“We learn that we can become more than we were, and better than others – we can be ‘outstanding’, ‘successful’, ‘above the average’. All of this involves, in one way or another, intensive work on the self. This is work which some caught up in the struggle over what it means to be a teacher are unwilling to undertake.”
(The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity, Stephen Ball)
This piece of writing seeks to provide illustrations – based on my own experience – of some issues discussed in Stephen Ball’s essay, The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity (Journal of Education Policy, 2003). I kept a journal of day-to-day life at the college I worked at in 2014, during a period of what I characterised in the journal as ‘regime change’ – and in this piece I have alternated samples of that journal with accounts of more recent events involving the college and I. I do not use the name of the college or say where it is; I’ve changed the names of the protagonists; I’m writing pseudonymously. I mention this – in part – because one of the themes that seems to me to emerge in the piece – a topic that Ball also discusses – is a concern about how an institution, and what goes on in it, is represented. Ball talks about the way institutions may ‘fabricate’ accounts of what they do, and how they perform, with a view to how such accounts will be seen by bodies like Ofsted. And I think you will see that employees of the college – in the samples given – often express a wariness about what can be said about college life – fear of attribution leading to retribution I suppose. Aside from this fear the piece also seeks to show the anxiety that may be felt – and that I most definitely did feel – when institutional and individual change is enforced.
Ofsted came in just after Easter. English, as a subject area, got a 3, and the college as a whole was deemed to be pretty mediocre too, ‘requiring improvement’. Martha, who in the previous year had been retitled, or downsized – from Head of English to Course Leader, on much less money – resigned shortly after Ofsted’s visit. Neither she nor Olive (responsible for Level 2 courses) had done much to prepare for Ofsted – what with the day-to-day tasks of teaching and admin: Olive said that The Fat Controller (TFC), had passed on lists of things to do, which they ignored.
So Martha emailed the department to let us know she was leaving: it was not simply a response to the Ofsted result – “It’s time,” she said, in the ‘you just know’ sense (in the way a cat knows when it’s on its last legs and finds somewhere to die). The reticence – or the sense of containing thoughts or feelings – was typical.
Martha is 59 and has been at the college for 30 years. The image I have of her, that defines the ‘late period’ of her presence in the college, is of her slowly making her way up (or down) the corridor, weighed down by two large shopping bags full of folders, and her head tilted on one side in a manner that suggests the consideration of some unfathomable problem. (I never wanted to become a Head of Department).
The initial reaction to the resignation in the English workroom was muted – nothing much said and, perhaps surprisingly, little display of emotion, given that Martha was liked and well-regarded in the main. She stayed in her office anyway. She had carried her burden of folders to and from this office for the past five years – since the college moved across the road to this new building. She was always the last to leave after the day’s teaching was over: when you were on your way you would see her through her office-window, staring at the computer-screen.
In the evening – after the resignation email – I visited her at home. I hadn’t been to her house for years. I took her some flowers. She seemed pleased to see me: “Oh you shouldn’t have.” We sat in her front room and she told me about the work they’d had done on the house – this room had a new window. We drank wine and she sat on her settee looking exhausted, crumpled. A cushion had been used as a punch-bag. Whether she had been asked/told to resign, or whether the management had made life uncomfortable, or whether she felt bitter about the course her career had taken over the last few years, she didn’t say. One of the things she had said, on a few occasions over the years, was “When push comes to shove I’m on the side of the management.” Now she said “You’ll all need to look after each other” – we English teachers that is – implying, in one way at least, ‘now I’m not going to be there to look after you’.
A week later. Martha has a day off: “I told her,” someone says, “to have some time off, and now she’s ill – she won’t listen.” Criticism of her secretiveness follows: we want to know. And all the endless rewriting of student coursework – she spent all of the holiday in with the students, had booked a weekend in Wales for the end of it but didn’t go because the visit of Ofsted had been announced: so she didn’t go, but too late to prepare for inspection – “So what good was the work with the students then?”
Regime change had already started before Ofsted – with management appointments (Merlyn and Byron) and re-structuring (such that – as with Martha – Heads of Department became Course Leaders) – and continued with Thursday’s Staff Meeting, the first since Ofsted and two days after a one-day strike over term dates. No mention of the latter. A document was handed out for our perusal – “Our Core Values.” Comments were invited. Merlyn explained that the statements of values, about 20 of them, were culled from a previous training day when we had discussed ‘our values’: that is, what values we thought should guide our lives in the institution. They were, he said, aspirational, in the sense of for us to aspire to – he was not claiming that we followed them now.
There was some cynicism about them in group discussion (groups are a recent innovation for Staff Meetings) none of which was voiced more publicly. Mainly the statements were uncontentiously bland – things like “We always try our best,” and “We have a can-do attitude”: one comment voiced for the whole staff was ‘If these statements have come from us then it makes me think about what a nice staff we are’. This, and the writing in the new college newsletter “College Matters,” made me think of Stepford Wives. One ‘value’ that I wondered about was “We are loyal to the college”: who would have come up with that, and why – what would disloyalty mean? Nothing was said about the practical consequences of the values, of, say, not conforming to them.
The rest of the meeting was about Ofsted. Byron presented a Powerpoint on Ofsted’s verdict on “Teaching, learning and assessment” (“Requires improvement”). He went through the ways in which we are falling short, and how the management have many initiatives in place to deal with these things – that is, the problem lies with the teachers, and the management know what they’re doing, as with, for example, the new ‘more rigorous’ observation regime. Nothing was said about what Ofsted thought of the management – by implication, they’re on the right lines.
A key theme was ‘lack of challenge’ – we aren’t challenging the students enough, who are also not ‘independent’ enough. Reading for basic meaning is, it seems to me, challenging for most of my students. Apparently Ofsted were actually kind to us because they recognized our self-assessment was pretty accurate – that we knew we were crap and so weren’t delusional: again the management are clear-sighted (and management are the ‘we’ who know).
Robin ended the meeting with the good news that statistics provide: that we are only five per cent off – in terms of our overall ‘achievement’ – the 90% figure that gets an Ofsted ‘good’. So all we have to do is to close that not very wide gap.
