I Am A Weapon of Mass Instruction
Chapter 5: Sense of direction.
If there’s one particular area of ignorance and confusion that the students demonstrated, that confused me but also made me laugh over the years, it was their seemingly complete and utter
lack of geographical knowledge.
To this day I have no real idea why this should be. Perhaps it’s because I’d always travelled with
my family that I was a bit more globally aware, and that we’d moved house (and once moved country!) a couple of times before I was even a teenager that I was aware of there being places other than here.
To me it was normal, once we’d settled in Cornwall where I always say I grew up, to have to drive
for six hours to visit relatives, and that I’d know when we reached Exeter because of the red cliffs, and Birmingham because of a certain set of streetlights on the motorway. It came as something
of a surprise to realise that most people didn’t do this, and that they saw their extended families
all the time.
It came as an even bigger shock to realise that some people didn’t travel at all. When I was at
6th Form and had a job washing dishes in a cafe, one of my co-workers, a middle aged lady called Hazel was quite proud to be able to tell everyone that she’d never even been to London. She even looked at crossing the Tamar and going to Plymouth as dangerously exotic, but to be fair, this was
a view shared by most people in Cornwall. Not a week ago as I was writing some of this in my office (a certain well-known coffee shop - why use my own power and internet connection?) I overheard the following,
"Oi luv travvlin', me, Oi've been all over - Padstow, Penzance, St Ives, Falmouth. Oi've nevver been up Lundun Oi 'aven't. It's a diff'rent world innit, more of a rat race or so Oi've ‘eard." to which the conversationalist’s partner could only nod in sage and sensible agreement.
We’d gone on holiday abroad as a family, and it didn’t occur to me that again, not everyone did this. Not that 1980’s package holiday destinations were all that exotic or gave off an enormous sense of danger and exploration, but it made me aware of things outside of the village where I grew up.
It also helped that my dad worked abroad quite a lot. Before we moved to Cornwall he worked
in Sudan for a year, and then when the Cornish tin mines began to dry up he worked in a copper mine in Portugal for several years, and it made me feel like a seasoned world traveller to go out
to see him several times a year. After he’d retired and come home to Cornwall and promptly gotten really bored, he went off to work in another copper mine in Spain for a few years. The very fact that my parents had been in Australia when my brother and I had been born gave me a wider view of the world, as well as a second passport to use.
“You’re Australian?! When did that happen?” one of my students once exclaimed when I’d probably casually mentioned that I had dual nationality. This one has always puzzled me a little bit and I imagine her thinking that you could just pick up another nationality quite easily in the supermarket.
‘Hmm, I fancy being Guatemalan this week.’ and picking up the passport off the shelf.
Admittedly, that would be handy, but sadly I had to become Australian the more mundane way,
by dint of being born there. We’d moved back to the UK when I was four, so I didn’t remember
much of it besides one day when it absolutely chucked it down with rain, and some bizarre, dream-like memories of Sesame Street. But I did go back when I did my Graphics degree.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time - I had the passport, so why not? I remember flying into Sydney airport and filling in my immigration form, and having to put down that I’d last been in the country over twenty years ago. When the Customs official saw that, all he did was look at me and say in the driest Australian drawl imaginable,
“You’re gonna have to lose that accent mate.”
To my credit, I did, and I acquired a broad Aussie twang remarkably quickly, which was a bit odd
as I’d lived in Cornwall for most of my life but didn’t sound all that Cornish. Sadly I lost my Aussie twang just as quickly as I gained it when I came back to the UK after Uni.
So to slowly realise that other people didn’t have the same knowledge and experience of the world just seemed a little odd to me and required a shift in mental perspective. Having said that, there are some things that you learn or just pick up that should give you a basic knowledge of the world, and it came as an even greater shock to realise that a lot of the students I came across had no idea about the world.
I used to have a word map poster in my room, because it was cool and I could use it now and
again in lessons, but over time it transformed into a tool I used to point a very large finger at
the gaps in my students’ knowledge. It even got to the point where if I needed to torture... er,
teach a student, the map would be used to demonstrate the point.
