Tag Archives: education


Breaking Mad


This weekend as is the time of year I went to a party,  mince pies , mulled wine and good company. I met with friends and came across an older acquaintance who I had not seen for some time. The wine flowed, the mince pies mulled and I made the mistake of asking my old acquaintance what it was she did now. ‘Oh” she said, in all innocence. ‘ I teach a PGCE course, I teach young people how to be teachers.’ I’m afraid to say, that somewhat to my own surprise, I greeted her with incandescent rage!  How could she tempt innocent young people into a career so devoid of reward or prospects, a career to span decades of their life at the mercy of political criticism for the whole their working life? I reiterated my dearly held view that under no circumstances do I want my children to enter teaching.

‘Why?’ said my new friend, not without understanding. The answer was not unexpected.


Setting aside government (temporarily) it seems that there is an increasing lack of respect for teachers as individuals and professionals,whether this is just a reflection of my age and gender, I don’t know, but increasingly teachers are used as timetable fillers, increasingly non-contact time, remission for skills development or other contributions is being destroyed, such that some colleagues who are part time are paid only for the time they spend in the classroom, not for their preparation or marking, all that is done in their own time. Is this the ‘extra mile’ that Sir Michael Wilshaw was so keen to impose on teachers, if it is, it is a guise for exploitation and protests to managers are met with the response that if you fail to produce individualised lesson plans (one for every student) if you don’t set and mark that homework, if you don’t improve your results and if you don’t do it in the time that they consider appropriate you are not only a failure, but you are letting down the institution, you may find yourself responsible for the failure of the institution at Ofsted.


In this now non existent, non contact time, teachers now must not only plan, prepare, make resources and mark, they must also break down the data, make Excel documents on results, find funding codes, get data on gender, trends, find out what students do when they leave the institution. Apparently, now Ofsted requires secondary schools to have data not just on where school leavers go when they leave – university or a job, but which student took what subject at university and if they did no take your subject why not? Not only that where do they go after they have graduated from university, do they pursue your subject as a career? This is data-mining worthy of GCHQ and big institutions have information serivces who are supposed to provide this data, but increasingly they regard teachers as having nothing better to do than find and assess data and if they don’t, if they are not familiar with every nuance of their data and the institution’s data then Ofsted will know. FAIL!

breakingbadOne of the reasons that I think that the character of Walter White of the hit US series Breaking Bad, has become so iconic in the US and then by stealth here, is that he gives the lie to that old adage ‘Those who can’t do teach’. Because hell! Walter White can do! He knows his subject, he knows his subject so well he can cook crystal meth with a purity that dominates the world and he can back that up with a bad guy strategy worthy of Keyser Sose. He can cook the best of the best and be the best of the worst and why does he do it? At one point in the series he just says ‘I won’ and he won because he could, it was just up until that time he chose not to, so why does he break bad? Because after years of sharing that knowledge to bored, unappreciative, incapable students, after working faithfully, and effectively as a teacher, changing people’s lives, qualifying them for life and work and a good future, better than his, he earns so little money that he can’t even give himself a chance against cancer. While we do have the NHS, our government press, parents and students all think that teachers are bad in the first place, teachers are considered failures both at life and at teaching, – why wouldn’t you break bad?

While teaching might have been Walter White’s career of necessity, millions of people work in public service or in the ranks of the private sector and everyone of them is treated as if “they should do better” and yet they do their best and without them society would collapse, just ask anyone who lives in a society with no education, buses, rubbish collection, health care, firemen even good bureaucracy, ask them how well they manage without public servants how easy is it to go shopping in sniper alley. And yet generations of teachers and public servants don’t win, no wonder so many break mad!

That being said Walter White didn’t give up teaching, Jesse Pinkman was his best student!