Ella tells Olive that backstabbing is proliferating in the English Department. Carrie, till now seemingly innocuous and straightforward, has been getting involved, though nothing specified, unless it was about me and Olive didn’t want to say – didn’t seem that way: anyway Portia and Brenda had seemed fairly upfront during a tea-break, telling me I was a “lazy bastard.” Portia, who Olive hates, and who came out of the Ofsted well, was asked by the principal to “go full-time”, but she won’t (was what she told Ella), not while Ferdinand, her son, is so young: she and Brenda are ‘The Good Teachers’ of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem. According to Ella, Portia is “odd” – inexplicable shifts between friendliness and completely ignoring you – while Brenda is a “school bully,” but not too bright – you know where you are with her. Carrie is not to be trusted.
A lazy bastard. Between colleagues there is competition and a tendency to judge. Of course. And how much work, or manifest effort, is required – is it the ‘beyond required’ that is most important to not be a lazy bastard?
Lazy bastard. Well, who cares? On the one hand. But the determination of how much is enough – of work, effort (manifest)? Self or other-determined? I’d assumed that you have to set your own limits, given that – as it seemed early on – teaching would suck out all of your energy, take all of your capacity if you allowed it. With no appreciable difference to classroom experience or results you could preserve some of yourself for other things, your own projects – by establishing how much time and energy you were willing to devote to the teaching. And then there are the views of others to react to or live with.
Prim faces, sipping tea. Solemn pleasure in releasing a verdict long deferred (since under the benign Soviet regime of Martha dissent and rancour were suppressed in the seething republics). Is it that within the synchronic structure of the English Department the place of lazy bastard is always latent and available for invocation? Now it is Paddy. And if it is Paddy it is not me. And if that solemn pleasure is discharged its potential must be sustained – there’s nothing like the pleasure of building the festering resentment of a colleague.
How much one works – how much work one needs to ‘put in’ – is partly determined by management/employers, as workload. I notice an advert for a GCSE English teacher at a nearby college – 37 hours a week, and, although it is a main-scale job, a requirement is that you will perform the role of a course leader (i.e. without any ‘extra’ payment for the role).
It is Friday morning and I am not at work. I am missing the Friday ritual of Staff Briefing, where little of note is ever said/announced – rather the event constitutes a form of phatic communion: the staff consent to being brought together as a body for fifteen minutes – or perhaps more precisely to be seen to be, and to see ourselves as having been, brought together. For the past year or so there has – on occasion – been the handing out of College Core Values certificates to members of staff who’ve been nominated (supposedly) by their colleagues as in some way upholding the college’s (‘our’) values – the giving and receiving of these certificates, witnessed and applauded. As with the bringing in of group ‘discussions’ in Staff Meetings, any cynicism or opposition is contained or privatised – it takes a lot to speak out publicly in these contexts (and you can’t simply denounce the handing out of a few certificates: it’s harmless, ‘if it makes them happy’).
Things are said, away from the scene of the Staff Briefing, on the pointlessness of it, for example – but one is never sure how widely held such opinions are (because there is no staff ‘collective’), or whether they are ‘in reality’ held. And there is the sense in these institutional rituals that they represent the staff being involved or consulted – there is a superficial culture of such openness – when in reality all decisions are management ones: the formal structure of Staff Meetings shows this – the staff involvement, if there is some, is framed by management presentations. Indeed, it could be argued, that Staff Meetings, which have occurred over the last year or so less frequently, are also mere formalities, not real events in the sense of being empowered to lead to something. Perhaps ambiguities over whether these meetings matter, combined with the feeling that you can’t say – or it’s pointless saying – anything about that, is the point.
I have not been at work for about six weeks now.
Thoughts of getting out, without knowing how, have gone on for some time. Patrick is level-headed – “There’s the money?” True. There’d need to be money. He thinks why not have some time off ill, then go back, then go off again, and so on. Would that feel like cowardice, or game-playing, or is my anxiety over such a tactic more to do with ‘getting into trouble’?
Scheduled to teach a Media Studies lesson, but the class were in an open space between classrooms. Also, no lesson plan. Went off to find a classroom but soon got lost in labyrinthine corridors, some of them from the old building. Time was passing, the class waiting, probably getting angry, unruly.
“Come to my office for your timetable,” says The Fat Controller. I go. “You’ve got GCSE groups.” That’s it. “It could be de-skilling,” he says, “so I’ll try to fit some A level in.”
He had said I would be sharing the new Creative Writing with Portia – in fact she’s doing it herself. He implied it was hard to fit A Level into a part-time timetable, but seemingly not in her case – “I’ve been a bit creative with Wednesday afternoon,” he said.
My immediate thoughts were that rumours of ‘specialisms’ – of some teaching Level 2, others Level 3 – were correct.
He reassured me on a further meeting that I was not being victimized – “far from it,” whatever that means. However Olive is teaching all the A Lit with the new teacher – so it seems to me that the ‘good girls’ are in fact getting the better teaching. The only plus is that I won’t have to plan very much.
That evening I drank a bottle of wine, woke up pretty hungover. Thoughts of getting out – as often (“Well you do hate the place,” said H).
Ella is leaving, Louise retiring, Anna about to be off because pregnant, Martha retiring (the college’s term for her resignation).
In a free period I went down to the music room to hide, play guitar. The Music teacher was around – he asked me how long I’d been at the college. He’s been here for a year only, and now is leaving – they didn’t extend his contract, though things were going well, according to TFC, the “lying cunt” – “Now they’ve got in some bloke with a classical background; and how does that seem appropriate given the kind of students we get?”
“I’ve been here 20 years,” I tell him.
“Yeah, I don’t like to admit it – but a lot of it’s been part-time, so in a way it isn’t 20.”
In the middle of the night I think about it.
Next day went to Martha for advice. She said perhaps I ought to look into agencies, i.e yes they would restrict you to GCSE I suppose so you might as well leave. Colin from Art has also been told he’s only doing GCSE. He spent an hour with TFC – said he had a real go at him – who just kept saying the same things over and over: it was never said that you’d be leading A Level Graphics, yes it was, no it wasn’t, etc.