“Where’s Canada?” I asked one of my Year 10 students, giving them Canada as it was famously
large and hard to miss.
“That’s the one that’s just below America.” came the reply that was a strange mix of confidence
and doubt, and inflected in such a way to almost make it a question, to see if I was paying attention and possibly as a way out of what was turning into a delicate situation, at least for the student.
“What?!” I exclaimed, in what, in hindsight, might possibly not have been in the gentlest, encouraging or most supportive tone of voice.
“Isn’t Canada an island?” said the student in genuine confusion, only digging the hole deeper.
“Go and look at the map!” I snapped and walked away. I can’t remember what happened in that particular case as I have nothing else written down in my notebook for it, but I can see in my mind’s eye the student going over to the map and searching for far too long to find the world’s second biggest country. I suppose that that was all my fault, probably because the map was too small. (imagine me rolling my eyes at this point)
There was a certain project I set the students quite regularly, or variations of it, that forced them
to use their geographical knowledge, or at least to force them to have to research and find out more by themselves if they didn’t have any geographical knowledge. The project was to design some promotional graphics for an event at a foreign embassy, and the designs had to showcase that country’s culture or geography in some way.
The catch was that they had to do it in a non-clichéd way, so there was to be no stars and eagles
for the USA and no kangaroos for Australia, that sort of thing. I always gave the students a choice
of six to eight countries to choose from for this brief, giving them some easier countries to work with and some that were a bit more tricky. A variation of the project - and actually a harder version - was that they had to design a logo and menu for a restaurant based around a certain country.
This was a harder project to do well than it sounds as I myself know, as I had to do it at Uni and
did abysmally at. It’s all too easy to go with a country you like or think you know about and to do something that’s a bit lazy. The way to succeed was to go unusual and unexpected, and to use colour to your advantage, and that was what I really wanted the kids to learn.
What made the project harder was to have a tired, grumpy and sometimes loud graphics teacher telling you that your ideas are really obvious/weak/unbalanced/hideous and that you were using
a horrible font.
“What about totem poles?” one of the students asked me. As I’ve noted before, being a teacher means that your mental reflexes are honed to a cat-like degree, and you could respond to most things quickly, but even this one had me a little stumped.
“For what?” I asked.
“India” came the reply, with only a touch of sarcasm. While I may have been the undisputed king
of sarcasm in my classroom, it was not unheard of for the students to learn more than just graphic techniques and employ some of my mannerisms against me.
“Do you honestly think that totem poles are found in India?” I said with only a touch of exasperation in my voice. Sometimes this was clue enough to get the student back on track, but the look of confusion on the face staring up at me told me that one of us was working under some miscomprehension. With a look at the results screen from the search engine, understanding bloomed across her face,
“Oh, my bad, I typed IndiaN.” to which I responded with my typical grunt/groan of pain for having
to deal with such things and wandered off to crisis-manage the next student.
One student who deserves special mention in this chapter is Alice. Alice chose to take Graphics for her D&T exam class, so I got to know her quite well over the three years she was in my class. She was a really intelligent girl, and like many of the really intelligent people I’ve known over the years, she had the common sense of a teaspoon.
It’s a strange thing that really clever people have these odd gaps that leave them unable to hold a conversation, or leave them uncoordinated and clumsy. Alice’s gap appeared to be that she didn’t understand geography at all, despite - worryingly - also having taken Geography as an exam subject.
She was just as bad at it at the end of her exam course as she was at the start, which might say something about the state of education in the UK, or perhaps just be testament to Alice herself.
She usually sat with her friends Helen and Laura, and despite them all being quite good at graphics and producing some lovely work, they could be counted on to come out with something stupid
and funny on a regular basis.
Alice’s most famous comment - and there were a few to choose from - came when she announced that Torquay was in Russia. Now, unless President Putin has some very cunning plan under way
that the rest of the world isn’t aware of to make the whole world Russian by stealing seaside towns and transplanting them somewhat further north, I was pretty sure that Torquay wasn’t in Russia.
