Friday, 6 August 2010

Everyone's a Winner

I woke up at four o’clock this morning and thought, ‘shit! I didn’t fill in the register yesterday!’ I was on the seven a.m. train to the university to get the damn thing filled in before anyone found the omission. Forgetting to tick the boxes usually earns you a finger-wagging e-mail: ‘completing the register is an important part of your duties as a teacher.’ We are told that the Home Office or the British Council could descend on us at any moment and close us down or withdraw approval if there are holes in the registers. It is tempting to reply with ‘pull the other one.’ The Home Office does not have the staff to go round doing spot checks, and the British Council are not so touchy as to withdraw their approval because hectically busy teachers occasionally forget to complete the register one afternoon per course. That was the last I knew of it, anyway, from my days as director of studies in a small language school in Stamford. Maybe since then The Authorities have grown more sophisticated and they come and scrape DNA samples off classroom furniture. Waking before dawn to worry about such trivia is a definite sign that I need a break, and some different medication for my blood-pressure. I have next week off, thank God.

Anyway, the Secretary in Charge of Registers had simply noticed the gaps, and sensibly marked everyone present for the morning session. This means that many of the students who had not troubled to get up on Thursday were, for official purposes, there. Anyone from the British Council or the ‘Homey Offs’ as my Brazilian students in Stamford called it, can come and get me.

I liked ‘Homey Offs’. ‘Jobbie Centre’ was even better.


Friday, and course’s end. There are no lessons today. A notice printed on red paper is posted in triplicate on the teachers’ room door. In tones just this side of polite, it warns students of the futility of requesting results before 13.00 or certificates before Monday. Within, teachers are collating grades and typing reports after a poorly-attended standardisation meeting which came, illogically, at the end of the course instead of the beginning, meaning essays had to be marked twice and presentations double-assessed after the event by tutors who had not watched them. Inevitably, some students think that the warning on the door is addressed to others, and attempt to extract grades from busy tutors.

‘Where Reine?’ asks a Saudi boy.

‘She’s teaching,’ says a colleague, pointedly not looking up from her computer screen.

‘Where she teach?’ the boy persists.

’In a classroom,’ she replies, with infuriating logic.

The boy starts on me in the corridor, and gets the sharp end of my hat-pins. ‘Wherever Reine is, she’s busy’ I say. So fuck off, is the subtext. Briefly, I feel sorry for the kid, and recall Alan Bennet’s observation that the staff of institutions such as schools and hospitals tend to hold in contempt the very people for whose benefit the institutions were founded. This pity is later to evaporate when I learn that the boy located Reine’s classroom, barged in and started a barney with her about his grades, which in his view were not as high as they deserved to be - and this in front of her students. I hope she made mincemeat of him, but she’s such a sweetheart I doubt if she did. I would have. I’d have ended his UK university career on the spot.

We live, they keep telling us, in a culture of entitlement, where everyone expects rewards, however disproportionate to the effort put in. Students now believe they have the right to decide on their own grades. In Greece, I was used to students and trainees who thought that their attendance on a course, however spotty, ought to guarantee them a pass. I got used to people who thought that paying for a course should lead to a pass mark without necessitating their physical presence in the classroom. I used to tell them how wrong they were. I know that Greek language schools habitually massage their test results so as not to lose the custom of the parents, but I’m not used to being told by centre directors in universities to alter grades in the same manner. Today was a first.

Just as tutors were finishing their reports, printing them out, e-mailing electronic copies to the office and preparing to leave, word came From Above that students were failing who shouldn’t be. Fifty percent was the pass mark, and whosoever had not fifty percent, lo, now was fifty percent granted unto him, that his days with us be long. And the tutors spake, saying: ‘why test them? Why standardise the marking? Why require reports, with comments on students’ progress, or lack thereof?’ And their questions were not heard, and their marks were as nought, and overridden.

I got off lightly in the event, at least in terms of rewriting reports. One of my students had submitted an essay that was copied verbatim from several books. Although I had banged on at great length about plagiarism, and told the students that an experienced teacher can spot non-native production in any text longer than twenty words, this young man handed in an essay demonstrating a grasp of style, sentence structure, vocabulary and collocation that could only have been that of a practised native-speaker writer. Half-way through, the style changed from formal academic prose to the informal elaborated code of popular science writing. Clearly Nafi had been the amanuensis of more than one Ascended Master. He probably thought he’d wowed me, but he got zero for the writing component. He failed, as was just. Three others got whacked up from forty-seven to fifty, which didn't strike me as unreasonable as they had arrived from China late due to visa problems. Other teachers were more pissed off at the waste of their time.

As I was leaving, a colleague who was taking a ciggie break called me.

‘What’s this about moving the goalposts?’ he asked.

I explained that those students whose overall grade was below fifty percent have now been allowed to have fifty percent, cos that’s the kinda huggy bears we are these days.

‘Worrif they got fuckin piss-poor grades?’ he exclaimed. He’s an English teacher, that’s why he talks posh. ‘Does my fuckin ‘ed in, does this. Makes me feel a right cunt, ’ he said, evenly.