Department meeting, with Merlyn leading. He and TFC are now picking the team. He put his view that one teacher per group was best – best for cutting down the work-load he said. Instead of sharing four groups, you’d be responsible for two – less marking. Little was said in response, nothing about the real reason for it either – monitoring: perhaps in part because this innovation has been trailed for weeks, and some are thinking they’re ‘doing well’ out of it. The ‘all teach the same texts’ idea caused a bit of petulance – “I can’t stand Duffy.” This seemed to me to be something for the troops to chew over rather than think about who’s timetabled for what and why. Merlyn seemed to have no evidence that certain teachers or texts were better than others in terms of results – he deemed Duffy more ‘accessible’ than Plath. Umbrage was taken by Brenda at Merlyn’s implication that there weren’t any resources, schemes and such – “You’re talking like we haven’t ever done any of these things?” A ‘good girl’, she doesn’t want her hard work overlooked.
What about next year? Do the same people carry on with the same courses, texts? Individual teachers with their own groups – one teacher ‘responsible’ for results. What reason then is there to give help/resources to colleagues who are now clearly competitors? It’s been the underlying state of affairs, or manifest in ‘gossip’, but suppressed by Martha’s running of the dept, her decisions on the timetable. And If you are successful with a course, then why should you not continue doing it – it’s yours until you (the students) fail.
According to Martha, when Byron, the new Learning Leader, arrived (2014 – there hadn’t been such a role before that), he expressed his horror (verbally – perhaps through facial expression and gesture too: he had been a Drama teacher) that there were a considerable number of staff who had been at the place for 20 years or so. Pity for these long-suffering individuals? No. A healthy institution is one where there are individuals who aspire to get on in their careers – and who will, perforce, seek this getting on elsewhere. A healthy turnover of staff is good, allowing for regular infusions of new blood, and preventing staff from falling into a settled (coasting) state – those who, in the Principal’s analogy, are wearing slippers and need to get their trainers on (keep up with the pace of change in pedagogical praxis). Then there’s the labour market to think of – how will it carry on if people just stay put? Eighteen members of staff left at the end of last summer term – for some there was a final ritual, while others simply disappeared.
I remember a talk with H, after she’d been on some management training at a Sixth-Form College in Sheffield – they’d become a grade 1 college and everyone wanted to know how. From their presentations, H told me, it seemed the fundamental reason for their success was employing NQTs. The Vice-Principal complained that older teachers are harder to change. The Head of Science, in her 20’s, said that NQTs were great because “they’re so competitive.” They have one teacher per group so they can “find out who’s good or bad.” The VP said that he was engaged in a “vendetta against bad teachers,” wanted to “root them out” – but it takes a while to get your “Champions-League team together.” In a ‘seminar’ one teacher asked the Head of Science about older teachers – he complained he’d got a few near retirement in his dept., and they’re so hard to motivate, what could he do?
I had a phone call this week from Scarlett at the NUT asking how my meeting with the Human Resources Manager went. Scarlett had expressed a few doubts about me going by myself. She’d also said – when I’d got the letter inviting me to the meeting – that “All this duty of care stuff is bullshit you know.” How close was I “to the end” she asked – because if I am close then they’ll probably be glad to see me go: either that or they’ll send me off to Occupational Health (“This is what they do in schools these days – see if you’re really ill, and what can be done about it”). I told Scarlett that the Human Resources Manager seemed quite human: that she assured me of confidentiality, wanted to know what they could do to help me return, and ultimately said that I’d spoken “honestly” so there was no point sending me to Occupational Health. I’d told her that I dreaded coming in to the place – a dread triggered by observations: I explained how my observation had been unfair, and had not followed the same procedure applied to others in the same situation (of having got a 3 in the first observation: and now the same GCSE group on Friday afternoon again, with the same observer – TFC – who I said I didn’t want (“Well you’ve got to have him I’m afraid,” says the line-manager) plus Merlyn as well (“For an extra-robust judgement,” says TFC smiling – “it’s the new policy we’ve just made up”) : I’m not sure they’ll both fit in the room – they’re both hefty: I can see these two besuited Buddhas, slowly inflating to fill the room, students scrambling out between their legs leaving me trapped under the desk: I can’t face it. Wandering past my colleague’s room, I notice that her re-observation is with Merlyn only – she having requested that she not be seen again by the first observer: I ask her about this after, and she says yes, the procedure wasn’t followed, but don’t tell anyone she told me that).
Human Resources said she didn’t really know anything about the observation process. Was I in contact with someone at the college – I think she had my line-manager in mind – who I could talk it over with? No. Had I had any support during the observation process? Only observing a lesson – from which I’d drawn the conclusion that if an afternoon GCSE lesson requires that level of constant hectoring then I’m not the person to do it.
Scarlett asked whether I wanted her to ring the college, speak to Personnel, get me a “settlement.” The settlement would be an agreed reference and they would pay me over the summer, and I’d leave.
A Maths lesson, on Geometry. An inspector is expected.
The group say they’ve done this before – I’m not really sure what they’ve done. I’m not a Maths teacher. I ask one of them to show me what they’ve been doing. A female student spreads a poster out on the table. A drawing of a fly – seen from above – is overlaid with a geometrical pattern: lines, coming off parts of the fly, intersecting. She talks me through it. I don’t know anything about this. That’s when the inspector comes in.
Anna, this morning: “You were swearing a bit yesterday: it was nice.”
Spoke to Jo from Science – she says the ‘older’ Science teachers have been steered away from A Level teaching. I asked her if she knew anything about Richard. “Science Richard?” No. “Well he’s looking for other jobs you know – having been told he can only teach BTEC Science.” And IT Richard (the one I’d meant)? “Yes I heard that he’d been marched off the premises by Merlyn, via the back entrance,” (Seymour had enjoyed telling me this earlier that morning). Jo said she’d asked Richard’s boss, about it, and he’d said that wasn’t true – and that “Some people in the place enjoy spreading damaging gossip.”
Olive is “going to play the management’s game – I’ll go to all the training, and say what I think of it.”