To the Cornish, Devon was a dangerous, foreign place, but probably wasn’t a former Communist state. Probably.
I should have felt a little warm glow of a teacher’s job well done in that a good portion of the class immediately turned around at this and proceeded to disabuse Alice of her notion. Rather than back down, Alice was adamant that Torquay was in fact in Russia.
The reason for this, it turned out, after not a little arguing, was that Alice and her family had once been on holiday to Torquay where the young(er) and impressionable Alice had met a Russian. The dots were connected in her somewhat confused brain and the idea was forged that if there were Russians in Torquay, that must mean that the whole town must in fact be Russian. Flawless logic.
I did manage to bring this point up once or twice over the years I taught Alice, and mentioned it to her parents at a Parents Evening too. Fortunately, Alice’s mum and dad were lovely, and were just
as prepared to stare in disbelief and have a good laugh at their daughter as I was, so it was all good.
I have always said that whenever my students do well, either with a piece of design work, or overall in their exam course, I had very little to do with it. This isn’t false modesty, even though I know that teachers work very hard to get their students to achieve.
In the case of Graphics, I always told my students that the most valuable thing I could give them was time. Time in which to think, and experiment and play with their designs so that they could
get them as good as they could. Good, or even brilliant design work often looks effortless, but a
lot of time and decision making can go into each aspect of the piece.
What my students didn’t need was me standing at the front of the class boring them to tears,
they needed time to come find their own solutions, and I was there to nudge, and direct them towards that solution. Sometimes the nudging was quick and easy, and just required a minor
tweak to some work.
I have to say that I have taught more than my fair share of talented students over the years,
and they didn’t need much help at all. In one of my last years before I left, I had an A Level
student called Cory - not Scottish Corey from the previous chapter, another one. I must have
taught Cory before, at least in Year 7 or 8, but he just wasn’t familiar to me at all. At first, I assumed that he’d come to our 6th Form from another school, only to find out when I asked him which school he’d come from that he’d been here all along.
One thing you lose as a teacher is any sense of shame at asking stupid questions. I’m pretty rubbish at learning the names of my students, and it takes me ages to do it, so I’m not ashamed to have
to keep asking them what their names are. Finding out that Cory had been at our school for seven years already and I had no idea who he was didn’t even register on my shame-o-meter.
I’d been taking a Product Design exam group for the last few years, so I didn’t really know who
the GCSE Graphics kids were. This wasn’t a problem, as Cory hadn’t done Graphics at GCSE,
and he hadn’t taken D&T as one of his A Level choices. He was now in Year 14 which meant that
he’d stayed on at 6th Form for a year longer than usual, and had decided to give Graphics a go. Usually this is a recipe for disaster - here was a student who hadn’t studied the subject for five
years and now expected to be good enough cold to be successful at A Level; this was going to
be hard work by anyone’s measure.
Except it wasn’t. Cory was an absolute genius at Graphics. The stuff he did left me slack-jawed and pure, emerald green with envy. All his work was slick, professional and you wouldn’t have blinked twice if you’d seen them in a magazine or as a poster around town - he was brilliant. That he clearly worked hard at it too just made him even better.
And you know what? I don’t think I talked to him more than a handful of times throughout the year, offering really small pieces of advice, because it simply wasn’t needed. Cory knew what he was doing, did it quietly and well and didn’t need me telling him what to do, and he was a prime example of students achieving and succeeding on their own. I had absolutely nothing to do with Cory’s success, other than the fact that I was able to provide him with time and projects to work from.
Cory is an extreme example of me not needing to do anything, but a lot of my students weren’t too different from him, and having thought about it, Alice and a lot of the others were in her class were like that too. It was their class that produced a lot of the work that I used to show off to potential parents and students on our Open Days every year, and not just their final exam work either - I
had examples of their work from Year 9, Year 10, and Year 11 - they were consistently good.
