“I’d rather be planting a vegetable than teaching him!” said my old French teacher, “Chunk”, to my poor mother many years ago. Honest. Yes. Bracing, even – but a bit harsh. Mother, who’d left school at 12 and regarded any meeting with a Teacher in a Gown like an audience with the Pope, was baffled by this preference for horticulture over the more Gallic kind. Did I have the IQ of a cabbage?
“He wouldn’t know a conditional, if it bit him in the bum.” His addendum didn’t improve things. “He is often deliberately stupid!” Wrong. Deliberation wasn’t in it. I was just rubbish. Or – heaven forfend! – perhaps very badly taught. Whatever, he removed his glasses, identified another parent, and barked “Next!”. Mother almost bowed, thanked him for his time – about 45 seconds – pondered thumping me, before shuffling to another table for some more patrician insults.
Well, things improved a lot when I became a teacher. Parents’ Evenings were genuine dialogues, kinder, necessary and really useful.
But these days I’m not so sure. They seem pretty dismal exchanges. We seem to have swapped the insouciance of “Chunk” for the insolence of jargon, whereby anxiety is fostered. Parents stagger, stressed and sleepless, into our great glass palaces, where world-class teachers sit scrubbed up like Lord Sugars and speak in tongues.
“He’s working towards a Level 3b and is conceptually weak, cognitively challenged, functionally illiterate, hyperkinetically disordered and needs to focus to avoid failure in life.” Dear me.
“Will she get a C, an A* or Russell Group place?” ask helicopter mothers, weeping through their tranquillisers. Fathers can resemble Arsene Wenger after yet another central defence meltdown. “Shall I ‘it ‘im?”
This isn’t much good for the mental health of all parties. The teacher becomes a wicked messenger. The child becomes a vessel to be ticked off and forced to fill in daft targets, sign silly contracts, attend Intervention Saturdays or suffer Booster Classes. And the poor parents shuffle off punch drunk and depressed like my old mum.
It’s not a lot better than the days of old “Chunk”. His opinion that I had the mind of a cabbage at least had the virtue of clarity and an absence of fuzzy euphemism. Mind you, he was wrong. I would master those conditionals (see what I did there) and somehow acquire an O level – and thereby become your teacher at a Parents’ Evening.
Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.