I Am A Weapon of Mass Instruction
Chapter 1: “Sir, how long is a metre stick?”
This is possibly the comment hat kicked the whole thing off, the idea to document and record
these incredibly stupid things that came out of the students’ mouths. Obviously, I’d heard stupid things said before this, and I’m willing to put my hand up here, some of them (quite a few if I’m honest) came out of my own mouth. But this was such a preposterous thing to hear that it had
to be written down somewhere.
The whole point of school was to increase the skills and knowledge of the kids we saw there,
but good grief, you would have thought that by the time I saw them, they should know the basics and not need to utter something like this. I was a Secondary school teacher, so there were certain expectations of the kids we saw. It was assumed that they’d be Level 4 when they turned up. Levels, for the uninitiated, were a grading system used at Primary school and in the first few years of Secondary school.
If I’m completely honest, I was never entirely sure how high the levels went. I knew you could get
a Level 7, and I was pretty sure that Level 8 existed, but as I never had to use those grades I wasn’t too worried. I say ‘were used’ because they’re not used now. The government in its infinite wisdom >insert hollow, bitter laugh here< decided that Levels were a bit too complicated and that parents really didn’t understand them and told schools to use something else instead. What that ‘something else’ would be was up to the school, so what we have now is a system where every school has a different system of grading and assessing their students. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if by the time you get to read this dear reader, the system will have changed again, so just assume that there’s
a general level of confusion about grading, and just wish everything was simple and straightforward, which is what I wished quite a lot when I was grading student work.
The problem here is that how do you match up all these systems? Secondary schools generally
have intakes from four or five feeder schools. When I was involved in our Year 7 (First Year for
those working in old money) programme, we once had a year where we had students coming
to us from more than twenty feeder schools. How on earth do you work with more than twenty different assessment systems? I have no idea, and I am heartily glad that I don’t have to. All this
was introduced in my last year of teaching, and I can still picture the training session we had after school to tell us all this. We were all packed into the assembly hall, after a full day of teaching and we had to pay attention. We were tired, hungry, thirsty, and grumpy (essentially the base state of being a teacher), and the very definition of a Tough Audience.
I’d already resigned at this point, so I’ll admit that I wasn’t really the intended target audience for this and possibly wasn’t giving the presentation all my attention. What I did pay attention too though was very confusing and made me chuckle as I realised that I wouldn’t have to deal with this upcoming car crash of a system. Essentially, Levels were dead, long live Levels by another name. A more wordy, slightly more abstract (and therefore meaningless) and overly complicated name, but Levels nonetheless.
So, students were supposed to arrive on Level 4 at least. To make matters a little more complicated - a theme that will probably repeat itself when talking about education - each Level was split into Sub-Levels so we could get and give an even more detailed picture of where a student was, so you could get Level 4a, 4b or 4c - essentially a high, medium and low band in that grade. If a student arrived with Level 4s in their subjects, that meant that they should be getting Cs in their GCSE exams, which they’d be taking in four and a half years time. If they were on Level 5s (a rarity for us), they were above average, if they were on Level 3s (all too often), they were below average. We often had the odd student here and there that were Level 2 or even 1. Even more rarely we had students that were on P Levels - the Levels used at Primary school to show that the student was lower than Level 1.
I had one student in my first tutor group - a group of students that I didn’t necessarily teach,
but I would see every day to register and deliver pastoral material to - who was on P Levels
and because of various reasons, could, bless her, barely count to ten. She was a sweet girl, but emotionally fragile and needed a lot of care and support. Apparently she could more than hold
her own in the playground, and could curse better than a drunken sailor, but I never saw that side to her. On one occasion, I happened to come across her crying her eyes out outside a classroom with one of the LSAs (Learning Support Assistants) trying to comfort her. She was in absolute bits and we couldn’t really get out of her what was wrong. What I do remember is her saying, apropos
to nothing, through her sobs,
“I,” >sob<, “hate,” >sob<, “my,” >sob<, “tutor!!”
“Anna,” I said gently, “I’m your tutor.”
With only a small pause of recognition - not because she was upset, simply because she’d forgotten who I was, she replied with an appropriate,
“I,” >sob<, “hate,” >sob<, “yoooooou!” the last word a drawn-out wail.
Anna was so limited that she never could remember my name, and would just call me “Mr Sir”.
Students like Anna were certainly not the norm at our school, but we encountered them regularly enough that our student support was very strong, one of the real strengths of our school and
we were justifiably proud of it. Part of the issue was that we were a school in Kent, which is one
of the few counties in England that was selective. This meant that there were two levels of schools in the State system. Schools like ours, were Comprehensive schools and catered to everyone.