Once some initial confusion had presented itself (or they just learned to not expose their lack of geographical knowledge because they knew I’d tease them for it), this class produced quite good
set of graphic products and ideas for their country-based work. This was in Year 9 for them, and
I still wanted them to work by hand rather than assume that everything in Graphics had to be produced on the computer, and I kept hold of about six of the best pieces as display work.
In this class was one of a growing number of foreign students that attended our school. Dominika was shy and didn’t talk much, and I was never quite sure how much she hid due to her not speaking up. She wasn’t the strongest student in the class, but neither was she the weakest, but in this project she demonstrated something that I fought against for the whole time I was teaching.
The one thing a Design & Technology or an Art teacher will hear again and again is a defiant, despairing, sorrowful, whined, frustrated comment that came from the lips of many, many students,
“I can’t draw!”
Someone would say it at least once, if not by several students several times, in every single class that I ever took.
An unescapable part of our subject was the recording of design ideas, and as marvellous as technology is getting, there is still no better way to do this than working with pencil and paper.
It was something our students always fought against, partly because they were afraid of getting stuff wrong, but mostly because they were convinced that they couldn’t draw.
I had several responses to this eternal complaint, from,
“Well, who did that then?” pointing at the piece of drawn work sitting in front of the complaining student. To,
“Yes you can, get on with it.” if I was feeling blunt and wasn’t in the mood to humour them.
My favourite response, and the one I most often used though was,
“Yes you can,” at which point the student would usually open their mouth to whinge some more, but I’d get in there first with, “You just can’t draw as well as you would like.” which is when the student would deflate somewhat as they couldn’t argue with that.
They did want to be able to draw well - it wasn’t as if they didn’t value the skill, it was that they weren’t perfect instantly. A lot of them just didn’t realise that it was a skill just like any other and required a lot of practice to get to the ‘good’ level. I’d happily point out that I’d practiced for 35
years in order to get as good as I had, which usually got them to shut up temporarily and have another go. I would say this particular line a lot over the years.
Dominika wasn’t good at drawing, but she tried, and she didn’t whine or complain like a lot of
the other students, she just tried her best and worked. And her work for this project was beautiful, and was one of the ones that I kept to show off.
She’d chosen to work with Iceland, and her illustrations were raw, and strange and beautiful - but you’d never be able to say that they were accurate or representational or the best you’d seen, and that didn’t matter at all. They had a strength and a power to them that was undeniable.
I always said to the kids that when they were doing any visual research that if they looked at
an image more more than three seconds to save it as there was obviously something about that image that grabbed their attention. Dominika’s illustrations for her Iceland work did the same, they forced you to look at them and you could almost feel the wind whipping around you and smell the sea behind you because of them. I may have nudged her to move in that direction, and to trust that her illustrations, while not ‘good’ (such a dodgy word to use when talking about design work at the best of times) did the job and were successful. but all the work and the ideas and the design choices were hers, and I claim no credit for them at all.
It might not seem, after me saying that I didn’t stand in front of a class and deliver information or that I was on top of my students directing their every design move, that I actually did very much in my classes. If that’s the case, then why on earth was I so shattered at the end of every day? Doing nothing doesn’t take that much out of you.
It might not have looked like I was doing much, but essentially I was project-managing 20+ designers and their work every hour and having as much as seven groups a day to keep track of.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust my students to keep track of time in a project and get it all done in time… okay, no, I didn’t trust my students to do that at all. Having clearly seen that some of them could barely keep breathing without being instructed to do so, I wasn’t going to let them be in charge
and then completely lose track and not get finished.
Deadlines were always a tricky issue for students, and I had learned very early on in my career not to give students any leeway at all with them, as it just led to arguments, more deadline extensions, more arguments when the work wasn’t done and yet more extensions. Much better to stick to your guns and if the work wasn’t done, that was that.
Keeping students on track and working has been likened to herding cats in that it is very tricky, and often leaves one or all the participants hissing and spitting in frustration. After a minimum of input, most of the classes were about the students getting on with what they needed to do and me doing the rounds and giving help or advice where needed. On rare occasions when everyone was working and didn’t need any input from me, I could maybe sneak in some cheeky work of my own that needed doing, but mostly my time was spent moving from student to student.
