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I Am A Weapon of Mass Instruction

Chapter 4: Hypo-what?

In the first half of my teaching career, I seemed to have more time at my disposal, possibly because I was still relatively fresh to the job and I hadn’t taken on all of the responsibilities I had by the time I left. Before I left, I was responsible for my exam classes and all the admin that came along with them - all the official paperwork for their marks which had to get sent off to the exam boards on time, as well as registering my Year 11s for their controlled assessment, something which turned out to be a bigger headache than anyone realised at the time.

 

We were doing a new course with them, and none of us in the department had any experience in the new board’s procedures. To say that we left things late was a vast understatement, but as often happens in teaching, and in the wider world I suspect, everything got done in the end.

 

I also had my tutor group to monitor and look after, and in this group I had one or two personalities that took up more than their fair share of time.

 

I was also responsible for producing any posters, flyers or resources that the staff wanted me to produce, as well as producing the higher-visibility graphics for the school. I was really happy to be doing this work as it let me be creative and do the other job that I’d trained for, but I was also aware of the pressure that went alongside it: the need for everything to be perfect before it being sent to print, and the timeframes we had to work with before our big open events of the school year.

 

The previous year I had redesigned the prospectus for the 6th Form (trying to herd cats may have been a little easier, but as ever, it got done in the end) specifically for the 6th Form Open Evening, and gotten everything set up and sent off to the printers. All we could do was wait for them to turn up, so we waited.
And waited.
And waited.

 

Deadline day and the Open Evening was drawing ever closer and the Head of 6th Form started to ask me if the prospectuses were on their way. Rather surprisingly, I was very calm about the situation, and I assured her that everything was fine and they’d turn up. When the Headteacher started to ask me when they were turning up, I started to realise that perhaps not everyone was as calm about this as I was.

 

The day of the Open Evening arrived and still no prospectuses, and several worried people asked me what our options were, and all I could suggest was that we print out copies of the file I had ourselves - it wouldn’t look as good and they’d be loose sheets instead of bound, but it’d be better than nothing. Worried people scurried away from me.

 

About an hour before parents and prospective students started arriving, the prospectuses turned up, so everyone heaved a sigh of relief, although I did learn later that the Head had rather tensely told the 6th Form team to fire up the photocopiers right before the courier delivered them. Day to day life in a school is anything but dull, if perhaps a little tough on the blood pressure now and then.


As part of teaching our classes, communicating with parents and carers, marking, doing admin, photocopying, producing resources, keeping our rooms from looking like bomb sites and doing anything else that needed doing, we were also actively encouraged to look for training courses to go on, and to do other things that would continue our training and development. Keeping up to date was considered an important part of our job, but if you asked anyone, it would be a part of the job that was near the bottom of your lengthy list of Things To Do.

I have to admit that I have been very, very lucky when it came to training courses over the years, and I have no right to complain at all.

 

Everyone gets to go on exam standardisation courses as they keep you up to date on what the exam boards expect you to be doing (and not doing). It’s acknowledged that while they’re important, they’re also a brilliant excuse to not be in school for a day.

 

While setting up the cover work for your classes was boring and frustrating (it was never done, so you were always annoyed when you came back and found your room in a mess and your class behind where you wanted them to be), you still weren't at school. It was easy enough for us in Kent to get up to London for courses, and if you just so happened to accidentally squeeze in a bit of shopping at the end of the day no-one was the wiser, in fact, it was pretty much expected of you.

 

However, as well as the odd day off up to London, I’d also been given the chance to go to California to observe how a particular school ran its curriculum. Let me tell you, having to work in the Californian sunshine is punishing, and it’s only because I was a dedicated, trained professional that I was able to cope.


Even worse than the sheer hell of California was the ‘training’ trip I took with Marion, one of my colleagues from school, and some other teachers from Kent. Marion and I had applied to go on an overseas training scheme run by the government. No one was more surprised than us when we were informed that both of our applications and been successful, and that we’d be informed shortly which of the five courses we’d been assigned to.

 

We were even more surprised, not to mention smug, when we found out - and promptly told everyone that would listen - that we’d be going to Jamaica for a week in February half term to observe how their schools managed challenging behaviour. The trip was, obviously, amazing, not just because of the things we saw in the schools, but because we were in Jamaica.


I’d also been to Italy as part of a collaborative European scheme, and in my last year before I left I got to go to Tanzania as part of a pre-trip recce for an expedition that some of our students would be doing later in the year. All absolutely stunning opportunities that I would never have had the chance to do if I hadn’t been teaching.


