve it for future generations, and, the ability to face-time whenever they want.

I shook my Guide’s hand and, as we posed together for a final selfie in front of a statue depicting Ernest Hemmingway propping up a bar dribbling strawberry daiquiri all over his beard, I wondered, out loud, whether Cuba might one day be as great as Great Britain. The Guide patted me on the back and said ‘Eres un hombre inglés muy divertido’. I smiled at the compliment and he continued. ‘Yes, there may be some similarities between our two countries,’ he said. ‘Both our governments may value education but not its educators; many of our schools may be so under-funded that they are forced to beg for pencils; teacher retention – due to a combination of increased workload, higher expectations and unaffordable housing – may be at an all-time low. But, at least in Cuba, our country is widening its economic trade borders and making it easier for its people to travel to other countries. At least we are starting to move away from the tight grip of a knowledge only curriculum delivered through robust direct instruction, as we recognise that this can lead to unquestioning indoctrination. And, I think you’ll find, my government has been openly critical about the abhorrent views and policies of a certain world leader that threaten the peace and democracy of the entire planet.’ After that he paused, waiting for a reply. So, as I had done throughout all my time in Cuba when I found myself in a tight spot, I smiled and told him that I was awfully sorry but that I didn’t speak any Spanish.

As we parted, he gifted me a copy of Fidel Castro’s 1953 four-hour speech and eventual manifesto. I haven’t read it yet but it’s got one heck of a snappy title: History will absolve me.

Fingers crossed.

Twitterstorm. Noun: a tedious waste of time

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Ah, the twitterstorm. Am I the only one who finds these things immensely tedious? For the uninitiated (boy, you don’t know how lucky you are) let me take you through how these things normally go down.

Someone, apparently important and worthy (to their publisher anyway) writes something monumentally misguided. You know the sort of thing, the sort of thing where they sound like Jesus giving a sermon on the mount. But only if Jesus was backing up his sermon with a biblical amount of scientific evidence. Only, as we’ll see later, it’s not actually a ‘biblical’ amount of evidence, it’s more like a ‘controversial hits’ amount of evidence. This allows them to make a provocative point and share it, not as gospel (because even they know they’re not Jesus) but definitely as a point worth considering (because, although they’re not actually Jesus, they are pretty close). Plus, science and controversy didn’t do any harm for Jesus Richard Dawkins so why shouldn’t they put it out there for our consideration, if only to show us that they are not afraid to think about controversial things even if we are.

The sensible thing to do is to let them write this stuff. Read it if you want, or, don’t: simple. If you’re worried that you won’t know what you’re reading before it’s too late I’ll give you a quick piece of advice. If any blog begins with:

  1. A lengthy reference to a blog they’ve already written;
  2. A lengthy reference to someone else’s’ blog that disagreed with something they once said;
  3. More than two quotes from some research evidence base;
  4. Words so long that even Will Self wouldn’t consider using them;

then quit reading straight away.

Unfortunately, some people don’t know these tips and they read all the way to the end. And, some of these people just can’t believe it. They genuinely can’t believe what they’re reading. It’s too much for them. They can’t understand how the words even managed to get into that particular order, let alone how the person who haphazardly banged them out at the laptop – presumably blindfolded with nothing in their system save for naked ambition and half a bottle of scotch – came to the decision to press ‘share’. For them, reading this blog all the way to the end is like being stuck at a party next to someone who talks to you for five hours about why Godfather part III is the strongest of the trilogy by drawing on the user reviews of IMDb and dressing them up as the combined critiques of Barry Norman, Pauline Kael and Philip French.

Their objections tend to fall into three categories:

Tone: I know that this is a controversial opinion but if you can’t recognise its validity then you’re no better than a Sicilian scoreggia.

Level of research: It’s not just me that thinks this, Barry Kemp from Chiswick puts Godfather III above the original Godfather, Citizen Kane and Tango & Cash. So, just accept it.

The fact this point is even being made: Even though nobody has ever watched this film all the way to the end causing it to drop from public consciousness almost completely, I think it’s important I drag it up from the sleeping fishes and make us all watch it again, right now.

Inevitably, because you can’t keep good bloggers (armed with their own selection of opposing evidence) down, counter blogs are written addressing one, or all three, of these categories of dispute.

‘It may a good film in your opinion, but by calling its detractors farts you do nothing to add to the debate.’

