Friday, 28 December 2007

Teaching—stay or go? Or don’t even start?

A friend, 29 and in his second year as a successful teacher with good prospects for promotion, asked me the other day whether he should stay in teaching. The incentives to stay were enjoyment of the job, the early promise of a head of department post and the security of a regular salary. The disincentives were poor pay (for his age and workload), doubts about the long-term continuation of his current enjoyment (will routinisation set in and will grind outweigh excitement?), lack of time for other things after all the requirements have been met and, related to that, the impossibility of seriously pursuing his other passions—music, writing and academic study.

I could see no obvious way he could improve his income enough to clear his indebtedness--typical of his generation--and buy a house for having a family with his partner. My own story, from another era, was not much help: I left teaching at 36, disillusioned with schools for a variety of unsatisfactory occupations—which ended up as full-time supply teaching as the best paid option; then at 42 I got into full-time academic study and employment, continuing to retirement last year. For my friend in a different historical age, it's late in the day to break into the other fields he mentioned. Music and writing are financial gambles and an academic job would now require a PhD, except in education where jobs seem insecure and it’s hard to find the space to do anything like scholarship.

So moving from school would be difficult. It might also involve a real loss in that no other experience compares with teaching school students. Despite social squalor, tedium and conflict, teaching can provide a unique intensity of experience: the energy and creativity of a full class interacting in barely contained anarchy on the edge of chaos, the purposeful hum of kids engaged with their work, the attainment of a new synthesis of resources in a student’s latest piece of writing. University teaching has its rewards but is not at all the same thing.

On that theme of the satisfactions of teaching, while we were talking I failed to recall one of the main motivations that had kept me in teaching for eleven years (seven plus four, with two years out in the middle on a curriculum project). This was the excitement, intellectual and social combined, of having ideas, putting them into practice and making something new happen.

I would start with an idea--a notion, theory or hypothesis about possible modes of learning or interaction, or a sense of what was wrong with existing practice. My ‘theory’ might be about how informal, assessment-free forms of writing might aid the formulation of understanding, about the need to get aspects of academic knowledge incorporated into the kids’ ordinary conversational genres or about how ‘English' might be more effective if the boundary between it and history and sociology were removed. A new way of doing things would suggest itself; I'd work out how to make it happen, put it into action and then watch a new social reality emerge. I never got another satisfaction like that of seeing so-called non-academic kids engaging with knowledge, getting articulate, developing their thinking and interacting socially in ways they weren’t judged capable of. Possibilities for a different society seemed implicit; embryonic utopias were being born; my working-class students were becoming new sorts of people…

I started in a school in which I was allowed make my own social reality in my own classroom, but the potential for creating something with critical mass, as it were, came when, in my second school, I became head of a ‘faculty’ that contained a group of like-minded colleagues, including a couple of other heads of department; we could rewrite a third of the curriculum for our 14- and 16-year-old students and transform the pedagogy they experienced. (This was 1973-7—an age away from now.) Although we were working against the grain, and in the end the timid conformism of the head, the hostility of other colleagues and a changing political climate defeated us, it was great while it lasted.

So that’s an argument for hanging on at least to head of department stage, assuming some room for manoeuvre still remains in the system.

But what then? In my case, that was it—all over. After school there was nothing to do—nothing, that is, of equal significance. Like a Vietnam vet I was 36 and out in the world, condemned to less meaningful jobs and with no prospect of finding any equivalent excitement. I was too old, too knowing and too knackered: eleven years of trying to teach well had left me exhausted. Since then I have, of course, managed to find things to do, have amused and interested myself and have made a living, but nothing has lived up to those experiences of doing new things in schools with colleagues who were friends and kids who appreciated us. If I'd been interested in policy or management I could have maintained a pleasurable engagement with education, but for me the only point of being a teacher was always putting my own learning and intellect to use in making new things happen with students.

So where does that leave us? If the aim were to gain the maximum possible satisfaction from teaching, my advice to my friend would be to stay the course until he has been a head of department. But after a spell of that, the chances are he will have done his best work and he’ll still only be in his mid-thirties--young enough to have more than half a working life left but too old to start anything else except perhaps lecturing in education or inspecting or consulting: useful work but unlikely to give the same existential buzz. It would certainly be too late to get into the academic disciplines and compete with scholars who’ve been studying and researching continuously from their early twenties.

I wonder now whether the price I paid for those good years of teaching was too high; perhaps it was a mistake to go into teaching? To exaggerate rather, the price was the rest of my life. My initial choice of career meant that I failed to develop any specialised expertise that could keep me active, vigorous and committed for a lifetime--not just to 65 but into old age when I could die in harness like a novelist, composer, artist or architect. (The composer Michael Tippett died aged 90-something while conducting one of his own works in Finland.)

Starting again, would I go for something creative or artistic? Certainly it would need to be something that would keep me out of the clutches of institutions where work gets less and less enjoyable as ‘management’ tightens its microcontrolling grip. Best of all might be to stay outside employment altogether, working for myself.