All those amazing opportunities aside, looking for and going on training courses wasn’t a priority for most of us. We were too busy keeping our heads above the water that was our day to tay teaching load. Technically we still had our in-school programme of CPD - Continuing Professional Development - but more often than not (he says, with his Bitter Hat firmly on) the ‘training’ we got consisted of the staff sitting down after a day of teaching to be talked at for an hour to an hour and a half on some subject that someone higher up thought we needed to know about.

 

Some of these training sessions may not have made me a better teacher or made me more aware of certain issues, but my doodling skills really have come along a treat because of them. It’s something that I have noted to friends and colleagues several times that it confuses me how highly trained educational professionals forget everything they know about teaching when it comes to teaching adults.

 

I was once told in my training year to not talk directly at a whole class for more than seven minutes as they’d just get bored and distracted and wouldn’t take anything else in, and the same applies to adults, especially if they’re completely shattered. I have to admit, it was a brave person who got up to deliver training to a hall full of tired and grumpy teachers. I’ve only had to do it once or twice because of a project I was working on at the time, and give me a class of teenagers any day.

So it was that I decided to take an A Level one year. I’d always liked studying, and as I’ve said to
a fair few students over the years, to be greeted by stares that clearly communicated that I was insane, I kind of missed taking exams. Getting a grade let you know how well you’d done and spurred you on. I’d found that in the world of work, you were generally left to muddle along
and you only really got feedback if you’d messed up. Being able to work towards something
and be able to show off the piece of paper that told everyone that you were good at it seemed
like a great idea.


I’d decided to take Media Studies, for several reasons. The official one was that it was vaguely related to Graphics in that it was a visual subject and it would give me a greater understanding
of what some of my own students were studying, and might lead to me expanding my teaching repertoire - Media Studies was a popular subject, and with only one teacher taking it there was
a limit on how many students could do it. I’d actually taken a semester’s worth of Media Studies
at University as part of my Graphics Degree, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar ground.

 

The second reason was that it was taken by my very good friend Sandra, an exceptional teacher, travelling buddy of mine and all-round brilliant person. That Sandra was such a good teacher also gave me another official excuse to be there as I could say that I was doing peer observations in order to pick up some new strategies for my own classes.

 

The last reason was that it was just going to be interesting and fun. The school often supported staff members who were doing their Masters, one of the conditions being that their MA be education-based. I quite like teaching, I must have to have done it for as long as I did, but
studying it at that level just left me cold.

 

I’d love to do my Masters one day, and it’d be brilliant to do a PhD if only to be able to call yourself ‘Doctor’, but definitely not in education. Design perhaps, but I’d love to do something in comparative mythology, but that is in the far off distant future.

 

Taking an A Level in Media Studies seemed to fit the bill all round - it developed me as a teacher
in a couple of ways, I got to spend time with a friend and it was something I was genuinely interested in. As an added bonus, my other very good friend and house mate Alan also decided
to come along as well.

 

We could both do this because the majority of 6th Form lessons took place after school when
Years 7-11 had gone home. Neither Alan or myself had A Level classes on our timetables this year that clashed with the Media lessons, so we were free to attend them. We could have used that free time to tidy up, mark work, telephone parents, or any of a hundred other useful things that would make our jobs easier, but being able to take an hour to learn new things and take a much-needed breather was far more attractive.

Alan and I attended the same classes as at the students, and in short order they didn’t blink an
eye at our presence. I’m sure more than the odd eyebrow was raised or eye rolled when it became clear how into it we were, but both Alan and I are unashamed nerds and didn't really care what
they thought anyway.

 

We were just as keen as the other students to have our say, but I have to admit that we both
always let the students get the first word in, this was their education after all.
A Level classes are generally smaller than the ones with the younger students, and there were about ten in this particular class, and among them were Matt, one of my original tutor group,
and his friend Corey, who is the reason for this chapter.

Corey, like Alan, was from Scotland and they shared a certain bond because of it, as well as a
certain turn of phrase and sense of humour. Corey also has more than his fair share of comments that needed writing down due to their unintentional humour due to being stupid.

 

Corey was one of those students who didn’t really help himself when it came to the stupid things
he said, and he seemed to have a talent for providing myself, Alan, Sandra, and pretty much every other teacher who came in the room with straight lines that just begged to be followed up. To add to the comedy, Matt was a bit of a goofball who just added to the mix.

