Monday, 8 August 2011

Sham Science

This post serves as a sort of introduction to a longer piece I have planned for later on. I feel that I should make my credentials as a science educator clear, because they're a teensy bit complicated. Let me start by saying that I have no formal education qualifications at all; my degrees are in the social sciences. I do have some experience as a real, full-time high school teacher, which I recorded at the time in my first attempt at a blog, and while that was a horrible experience in many ways, I learned so much from it. I've joked in the past that it was my own, real Kobayashi Maru; looking back at that Sham Science blog, I get flooded with emotion, like some sort of war survivor. I feel a bit panicky, just thinking about it.

(To be fair, it wasn't all bad: I really enjoyed working with some of the more engaging students, and there's little more fun than having a whole chem lab to play with, completely unsupervised [my first ever batch of thermite melted a hole in my office floor], and how many people can say they've repaired a van de Graaff generator?)

A lot of real, decent teachers have sympathised with me, although I don't think most really understand just how bad Landulwazi Comprehensive School is. It's the worst school I've ever been to, and even the nearest neighbouring schools (it's a densely packed area, so there are several within a very small area) were all far better in most respects. There were problematic teachers who shouldn't have been working there, but from what I could see, the real problem was mismanagement by the school's authorities, by the education department's district office, and by the government more broadly, none of whom ever asked the buck to stop anywhere near them. I felt bad for the colleagues I left behind there, especially my friend Eric, who got in there the same way I did, but who didn't have an "easy" escape like I did, and so stuck out the whole 2 years of his contract. But I feel even worse for the kids who went there. I'm still in touch with several of them, and they're really very bright, friendly, good people, who just happen to have been robbed of a decent education. I hope they'll at least make the most of their tertiary education opportunities.

That said, I wouldn't want to suggest that teachers at other schools don't have a hard time. Anyone who tells you that teaching is an easy job, or that it's essentially just a part-time job, really doesn't know what they're talking about, and I might even be tempted to break my pacifism to slap them really hard. Compared with a typical white-collar job, teaching is nightmarishly difficult and never ending. I can't look at anything these days without reflexively trying to build a lesson plan around it, and it used to be worse; I used to mentally rehearse whole lessons for hours in my head, going over every possible question that could be raised, no matter how unlikely, and how I'd respond to it. It's not the sort of work you can easily switch off and forget after business hours end. And compared with any normal office job, teachers make peanuts. Even private school teachers, the cream of the crop (usually), don't have it much better than a typical mid-level desk jockey. So I have nothing but respect for those who take their teaching work seriously, and nothing but sympathy for striking teachers, who know full well that they're going to have an even harder job when they go back to work, catching up on lost hours, and yet who feel forced to push for higher pay anyway. But I'll cover my general pro-labour position another day.

After I quit teaching, education was still the biggest blob of experience on my CV, and so I've found it hard to escape. I've been working for the last year as an after-school tutor, mostly for rich kids (unsurprisingly), and it's so much more fun for me. Obviously teaching small groups of 1d3 kids is going to be easier and more sociable than a whole class of 50-4d10 (attendance is a big problem). The language barrier is also hardly ever an issue anymore and I almost never have to wake up before noon (I'm not a morning person). The biggest problem I have now is that there's no way I can make an independent living off tutoring alone. The pay per hour is good, by teachers' standards, but there just aren't enough hours in the day, since we're filling the after-school gap, and many kids chop and change their hours on whims, so I get work cancelled at random all the time.

But that's how things am. I would hardly call myself an expert teacher, nor an expert on education systems, but I can at least claim that I'm familiar with the reality of teaching in this country, and I know what the biggest obstacles are. I may not be a real teacher, but it's still a job I take very seriously.