Tom The Teacher Part One

(Note: I’ve done this before, but it’s updated, and the start of a new series. I dedicate it to Sandy Millin, who, in her work as a Director of Studies (DOS), punches a huge hole in the argument.)

Tom was in a bit of a panic. He only had an hour before his first class. He was in the teachers room scrambling to get his classes together. His problem, as usual, was just how much of the Outgoes Intermediate unit that was supposed to frame his lesson he could ignore. Was his plan to concentrate on the mention of single mothers a bit too risky? Were some of the items he’d quickly put together on his supplementary vocab. slide appropriate?

  • sanctity of marriage
  • hypocrisy /prejudice / machismo
  • up the duff
  • It’s your own fault, you ….. + adj.
  • I’m quite capable of ….. ing  without ….
  • parenting
  • Just because ….. , doesn’t mean ….
  • Has it ever occurred to you that ….
  • I tell you what. Why don’t you just …….

 His work was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. It was the DOS’ secretary.

“Jill wants to see you in her office, now”.

Jill’s office was at the top of the building.  Lots of inspirational posters (Don’t make excuses; make improvements; Teach me and I will forget, bribe me and I’ll do it; Excellence is a numbing mind set) dressed the walls, and a huge desk at the end of the room had Jill throned behind it on a plush executive chair. Tom knocked on the door, heard the order “Come!” and walked to the desk, where he sank into a sort of office deck chair designed to emphasise his lowly status. Jill swiveled the monitor screen on her desk round so that Tom could see it.

“Well, Tom, what do you make of these data?”

Tom leant forward and strained his neck up to read the information. It showed attendance at his classes, test results of his students, and results from the latest evaluation questionnaires filled in by his students (“clients” they were called in the data summaries). Highlighed bits of the myriad graphs displayed on the screen flashed in red. They indicated that in 4 out of 20 recent classes, fewer than 50% of his students had attended class; that 3 of his students had failed their mid-course test and that 23 had got less than 60% (the target set at the April Teachers’ Meeting); and that 17% of his students had given his teaching a score of 3 or worse (the target was 4, the maximum score being 5).

“Well, they show that most of my students attended most of the classes, that most passed the exams, and that most were happy with my teaching”, Tom said, attempting a winning smile at his boss.

“Any other comments, Tom?”

“Er, could do better?”

“Very droll, Tom, but don’t you think they indicate that some real improvement, some paradigm shift in your attitude towards excellence in the challenging field of contemporary ELT, is needed?”

“Right.”

“So what, Tom, are we going to do? I need hardly remind you of the economic climate we face, or of the need to lift our game so as to face with confidence the challenges we face.”

“Right.”

Tom was thinking how tense Jill looked, She looked as if she was about to have a seizure. She seemed to be making a supreme effort to smile, make eye contact, not cross her arms, not fiddle with the pencils (why would she need pencils?), do everything she had learned how to do in her MBA. He felt like going over to her and giving her a hug. 

“So what do you propose, Tom?”

“I really can’t think of anything that might, well, lead to a paradigm shift.”

“That’s a pity, Tom. I was hoping for more from you.”

“Perhaps you had something in mind?”

Jill pushed her glasses up to the bridge of her nose, and then looked down at Tom through the bottom of the lenses, as if needing a closer view.

“My job, Tom, is to lead a team. My job is to inspire us all to give 110% of ourselves. My job is to project the value of engagement in the on-going quest for betterment.  An ongoing dialogue, a frank, open and transparent exchange of views which takes place at a personal, group and institutional level can only win the prize I seek, Tom – Undisputed Number One Educational Centre in Torrecaca – if we are all on board.”

“Right.”

“And the implication is, Tom, that I need you to re-visualise your extant, faux hippy ideological foundations. I need you, that is, to re-examine your fundamentally individualistic, blinkered belief system, to confront the limitations of your woke-free, complacent, 1960s-driven liberal mindset , and to re-group towards a more clearly on-side positioning.”

“I’m not sure that I understand that.”

Jill pushed the up lever and her executive chair sprang upwards.  