 

Remember, these students were at least 17 years old, and should have had a bit more of a clue
by now… it’s a testament to our sheer professionalism, pedegogic skill and years of experience
that allowed us to build up a relationship with the students that allowed us to laugh at them that much without them getting really hacked off. Either that or they were completely clueless and
just didn’t notice. As one member of staff astutely observed when he popped in for a chat once,
“We’re laughing at you, not with you, you do realise that don’t you?”
They didn’t.


All joking aside, it was definitely one of the aspects to our school that we were proud of: our relationship with the students. We really did get on with them and were able to have a laugh
with them, even if they were the butt of the joke sometimes. Corey, among others, certainly
gave himself more than enough rope to hang himself with more than once.


I’d like to say that this surprised me, and even after 12 years, it did. I still expected the kids to
be a bit more clued up than they appeared to be. I’m not sure I was like that when I was their
age, but the world certainly seemed like a different place then compared to now, and to a boy
who grew up in the South West whose playground was the countryside around him, perhaps
I was allowed to be a little naïve now and again.

 

But these kids were growing up in the 21st Century, with access to more information than I could have imagined. They were supposed to be the most technologically competent humans ever, but they still seemed as clueless as I probably was. One of my most-used and probably very annoying lines (one among many!) to the students was, when they had asked me something that I thought they should already know, or that they were just being lazy was,
“You’re connected to the most powerful research tool in the history of mankind. Why don’t you
find out yourself?”
To which, a lot of the time I’d get a blank stare in return. If the students knew me well, they might indulge in a little light whinging and complaining to try and get me to just tell them, but they really should have known better.


Add on to this that most of our students grew up in towns and villages that were just as much
in the country as the village where I grew up was, they strutted around acting as if they were the baddest of the bad from the worst inner city the country had to offer. It had been noted more
than once by more than one staff member that it would be an interesting experiment to take
a group of our students into London, give them £5 each, tell them to find their way home, walk away and see the chaos (and more likely tears and tantrums) that followed. They might like to
act tough, but they were, on the whole, complete softies.


Now and again we did get a genuine inner city kid transfer to our school, but the initial period
of them trying to establish that they were the baddest kid on the block didn’t last too long, and
their tough exterior melted away rapidly when they realised that no one was very impressed
and it didn’t get them anything.

So it came as something as a shock to hear some of the stuff that the 6th Form students would come out with. I’m not sure why I was surprised, I had worked with some of them for six or seven years after all, and knew just how boneheaded they could be, but I suppose I hoped that by this point they had started to mature somewhat.


“Draw a willy!” came the gleeful request, although for the sake of accuracy and to try and give
you a more authentic experience, as with a Scottish accent it sounded more like “Draw a wully!”
as it was Corey who was saying this, apropos to nothing. It was swiftly followed by,
“Draw two wullies!” because as everyone knows, you can never have too much of a good thing.


As a teacher in this situation, you could choose to go the Full Rant option, which wouldn’t really achieve much and would just interrupt the flow of the lesson even more. You could go down the ‘That’s Not Appropriate’ route, which was quicker, but temporary at best. As I was often to note
to students who repeatedly apologised for various misdemeanours,
“If you’re genuinely sorry, then do something about it!” fed up as I was that the kids seemed to
think that just saying sorry but carrying on with the same behaviour five seconds later would be perfectly acceptable, and that I wouldn’t notice or challenge them again.

 

What was more likely to happen in a situation like this though was for you to completely ignore
it and carry on regardless as it just wasn’t worth the time and effort to challenge it.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the boys at school did seem to be fairly obsessed with each other, and judging by the sheer amount of crudely-drawn scrawls that in a good light and a squint could be seen to be penises, they were obsessed with one certain part of themselves.

 

There may be certain situations where angels fear to tread, but when it came to this, sometimes
all you could do was to give in to sheer morbid curiosity.
Corey: Miss, I think Richard’s turning gay - all he does is straighten his hair all day
Miss J: [only a little bored, but curious enough to comment] Is that how you tell then?
Corey: Yes. That, and touching wullies is a sign too.
Matt: But you touch your willy all the time…
Corey: Only when I pee.
Matt: [with relentless logic] It’s still touching it.
Corey: [pauses and looks thoughtful] … I’m going to start peeing without my hands…


… and so on with the lesson. Comments like these generally came out of nowhere and passed without comment just as quickly, and after you’ve heard a variation of this theme one too many times, all you can do is roll your eyes and walk away. However, if they occurred in my classes,
many a student would give slight pause and begin to worry if I wandered over to my desk to write something in my planner as it was general knowledge that one day I would be writing my book…

Corey did seem to have a talent for making a whole class stop, pause for thought and then trundle on again, and he, along with a few other students I’ve come across made me wonder if it was genuine cluelessness or if they were young comedy geniuses trying out new material. Most of
the time it was cluelessness.