The other kind of school were the Grammar schools, who took the top 20% of each year group
and were perceived to be ‘better’, ‘stronger’ and more academic than Comprehensives. So,
although we undeniably did get bright students, we never really had a good proportion of
the stronger and brighter students in our year groups. The chances of the majority of our Year 7 students arriving with shiny Level 4s were sometimes shaky at best, and we regularly had students who were Level 3s.
Add on to this situation the issue of my subject: Design & Technology. D&T had evolved from
the old Craft curriculum, turned into CDT when I was at school in the mid 80s (lots of line-bending acrylic into desk tidies), and then into Design & Technology. Rather than being one subject, were were an allied group of subjects: Resistant Materials, Electronics, Product Design, Textiles Technology, Food Technology and my specialism: Graphic Products. Even though we in the department called the subjects by their correct names, students, parents, and even other
staff would regularly just call them ‘Wood’, ‘Food’ and ‘Graphics’. Most of the time, the subject
was simply called ‘Tech’, which was somewhat annoying but which almost everyone used in the
end. One Senior Manager would regularly, and only half-jokingly refer to D&T as ‘bashing nails
into wood’ and Graphics in particular (as well as Art) as ‘colouring in’. Thanks for that.
The problem with D&T is that even at Year 7 it was fairly specialised, and required a modicum
of talent. I always said to students that as soon as they came into my room they were graphic designers (which was greeted by a range of facial expressions, ranging from surprise to undisguised boredom, disbelief and disgust), but of course they weren’t, and only a handful of students in each year group were genuinely interested in the the subject.
The other side to this is that very few Primary schools did very much D&T, and often not on a regular basis, so the students came to us as fairly blank slates. You’d think that because of this,
we’d start the students off at Level 1 and work our way up from there, but no, we had to work
on the basis that they were Level 4s and try and push them up from that somewhat shaky foundation. So the assumption that we’d meet eager, willing Level 4 students was something
of a false assumption.
Which brings us back to “Sir, how long is a metre stick?”.
Not one, but two students have asked me this in my time as a teacher, and each time it left me
with my mouth hanging open at a temporary loss of what to say.
The first time the phrase was uttered, it was by a Year 10 (4th Year) student. A 14 or even 15
year old. Genuinely asking how long a metre stick was.
A metre stick by the way was, thinking about it, a quite old-fashioned teaching resource that I remember from Primary school. It was a wooden ruler that was, handily enough, a metre long,
used to teach the younger students about units and measurements. It was a satisfying thing, not exactly heavy, but solid, and it was used by many a teacher as a tool to smack on a table to get the attention of a noisy or distracted class. It was something that every student should be familiar with. Every student should - especially if they were allegedly Level 4 or above, and certainly if they were
in Year 10 and mid-way through their GCSE courses - be able to instantly rattle off how many centimetres were in a meter, and hopefully how many millimetres as well. You’d think that,
Our students, whether through lack of mathematical ability or through sheer laziness and reliance on digital devices, regularly had no idea of the difference between centimetres and millimetres.
I’m talking about all of our students here, from Year 7 right through to Year 13 (6th Form). It was
a constant bane of a D&T teacher’s life, and it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence to be asked, when talking about the measurements on a particular piece of design work, if we meant inches instead
of millimetres (The UK had been using the Metric System of units and measurements since the 1970s. Since I was teaching kids in the 2000s, there really wasn’t any excuse for using inches).
Some students - and not very low ability ones - were genuinely confused about how to use a ruler. We used metal rules in the workshops, and they had centimetres and millimetres on one side and inches on the other. Old fashioned, perhaps, but it should have been obvious which side to use.
One of the exercises I often got my graphics students to do (if I was feeling particularly nasty, grumpy or if I just needed a good laugh) was as I sold it “An exercise in Precision”. It was also,
as well as seeing how precise the students were (not very), an opportunity to see how well they could measure and problem solve. It nearly always ended in disaster and at the end of an hour almost guaranteed to produce a very grumpy group of kids because they just couldn’t do it.
The task was simple: Draw a 100x100mm square. In that square draw an 80x80mm square. Inside that a 60x60mm square. Inside that a 40x40mm square and finally in that a 20x20mm square.
All perfectly centred. That was part one of the task. Easy, right?
You would have thought I’d asked them to produce complete architectural plans for the Eiffel Tower.
It quickly became evident in most classes that a lot of the students only had a shaky grasp of what
a square was. Many was the time that I had to ask several students in each class,
“What makes a square a square?”, hoping to get the response that a square has equal sides (which
I had hoped they would have gotten from the instructions of a 100x100mm square), but instead getting confused looks and pregnant pauses instead.