I reflect: who do I know outside teaching who’s happy in their work? Some journalists and filmmakers, perhaps. Some who once loved their work— I'm thinking particularly of a museum conservation engineer as well as many teachers—have had their jobs ruined by ‘management’. Artists and actors impress me as successfully escaping the general ruination of work—but they don’t earn enough to buy houses to have kids in. Maybe that’s the only choice left—autonomy with poverty, or an income with alienation and a sense of your life dribbling away.

Of course, 30 years (age 35-65) of quiet classroom routine isn’t a terrible fate for everyone. If the school is not a bearpit and the management is sane and unbrutish, the work can be pleasant; there are indeed older teachersfor whom it never gets boring. Even if it does, the work and income are steady; and as one gets more practised and less conscientious the job can be managed without too huge a burden on one’s own time. Your centre of gravity can move away from the job and into family or new interests. (One of my own best teachers bought a hill farm and has run it to this day with his wife while continuing to teach.) In my day, though, and probably still today, such peaceful working conditions were available only in traditional grammar or independent schools, where I assumed I would be bored and where on principle I would refuse to teach.

Meanwhile, those who continue to work in tough classrooms after 35 tend to end up with serious health problems, physical and mental. Body, mind and spirit pay the price.

My advice is--I haven’t got any. Except acquire private means; then, after a stint as head of department, you could cut down to one class a week and teach it well, to your own satisfaction; and spend the rest of the time writing or painting or playing music.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Writing in a blog

In a recent interview Richard Ford, the American novelist, said that ‘what uncovers truth is the habit of art. It’s when you think, “I've got to make something out of this for someone else, which I will make well enough that they can make use of it.”’

Uncovering truth is putting it a bit strong for what I'm trying to do, but if the ‘habit of art’ is trying to make what will mean something to someone else, that fits. ‘When you do that, when you turn away from yourself and toward some anonymous person, then I think you have a chance of making up something that might in fact be true.’ Or at least interesting.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Painting photographs

I've been to the exhibition The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery. The theme is actually more restricted than the title: it’s about painting based on photographs -- mainly painting that copies photographs more or less closely but, as a rule, greatly enlarges them and sometimes changes the colour, as well as substituting painting, with brushmarks visible, for the photographic process.

There’s a video on the gallery site where you can see some of the images, sort of:

The photographic originals are not art photographs but are generally taken from the media or historical documents or personal collections of snaps. Sometimes the painted image we see has been through a succession of transformations in different media.

An image taken from life is already at one remove. If we come across a photograph of a torpedoed destroyer in a yellowing newspaper lining a drawer, we feel remote from the event but also aware that it happened, it was real, it caused the photograph which could not have happened otherwise. Now turn the photograph into a painting and we are more remote still – but the awareness that something, this, once happened persists.

That awareness survives everything that might contrive to drain the sense of reality out of any residue of the originating event. The image we see is and looks like a painting; we can see the paint, the work is much larger than an ordinary photograph and it’s displayed on an art gallery wall. More than that, it is (typically) beautiful, despite the horror or banality of the subject matter (car crash scene with bodies, artist’s mum standing in front of her car outside a suburban house).

How far the beauty was there from the start in the photograph is hard to tell (we aren’t shown the originals except for some tiny reproductions in the brochure); perhaps it was, if looked at with an artist’s eye, and perhaps that was partly and sometimes why the artist chose it. But I would say the painting also emphasises and enhances compositional qualities such as the relationship of tones and colours in different areas of the work, and in general makes the image feel quite different, and sometimes weirdly over-real and strange.

Sometimes the transformation happens despite what looks like an attempt to be absolutely faithful to the original; just doing it in paint and making it bigger and displaying it as art makes the difference. In other paintings the work of transformation is overt: Vija Celmin takes an official U.S. Navy photograph of civilian damage from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor; it shows a car riddled with bullet holes, its tyres burst and the driver’s body slumped over the wheel, against a background with palms and other apparently damaged vehicles. In the painting (likewise monochrome), the background is reduced to vague swirls, the brushstrokes are broad and obvious and the body is reduced to a shape that is hardly recognisable. It unashamedly looks like a painting. As a pattern of paint on a surface with, at the same time, an allusion to an old car and some strange and unexplained holes that seem like bullet holes, it’s a beautiful thing that rewards contemplation. But still an actual shooting-up of cars at a particular moment, and a resulting state (car still there, driver dead) that lasted until it was cleared up, is there in the back of my consciousness.

Which is the lesson, that horrific reality can’t be wished away or what beauty it can be transformed into?

Perhaps the key difference between the paintings and the photographs is that in the paintings everything – every square millimetre -- has been chosen, everything has been put down by a conscious decision – even if it’s a decision to follow a specific set of rules quite mechanically – because a photograph doesn’t automatically dictate a fixed sequence of operations with a range of brushes and tubes of paint.