“I see you’ve started tidying your desk up – well done,” says Martha, “though there’s a way to go isn’t there. Impression management is over for me,” she says, “but for you it’s particularly important” – she touches my arm.
One of the new Learning Leaders had told me they’re “stepping up” observations next year. I take Martha’s ‘impression’ statement to be a warning that there will be a stronger policing of the superficial signifiers of ‘teacher-type’, of mode of action: less tolerance of the ‘maverick’, non-conformist – more promotion of the regular: regulation-issue.
I was walking through Kings Heath (I’d just posted my latest sick-note to Personnel actually) when I saw the former head of History pulling up at a nearby junction on her bike. She’d seen me so I thought I’d better stop and talk. After pleasantries about the kids (“bank of mum and dad”) and some facetiousness on my part, she asked if I was still at the place (when was it she left – must be five years?). I thought I might as well be honest so I told her I was still there, though off with stress – had been off for six weeks. She was interested but didn’t seem surprised – “The place just gets worse doesn’t it.” She didn’t ask about the specific circumstances – presumably seeing being off as a reaction to the whole experience of being there: “Best thing I did,” she said, “leaving the place – hopefully will be good for you too: there’s lots of work for English teachers out there, on supply, GCSE resits and the like.” I pulled a face. “No, it’s all right,” she said – her daughter is teaching GCSE Maths resits and she finds it ok (so I must too, with English). “Everybody has to do it, so you’ll always be in demand.” Back to ‘the place’: “They just want people who are compliant working there,” she said. I agreed, the staff are quiescent in any sense of the political, in terms of going along with whatever the management want. “You’re bound to find that difficult,” she said. I think she’s always rather liked me, possibly because of what she sees/saw as my non-conformity – always pretty superficial (or maybe stylistic) in my view, but what do I know (a former colleague regarded me, he said, as “anarchic” – it seemed to be said affectionately (or euphemistically)). “Hard for you to fit in there – given that’s what they want,” she said.
My job is to run this old-peoples’ home. The home is being inspected. I am serving food to these old, poor people. I am not meant to have children here, but I’ve got my son with me; he has a foldable bed under the stairs. The inspector finds him in a back-room, and I am in trouble. I go on the offensive, launch a moral tirade against him, in front of the old diners – how can he live with himself, knowing that by his following of the rules he will end this important service that I do. He smiles, in the way inspectors do.
Very tense start to the term – enhanced by the management decision to conduct Learning Walks in the first week, supposedly to gather examples of ‘good practice’, but perhaps more to signal an intent to monitor, such that ‘games are raised’ (trainers are put on).
TFC tells me the English enrolment went better than expected, whilst enrolment to other departments, the “good departments,” is down – “Which is sad” (“Perhaps it’s sad, but it’s also fucking irritating because it means we’re the ones with groups of 25, they’re the ones with groups of ten, and we have the marking, but we’re all the fucking same when it comes to being ‘responsible’ for results and such”).
At the meeting Merlyn hands us our ALPs figures for last year’s groups. Overall a slight improvement and he is quite pleased.
At the Union meeting regarding new “Observation and Capability Policy”:
“The management have said that the policy is non-negotiable.”
“They can’t say that, surely.”
“Their intention is to speed up the process of getting people onto Capability, that’s obvious – and they’re simplifying the criteria, the data: observations only.”
“Which makes the whole thing more open to subjectivity and to their preferences – who they like and all that.”
“I’ve talked to Byron a lot recently, and it seems to me that he’s genuine in his desire to improve Teaching and Learning, and that’s what this is for.”
“But if you’re under stress – say you get a 3 in your first observation – how are you then going to feel about what you do; and the stress for the second observation will be intense – if your livelihood depends on it: who can perform well in those circumstances?”
At the staff briefing on Friday the Principal announced that the observation policy had been agreed, that they’d accepted all but one of the unions’ amendments (the time between observations – needs to be short). She said the policy compared favourably to other places where things were more punitive (she didn’t use that word). She also said the whole thing was supportive and she was aware that some thought the policy was a way of ‘squeezing’ people out – “Nothing could be further from the truth” (ie that is the truth). Mark, the new NAS rep, piped-up, that in fact agreement hadn’t been reached, and it isn’t supportive, and then Byron and Merlyn weighed-in stiffly with obfuscatory details, and the temperature in the room plummeted – and fast-forward a year and Mark is no longer at the college (a student complained about him apparently).
I became the NUT rep at the start of this academic year (well, joint-rep). Had a few meetings with management – perfectly polite: they weren’t going to do anything about anything. The Principal had told me she thought I’d be in for a quiet time – “All the issues have been resolved.” In 2014 attendance at NUT meetings numbered 30-odd; in 2017 it has been four or five.
I remember a “day of action” in 2016 – I think it was over funding cuts – and I was standing pretty much alone on the picket line (apart from a few SWP people, I was it). After a while I saw the Principal coming over. I thought I’d better make a move towards her – “Whoa, don’t come onto the premises,” she said, in her jokey Northern manner, and then went onto complain about how few staff could be bothered to turn out for the picket: “There’s no nobility amongst them,” she said, with – I thought – genuine disgust, “they’ll all be having a lie-in while you’re here in the cold.” I noticed her skin – I don’t get up close very often – was very flaky; she was not looking at all well.
Scarlett has been in touch with Personnel. They told her this wasn’t a good time for settlements, what with the state of finances (though – hang on a second – weren’t we told in meetings that the college was doing “very well” (one of the few colleges in this area – in any area – to be financially strong and stable)). They’d agree to give me £x000, which would be paying me what I’d get after tax, up to the end of August (my entitlement to full pay while I’m off ends with July, so August would be half-pay). And an agreed reference. I thought about it while I stuffed Labour Party election material into envelopes (a surprisingly therapeutic activity). Then I texted Scarlett: “dnt u fink tht, givn Ive bin ther 4 27 years, thts a bit mean?” She rang: “I thought the text was some kids having a laugh – it was you?”
“Yes, I like to keep in touch with my inner-child.”
