In the days when comprehensive schools were rigidly streamed, I taught in one as general subjects teacher with the lowest ability groups.
One year I taught history, English and maths to a smallish class in the eighth stream out of eight. I got to know those kids pretty well. Some drove me nuts, but on the whole I liked them.
I was their teacher almost in a primary school sense and we followed the road where it led. Along the way I learned that these so-called less able youngsters had hidden qualities of personality, wit, creativity, resourcefulness and sheer effrontery.
And so it was that one day I had this magical encounter with Dave Thomson, aged 14 (not his real name, and he’ll be an adult family man now).
That day, Thomson (we called our students by their surnames then) came into my lesson wearing glasses for the first time and sat down at the front, peering up at me, clearly waiting for a comment about his new specs. I looked at him for a second, then in a moment of inspiration, I said.
“New kid, eh? What’s your name?”
Thomson knew me well and did not let me down. Without missing a beat, he said: “Smith, Sir.”
“Okay, Smith,” I said. “You’ll soon get the hang of things.”
Then after a moment, I said.
“Anyone know where Thomson is?”
“No idea, Sir,” was the general response amid a deal of giggling.
“Okay. Smith, as you haven’t got work to do yet, nip out and see if you can find Thomson. It’ll help you find your way around.”
Now, of course you’re ahead of me, and you know what happened next, which was Thomson returning, as himself, without his glasses.
“Thomson!” I barked. “You’re late! Where have you been? Sit down and get on.”
“Sorry Sir, went to the toilet.”
I allowed another moment of muffled giggling to pass before I said: “I wonder what’s happened to the new kid?”
“Probably got lost sir,” somebody said. By now some of the youngsters were on the verge of wetting themselves.
“I guess so. Thomson! We’ve got a new kid. He’ll be wandering about somewhere. I wonder if you’d nip out and see where he’s got to?”
“Okay, Sir. I’ll find him.”
Well, I needn’t go on and in truth I can’t recall just how long we kept this up. But I do know it’s a treasured memory – not just something to make me smile at odd times, but a reminder of the complexities that hide behind concepts like “ability”.
Thomson struggled with written tasks, and keeping him engaged with his work was a never-ending challenge. And yet, at the same time, he was the sharpest streetwise kid you were ever likely to meet. He loved the unofficial drama sessions which I often shoehorned into our lessons, and I have another memory of him improvising a mime on the given subject of “Arriving late”. Rather than choose, as the others mostly did, a school-based scenario, he portrayed an orchestral violinist who, having turned up late to rehearsal, is attempting to eat his packed lunch while playing his instrument. I can see him now, sawing at an imaginary violin with an imaginary bow held in his teeth, while his hands fumble with an imaginary bag of sandwiches.
So many questions come from encounters like the one I had with Thomson/Smith. For example, if we judge that Thomson is to be labelled “less able”, does that not say more about us, and the system we have devised around him, than it does about Thomson?
More mundanely, perhaps, to what extent would an observer have found my lesson pedagogically acceptable? In those days, lesson observation was a casual affair. Typically, in that school, the door would bang open, mid-lesson, and the big and fearsome deputy head would breeze in carrying a pile of exercise books. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just sit at the back and get on with some marking.”
Rarely would he comment, and we had to assume that a lack of feedback meant we were doing fine. But would I have continued my Thomson/Smith charade had he appeared? I like to think so. I tell myself, too, that the deputy head would have given me a nod and a grin as he left. He was a fierce traditionalist, but I knew well enough that he had a wicked sense of humour.
But today? If Thomson arrived in new glasses in a lesson of yours, observed according to schedule, by senior leadership or your department leader would you even make the original joke? I guess you may well do that. But take it further? Hmmm. Tricky one. And what if the lesson was Ofsted-observed?
The general question is this: does the importance assigned to tick-box observation inhibit the natural, risk-taking cut and thrust of the classroom? Moments of creative digression – madness even – do happen in lessons, and it can be good for morale and relationships to let them develop. Do you still feel free to surf those waves? I would genuinely love to know, especially if you’ve ever gone off on a crazy tangent during an Ofsted-observed lesson.
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1