“Miss…” (there’s a certain tone that kids use when they’re asking a stupid question as opposed to a genuine subject-based question. I’m sure that most teachers can spot this difference in harmonics and their mental early-warning systems begin to flash in response)
“Yes?”
“You know that pig meat is called pork, and cow meat is called beef?”
“Yes, I am aware of those terms,” replied Sandra, wondering, as did Alan and I, where this was
going. Seeing as we were watching and analysing a scene from This Is England that had nothing
to do with meat in any way, this was literally coming out of nowhere.
“Well, what do they call human meat?”
“As we generally don’t eat humans,” Sandra said, the irony dripping from her voice but completely lost on Corey, “we don’t have a name for it?”
“Could we make one up?” suggested Corey, clearly a little disappointed at this lapse in lexicography, but enthusiastic to further the cause of academia and the culinary arts.

 

I think Sandra, Alan and myself were a little concerned that in the pursuit of knowledge, practical experiments might have to take place. At the same time, it was one of those moments where I had to restrain myself from jumping in - human meat does have a name: longpig, as apparently according to those in the know (mostly a few tribes in Papua New Guinea), humans taste like pork. There are times when being a nerd and having odd bits of knowledge squirrelled away has to give way to appearances and Not Looking Creepy.

“Sir? Were you a lady of the night?” Matt asked Alan in one lesson. Again, this appeared out of nowhere, and had little to nothing to do with what we were supposed to be doing. To give Matt
a little credit, I was impressed by his turn of phrase.

 

It also showed the utter fearlessness with which the kids sometimes asked us random things.
It never occurred to Matt that this sort of question was inappropriate at best, rude and off limits
at worst or that he should keep his thoughts to himself. The thought had popped into his head,
and had gone straight to his mouth, as so often happened. Alan is a very cool guy, extremely
clever and like Sandra and I, knew when to challenge and when to just go with the madness.
“No,” he replied calmly, “because I’m not a lady.”
“Yet…” muttered Corey immediately. As any good comedian will tell you, it’s all in the timing.

Most of the time though, it was Corey’s general confusion that made everyone snigger and got
me to write things down.
Corey: Sir, did you vote for the SNP in the local elections?
Alan: No, there wasn’t anyone running for them in Wateringbury. (a quick search online will reveal this to be a small, pretty village in Kent, and completely devoid of Scottish politicians)
Me and Sandra: [sniggers]
There didn’t seem to be much confusion in Corey’s mind that there should have been an SNP member running in Wateringbury, and that it was just a shame that an opportunity had been
lost to further the cause of his national pride.

“Adversity? Why do people keep using big words that I don’t understand?” Corey exclaimed in
one lesson.
“Because there are so many of them?” Alan immediately responded. If there’s one thing being
a teacher teaches you, it’s how to think on your feet and respond to things really quickly.
In another lesson,
“Focal?! Is that even a word?”
Despite assurances from three teachers, one of them an English specialist, Corey didn’t seem entirely convinced that this indeed was a genuine word. I’ve noticed more than once that when
a student comes out with something stupid, and clearly stupid at that, it can take a remarkable amount of time and effort to convince them that they are in fact wrong.


Sometimes plain confusion was the cause of unintended hilarity, and not just from Corey, although he too did have his moments.
“Hypothetically, there were lots of people walking around.” I commented during one lesson when we were discussing another text.
“Hypo-what?! Isn’t that a disease?” was Corey’s response.

Perhaps my favourite - or was that dreaded? - moment of confusion generally came at a particular moment of a particular lesson I did with the Year 7s.

 

Because we saw each class for about six weeks before seeing another one, the D&T teachers got
to practice our lessons fairly regularly, where other subject teachers might only do a particular lesson once a year. Rotating the classes around us meant that we got to see all the students in
a year group, and it also gave us the chance to tweak and change our lessons much more and
to tailor it to different ability levels.

 

We knew that what might work for one group might not work with a group that was higher
or lower ability and while we had our Schemes Of Work that we followed, we built in enough flexibility in them that all of the students could access it and make progress.

 

One of my favourite lessons was the one I took on Colour Theory - as a designer, I love using
colour in my designs to reinforce messages, and it was one of the things that the students
grasped easily and could use in their own work.