She rings Personnel again: tells them to think about all the hassle they’ll have, continuing to pay me something, getting me in for interviews re Occupational Health, then having to give me warnings, then eventually sacking me. The head of Personnel made noises seeming to indicate that she hadn’t thought of all that, and yes indeed I had been there a long time – she’d speak to Merlyn.
Phone-call from Scarlett: “They’re willing to pay you £x+1000, and that’s their final offer. And the agreed reference. I can’t see them going higher than that, I’ve dealt with them before – a man who left about a year ago – and they were very difficult.”
“Ah well, fuck it, I’ll just accept it and get the whole fucking thing over with: at least this whole sorry period – 27 years – will be over.”
He watched the women, down below, leaving. He saw them not as individuals but as a grey swarm, squeezing through the gates, and then dispersing along the surrounding streets.
The machines were now at a standstill. Threads dangled from them, and coiled across the floor, making it look like a drawing of light on grey water: the engine-room has sprung a leak. As he followed the coils his sense of himself, and his being here as the under-manager, unravelled: he knew next to nothing of women’s underwear. All day he had been hovering, to no real purpose – at times he’d felt himself dissolving almost, having as little coherence as the fragments of thread in the fibrous air.
The manager was standing in the doorway. He had his long coat on. He looked wearied and worried; a face of crumpled paper. He beckoned the under-manager over. Follow me. They walked off together. The manager walked quickly, and talked economically and quietly, so the under-manager had to lean into him to catch what he was saying – and doing this, concentrating on the words, he lost track of the turns, doors, and rooms as they made their way to the lower level where there was an important job to do. The well-head needed to be closed – the engineer couldn’t be expected to do it alone.
They arrived at a large cellar-like room. From a balcony, that the door opened onto, you could look down at the feature that dominated the space, the well-head itself. This the under-manager did, as the manager descended iron stairs to talk to the engineer. From his vantage-point the under-manager saw a large black hole in the concrete floor, about fifteen feet in diameter, and completely black, impossible to see into. After observing for a few minutes he saw that there was some variation in the blackness; he saw that the black was slowly shifting, because it was a substance, some kind of thick glutinous oil that had begun to seep over the perimeter of the well-head. Behind the black hole, hinged to its far rim, was a wooden disc that appeared to match the hole in shape and size – clearly a kind of lid.
The manager was talking animatedly with the engineer. They picked up long metal rods which they simultaneously hooked around brackets on either side of the lid. Standing by the edge of the hole they began to pull the lid forward. This seemed to the under-manager a clumsy and dangerous way of closing-off the well-head, and the two men were now straining, pushing up with the rods against the weight of the lid to slow its descent. The under-manager felt guilty, that he should be helping – the manager was not a big man, not strong: he was surely not capable of withstanding the strain of slowing this heavy wooden lid, even with the assistance of the engineer. Not knowing what to do the under-manager remained on the balcony.
Then, as if fears, translated into wishes, could not help but seep into the world, the manager stumbled. He fell back, and the engineer jumped to the side. The lid came down.
The rushing sound of cymbals. The manager was on his back, the engineer nowhere to be seen. Around the perimeter of the hole there was a circle of short spikes – a buried fence of iron railings had just pierced through the floor. The manager had fallen on one of these spikes, and it must have gone into his back. The under-manager watched him, stuck to the floor, but with his arms and legs still going, marching, his skull bobbing back and forth. The under-manager turned but that image remained in his head as he left the balcony and tried to remember the way back from the lower level.
Went to Byron’s training on observations. He showed a video of an A level History lesson – 9 white well-qualified students, articulate and reflective; fast-pace to the lesson. Nothing like a lesson here. I said a few things, including how hard it is to judge the teacher’s knowledge of the subject, part of the Outstanding indicators, so why do we, here, not have subject specialists therefore doing the observations? He gave no clear answer, merely that’s the way we do it. Seems to me it’s done to avoid the possibility of a Head of Dept, as was, ‘protecting’ her staff. (This idea – of a Head of Department who protects her staff was explicitly criticized by the Principal in her speech on the occasion of Martha’s leaving – “She wouldn’t reveal the weaknesses of members of her department – not when we asked her to do so, not even when the electrodes were applied.”)
Quite a strong sense of demarcations between groups within the staff developing. The lower-ranking officer class (Learning Leaders, Course Leaders), with their sense of themselves as dynamic forces, as theoretically informed re pedagogy, and of their own self-worth – this is how it seems from the outside, and from what Olive said about their training. She claimed to have made a speech, spontaneously, on how the English Dept had suffered – loss of confidence etc (she gave portraits of unnamed individuals – after she thought she’d been indiscreet, that they’d be talking – Science Julie said “Don’t worry, they’re only interested in themselves”). The speech actually received – Olive said – a round of applause from those present: Olive was commended by the person running the training, though he thought she should be careful, she might be too “vulnerable.”
I’ve attached the reference for your perusal. If there’s anything missed, that you think should be added, put it in – in a different colour would help – and I’ll send it back to them. There are also some documents we need to fill in – I can do most of it, but you’ll need to sign the agreement. We need to do this fairly quickly because there’s half-term coming up and it all needs to be finished before the end of May.
was employed by College as a Teacher of English, between and
taught a timetable of English on the GCSE and A level courses. As part of the delivery of these subjects, undertook professional staff development training and took part in taking students on educational visits.
also participated in team meetings on a regular basis and contributed to team’s development and performance. kept accurate records including registers, student attendance, records of work, student reports, students’ assessment outcomes and Records of Achievement.
achieved the maximum scale on the College’s Professional Standards Payment. This process required submission of a portfolio of evidence, indicating satisfactory attainment of appropriate professional characteristics for a teacher, such as lesson planning, production of teaching resources, record keeping and so on. It also included a ‘value added’ assessment of class results. final salary was per annum, pro-rata.
has also undertaken various courses as part of his CPD which include Equality and Diversity Awareness, Introduction to Data Protection, Health and Safety and Safeguarding.
During time with the College, there were no safeguarding issues or concerns raised.