What this did allow me to do was to get to know the kids quite well, and generally get on with them pretty well too. There was the odd student now and again who just didn’t want to work or was hell-bent on disrupting the class for some reason, but one way or another that didn’t last too long, and my classroom was usually a quietly busy place.
I never insisted on my classes working in silence as that’s actually a fairly distracting environment
to work in, so I didn't mind if they chatted - as long as their main focus was their work, not on them improving their conversational skills - and I never really had a problem with them listening to their own music either.
It was because of this relaxed atmosphere that some of the odder comments and conversations took place, and the students learned that I was actually okay, and not this terrible, shouting, ranting figure of fear that they’d led to believe existed. I’m not sure that they ever believed that in the first place really, otherwise no students would ever have chosen to do Graphics, but the kids did regularly note that I was much nicer to the older students than I was to the younger years.
This was probably due to me seeing the older students more, and I could be more relaxed with them because we had time. As good as the younger years rotating around the D&T team was, it meant that we didn’t see them for very long, and while some of the teachers in the school might have a whole year to get a class where they wanted them in terms of behaviour, we had considerably less time.
If we only saw a group for six weeks, we had to establish our standards and expectations very quickly and clearly indeed, and it was a brave or foolish Year 7 who tested those boundaries in
any significant way - it left a certain impression on their minds, and most of them were relieved
to discover in Year 9 onwards that I wasn’t as bad as all that.
There was one class though that never seemed to warm up at all. It should have been a dream
class - there weren’t very many of them which always makes things easier, they knew what they were getting in to, and because one of them was on the Special Needs Register, I even had an LSA with me every lesson I had with them - the lovely Mrs Briggs.
At first, in Year 9, they were quiet, which wasn’t completely unexpected as they were new to the exam course and still possibly a little wary of the frightening Mr Austin. But as time went on, they stayed just as quiet, and they were becoming quite difficult to work with - not because of poor behaviour, motivation or attitude. They were really nice kids who wanted to do well, but they
just didn’t give me very much to work with.
Some teachers might tell you that all they would ever want is a class full of quiet, willing kids, but
for me, while quiet was a bit of a bonus now and then, especially if I was feeling particularly grumpy that day, a class this quiet and increasingly withdrawn was very hard work and actually a bit of a worry. It wasn’t as if I was being shouty and loud as there was absolutely no need to be. I wasn’t being mean in my completely obvious and staged way that just encouraged the kids to roll their eyes and ignore me, as I don’t think these students would have understood that I was joking. I wasn’t pushing them too hard so that they didn’t have time to talk or relax a bit.
Even Mrs Briggs was a bit confused by them - she enjoyed Graphics and liked working with the kids in my classes, but even she didn’t need to give too much assistance to the student she was assigned to, so we had time to huddle to one side as the kids silently - and increasingly creepily, in a Children Of The Corn kind of way - got on with their work.
And it wasn’t as if all this quiet was helping them produce stunning work either, their work, like
their behaviour was a bit stilted and awkward. I tried jokes, but they fell on deaf ears. I tried more structure, I tried less structure. I gave them a range of projects, including blatantly silly ones that were intended to be fun, but nothing worked; it was very strange.
It got to the point where I was willing to try anything to bring them out of themselves to get them
to warm up and open up - at this stage it was almost like pulling teeth working with them. So one day, when enough was enough, as soon as they’d come into the class and sat down, I told them to grab some paper and follow me, and we went for a little walk. I hadn’t asked anyone if I could do this, and wasn’t worried that I should need to - I was responsible for this class and would do any explaining if it was required.
I made them sit on the stairs and do a couple of ideas for the current project. I moved them to the canteen, where they were a little more obviously sheepish than they usually were because a couple of bemused 6th Formers watched what was going on - sometimes it helps to have a reputation where you’re a little crazy and unpredictable.
