At the chalkface: A fellowship of good cheer

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Former teacher, Ian Whitwham

Here’s my top survival tip for the new year. Give this stuff no attention. Junk it completely. Make your classroom immune from it. Cultivate a siege mentality...

Damian Hinds, minister of education, has seen the future. It’s terrifically bright. “Today is a significant milestone in the lives of young people,” he droned vacantly after this year’s A level results. “No matter what path they choose to take next, we are working to provide a world class education and a passport to an exciting future.”

Well, that’s alright then. If this means anything it means less than nothing. This is where language goes to die.

Well, I too have seen the future of English education. It’s bloody awful. This next year is going to be like last year, only worse. All the atrocities are in place. They include increasing homelessness, poverty, child hunger, a barbarous syllabus, a philistine pedagogy, a collapsing infrastructure, rickets, teenage gloom, Boris Johnson, private schools in the ascendant and illiteracy significantly on the rise for the first time in a century. Apart from this, it’s going to be “world class”. Dear me.

So here’s my top survival tip for the new year. Give this stuff no attention. Junk it completely. Make your classroom immune from it. Cultivate a siege mentality.

When management invade your lessons brief the pupils beforehand, go into Ofsted mode, and return to proper education when they’ve scarpered. Make your classroom a fellowship of good cheer, a haven of laughter. Laughter is crucial to children’s development. And their laughter makes us laugh. It makes us all quicker, brighter and more sussed.

But don’t become a stand-up or a joker. Nothing’s worse. Just try to create a gentle atmosphere, which nourishes the possibilities of wit, of common sense dancing.

School-girl/boy humour is often sublime – the glorious larking, cartoon slapstick, silly stories, transgressive anecdotes, deflating wit, subversive mimicry and deadly ridicule. Laughter is sometimes all they’ve got in the battle against bumbling pretension, pomposity, deceit, chicanery, jargon, testing, competitiveness and other assorted terrors – and, of course, us, their teachers talking tripe.

Humour’s not easy. Boundaries must be kept. Context is complex and crucial. Michael Rosen’s latest book How To Make Children Laugh might help. He reminds us that the heart of their laughter is an anxiety born of the lack of power and advises us to use our own childhood experience. His hero (and mine) is the immortal Nigel Molesworth, whose insights are still cutting edge. The philosopher-king stresses that all schools are a “shambles’ in which pupils must endeavour to “Akquire Culture and keep the brane clean”. What more is there to say? Listen and learn, Mr Hinds.

So there we have it. Ditch the syllabus. Ditch earnest. Get funny. Be happy. And who knows? Your classroom could be “world class”.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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