“At the last Teachers’ Meeting it was agreed that we would collectively embrace a social constructivist view of ELT. This carefully fashioned pedagogic approach is built on the findings of an eminent group of teacher educators who base themselves, as it were, well, you know what I mean, no need to raise an eyebrow, Tom, on the work of academics who adopt a socio-cultural perspective, a perspective that rightly rejects the sterile, positivist, where’s-the-evidence, nit-picking nonsense of those who stand in the way of a slowly-evolving, steady-as-she-goes, socially-sensitive approach, cognizant of the legitimate expectations of all stakeholders, including of course our generous sponsors, .. Where was I? Ah yes.  “Enough!”, they rightly cry. “Away with positivistisic, retrograde thinking! On and upwards now to the existentially mediated, grounded, foregrounded impacting of a post Hegelian dialectical praxis, multidimensionally pluri-affecting reaffirmation of the ideological hegemony of a mummified status quo!” Hmm. I might not have adequately paraphrased that. So much to learn. You know what I mean.”

The front and back legs of Tom’s chair were slowly moving apart. As he slowly sank towards the floor he ventured: “Well, actually, … “

“As I said at the meeting, teachers are simply not the ones who should judge the efficacy of our carefully crafted, consumer-orientated raft of products. The management is confident that the well-ordered progression through the carefully calibrated, seventy ‘Can Do’ statements laid out in our “Seven Step” plan of courses offers a premium, life-enhancing learning experience. We stand by our use of the Outgoes series of coursebooks  – truly progressive in its use of obscure lexical chunks and off-beat tokenism – supplemented, as they are, by the universally acclaimed materials provided by Dr. Friginfranco Ponti, including Drill and Skill, Disappearing Text, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, Spot the Nonsense, Sign Here For The Next Course, Blind Mimes, Sentence Chaos and Thank God It’s Finished, which, I shouldn’t have to remind you, we pay nearly $3 a day to use.”

Now on the floor, Tom propped himself on his elbows.

 “To be fair, there are quite a lot of worries …..”

“Listen, Tom. Despite our exemplary SLTE programme, where, again at great expense, we get the finest educators in the field, like Byson Sunburnt, for example, to help them reflect on the dissonance between their thought-to-be, maybe, and if-only-I-could-stop-drinking-would-be selves, they continue to voice doubts about what we’re doing. The effort involved in social constructivist pedagogy, Tom, is always linked to an epistemological relativity where social determinants intervene and where each of us, as the great Byson Sunburnt puts it, extrapolates its “meaning-for-us-where-we-are-nowishness”, its interactive, contextualized praxis, if you will, in our own idiosyncratic way. With this, Tom, I mean that social constructivist pedagogy is not, as you mistakenly seem to think, a license for an “Anything goes” approach, but rather an injunction to diversely interpret an ongoing engagement with a fluid but nonetheless mutually constraining road map.”

“Catchy title for a coursebook series” Tom blurted out, hand on chin, looking up from the floor.

“The constraints, Tom”, continued Jill, ineffectually pushing the down button on her executive chair in an attempt to get up close and personal with her employee, “include being on the same page”.

“And I bet that, for once, you’re not using a metaphor”, said Tom, already, once again, imagining working somewhere else.

“If it’s Tuesday, Tom, you teach the present perfect, because that’s on page 23 of the testament, I mean the textbook. You’re free to do it in your own way, but do it. Then move to page 24. Why? Because it enhances the sense, illusory as it might be, of progress, because it rescues us from uncertainty, because it stops students babbling on in ineffectual attempts to express themselves and because we’ve got a well-planned course to get through for God’s sake. Those of us who adopt a socio-cultural perspective are pragmatic, inclusive, LGBTFYT aware, progressive educationists, pushing boundaries, inexorably moving goalposts, but if I hear that you’ve skipped more than two pages in the unit again, well let me just say this ……. ”

The down button on Jill’s chair abruptly responded to her frantic force on it, and down she went, leaving her eventually with her chin on the desk, unable to see Tom, who couldn’t see her either.

“Are you OK?” asked Tom, getting to his feet.

Jill disentangled herself from the chair.

“Well, I’m glad we’ve had this little get together, and I hope to see results. OK Tom?”

“OK.”

“Good, Splendid. Excellent. Thank you, Tom.”

It was over. Tom went back to the Teachers’ Room, collected his stuff, and went to class.

To be continued

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