Media Melting Pot

file8181298830552I  have been thinking about Media Studies, I have been thinking about the name, the content and the style. I have been planning lessons, trying to introduce students to the value of understanding their media and trying reassure parents that Media Studies is a valid and rigorous subject to study, now that’s tough. The reputation of Media Studies is that it is, not to put it mildly, a joy ride. It’s the bread and circuses of education, it’s the easy subject, the one to offer as a sop to the students who, from now on, will have to stay on until their eighteenth birthday. ‘Give them something easy to do’, is the message that comes from any number of enrollment interviews and the clever students, the ones who are rigorous, the ones headed for the Russell Group universities with the A stars, it’s not for them, they should not waste their time on such a subject, watching the TV, studying film, what nonsense! No one could possibly take this subject seriously – and yet, and yet we study narrative theory, cultural theory, semiotics and all the associated terminology is applied. In six months my students learn to analyse images, moving and still, using denote and connote, they identify camera angles, chiaroscuro, mise-en-scene and they learn the connotations of the language. They begin to understand how they are being positioned constantly by media to interpret meanings in a way that it is intended by the producer, and they begin to understand that they have the right to challenge that. They discuss narrative construction from binary to Bettelheim, they investigate character colour and culture. They begin to read the insidiousness of stereotyping, they begin to understand the implications of power and propaganda in media, in short they develop a critique for survival in the modern media dominated environment and yet this is counted as easy and irrelevant.

However, this is not a narrow minded polemic in defense of Media Studies, I have given this some thought, if only as a puzzled teacher who cannot quite understand why a subject that seems to be so important to every aspect of our lives should be treated with such contempt, and as a result fail to attract the most able minds to its critique.

Media Studies does differ in its approach to its subject and maybe that’s where we could start. The syllabus I follow and have followed with two exam boards allows a wide range of choice of texts, it is topic driven. Thus when you teach semiotics – choose what you like to teach it; teach an event – choose what you like to teach it, audience effects, stereotyping, industry issues, choose whatever text you like to teach. As a result the choice of texts is driven by the desire of the course and its leaders to attract students and the desire of the individual teachers to teach what they fancy and thus the level of rigour in critique can vary.

file5581281481565Don’t get me wrong, I think you can teach any text to a serious level of academic understanding, witness my early research on Buffy for a festival lecture, only to find reams of academic discussion on the relationship between Sumerian mythology and the teen vampire slayer, in America they are much less limited, Bryan Singer studied film at the University of Southern California, School of Visual Arts, Scorsese studied film at New York University’s School of Film, to do it you study it, you take it seriously and then it rewards you. That may speak to the vocational element, but since not every student of film since 1966 and before (when Scorsese went} has become an award winning director like Scorsese, safe to assume a fair few are working in other careers and doing very nicely thank you. Behind the industrial aspect is the unrecognised (in this country) plethora of subjects that lend themselves to important cultural research. However perhaps allowing teachers to choose their favourite texts is a mistake. Students are subjected either to Tartovsky and Bunuel too soon, to challenge their perceptions of film making, or treated to the vagaries of fandom as teachers head for the favourite star or film and treat the students to an admiration of Harry Potter or George Clooney.

Would it not be better if the exam boards set the texts?

Nothing too restrictive, just like English – pairings or triplings of text – a choice of ten maybe and once you had chosen your triple you stuck to it examining those texts in detail and guiding students to detailed, rigorous answers in an exam – so for instance:

Newsnight Winter’s Bone coverage of US Presidential inauguration
Louis Theroux documentary Tsotsi coverage of 2011 riots
Panorama Blood Diamond Broadsheet and Red Top news
Local documentary strand Eastenders coverage of the Olympics
Wildlife documentary Submarine Jersey Shore
Side by Side Restrepo coverage of the Oscars
Cosmopolitan/Vanity Fair Little Miss Sunshine Coronation Street

You get my drift, none of the above may be at all appropriate but my suggestion is that the topics of semiotics, culture, audience theory, narrative theory, technical evaluation, representation, ideology and industry are applied to specific pre-selected texts, that allows the subject the respectability of rigour and reigns in some of the eccentricities of choice that pander to personal preferences or marketing.

If Media Studies (and personally I think should be renamed Media Criticism) is to survive at all it needs to challenge the assumption that it is easy to do and that means not just challenging the students but challenging the teachers.