Tom The Teacher

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Note: I posted this a couple of years ago and then deleted it. A distant relative from Kazakhstan has written asking me to put it back.

Tom pulled the heavy front door of the flat behind him shut, and had the familiar awful feeling that he’d left his keys inside. Slapping at his jacket and trousers in ritual panic, he found the keys in his jacket and made his way down the stairs towards the street. Once outside, Tom blinked at the heat and the brilliant bright blue sky shimmering above him, for this was summer in Barcelona. He turned right and strode out towards the noise of big city traffic at the bottom of the street. He always walked quickly, because, as he explained to those who complained at having to keep up with him, it helped slow down his thinking. When he saw people standing still in the street he suspected that they were in trouble: they were thinking too much. In a civilised city, he mused, you might expect to see a special corps of volunteers in action. Their job would be to keep an eye out for the temporarily immobilised, those lost in thought. They would approach the stricken citizens with care and a winning smile, take them gently by the arm, get their feet moving again, and re-insert them into the pedestrian throng.

Tom walked on, past the Bodega San Juan, past the Farmacia Canet (where they still sold codeine, pure amphetamine and bottles of a heavily-laced opiate cough tincture), past the Palau de La Musica, that most brilliant of follies where, against all odds, the acustics are near perfect, and into Via Leyatana, parts of which had been re-named Pau Claris soon after Franco died as part of the confused attempt to make everybody proud to be Catalan. Up to Plaza Cataluña there to catch the train to Sarria, everybody sucking bottles of water from teats and listening to who knows what on earphones while texting “I’m on the train” to 200 Twitter followers.

From Sarria, it was a short walk to his school, the ESADE Language Centre where only the rich were welcome. He walked through the glass bridge of the attrium, and went down into the basement to the Teachers Room. More than 30 teachers were already there, each with their own desk, computer, and collection of books. He went over to the Nespresso coffee machine, and made himself a café con leche with the new Columbian blend. Back at his desk, he planned how to use the BBC News he’d downloaded with his Intermdiate 1 class. Should he do a vocab. list? Should he modify the template task sheet he had? Was his plan to concentrate on the issue of single mothers a bit too risky? Had the class already seen his brilliant list of collocates on motherhood?

His thoughts were interupted by a tap on his shoulder. It was Jill, the DOS and she wanted to see him in his 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, Show me and I will learn, you know the punch line) around the walls, and a huge desk at the end of room. Tom sank into one of those chairs designed to emphasise his lowly status, and Jill swivelled her huge monitor screen round so that he 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 25 classes, exam results of his students, and results from the latest evaluation questionnaires filled in by his students.

Tom’s first reaction was “How did she do that?” There were bits of the bar graphs in red that were flashing. They indicated that in 4 out of 20 classes fewer than 50% of his students had attended class; that 3 of his students had failed their exam 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, trying to flash 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 up our game so as to face with confidence the challenges we face.”

“Right.”

Tom was thinking how wired 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 learned how to do in her MBA. He felt like going over to her and giving her a hug, or maybe throwing the iced water she had on the desk in her face.

“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 to all feel the need in our very souls to give 110% of ourselves. My job is to get you, all of you, to constantly appraise and upgrade your performance by an ongoing dialogue that takes place at a personal, group and institutional level”.

“Right.”

“And the implication is, Tom, that I need you to re-examine your fundamental belief system, to confront your limitations, and to re-group.”

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

“At the last Teachers’ Meeting it was agreed that we would collectively embrace a social constructivist view of pedagogy. As I said at the meeting, whether more or less autonomy, authenticity, or collaboration is helpful for successful learning or not, cannot be decided on the grounds of social constructivist THEORY; it is rather a matter of empirical pedagogical research that needs to take into account the respective learning objectives, procedural conditions, and contextual constraints. The teacher should make the effort to build an educational context in which to work and, thus, make a decision regarding which is the best level of construction to meet certain aims.

The effort involved in social constructivist pedagogy, Tom, is always linked to an epistemological effort to disclose underlying social determinants. To this extent, it should always involve high level construction processes. I need hardly remind you that these underlying social determinants are objective, not subjective. That is to say, they are universal to the extent that every human being participates in society, regardless of whether she may be more or less talented for language learning, or learning of any other kind. With this, Tom, I mean that I don’t consider social constructivist pedagogy to be merely instrumental. While it may provide an efficient method to acquire many different educational goals, apart from or in addition to the latter, social constructivist pedagogy should always imply the collateral disclosing of certain knowledge which is related to the social determinants I spoke about at the Leaders Meeting, which you, obviously were not part of.

Thus, as I pointed out at the meeting, Tom, constructivist pedagogy should provide the learner a specific kind of objective knowledge which is inseparable from its methodology. I mean, how couldn’t it, if these social determinants are the same ones that affect the distribution and construction of knowledge in society? And I hope you remember my summary where I pointed out that my thesis becomes easier to understand once I say that, for me, social constructivism theory —and thus, its pedagogy— cannot be disconnected from Marxian sociology or from Vygotskyan psychology. In brief then, Tom, any socio-constructivist pedagogy should aim at disclosing the social nature of the human being”.

Tom tried to show that he was following with admiration this succinct summary of the school’s new approach by timely noddings, raisings of a wagging finger, closing his eyes, and muttering “ahh”, “oh, indeed”; yup” etc.

“OK, I think I get it. I’ll certainly think hard about all this, Jill. Thanks.”

“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. What it was about Tom had only a faint idea, but he knew that it was part of a changing world in which he couldn’t last long.

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