An e-mail was sent to the centre director, conveying in polite terms that all this did our fuckin ‘eds in and made us feel right cunts. We await his response, as he had been dealing all afternoon with disgruntled students who thought they deserved better marks, and he’d sodded off home, poor bugger. Not a good move, as it meant he had left his second in command to deal with the disgruntled customers. It is extremely wearing to have to argue with students who think marks are like commodities they can bargain over, but surely they need to be told firmly and finally that this is not the case, and fail means fail.

A student called me last Wednesday evening to inform me that he would not be making his assessed presentation the following day, as he was in Scotland. He would make tist one day neckerst week, he said. No lessons next week, sunshine, I told him. You had your appointed time and you muffed it. There will be no assessment for that component. Ali is very personable, but bone idle. He's been with us since October last year and somehow been pushed through every five-weekly test. If there's any justice he will not be seen again, but it will not be a surprise to be greeted by him on Tuesday week when the final course of the academic year begins.


Sammy said...

I had a reply from both the managers. Suzi actually came to see me and apologised. The focus seemed to be on defending what they were doing even though I insisted that it was more a case of the teachers wasting their time. She was very sincere though. She'd had a crap day and the students were getting pretty heated. In the end, Issunti's husband had to come to throw them out. Damien just disappeared, leaving Suzi in the lurch, and emailed me saying I should go discuss it in his office on Monday.

As for Reine, he'd failed and wanted answers and she had told him to find Anna. He was so rude to Anna that she threw him out the office and so he'd returned to Reine's classroom to shout at her. "My country Government pay £2000 for university. Teacher very rude! My country pay £2000!" Reine, as you predicted, was very polite and tried to calm him down.

Interestingly, that's a very good argument I hadn't considered before. Their government pays so much money, so surely they should being doing some damn work rather than expecting us to 'help' them.

Vilges Suola said...

It's pretty typical, though, isn't it? 'My gofferment bay many money! So you mus giff at me high grades!' Why don't they just buy a bootleg degree certificate? You could get a certificate in a platinum frame for two grand.

What a day that was. It's quite a relief to know that the number of sponsored Saudi brats is to be reduced next academic year. It's intolerable to be placed in the position of having to placate people who blame us for their own lack of application.

Let me know what happens on Monday when you go to see ... what's his name? Damien, was it? (Issunti - sounds like a Zulu king.)

Sammy said...

If they bought a certificate, then they wouldn't be paid £30k pa for 2-year holiday in England.

I'll keep you informed about Damien. I'm going to suggest to him that he speak to us all though. It's a waste of time him only speaking to me.

Vilges Suola said...

Re. Damien, I'm agree for this.

Didn't know they got quite so much money. No wonder the Saudi government is cutting back on grants.

Fionnchú said...

Sorry to hear this, VS. I sympathize; we have a computer entry system we must enter grades in by the end of the day--it is not accessible off-campus, which also eliminates any teacher pretending to be at class when he or she's not. We also have sign-in sheets our dean demands we hand in to him at the end of each class we teach, that same day. They tell us as they do you the government insists on this, accreditors lurk, etc. It's one more hassle, and one more reason I wake up as do you wondering "did I do the attendance entries yesterday?"

As for money, well, our employers call our students "customers," which says it all. We are told we must meet their needs, as they expect us to kow-tow to them. Unless the government grants loans and financial aid. Then they revert to being classified as "students."

Vilges Suola said...

Our students are not refered to as customers, at least not yet, and the department is far too chaotic to implement the type of surveillance you are subjected to. The course director handles complaints from students about their grades quite firmly as a rule. It seems as though the Saudi students staged a mutiny on Friday. I'm not in next week so must wait to find out why this happened, and especially what gave so many the idea that we had it in for them.

Bo said...

Oh how grim. I feel for you.

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks, Mark. Have a fantastic time on the grand East European tour.

Leg-iron said...

Ah, I remember lecturing. There was a student so good I gave her 98% on the work she handed in. She demanded a meeting.

"Why did I not get 100%? What was wrong?"

Okay, I could have gone into a long and detailed explanation of why her work wasn't quite perfect and that it was actually very good indeed for the stage she was at, that in fact the ironing out of a few trivial imperfections would get that last two marks, but I am not a people person.

My answer was "I am the lecturer and you are the student. I decide the grades, you do not. Is that clear or would you prefer to leave the course for one run by nancies who will just give you the marks you dictate?"

Hoo, I was in more trouble for that one than the time I wrote 'Idiot' on an idiot's paper.

I don't work there any more. I think it was the time I told a student to appeal against a third class degree (and made sure he won) because I was in the exam board and saw how he was deliberately hammered, that finished it.

Ah well, it cost them a wad of cash to get rid of me and I'm self-employed and not lecturing now. So, I guess everyone wins.

Except the students.

Vilges Suola said...

Nobody loses on the present course. All sts were asked to fill in a form stating what IELTS grade their departments had specified before they are allowed to progress into the university proper. This is so that all tutors know what grade the student must be awarded at the end of the course. Only the egregiously bad and the most blatant plagiarists will not get through. A colleague has called this the Ryan Air approach to education.

Anonymous said...

50%.... I couldn't believe that. Our course demands 75 and my personal lower limit is 85, or repeat the lesson. As for upgrading, that makes the system laughable. I agree with you Vilges, if guffermint pay much money, then fucking study! Sheeez!


Vilges Suola said...

Indeed, it makes it laughable. But it's bums on seats these days.


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