At the chalkface: I hear voices, doctor

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

The voices – teeming voices. They can strike at any moment. Ian Whitwham has been living with them for years. When teaching Of Mice and Men. During departmental meetings. And always when reading the latest government wheeze...

For nigh-on 40 years my lessons were models of coherence, lucidity, harmony, blazing curiosity, fizzing creativity, daunting severity – sanctuaries of contemplation and finely differentiated learning, all reflecting a rather sophisticated, cutting-edge pedagogy and plenty of Govean rigour.

My goodness, they had Govean rigour. Targets were met, tests were passed and learning outcomes were pretty exponential. And sentences were always completed. Ofsted had little choice but to pronounce them “Sublime”.

Your lessons too I shouldn’t wonder. Of course they were. Except when they weren’t. Except, when they were the opposite.

Then I heard the voices. I got the voices in my head, doctor – a mash-up of voices, inner or outer or both, mine or others. Lessons could become a perpetual interruption. Sentences became incomplete. They got bombed. My inner voice became an unlicensed stream of consciousness, a device whereby the absurd was accommodated and sanity preserved – or not.

It seems to come with the territory. The teacher can sometimes feel like the loony on the Tube unleashing random gibberish at trapped passengers. I shudder to think for how long I was the epicentre of so much ambient verbiage – or was it “auditory hallucination”. Who knows?

The start of lessons could be especially problematic. They might have gone thus with my suppressed inner voice...

I must have said this a zillion times

“Right! Ok! Right! If I could have your attention…”
No? Probably not.

“Right! Please turn to page 49! 49! Right!”
Is this called phatic communication?

“49! 49! 49! Good. Have we all got it?”
No we still haven’t

“Of Mice and Men!”
Dear me!

“Jolly good. 49! Page 49!”

“Right! Good. Today we’ll be looking at...”
Will we? Who’s “we”?

“Well, share then. Right 49! 49! Let’s go.”
No? Let’s not, let’s not go.

“Right! I don’t want to see a phone, a coat, chewing gum. a football, mascara, knitting, a skateboard, headphones or hoodies or beanies.”
But I am. In plain sight.

“Good! At last! No canoodling at the back, Amy. Thank you! Good! No that’s the wrong book! Right! 49! 49! 49! Remove the headphones then! The beanie is not part of your religion! We’re not starting ’til there’s total silence.”
Dicey this. We could be here ’til Christmas.

“What page, sir?”
Surely a wind up?

“Look we can do this lesson after school...”
We can’t.

“Twenty-four hours’ notice, sir!”
They’re correct – thank goodness.

Crash! Bang! “Why are you so late Decibelle?”
Please don’t tell me.

“Bus, sir. Bus blew up.”
“Well sit down. We’re on page 49.”
After 20 minutes.

“Right, that’s it! Ronald Crumlin that is it!”
“What is, sir? What is it?”
“Just leave!”

“Where are we, sir?”
The moon, Sidney. The moon.

“Forty fucking nine!”
"You swore sir you’re not allowed to blaspheme."
Did I?

“I’m reporting you.”

This is no way to spend your waking hours. The class eventually settled down and we had the model lesson. Of course we did. Voices. Teeming voices.

They could also come at meetings, modern meetings. The English department with our Senior Leadership Team could be particularly gruelling – it made me want to break things...

“Would you not concur, Mr Whitwham?”

Why do we suffer this? This gaslighting? These Diktats. Ultimatums. Can we ever talk about the subject? English! We deal in children, in imagination in beauty, in ambiguity, metaphor. Not this fetish for Testing – testing to the test to test that our testing is testing enough. Bonkers! I can’t be complicit in your culture.

Government wheezes prompted, if anything, even shriller voices.

This barbarous nonsense. A procession of dunce Education Secretaries! Never been in a classroom – Gove, Gavin Williamson – sorry, Sir Gavin Williamson – the benighted fool. Jesus. And now Nadhim Zahawi, whose recent White Paper seems bereft of all thought. What fresh hell is this? MATs! What’s MATs? Academies don’t work! Run by adventure capitalists. What philosophy do they have? What principles? Other than corporate values? What other wheezes? We must work longer than 32.5 hours a week! Twenty minutes more! Eh? Why? Can’t we just leg it by lunchtime? Less of this stuff is surely more! What else? Phonics is still all the go. The Institute of Education just pronounced it bunk. And Ofsted hit squads will pounce on your pupils with pub quizzes!!! Wait a minute. Are these wheezes April’s Fools? Who can tell anymore? Satire? This is beyond satire! Meanwhile there is no attempt to seriously address Covid fall-out, massive fragile mental health or looming financial Armageddon – except with a few more minutes of this bollix. We want Trust not Trusts!! Proper pay. A decent syllabus! Ours!! And above all SMALL CLASSES!!

I got the voices, doctor. I still rant at walls or in underground stations. And you? I suppose you do. No? Yikes! Maybe I’ve finally morphed into that loony on the Tube.

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at


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