I grabbed a couple more wandering 6th Formers who had been in Graphics the year before and
got them to work with the younger students for a few minutes. I’d like to say that this lesson, which
I explained to the kids was an exercise in looking at things differently in order to get more ideas, was the turning point for the class, and in a way it was. After it they were a little bit more relaxed, and produced work that was a little bit better as they stretched themselves, but a heartwarming moment where students and teacher bond over a shared experience it was not.
They continued to be fairly withdrawn, and I could rarely get them to relax enough to just chat and work and let things flow naturally, and it showed me that as random and as goofy as some of the other classes I had could be, it was preferable to have to deal with that than have a class that barely responded at all.
So it was that in this generally happy atmosphere many stupid things were uttered.
My last Head of Department was one of those teachers who thought that staying in one school too long wasn’t the best idea, that you didn’t get the chance to learn as many new things or to challenge yourself as often as you would if you moved schools. That perspective has merit, and I’ve worked with a few teachers in my time that shared that view. They would work at our school for two or three years and then move on.
I on the other hand had no problem at all with staying in one school for the long term. I would guess that I had been influenced by my parents and their generation with the notion of a job for life, but also by the fact that many of my own teachers held the same view too.
I had moved away from Cornwall to go to university, first to Twickenham and then to Australia, and then back to the UK. By the time I came to do my teacher training I had been away from Cornwall for almost a decade. When you do your teacher training you generally had two school placements so that you could practise your teaching skills.
For my second placement I got to go back to my old school, which was handy as I already knew my way around the place and the possibility of me getting lost (an increasing possibility as I get older - I actively factor in Getting Lost Time when I travel to new places) was significantly smaller. I’d actually been there fairly recently as I had spent a few days there observing what went on from the adult’s point of view before I made my final decision to embark on my teacher training.
It seemed pretty much the same place as I remembered, even more so because there were a fair number of my teachers still working there, so the idea of staying at a school long term perhaps started there.
One of the teachers that I was pleased to see again was one of the deputy head teachers. As a student, he’d been a big presence in the school, loud and scary, and you definitely didn't want to
get on the wrong side of hm. He was rumoured to have been a sergeant major in the army, and
you could see that in his posture. He was aways the one to start whole-school assemblies, and never needed to use a microphone in order to project his voice right to the back of the sports hall, cutting over the low chatter of a thousand students. It came as a rather pleasant surprise in Year 9 when I had him on my timetable for Science and I discovered that actually he was a kind, gentle, and funny teacher.
There had been one incident in Year 7 however that I very clearly remembered. I still maintain that it was totally not my fault, but in fact was entirely the fault of my brother and one of his friends. I was just a totally innocent bystander at the time, and the incident taught me to never become the focus of the disciplinarian of the school and to also not hang out with my brother quite so much.
Glossing over the details of the incident, which may or may not have involved throwing clods of mud against a wall, the three of us were hauled into Mr M-J’s office where we were given a brief
but thorough interview to establish the facts and then an even more thorough telling off. Thinking about it now, I’m quite impressed that none of us cried as I have certainly made my fair share of students cry in the course of a telling off, but perhaps the children of the 80’s were made of sterner stuff.
What Mr M-J did tell us though was that our names were going to be inscribed into his Little Black Book, and if he ever came across them again, we would essentially wish we had never been born.
I may be paraphrasing somewhat here. Needless to say, this scared me sufficiently that I didn’t put
a toe out of line at school again.
When I came back as an adult and prospective teacher and met Mr M-J again, I tentatively asked
if he remembered me; of course he didn't - over the course of over a decade the average teacher will see thousands of students, and the likelihood of him remembering me was remote at best.
He didn’t, but that was okay.
I mentioned that he had once told me off and that I had been in his Little Black Book of Bad Students, inserting a weak, hopeful chuckle at the end of that statement, designed to convey that
I had learned my lesson well and was now an upstanding member of the community and didn’t need to be told off again, no sir.
He responded with a blank look and,
“What black book?” before moving on.