‘If you look at most recent reviews on Rotten Tomatoes it scores an average of -13% and is, at best, described as a ‘lazy and boring finish to a fine Mafiosi saga’. To ignore this evidence is dangerous and only serves to illustrate your appalling taste in films.’

‘There’s a part three?’

And here is where the tedium really begins. Pretty soon Twitter is in meltdown and the name-calling begins to the frenzied outrage of the mob on all sides. Every time you check Twitter to see what Donald Trump has done now you can’t see the real (or fake) news without Tweechers getting in the way as they scream ‘polemic’ and ‘ad hominem’ at each other. Some even set it upon themselves to ‘school’ the rest of us in how the Twitch-hunt should be carried out: you’re all doing it wrong, you’re not meant to jump to racism straight away, you’ve got to go through personal histories, homophobic slurs, wild sexism and then racism. Blocked Twitterers are bandied around like trophy scalps with some of us trying to get in on the act by squealing ‘they blocked me once, honest!’

Then, the showdown, the main event, we all knew this was coming: the after-blog. The blogger who started all this gets back on their horse and lets us in on the torment that has been their last 48 hours. Oh, the pain. Oh, the anguish. They had no idea that this controversial and provocative piece of writing would provoke or cause controversy. They are very upset by any name-calling and, of course, that isn’t nice and doesn’t reflect well on anyone involved. Sometimes there’s an apology. Sometimes there isn’t. There’s always a re-clarification and that’s always good fun. It’s like watching a cat jolt itself awake and then look around nonchalantly as it tries to convince those around it that it didn’t happen. ‘Um, I didn’t necessarily say I believed something controversial, I just said something controversial so you would have something to think about, like how brave I was for not being afraid to say it.’

As you scan through the after-blog wondering if you can spot any sign that suggests they won’t do it again (there rarely is) it dawns on you just how vacuous and pointless this whole thing is. These people who feel the need to educate us just because they’ve read some (some being the operative sodding word) information about stuff and, rather than just share it, they feel the need to interpret it and feed us their interpretations like the baby birds we are: too weak to chew the information ourselves. None of their lofty and long-winded interpretations of this ‘scientific-evidence’ helps us in the classrooms or run schools. Why not? Because they’re not applying it to stuff they’ve done or suggesting how we can apply it ourselves. They’re simply grandiose musings on highly important things other people concluded before them. I wonder if they know, or care, that this regurgitated information just clogs up the internet with naïve pseudo-intellectual claptrap and serves no real purpose?

Don’t get me wrong, I read plenty of blogs that I don’t agree with, or that go against what I believe in. But at least those written by active teachers and leaders stem from what they’re doing. They are reflective, they show thinking and, as a result, they are interesting. The debates can be honest and civil because you can’t deny what someone is doing in their own school or classroom (unless you think they’re lying and let’s not go there). They are sometimes rooted in, not weighed down by, rhetoric or theory and, most importantly, they are based in reality which has the added bonus of making them not mind-numbingly dull.

I am not an enemy of evidence or analysis. I just like my evidence sent to me direct or analysed by an expert. I don’t loathe intellectualism. Some of my best friends are clever. I don’t mind points of view different to my own. Just don’t expect me to think the same as you because you’ve gone on an evidence safari. I don’t endorse name calling and I’m sad people are called names that they don’t feel apply to them. My advice would be that if people are going to call you names based on the things that you write, you should try to write better.

Finally, Godfather III is an awful film. Don’t believe me? That’s fine. You’re just a total moronic anti-cinephilatic dullard, that’s all.

Take my advice…

Advice

Here are some quick tips for all you teachers about to embark on a glorious career in education.