A camera just does its stuff mindlessly, but this mark is here and just so because that’s how the artist chosen to have it. Everything in the picture is significant or meant. So a particular spatial distribution of shapes and areas of colour and tone that happened to occur in some scene some day in front of a lens (I'm leaving out of account any manipulations with lens filters and darkroom jiggery-pokery) now, in the artist’s ‘copy’, invites or demands a quite different sort of appreciation, as a painting, a set of choices, a creation.

But, on top of that, and quite different, there’s the creepy awareness that it’s still a record of something that once really happened – and the relationship between that awareness and our aesthetic appreciation of oil on canvas, the order of composition and the luxury of the texture of paint, is complex and mysterious: I can’t say what it is but it’s there and fascinating and disturbing.

No photography by me was allowed in the gallery, but I could shoot out of the window:

Saturday, 8 December 2007

So where's the trouble?

This is the Paris public bike scheme: vélib’ (“vélo libre” or “vélo liberté”: free bicycle or bicycle freedom). The photo unfortunately is not by me but from Wikipedia who explain that the bike is free for the first half hour, and then cheap. The chap is I think returning a bike (not necessarily to the same place where he picked it up) or taking one out, using his card. The bikes aren't attractive to steal, and have built in lights that work. I saw loads of them on the street, especially on the plentiful bike lanes. ((

That's one thing out of several that I really liked about Paris (I'm just back, never having properly visited before). Another is the free rein that's given to creative designers, e.g. of street furniture and Christmas decorations. And architects: the Pompidou Centre is awe-inspiring -- no longer need we think of buildings as being about walls. And there's the exhilarating new Musée du quai Branly, devoted to the indigenous people of other continents.

I'm sorry I didn't take my camera. I'd mistakenly assumed that I'd only end up taking tourist snaps. I'm also sorry I can no longer speak French.

My conclusion (after four days): Paris is better than London. Certainly for someone of my age it is, someone who doesn't want to be marginalised by youth.

The people are nice, the atmosphere in public places civilised, bars friendly. I felt comfortable being out at night on my own. If I didn't want a meal in a restaurant I could go in a bar and have a good home-made snack with my drink - the other night it was smoked salmon 'tartine', i.e. a sort of open sandwich on something like pitta bread.

In London pubs used to be comfortable and welcoming; and pubs, not restaurants, often had the best sites, like by the river. (So in the really nice places all you could do was drink, since Brits didn't go in for eating out.) These days many pubs do food, and it's often ok, but most are run by chains, have nothing local about them (including the staff), are noisy (hard surfaces -- a problem for us deafer ones) and are dominated by youth or sports tv or a lethal combination of both. Not an atmosphere than suits me, and I really don't like London pubs any more. There are pubs near me, but I'm not tempted to make any of them my local.

In Paris, on the other hand, I'm sure I could find myself a local bar (or bar/bistro) where I'd feel comfortable. Many unpretentious restaurants are in good locations like near the river. I spent one evening sitting by the window on a quiet and unheritaged side street (quai de Montebello) by the Seine. I couldn't see the river because an embankment was between us, but the buildings in my view were clearly the other side of it, and the few leaves on the trees this side were silvery with light reflected off Notre Dame. I couldn't think of anywhere as pleasant by the Thames in central London -- you'd have to go out to Hammersmith or Greenwich.

What I don't understand, though, is how Paris manages to be so pleasant. Don't they have teenagers? I hardly saw any, in the whole area I walked over, an hour in each direction from the Opéra. I didn't see hoodies or Croydon Facelifts or track suits in any numbers (or, come to that babies or prams). Or litter from drinks and snacks.

Come to that, I didn't see babies either.

Surely all the bad kids can't be out in the notorious banlieus?

Yet Central Paris (the part inside the Peripherique motorway) is full of apartments. As far as I can tell, people live on the four or so upper floors of most of the standard 19th century buildings. So don't families live in them? If yes, don't their teenage children go out and get together?

Perhaps families do live further out, where accommodation is more affordable. But kids from the outskirts of London nevertheless head into the centre for drinking and clubbing: why not in Paris? (It's true that plenty of teenagers also live in central London in council flats - I don't know if there's the equivalent in central Paris.) Perhaps Paris facilities just aren't geared to teenage congregation and drinking? Or perhaps the city just won't stand for kids behaving unpleasantly. Or perhaps the teenagers are doing their homework.

I don't know the answer. Next time perhaps I'll take the camera and look into this more systematically -- perhaps by walking right across central Paris, on more than one line, and then taking some excursions outside the Peripherique. Or read something about the sociology of Paris.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Presumptuous appliance

I have a new shaver. A substantial manual prescribes maintenance operations to be performed daily, weekly, regularly. I shall not be maintaining the shaver. It is a shaver and I shall shave with it. That will have to do them.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

First try

My first post on my first blog!