At the chalkface: It’s what teachers do

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
There was a ship! A vintage illustration of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner

'There was a ship!!!' – I’d shriek in a borderline psychotic voice, somewhere between full tilt Johnny Rotten and Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. I scared the tinies witless. Ian Whitwham on teaching in the time of corona

I’m outside a pharmacy queueing for pills which apparently prevent death. I’m masked, gloved, gelled, sanitised, pretty “alert” in a good solid British commonsensical sort of way – and socially distancing like billyho.

“This home schooling’s doing me in,” says someone.

“One morning and I’m knackered,” replies their friend.

“How do teachers do it?”

“After a week I was on “Spiderman”.

I feel smug under the mask.

“Thirty in a class.”

“It must really hard.”

It is.

Teaching is complex, difficult, demanding.

It’s what we do.

“Thank goodness for the internet.”

Now there is some terrific educational stuff online for the plague season – and none better than The Big Read of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner by 40 artists, actors and musicians (

Sam’s 1797 smash hit fits these uncertain times. The mariner is in the mother of all lockdowns. He has cancelled his connection to the human race – like most of the cabinet. He has blood on his hands – ditto. He seeks some kind of asylum in vain.

The Big Read works a treat.

But not as well as a classroom with live English teachers.

Perhaps people need reminding of this.

Permit me to show off.

I did the poem with just about every class from tinies to sixth form. Never failed. It hypnotises. Rhyme, rhythm, repetition coalesce and mesmerise. It’s a trance, with angels, devils, guilt, terror, despair, loneliness, evil, dread, grace, slavery, ecocide, toxic seas, opium nightmares, ghastly plague, famine – and dehydration. Such was some pupil’s imaginative investment in the work that they explored how long they could go without water.

The school nurse went bonkers.

Why does Sam’s yarn work so well with inner city children? The diction? It’s an “18th century rap”. Maybe it appeals to the displaced, disenchanted, deracinated. Whatever, they couldn’t get enough of it.

We spent a whole half-term on it.

We carted in seaweed, seagulls, bows, arrows, anchors, globes, albatrosses, beards, maps. We went on jaunts to the Cutty Sark. We went to Shepherd’s Bush Green by compass. We made a boat, which floated on the Serpentine. We used music for menace and mystery – heavy dub was perfect. We became the crew. We sent Dave Mania to a crow’s nest. We looked at illustrations by Gustave Dore and then improved them. We did whole class readings.

And I did mine.

I was the Ancient Mariner, especially convincing in my dotage with a fake loony beard. Some younger pupils thought I was the old raving git.

My tawdry theatrics worked.

“There was a ship!!!” I’d shriek in a borderline psychotic voice, somewhere between full tilt Johnny Rotten and Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. I scared the tinies witless.

Hooligans learned chunks by heart. They still come up to me. ‘‘Ere, sir ... alone, alone, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea!”


Teachers do difficult things well. They are also essential workers, keepers of the flame, guardians of the culture, looking after your children – as those people in the queue are discovering.

  • 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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