Behaviour

  1. You are the boss. Before every lesson stand in front of the staff toilet mirror and say out loud, in your best teacher voice: ‘I am the one in charge.’ (Don’t say it too loudly, though, because if the kids on detention hear you, you’re finished.) Make sure you wear your mirrored sunglasses so they can’t see the fear and doubt in your eyes. Wear built up shoes and make sure your desk is positioned at the highest point in the classroom.
  2. Make a seating plan matrix and laminate it onto the children’s desks and tell them to memorise it. Before each lesson blindfold each of the children and get them to tell you who should be sat next to them to within a 5-chair radius. Do not begin a lesson until everyone knows where everyone else is sat. Watch out for sets of identical twins as they may try and mess with your mind and switch places. You can prevent this by having a copy of your original seating plan sewn into the lining of your cardigan and electronically tagging the siblings.
  3. Have a Dictaphone at hand so you can quickly record incidents of misbehaviour. This will save time and, should you find yourself in the middle of a behaviour incident where you are in peril, simply press record and let the ringleaders incriminate themselves. (Just make sure that rule number one: no funny voices or fake accents, is adhered to at all times; otherwise, trying to identify them afterwards in the Head’s office can become tricky and time-consuming.)
  4. All school behaviour policies were written as a laugh so older teachers could ‘punk’ you young ‘uns. It does not need to be read or enforced. In fact, if you do follow it, you are likely to suffer the forfeit of having to buy the first round in the pub on Friday.
  5. Avoid blinking.
  6. Have a compliance checklist and make sure that all 48 points are recited from memory before beginning any teaching.

Teaching

  1. Traditionalist research shows that explanations should last no longer than 8 seconds.
  2. Don’t let anyone talk over you. Hammer this point by leaving out the last word of every sentence you say out loud, followed by raising your eyebrows and giving your class an expectant look that suggests you are inviting them to finish your sentence off for you. Then, when one of them does exactly that, calmly reach for your Dictaphone.
  3. Only ask rhetorical questions. That way you can’t be pulled up on your subject knowledge during an observation.
  4. Pupils know nothing. This is especially true of things that they should know. Make sure all of your lessons begin with a 65-minute preamble of prior knowledge. If any pupil attempts to tell you that they already know this information, ask a rhetorical question and reach for the Dictaphone.
  5. You should aim to repeat yourself at least six times per minute. The Dictaphone can play a vital role here. If you have got to the 53rd second and have only repeated yourself five times, simply put the device on ‘double speed’ and let it do the work for you.
  6. Remember, you are passing on information that the teacher next year will claim the pupils don’t know. It’s not about teaching. In fact, it’s not even about learning.

Activities

  1. Pupils do not become fully compliant until 30 weeks. Do not attempt any activities during this period as they will not work. You will need to talk them into submission. It may not be fun but it will be easier on the old Dictaphone battery budget.
  2. Avoid activities that require introductions that are too long or too short. If you attempt an introduction that is over twenty-seven words then you will have bored the majority of the class and your lesson will likely end in a riot. If your introduction contains fewer than four words then you will have confused the majority of the class and your lesson will likely end in a riot. If you have planned a complicated activity, such as a homemade game about the Russian Revolution that is a cross between Top Trumps, Monopoly and Kerplunk, then read out one of the 173 rules per lesson. In a year’s time you will have covered all the rules and the pupils will be ready to play.
  3. Despite their lack of hands, pupils can write. You should get them to write. Get them to write loads. Just endless writing. Writing, writing, writing. The three Ws of teaching: write, write, then write again. Please note you will need to ignore the school’s marking policy if you put that much writing into your lessons.
  4. If you have not taught something before then don’t worry, the children certainly won’t know it either.
  5. Pupils should always put their name on a worksheet. The last twenty minutes of the lesson must be spent circling the room to make sure they have done so. You should also cross reference their worksheets with the class list sewn into your cardigan to make sure those twins aren’t playing you for a jolly fool.

Be prepared

Make sure you know how to find the following:

  1. Your Dictaphone;
  2. Anything you will need;
  3. A spare set of anything you will need;
  4. An emergency set of anything you will need;
  5. Dictaphone batteries;
  6. A bag of rice (don’t ask, just trust me on this).

Make sure you know what you’ll say if:

  1. A pupil asks you the time;
  2. A pupil asks you what lesson this is;
  3. A pupil ‘sits down’ in a manner than could be described as inappropriate;
  4. A pupil agrees with you in a manner that causes suspicion;
  5. A pupil asks for help but doesn’t understand what it is you’re reading from your planning guide;
  6. A pupil tells you that recording them on a Dictaphone is an infringement on their human rights.

And remember:

  1. Rest is for the weak. Wake up and drink some Red Bull.
  2. Eating is for the weak. Just substitute tea with protein shakes. You’ll be fine.
  3. Make sure you aren’t expecting this job to give you, or anyone who comes into contact with you, any sense of joy or satisfaction. Pupils are not there to allow you to teach effectively, they’re there to be taught a lesson.

 

This is a homage to an original post written by the master himself.