If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Director of Human Resources
I’ve added stuff to it. I don’t really class this as a reference – just some bare perfunctory factoids written by someone who doesn’t know me (I’ve never had anything to do with Personnel – they’ve just ‘administered’ me). Is it intended that I write the reference myself, add my own qualitative adjectives? If not then the thing is a fucking insult as far as I’m concerned,
“Hi, yes I’ve been on to Personnel – and she says they can’t put anything in that isn’t factually correct.”
“Well surely a lot of references contain opinions, not just facts?”
“She says she’s not happy with the line you added to the first paragraph.”
“About doing the guitar club.”
“What? I ran that for two fucking years – sorry about swearing.”
“And the arts festival.”
“What? I was involved with that for several years – meetings, ideas, even played the fucking guitar at it.”
“Well I suppose she needs to check on that.”
“Yes she bloody well should – she can ask The Fat Fucking Controller. And what about that line in the first paragraph about the effective teaching and good results – can she fucking check on that? Ask my fucking line manager about it.”
“Would she give you a good reference?”
“Don’t see why not – unless the things that she wrote about Learning Walks and in Appraisals were ‘in fact’ not true.”
At home, the parents a bit younger. In the front room talking when Dad notices the ceiling has started to sag, and is hanging down in soggy stalactites from underneath my bedroom. We – he and I – stand up and pull at them. They come away exposing wooden struts, and we can see up into the bedroom. Mum is standing to one side – she’s upset, and says something like “This is not a home anymore.” I try to console her, pointing out that the wood seems to be in good condition. After a while we sit on the settee, me and dad, and he says something low and dark that I can’t quite hear – “If you hadn’t …” I ask him what he’s saying but he will say nothing more.
Touching support from some English colleagues re observation, in the sense that I felt they cared for me. The observation – coming at the end of a long half-term (i.e. knackered) and with a thin GCSE group (Byron having already said you’re less likely to get a 2 with a GCSE group), produced a 3 with “elements of 2”: so said the 30 year old course leader from Science who saw the lesson (along with Byron). Seemed it was unclear how much progress had been made – though the lesson was “well-planned and imaginative” (however pinning the skulls with quotes on the Tree of Death evidently not a way of showing progress). I agree that the lesson was mixed, and I feel the whole process/experience adds to one’s sense of deteriorating ability, or of not knowing what you’re ‘meant to do’.
Felt humiliating after the verdict when colleagues asked how it went, to have to say not well: “Not even the Tree of Death?”
Re-programming begins: CPD, “A Beginner’s Guide to Questioning”: Peer Observation – TFC (“You’re very articulate but you talk too much – give them some coloured pens and a sheet of sugar-paper”): Mentor – says she’s intimidated by me because I’ve got four degrees (“Don’t worry about it, I don’t think qualifications matter too much do they?”), doesn’t want to patronize, and thinks the whole thing is a box-ticking exercise anyway so the management can show Ofsted they’ve done something.
Not sleeping well. Seems I’m the only person in the department to get a 3. Spoke to Science Jo: she said that in Science people were being “shredded” – observation reports with criticisms like “Didn’t have worksheets in colour – under other circumstances you’d laugh about it.”
Parents’ Evening – full on, constant talk. Principal came in after – berated me for lack of tie ; “It’s in the wash,” I said “got to have some standards.” Went on to talk about the kids: mentioned Dan applying to Cambridge – “I hate all that, you know,” she says “Cambridge as superior – of course I tried to get my daughter to go there – she was offered a place, but went to Surrey.”
“Oh yeah, what does she do now?”
“She’s a barrister – but she would’ve got there easier if she’d gone to Cambridge.”
Olive, as Course Leader for Level 2, has had a meeting with the management – says they’ve put “on the screen” the observation results so far, and they drew attention to my 3. She suggested to me that this showed I was on their radar, and that they would be out to get me. She further suggested that when that happens I should “do a Shindy,” i.e. go off sick indefinitely. This after TFC said we’d like you to continue full time next term – convenient for them, I guess, no matter how little esteem they have for me.
Portia has done some training for NQTs – on ‘Skimming and Scanning’: Merlyn was there, liked it – seems his favourite word of praise is “slick”: “Portia’s slick session.”
Bumped into TFC in the corridor. “You know you complained about being observed by a subject non-specialist?”
“Well, you can’t not be seen by her again – that’s the policy: we want an element of consistency in the observations so we can see whether progress is being made. However, as you have objected, and to reassure you, the next observation will be with her and Merlyn – he’s taught English.”
Olive has had her course review meeting – she said there’d be tears, and there were. She said they were aggressive, trying to take her apart for the work she’d done/not done – the predicted grades for GCSE were deemed to be “not scientific”: how had they been arrived at (experience? coursework marks?)? They criticized her for not getting us to put marks on Pro-monitor, for not “driving forward changes.” Apparently during the meeting the Principal said that she was really happy with the people who’d left in the summer – happy that they’d gone – and that a few had asked to come back, and she’d said “No chance.”
The second observation felt like it went badly – verdict on Monday. Felt terrible leading up to it: lack of sleep, general dread: went to the doc (partly thinking she’d just sign me off – she didn’t – “Oh we’re all being audited constantly now “) – blood-pressure up, and the heart palpitations “may just be old age.” The mentor was helpful, spent a lot of time talking and planning – she thought my dread was ‘put on’.
Feedback: Merlyn speaks:
“Well, we really recognize that you’ve made a huge effort – you even wore a tie – a huge effort to improve following your last obs. There were many good things about the lesson – the students were engaged and attentive throughout, the pace was good. It’s a short space of time, six weeks to get from a three to a two, and there’s a lot to assimilate. But I just wasn’t sure – at the end of the lesson – what the students had learnt …
You’ve probably shifted too far towards the kind of CPD stuff you’ve been doing – we need the old you back. I’ve seen countless English teachers – seems to me you’re the kind that works by personality and intellect. I don’t care how the learning occurs, as long as it does. You just need a basic structure – start middle and end – maybe a mini-plenary half way through.”
So you do the CPD stuff, you listen to advice – “Don’t talk so much” – and the observer says forget all that, be as you were (not that he knows about that really).
Had another meeting (‘improvement’) with TFC. I said I wasn’t sure the picknmix approach to CPD worked, why not just say what Ofsted want? He said he wasn’t sure they could – they’d talked about this, and decided on this skills, functions, approach – “Otherwise it’s to do with personalities.”
