At the chalkface: Sweating the small stuff

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Stand silent at desks. Satchels on floor. Check for sartorial peccadilloes – QPR scarves, dodgy hats, spider tattoos or illegal trainers.

You peddle through the autumn mists to be in school by dawn. You’ve got to be really on it for these six weeks. You’re spruce, scrubbed, shaved and sharp. You check your pigeon-hole for covers and gibberish, run off a million worksheets, grab a yard of black coffee, go to your classroom, check the finely honed seating plan is in place, the foliage is blooming, the IT is up and purring, 150 exercise books for the day are forensically marked – and there are 30 copies of Greek Myths. You can’t be too prepared.

Here they come, my stampeding 7th year! “Walk! Line up!’ A straight line. Good. Silence. Pause. Pins drop. “Good Morning!” “Good Morning, sir/miss!” “You may enter.” They do. Stand silent at desks. Satchels on floor. Check for sartorial peccadilloes – QPR scarves, dodgy hats, spider tattoos or illegal trainers. “Please sit down! Pens out!” No pen? “Detention.” Be clear. Be fierce. Boundaries. An idle whisper. Stop. Stare. Glare. Silence. Right! PowerPoints. Aims. Objectives. All nonsense.

Onwards. Part one. Read Pandora’s Box. Never fails. You do the first pages. Tawdry melodrama. Class mighty impressed. Stop. Volunteers to read? Eager hands go up. It’s like feeding sea lions. It breaks your heart. Three excellent readings. Girls.

Another hand. A boy. Illiterate. Why do they offer to read when they can’t? Still, you must encourage him. Otherwise, he’ll become a criminal. The reading is a car crash. Some boys laugh. I give the thousand yard stare. More limping sentences. More mocking mirth. Stop. Unleash the Nosferatu stare. It works. A clot slides off chair down wall.

Onwards. Part 2. The Nature of Myth. Abstract Nouns Explained. Teacher-led and deadly dull. We don’t want any of that groovy, nuanced interactivity. It can drift so easily into irrelevance and worse.

Onwards. Part 3. Writing in silence. What is an abstract noun? Name the ones in Pandora’s Box. Pure information retrieval. It makes the troops feel secure.

Onwards. Part four. Prediction exercise. Finish the story. The Last Thing in the Box. The National Curriculum? Tuition fees? Academies? Couple of pretty good, if unsolicited, jokes from two boys. Not clever. Not funny. A perfectly behaved middle class girl laughs too long and gets my killjoy face. She freezes. Dear me. Plenary. Superfluous simplifications. Homework set. Pack up. Silence. Stand up. Silence. Pips. Exit class severally. No learning has occurred. A meaningless ritual has occurred. Strict yet unfair.

Repeat every lesson until half-term. I’ve never quite managed it, but you might. Then you can relax into lashings of that lovely, interactive, nuanced, creative stuff.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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