That sneaky, diabolical genius bastard! There had been no black book! This literally blew my mind
a little and I was disgusted at the duplicity of an authority figure who would blatantly lie to children to scare them into doing what he wanted, while at the same time completely impressed that an authority figure would be so duplicitous to blatantly lie to children to scare them into doing what
I immediately resolved to steal the strategy myself and to use it as often as I possibly could. As it turned out, I never did use it, as I soon found out that the kids in Kent could barely remember what they'd said or done thirty seconds ago, so a potential threat of their names being in a book did little to motivate them.
I found that a good, semi-insane shouty rant was more effective and was longer lasting. Funnily enough though, once the students knew that I was writing down their stupid comments and that they would one day feature in a book, that was sometimes enough to keep them in line more effectively than any threat possibly could.
So staying at a school for a long time had its advantages. Several of the staff at the school where
I worked had only worked there, and had been there for up to 30 years or more. Obviously I didn't make it that long, but I certainly admired those teachers who did.
Staying in a school allowed you to build up a secure reputation, both with the students and the staff. It was a well known fact that the older teachers who had been there a long time would barely even look at you let alone talk to you if you were there for fewer than five years. I always felt very lucky that the long termers seemed to accept me fairly early on and I was on good terms with some of them - it meant that I had been accepted into the large, dysfunctional family that was the staff. Not that this meant I could sit in their seats in the staff room, no one was that privileged, but I was allowed to sit near them. Having a reputation with the students for being loud, shouty and not to
be messed with also made things a bit easier for me too.
One of the other advantages of being in a school for a long time is that you often got to teach whole families of students. I'd had a few sets of siblings come and go from my classroom, from Jay, Isaac and Arlo, to James and Sophie, Spencer and Lottie, Jake and Kane. I'd even had a few siblings in various tutor groups, the great advantage here being that you already had a relationship with the parents and it was much easier to talk about the important things rather than having to go very politely around the houses.
What was a little awkward was when a student told you proudly,
“You taught my brother/sister!” and I came up completely blank and had no idea who they were talking about. Sometimes it was due to different surnames which threw me off a little, but most of the time it was just ignorance. I had more than enough trouble remembering first names, and to add surnames to the mix was a lot to ask.
I got there eventually, but I learned that I had to learn names slowly and carefully. For at least a whole term in one of my tutor groups I had very little clue between the difference between Chloe and Crystal. In my defence, they were both small, quiet and had long dark brown hair and sat next to each other. I have to admit that it was a godsend when we were able to click a button on our electronic registers and see photos of the students so I could figure out who was who.
What was difficult about seeing sets of brothers and sisters come through was to try to not compare them, especially when you were talking to one sibling in particular at Parents Evenings.
I was always a bit rubbish at this, and would inevitably end up talking about an older brother or sister while the younger student sat there with a glazed expression.
I was lucky enough to teach the sister of geographically-challenged Alice in my last year of
Sometimes brothers and sisters had remarkably similar styles of working. James and Sophie were both very controlled and constructed multi-layered design pieces that were almost architectural. Jacob and Ben had completely different styles, but I could still see the similarities, especially in the ease with which they generated their work.
Alice and Lucy were very different. Alice worked hard at her design work, but in all fairness probably didn’t need to; she had a soft, flowing style, and I kept a piece of her illustration work for a long time to show at Open Days. It was an illustration project I gave to the students in Year 9 as a warm up piece, to get them thinking and responding to a brief.
I gave each of them a piece of text from The Wizard of Oz that they were more than likely completely unfamiliar with, and they and to produce an illustration from it. The nice thing about
this project was that nearly all of the students had seen the film and had at least some idea of
the story and characters. Where I was mean was that I completely banned any visual reference
from the film - they had to come up with their own ideas. Alice’s piece was a lovely, soft illustration of the Wicked Witch melting, and was strong because it pulled you and led you around the piece;
it wasn’t obvious which is often a good thing in a piece of design.
Lucy on the other hand was a different kettle of fish entirely. While she too worked hard, her design work had a cleanness, a hardness and a simplicity to it that made them very strong. I unfortunately only had one year of working with Lucy, and it would have been fantastic to see what she produced for her exam pieces.