Stephen from Art has been re-observed – “scraped” a 2, and was told by the observer “You’re in the clear.”
I visit the college after a long time away. I’m feeling a bit self-conscious because wearing a tight blue top: why have I got this on? I encounter a student I know – “It’s good to see you sir”, he shakes my hand. “Thanks, that means a lot to me.”
I go to the English workroom to collect my things, feeling anxious about going in. I open the door. A small red ball rolls across the floor towards me as I step inside, and I boot it back towards the other side of the room where someone I don’t recognize sits – my replacement? She looks distressed. My desk has been cleared. I look around to see if my things have been put somewhere. A few members of the department are sat at their desks on the right side of the room. They continue to look at their laptops – no-one says anything.
Scarlett rings again. She says she’s spoken again to Personnel about the reference. Seems they had a problem with the line I added to the first paragraph, which had simply contained the dates of my employment at the place. Apparently they objected to my saying I was an “effective teacher, getting good results, for 27 years.” She says they – well Merlyn – objected to the results part: “said there were issues with my results.” Well, Scarlett says she let them have it – “I vented my spleen”: who wouldn’t have a few issues over 27 years, what with different cohorts and all that – “and do you want this to be finalized or not?” After further discussion between Personnel and Merlyn it was decided that a new formulation of words – “good results over the years” – would be acceptable to him, and would that, Scarlett asks, be ok by me?
“I don’t see that much of a difference – I’d thought that the implication that the results weren’t continuously, consistently, good was available from my formulation of words, what with the common-sense idea of that being unlikely over such a long period anyway. So I think his formulation is much the same. And if he quibbled with that, why not with ‘effective over 27 years’? Not that ‘effective’ is making a grand claim – it’s not ‘good’ is it, so maybe that’s why? Whatever, ok.”
On reflection though I resent the mean-spiritedness of his desire to change my words. What did I expect though? When Martha left (thirty years ‘service’) they offered her a weekend in Wales (she likes Wales) – which she declined – and at the ‘leavers’ ceremony’ (28 leavers) the Principal made a short speech, which seemed off the top of her head, generally sardonic in tone (quoted from previously) around the idea that Martha wouldn’t grass on her staff, and now she was going her department would have to get coffee and tea for themselves. I went to see Robin afterwards – the only ‘old-guard’ member of senior management remaining, generally decent/human. I suggested to him that the speech was a travesty, incompetent, a disgrace – five years ago some care, some thought, would have gone into a speech when a longstanding member of staff left. Well, he nodded, said he agreed with me, but couldn’t really do anything about it – perhaps we, the department, could make up for it. Oh, and would I please make sure that the fact of his agreeing with me stayed within the walls of this office?
(Of course. Now I get it. I should have kept records myself of my own activities in the institution – things like the Guitar Club. Why should I expect the institution to have/collect that data on activities performed in the college on behalf of students – it is in my interests to collect it as part of the cultivation of myself, the self that is a ‘career’, the self that should be concerned with self-presentation such that I can become more marketable. I suppose this relates to what was referred to in the reference as the “college’s Professional Standards Payment” (I see it all now), an exercise in trying to make me care about myself in that way – to gather together evidence, of having been present at meetings, of my ‘contribution’ to college life, and of my results (all things the college had records of – so (as it was done then, in practice) to give back to the college the records of these things that it had given me, with a few highlighter markings to show I had engaged with them, and nicely presented in sections separated by coloured-card dividers). It took a few years of arm-twisting from colleagues (“it looks bad not to apply for it,” and “think of the money”) to get me to go for it – it was demeaning (to my foolish mind) to have to present bits of paper to show what was already known (that I was doing a ‘satisfactory’ job)).
I’m thinking about my farewell speech (which I sense will not be delivered – perhaps I could get someone to do it for me, have it sung by a Gospel choir, or have it on DVD: record it on a Mediterranean beach, a couple of babes applying sun-tan oil to my shoulders as I say my goodbyes to camera. Yes.)
Retching into the waste-paper bin in the room next door to where the observation will be in a minute. Hope no one’s about to use this room. Hope I’ll be able to speak …
On with the old modus operandi … Merlyn, looking out of the window, yawning … Merlyn, pacing, questioning students rigorously: “Do you do this kind of work often?” …
The End: “I’ll see you later” he says and goes out. “Oh fuck off” I say. How the class laugh …
“It’s just a 2” he says. Hooray. “Don’t get carried away,” he says, “there’s still a lot of improvement needed.” Starting again in September.
Olive and Anna apply for the head of English level 3 job: neither get it. No one else applied: 2nd advertisement.
The post is advertised for a third time, as a B, an extra £1000, and responsibility for English as a whole – “Previous applicants need not apply.”
A meeting of the English team with Senior Management, at our request. We describe what’s been difficult this year – workload principally, and lack of a course leader for level 3. All very polite, nothing contentious. They are sympathetic. Nothing will happen. Towards the end the Principal talks about the lack of a head of level 3 – “We just didn’t get anyone worthwhile applying.”
A few weeks later someone who applied when the job was first advertised is appointed: she hasn’t got an English degree, but has management experience.
Merlyn and TFC attend the English team meeting. Their contribution is a criticism of the GCSE course/projected grades/staff. “If the college gets a 4 it will be down to the GCSE results. The students aren’t motivated enough.”
Sara says “They have already been alienated – they are, in themselves, lazy, and weak in terms of their language abilities.” (She’s a very good teacher: at the end of this year the management will decide not to re-new her contract).
In December the management were told that a pass rate of around 35 per cent was likely – they criticized Olive aggressively for her “pessimism”: turns out she was right about the coursework. Now they say that if they knew the coursework was so weak (which they did, because she’d told them) they would have intervened.
Sara asked what they would have done, what strategies they had – TFC replied that she was the teacher and it was up to her to come up with strategies.
