Monday, 27 July 2015

Secret teacher - is it just harmless fun to let off steam about parents?

Can you be a good teacher, or a good school, if you don't develop respectful relationships with parents? I would say not.

So whilst I can see how readers might feel that the Secret Teacher's end-of-term report to parents in The Guardian is just a bit of fun, I would like to spoil the joke.

 "Parents, refrain from showing up at the school gate in a bunny onsie. Your child won’t get over the sniggering" - sound advice from The Guardian's Secret Teacher?

Part of the piece, which is well-written and amusing, takes the familiar line that the kids are alright, it's just the parents you have to look out for. This was exactly the type of good advice that I remember teachers passing onto me during various teaching practices back in the late 80s - in schools where it was also common for headteachers to refrain from coming into the staff room, or even knock first, so it ended up as a kind of privileged zone where anyone could let off a bit of steam about children and parents without fear of any repercussions.

So, let's put this into context. The teaching profession is mostly filled by people with white, middle-class backgrounds, like me. Teachers usually then find themselves working either in socially mixed schools, or perhaps  in schools where the large majority of families are from ethnic minorities or from working class backgrounds. Professional behaviour in a context where you do not share the same background as many of the people you are working with is tricky, and requires a lot of thought and sensitivity. I don't think you can allow a culture in the staffroom to develop and imagine that it will not affect the relationships and values of the wider school.

England has a terrible record on social mobility - your likely educational achievement is predicted by your family's social/economic status to an alarming degree in this country. As the Sutton Trust reports, "social mobility – how someone’s adult outcomes relate to their circumstances as a child – had declined in Britain between children born in 1958 and those born in 1970. It also showed that it was lower than in Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, and on a par with the United States. Comparing children born in the 1950s and the 1970s the researchers found a strong and increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment."

So what's this got to do with a humorous end-of-term article in The Guardian

Even in its milder passages, you can't easily miss the class-based sneering. Don't give your children books by footballers, come to me and I can show you round the fabulous library...

But this is what really worries me: "Thank you for all the letters of complaint this term. We welcome your feedback. We read them all and act upon them. And then, in the case of the ones that are full of hilarious English misspellings and grammatical howlers, we pin them up in the staffroom with the funny bits picked out in highlighter pen."

I am assuming that the Secret Teacher would not do this with the children's writing - so why is it ok to do this with what parents write? It tells me that there is a profound lack of respect being shown to parents in this school. Let's leave aside possible issues around people writing in English as an additional language, and around dyslexia, and assume that most of the parents who write the letters full of "howlers" are adults who did not have a great deal from their own schooling. What could give you a more vivid sense of how educational disadvantage is perpetuated, than this image of laughing, sneering teachers in the staffroom?

Am I being a killjoy? Yes. And I am perfectly happy to be a killjoy who is on the side of families who get a raw deal from our schools.