Peppercorn


As I type, I am on a train scrolling through the Slovakian countryside. Unfortunately, I have seated myself full against the flow of the train facing forwards to a horizon I will never meet. This means that my eyes have to work so much harder, flickering from tree trunk to tree trunk as we parallax through forest after forest. And it is for this reason that I type, to let my eyes rest upon the screen and only follow each letter as it spills onto the screen like a tiny curlicued iron filing or a deformed peppercorn.

It amuses me to think of my words as deformed peppercorns – spicy and incongruous; misshapen, struggling to resolve themselves into a shape in the same way that we struggle to make narrative sense of our condition.

I have been a teacher, on and off, for 12 years. Only three of those years were spent teaching in the UK, but nine of those years were spent teaching in what might be understood as a British school. In fact, six of those years were spent teaching in what may be termed a caricature of British education. It is only at times like this, sat staring into the horizon as pylons glide through the corn to my right and shrubs race one another past me to my left: it is only at times like this when I am to prize the deformed peppercorn of my teaching career into a recognizable shape.

I have taught in the UK, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic and (lately and most surprisingly to myself) in Peru. I have taught both primary and secondary-aged children. I have taught English as a lingua franca (a second language), English as an academic pursuit (a first language and a cultural artifact); I have taught English through Drama, Drama through English, English through ICT, the gamut of primary subjects (excluding PE, which I teach like one who has only learned to move the day before each lesson). I have taught all these subjects and I have taught in all these places. And I drift and I drift and I wonder when (oh, when?) will I settle into a shape that I recognize?

Now, crossing over the border into the Czech Republic, the train announcer acquires a subtly different accent rendering himself that little bit more intelligible to me. Crossing border after border, it’s fascinating to observe subtle differences that demarcate accent from dialect from wholly other languages and also to observe alien norms that are often imperceptible to one who has never moved meaningfully beyond the borders between things.

If I told you that you were to be the tutor for a group of children for the next eight years, your eyes would widen with a dawning horror. You would see yourself resigned to (or possibly just resigning) a ninth or a tenth of a lifetime with the same group of children, forced to work through any conflicts and forced to find and refind ways to make a connection with the children with whom connections come with great difficulty and with a constant and vigilant balancing.

If I told you that this child, who is failing, will not graduate to the following year (in primary); that he will stay in this yeargroup and that he will follow the same programme from the same book in the same way… again. If I told you this, your eyes would widen with a dawning horror. You would see yourself teaching this child all over again – you both, a pair of groundhogs – both of you slowly moving through the same days with only the horror flickering behind both of your pairs of retina to give any indication that something was passing that was cruel and unusual.

And yet these are the culture shocks through which I have moved, like electrical storms, from one nation’s education system to another.

As I type, our education minister is planning to open new routes into the teaching profession. As I type, I look out of the window and I am momentarily shocked by a sudden field of sickeningly yellow rape. I see a red and white banded cooling tower and I see a white monolith refinery of grain. Movement gives the illusion of change, but sometimes some movements result in real change. We move beyond a space of relative normalcy and find ourselves, like tourists whose GPS have failed, in places that we don’t recognize.

I have worked with colleagues, in many countries, who teach well – who inspire through their pastoral care and deep subject knowledge – and send their students on, better learners and more knowledgeable individuals. I have worked with colleagues who have done all of the above without the badge of accreditation that comes with a one-year post-graduation teaching certificate and a one-year post-certification period of settling into the profession that culminates in Newly-Qualified Teacher status.

I have never worked (and keep in mind that I have taught in five different countries, spanning two different hemispheres) with colleagues who have not presaged their teaching practice by undergoing a lengthy period of subject study that culminates in a deeply reflective piece of argumentation that ingrains a sense of both truth-seeking and thoughtful falsification. I have never worked in an education system that doesn’t require its teachers to have studied at a university and I know of no argument to create such an avenue that does not, at its core, have some seed of economy, penny-pinching – a deformed peppercorn, indeed.

The UK education system has, for good or ill, projected a standard to which many other countries have aspired with a mixture of respect and jealousy. We have been able to straddle progressivism and traditionalism with rigorous assessment practices; we have recognized the need for a good education to be both enlivening and challenging; we have striven to instill global values that speak of more than just ‘the basics’ – we have shown, as teachers, as parents and as an electorate, that we care about the child.

But now I find myself sitting in the wrong seat, sitting full in the face of some scrolling landscape that I no longer recognize. My eyes flicker – a quiet, chronic pain – as I light upon the increments of change that have brought me here. Thank God it is only in my imagination that I find myself gliding into a London station. In reality, I have just arrived in Brno – in a city, in a country, where you need to have studied deeply and demonstrated your commitment to truth-seeking and falsification before you are made a teacher.

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