Brenda pointed out how the new assessment policy would increase workload – 5 groups, 20 in each, and from all of them an assessed/monitored piece (an essay) every two weeks. Merlyn said “Just stick a grade on it – you’re experienced you can sniff out a C, you’re too rigorous with your marking.” The r-word has been used throughout the year to criticize teaching – “lack of rigour in questioning” etc.
“As long as the marks are on the system.”
Merlyn and TFC also reveal they want students dual-entered: they intend that after a few assessments, when it’s clear that some aren’t coping with GCSE, they’ll be moved to a Functional Skills group: how, and who will teach it is not clear – Brenda pointed out that no one has been timetabled for Functional Skills.
She eyes him suspiciously while he explains (why had he not made sure the appointment was with one of those nice sympathetico-concerned locum cum ‘supply’ doctors, or whatever they’re called?): “I’ve been off work for three months or so, and my union are negotiating a settlement for me to end my contract with the college I teach at” (just in case she doesn’t remember him, remind that he’s a teacher) “but the settlement isn’t yet – settled – I thought it would be – and so I need a further certificate.”
She looks at her screen. “What did it say – ah, yes, work-related stress”: her clipped Germanic voice. “So up to then.”
She prints the certificate out and passes it over. She examines him intently. “I don’t think the home life suits you” she says.
“If you edited that statement slightly – deleted ‘the home’ – then I think that’d be about right”: quite pleased with that one, but her face remains serious, her gaze – penetrating.
“I haven’t seen you for three years – but you’re looking … not good.”
“Other people say I’m looking better. I’ve declined rapidly in three years then?”
“Mm. Are you drinking much?”
“Less than I was.”
“Are you doing anything – keeping yourself occupied?”
“Yes – I have a lot of projects: writing and painting.”
She says nothing. She was like this last time: stiff/blunt. He stands up and turns for the door – “Thanks for this” (the certificate) “and for your concern.” Not the conventional way to end a doctor-patient speech encounter according to the section on ‘endings’ in the Conversation Analysis section of the A Level Language textbook. She stays in position: “Goodbye Mr er” (looks at screen), said in a knowing tone that suggests lack of closure (as in ‘no doubt I will see you again, and we will repeat this encounter with or without the certificate part of it).
An email from a colleague (I suppose she still is one for the moment) informs me that life in the English Department continues in its miserable way. Merlyn is pushing the one-teacher-per-group thing for A Level, though this is – my colleague thinks – “too onerous” in terms of workload. Even conformist Phil has been to see Merlyn to tell him that the way the new A Level curriculum is organized at the college adds enormously to workload – and Merlyn (whose decision it was to organize it in the way it’s done) merely responds that “Other departments don’t feel that way” (no point saying that subjects/courses differ, must maintain fiction of level playing field).
And on the subject of fiction – or perhaps more, it’s supposed opposite, truth – the reason why the settlement is not settled is that I haven’t yet signed it, because of my dislike of what it says about ‘confidentiality’ -“Confidentiality clauses are standard” says someone on the union ‘advice line’). Seems I can’t – if I agree to the settlement – say anything about it, or what lead up to it, or make any ‘adverse or derogatory’ comments about the college or anyone who works there. Clearly this is an instance, extending beyond employment, and in perpetua, of what was referred to in a staff meeting three years ago as the Core Value of ‘loyalty to the college’. To sustain a fiction of itself – which functions as its truth – the college requires some things to be unsaid. Impression management, or marketing, as Martha reminded me, is important.
(In Martha’s garden – I can’t recall having ever been in it. It’s a long one – a lot of pots with plants in (her husband, Benedict, does the gardening), a pond at the far end. We are reclining on a couple of sun-loungers sipping coffee (her new machine does this frothy Americano), and though I’ve said I don’t want lunch she insists – some flatbread and humus isn’t going to kill me. She wants to know about the settlement. “Well, strictly speaking,” I say, “I’m not allowed to say anything about it, but if you give me your word you won’t tell?” She isn’t particularly into flippancy. “Actually I spoke to Scarlett from the NUT – you know her? – because I objected to the confidentiality clause and not being able to say anything ‘derogatory’ about the place, and she said ‘come on – nobody actually believes that you’re not going to talk about it all’ – which I’m sure is great legal advice – ‘so sign it – get your money – and just say what you like’.” Martha says nothing. “So I thought that’s what I’d do.”
So I describe the nature of the settlement – the amount of money – the reference, which, in the end, despite a supposed compromise over the line about results and my ‘effectiveness’, omits even the compromise line – is just the bare-bones paragraph of the original: clearly Merlyn couldn’t stand the thought that he might encourage some other institution to employ me.
“So he’s saying that over 27 years you’ve never been an effective teacher,” Martha says.
“Looks like it – there’s also been some negligent management over that period then.”
I ask her about when she left and she talks about how she felt when they took away the Head of Department role, how “destroyed” she was – and leaving involved being “vaporised.” “They just wanted something different. We’d got good results before – the best in the college – but that didn’t matter. Merlyn knew how he wanted the department run – he’d been a Head of English himself for a year after all.” She talks about his obsession with one teacher per group – “I always thought that with English in particular the students benefitted from different styles and views. And if you’re on your own with a group you don’t like that’s awful.”
“I thought I’d carry on teaching – after I left – teaching somewhere – but then I got ill,” she says. “You’ve signed up with a few supply agencies haven’t you – but that’ll all start in September I would have thought.” She knows people who do supply and say it’s ok, and she gives me a few other ideas about what I could do.
I tell her my desk is now incredibly tidy – “I went in on Saturday: four bin-bags worth of folders and stuff.” I tell her that I’d had an email telling me how the line-manager had been “shocked” by the cleared desk – as if she didn’t know anything about it.
“So that’s it then – you’ve officially left?”
“I’m not sure if it’s official – if the contract is terminated or whatever. I’ve had the signed settlement document back – that they’ve signed, so I guess that must be it. I thought there might be some ceremony, something performative – well I do have to hand in my key, so maybe there’ll be a brief ritual to accompany that. And I need to get my resources off the laptop – couldn’t log on when I went in – seemed they’d already deleted my profile.” I don’t tell her that I’d pinned a Modern Toss Work cartoon above the desk – “In an ideal world I’d tell you to shove this job up your arse.”)