The one piece of work, or set of pieces, that stands out for me from Lucy is a set of typographic pieces based on some text from Harry Potter. I’d given the students one of my favourite projects
to do: find some text to work with (find their own text or I’d give them some), and go to town with
it typographically. Play with the text and do something high end and unexpected. No illustrations, no photos, all they had to work with was the letterforms. As an added bonus they had to communicate the meaning of the text through their design choices, so if it was a sad text their
piece had to communicate sadness. If it was a happy or joyous text, their design had to look like
it was having the time of its life, that sort of thing.
Lucy’s pieces were incredibly graphic - not the most helpful of phrases, I know. They were strong and bold and hard, and while it could be argued that they might not communicate the sense of wonder and magic in Harry Potter, they were unusual and unexpected and led you through the
mini story she was telling, and that was completely appropriate. Had I stayed in teaching, I would have used her work as an example of what to do to the younger students without hesitation.
Where Lucy was exactly the same as her sister was her complete and utter lack of geographical knowledge. As was usual I’d found this out by suggesting something for the student to look at as research to inspire them or lead their design work in a certain direction. It soon became clear that Lucy was just as, if not more clueless than Alice ever was. What made this situation even worse was that she was also taking Geography as one of her exam subjects! Questions like,
“Russia’s not in China is it?” soon gave me an idea of what I was working with. The fact that it was even a question, and not a simple statement somewhat made it worse.
However, I have to give her at least some credit as she was not the student to come out with,
“Where's the Great Wall of China?” as that credit goes to a student in a class some years previously. It was a question so boneheaded that I only wrote down the question itself, and not
my response, although I can narrow down my responses to relatively few options:
a) [rolls eyes and walks away]
b) [makes disgusted noise, rolls eyes and walks away]
d) “I think the clue might be in the name…”
e) all of the above.
I think you might have gotten a good enough sense of who I am to guess which response would be the correct one.
Almost as good was a question from one student who asked,
“Where's the Channel Tunnel?” Considering we were only about half an hour's drive from the Tunnel, this question seemed more worrying than usual.
What made the lack of geographical knowledge worse, and yet more hilarious for me and some of the more clued-up students in the class was that some of Lucy’s friends were just as clueless as she was and a simple question on my part could erupt into a full blown argument over where a country or city was.
It got to the point where I would occasionally end the lesson with a geography plenary, partly to try and drum some general knowledge in to their heads, but also partly for the sheer hilarity of seeing them get it wrong. The activity was called: Team Lucy vs Team Everyone Else.
The game... er, ‘completely valid educational activity’ consisted of me putting an unlabelled world map up on my smart board and asking each team to identify the countries I called out. To say this was a roaring success is a bit of an understatement. Not that I was quietly impressed and gratified at the level of knowledge my students had about the world, more that I was repeatedly reminded at how little knowledge they had and I and some of the other students got to have a good laugh.
I feel as if I was teaching them about the wider world, and the more important lesson that teachers will gladly exploit their students for entertainment purposes.
Now, I wasn’t a complete monster - I allowed Lucy to pick two of her fellow students to round out her team and to help her out. Unfortunately, she did seem to have a knack of picking friends who didn’t appear to know the difference between America and Russia, but the thought was there I suppose.
She did eventually catch on though and she started to choose students who were slightly more useful than a chocolate teapot, and her scores started to rise as a result.
Considering the picture I painted of Lucy - and Alice and other students - and how rubbish they were at geography, you would have thought that Team Everyone Else would have won every single time. Sadly not. This was a big class for Design & Technology, and there were 28 students in it. This meant, that if everyone was present, it was three knowledge-challenged students against the combined intellectual might of the other 25. It was slightly worrying that the combined intellectual might of 25 students didn't appear to be all that different to that of the other three, and this allowed me to play the grumpy teacher astounded by his students’ lack of knowledge act to the hilt. To be fair, it wasn't much of an act.