Wednesday 2 October 2019

Paying respect and 'The Cup of Tea Test'.

Paying respect and ‘The Cup of Tea Test’ 

Steve Way

When I was training to be a teacher we were often told that one of the challenges we would face would be that as everybody goes to school when they are young, as adults they think they know how to teach. (After all they’ve seen a school in action haven’t they?) Does everyone who’s travelled on a plane think they can fly one? Certainly over the years I encountered a number of parents who patently had no expertise in the subject I was about to teach but who nevertheless insisted on forcing their advice on me. I wonder if it’s a similar case when it comes to being an author. As most people have written something at some stage and maybe read a book or two would that explain why so many people who you might think would know better treat us in the way that they do?

I would be interested to hear of your experiences but one common response I receive when I say I’m an author is blank indifference. I don’t necessarily expect anyone to respond by spontaneously bursting into song or laying out red carpets wherever I tread but it doesn’t seem to me a calling so benign as to warrant a complete lack of interest. Maybe it’s me and I lead such a cloistered life that I don’t encounter authors by the dozen on a daily basis. Perhaps when strangers came across Neil Armstrong many of them just said ‘gosh’ on finding out who he was. On the other hand, I’m very much aware of the soul searching most of us who have had to endure on our journey to follow our chosen path and I do think we deserve at least a modicum of respect for sticking our heads above the parapet!

What fascinates me more though is the way in which some other people or organisations treat us as though we exist in some form of parallel universe in which the mundane necessities of life, such as paying the gas bill, don’t apply. I’m sure there are those who follow other vocations, usually of a creative form, who are treated in the same way but in how many walks of life is it assumed that one can work for nothing, or at a rate that wouldn’t feed a sparrow?

Over the years I’ve visited lots of schools and largely loved doing so! I’ve also been paid a reasonable fee. However, I’ve regularly been asked by schools if I would visit for free or for a half a pittance. If any group of people would appreciate the importance and wonder of books, along with the huge and varied benefits children can gain from learning to enjoy them - and so by logical extension the authors who create them - you would think it would be teachers! Apparently not in all cases.

Added to the mix are the occasions where lack of respect is not just shown fiscally. I visited a school in Birmingham and was about to do a session with two classes, one of which was taught by the Deputy Head. Once the children were all seated he pointedly declared, ‘they’re all yours’ and marched out of the hall, leaving me with only the other class teacher, who was sitting at the back marking books. (Don’t get me started…) I still haven’t been able to decide whether on balance that was more or less impolite than another occasion when I was sharing some of my maths-based stories with four junior classes in Barnsley; somewhere around 120 children. After two teachers, visiting from the local secondary school, left the room I realised that there was only one adult left with me. ‘Which is your class?’ I enquired, correctly predicting the answer that she was a teaching assistant. (Nothing against teaching assistants by the way they are a vital addition to every school and this poor lady had obviously ended up with the short straw while the teachers and the other teaching assistants had the afternoon off.)  What was galling was the fact that the stories could potentially have provided the teachers with several weeks worth of follow-up work. 

Despite my moaning I’m relatively hard-skinned (let’s face it we have to be as authors!) perhaps predicting that one day – which turns out to be this one – that I would be able to write about my experiences and offload my grievances! But this kind of attitude with regard to creative visitors can have significant and detrimental repercussions. For several years I worked alongside a brilliant illustrator. Often we visited schools together and John could quickly but perfectly illustrate everyone’s work as we were all reading or writing our pieces in a workshop. As you can imagine the children were so inspired to see their work come to life in this way they were often nearly bursting with excitement! Unfortunately, John was so wholesomely ignored by his hosts at one school that he worked at on his own (for several days – one day might have been excusable) that he decided not to do any more school visits. Again. Ever. Without doubt that resulted in countless children losing the opportunity to be inspired about their writing in this magical way.  

Having worked at what used to be called the ‘chalk face’ (is it the ‘screen face’ now?) I appreciate that teachers are very busy but if a school has decided to invite someone to then surely one or two staff – perhaps those that invited you in the first place – should maybe take a little time to welcome you into an unfamiliar environment? Eventually I hit on the idea of the ‘Cup of Tea Test’. I actually think it is something Ofsted should look at as a far less intrusive – but I suspect far more effective and revealing – way of assessing the effectiveness of a school. Almost without exception if a member of staff made me a cup of tea when I arrived then I knew that I would be working in a positive school where the staff worked as a cohesive and effective team. If I was abandoned in a cold hall or classroom and left to await the arrival of the children I would be working with… Well guess what? (PS Dear Ofsted if you adopt this method don’t forget where you first heard it!)


My latest book is 'Escape from Schoolditz'. Four teachers use Colditz inspired escape attempts to get out of the school they are trapped in.


Susan Price said...

When you tell people you're a writer, you're greeted with blank indifference? You must move in different circles to me. I stopped ever telling people I'm writer decades ago because it always met with too much interest and often ended with people asking me to read their book, or their daughter's or grandson's book. So I started saying, 'I work with a word-processor,' and that met with blank indifference, which suited me fine.

I've done a lot of school visits and about 95% of the time I've been welcomed with a cup of tea and treated well (that's a good test, by the way). Maybe this is because my reply to a school's first enquiry is invariably a statement of my travelling expenses and my fee for a half-day and a full day (the half day slightly more expensive per hour than the full day.) Only after they've agreed my fee do I discuss dates and what the visit's format will be.

So any school that hires me has to value my visit enough to cough up. (There are quite a few I never hear from again.) I also think it's important to tell the school, right at the start, that my union (SoA) forbids my being left alone with a class. It's illegal, as no visiting writer can be 'in loco parentis.' I say my union has instructed me to walk out and go back to the staffroom if I am left alone with children or with inadequate teacher cover. (I have been left alone with classes in the past. I never will be again.)

Linda Strachan can give excellent advice on responding to schools in such a crisp, businesslike way that they are terrified into submission.

Steve Way said...

Susan thank you for your comments! Perhaps we should exchange circles for a while! I have had a few responses like the one you describe - one parent of a child insistent that I read his novel even though I told him repeatedly that I wasn't a publisher!

That's very good advice about the schools visits - I've been left on my own before as well and felt very uncomfortable about it. I wish I'd been forewarned with your advice - naturally I was concerned about leaving the children alone because then they wouldn't have any adults with them at all but it didn't reflect well on the school!

Sounds like I might be on to something with 'The Cup of Tea Test'! I look forward to hearing from Ofsted! (Cough.)

Penny Dolan said...

Steve, you should definitely NOT be left alone with a group of children during a school visit, even if you are used to working in schools yourself.

You will not know if any of these "new" children have hidden medical conditions or various social issues, nor will you know the layout or practice of a school well enough if some kind of emergency occurs. One wants to someone who "copes" with all that faces you, but by accepting such a set-up, I fear you are making yourself responsible and also setting up expectations that other children can be left alone in other, future author visits and sessions.

There should be a member of school staff present in the room (not "just in the room next door")during any author session. I feel it's a minimum requirement and protection.
Apologies for sounding severe.