 

A lot of them had done a little bit of work on this before seeing me, either at Primary school, or from the Art teachers, and it was a fun, easy lesson. I had a whole script which I used year after year, giving examples of how colours could be used to send messages. There was a whole bit
when it came to red and love where I picked on two innocent Year 7s and proclaimed to the
class that they were deeply, madly in love which got lots of laughs from everyone.

 

However, it was when we moved on to examples for orange that things became unstuck on a worryingly frequent basis.


Me: If I’m at a party, and I have lots of pumpkins there, what season am I in? (I usually did this bit right at the end of the orange section, so the kids were warmed up at this point and were keen to get involved, and wanted to have their suggestions put up on the board. They’d seen the sorts of things that I wanted to be put up on the board and should have been able to figure this one out easily. Emphasis on should. Their enthusiasm sometimes outstripped their brains though)
Yr 7 A: Pumpkins?
Me: [gently, patiently, encouragingly] No, what season
Yr 7 B: October?
Me: [a little more tightness in my voice] No, what season
Yr 7 C: Halloween?
Me: [frustration creeping into my tone] No, what SEASON
Yr 7 D: Orange?
It was usually at this point that even the Year 7s could see that things were not going exactly as planned and either the right answer was produced (Autumn, in case any of you were wondering),
or I just told them so I could move things along without having to bash my head against the wall.

It was generally the seemingly simple, obvious questions that produced the most confusion.

 

I had been known, in my more generous moods, to do a quiz now and again with my various tutor groups as a way to keep them occupied during our tutor time, hopefully to increase their woeful general knowledge and to just have a good laugh at them.

 

One quiz produced this:
Q: Who is the Queen’s husband?
Various shouted out ‘answers’:
“Diana.”
“Edward!”
“Prince Charles!”
“Diana’s dead.”
“It would have been Diana’s husband…”
“Bob!”
“King Charles died 15 years ago!”
“Tony Blair.”
“The really, tall, lanky guy.”
“It must be Charles!”

Another quiz threw up the absolute classic:
Q: What’s the first of the Commandments?
I will admit that this might have been a bit mean of me, but it was completely justified when a couple of the replies were:
Student A: The first one? There are seven of them aren’t there?
Student B: Thou shalt commit adultery? (said with only the slightest hint of doubt in her voice)

Things started off pretty well in A Level Media, but it soon became clear to both Alan and myself that the demands on our time were increasing to the point where priorities were going to have to be made and something was going to have to be dropped. Sadly, Media was a non-priority subject so it had to go, and my access to Corey’s brand of confusion and ignorance was sadly cut off. I’d have to rely on my own students to supply me with stupid comments, and luckily they were a rich vein to be tapped.

One last example of students just being a bit confused doesn’t come from one of my classes, but was passed on by Kate from one of hers, and is one of those things that you see as an image online and have a good laugh at.

 

As with all of the examples I use, it’s totally genuine, although you’d be easily mistaken if you thought is was a clever fake. Sadly, students really are like this, much more often than you’d think, it’s just that the vast majority of comments like these are lost to prosperity.


At this point, Kate had decided to train to be a teacher and was taking her own classes. In this particular lesson she’d given the students a quiz to test them on what they’d been ‘learning’ in the last few lessons. It was simple, straightforward and short, so it wasn’t a final exam or anything, it should have been totally doable, and given the students the chance to show of what they knew and get a bit of encouraging positive reinforcement.

 

You soon get used to seeing colleagues at their desks in their offices, almost hidden behind piles of papers that they’re ploughing through and marking, especially when the older year groups had been given mock exams to do.

 

You also get used to the muttered comments that tells you that things hadn't gone quite as planned and the results were going to be a tad lower than what you’d told your Head of Department they were going to be.

 

Now and again there’d be a paper that was really well done and you had to show it to everyone as proof that your students really weren’t as bad as all that, and on other occasions there were the unintentionally hilarious misspellings and context-inappropriate vocabulary usage answers that had to be shared, if only to lift the collective mood.


Kate gleefully showed us one such test paper from the recent test in the office during lunch, and it was so good I had to take a photocopy of it, and it was stuck to the wall next to my desk where it cheered me up every time I looked at it.


The first question asked the students to name two different materials and what they were good for. Simple. Straightforward. Easy.
One student had dutifully, if a bit briefly, noted down two materials and their properties, but, as an added bonus added a third material:
Material: Darth Vader - good for Death Stars.
A somewhat unconventional response perhaps, but technically he wasn’t wrong. Darth Vader was good for getting Death Stars built.