This was basic Maths knowledge, which apparently had managed to slip by them unnoticed. Now, perhaps I was being a little mean to them by making them do this task on plain paper, but I really didn’t think so. The concept of guide lines and right angles seemed to also pass them by. Most of the time I could see that the ‘square’ was wonky or wasn’t even the right measurement. Quite a lot of the time what appeared on the paper wasn’t even a square, but some random shape with each side a completely size and was wonky to boot.
Establishing that first 100x100mm square was painful enough, but the subsequent internal squares was like pulling teeth, for both me and the students. Again, I could see that they weren’t centred - why couldn’t they see it too? I would prowl the room, with a ruler in my hand to back up my argument that they hadn’t drawn accurately (oh, the times when I had to argue the point that
a shape a) wasn’t a square, b) was wonky c) wasn’t the right measurements d) wasn’t centred! Students would be adamant that they were doing it right when anyone with eyes to see could
see that it was nothing but a tortured mess.).
I would also have an example that I would have drawn the morning of the class to show that it could be done when the inevitable cries of,
“This is impossible!” would be whined by one or more of the students. I’d even draw another version right in front of them to show them how to do it (single straight line to start, second at 90 degrees, using the ruler to establish it, measure out 100mm on each line, draw the other two sides, measure and mark out 10mm increments on each side and then draw in the internal squares. Easy!). Even this was too much for some students. I last time I did this task was with a group of Year 9 students and the whinging, moaning and complaining that resulted was amazing. Out of class of 28, about four of them managed to do it.
The second part of the task is to render (colour in) the outside band using a fineliner pen, leave
the next white, the next black, the next white and the final square black, the aim being to be neat and precise. The students would get a point for every lump, bump, or slip of the pen. For every
bit left white on a black section, and for every time the ink would bleed out of the square. I was definitely being mean here, as it takes a little bit of time and patience to do this well.
I’ve done this many times myself and have never gotten lower than a score of about 10. This may surprise and shock you, but students are rarely completely focused and don’t have the most patience in the world. In this particular Year 9 class only a few of the students had gotten to the rendering part of the task, and I only marked a couple of pieces of work in front of them. Again,
I had an example to show them what they were aiming for. I soon had a collection of scores that ranged from the mid fifties (not too bad actually), to scores of over one hundred. The best/worst score I’d ever had from this task came from this class: 156, and the student hadn’t even finished. 156 errors or mistakes.
You would have thought that such high scores would have put a downer on the class, but most of them seemed genuinely pleased to have had a higher score than the previous student. Teenagers.
I don’t think I’ll ever really understand them. All this should demonstrate that our students were
not the strongest at units and measurements.
So that a Year 10 student asking me,
“Sir, how long is a metre stick?” really shouldn’t have some as a surprise, but it did. I really didn’t know what to say. This class was a group of Year 10 girls taking GSCE Textiles, fairly bright, fairly motivated. The fact that the majority of their designs and products were small home furnishings and didn’t require measurements in metres added to the oddness of the question.
The girl who asked the question, to rub salt into the wound, was Hayley and who was actually relatively intelligent. I recently heard that she’d completed her degree in Illustration, so she was clearly clever enough to do her A Levels and get into and complete university, things that are considerably more challenging than GCSE Textiles.
On this fist occasion of possibly the stupidest question I’d ever heard, all I could do as a comeback was to reply, only slightly sarcastically,
“I think the clue might be in the name.” which got sniggers from some of the girls, and looks
of blank incomprehension from others.
This same group of textiles students also came out with such gems as:
Student A: Sir, is Saturn a fabric? (remember, these girls were in Year 10, had chosen this subject voluntarily, apparently on the basis that they had some form of interest in it, and hopefully had some knowledge of the subject)
Me: You mean satin, you fool.
Student B: Why do sharks have noses?
Student C: [immediately after the question was asked, and with some asperity as to the cluelessness of the question] So they can breathe underwater of course!
Student D: Sir, weren’t the Aztecs in the Stone Age? They came after the Romans…
Me: But the Romans came after the Stone Age.
Student D: Shut up.
Student E: Aren’t the Aztecs Egyptians? I mean, a different kind of Egyptians?
Student F: (a sweet, quiet and studious girl) Sir, did the Aztecs sacrifice chickens?
Me: [deadpan] No. They sacrificed people. [possibly implying that the Aztecs had the right idea
and I new one or two candidates for the altar...]
Student F: [with perhaps a little too much relish] Cool!
Student G: Sir! Did you see how hard she threw that at my head?! If it’d hit me I could have gotten brain damage!
(the deadly object in question had been some some wadding for stuffing a cushion)
Student H: How would we tell the difference?
You’ll perhaps notice something from these brief exchanges. They’re all fairly random and arguably fairly stupid (and yet quite entertaining). I’ve always noticed that practical subjects like D&T and Art, where you spend quite a lot of time working on a project but those tasks also leave the brain some time to wander, throws up some strange comments and conversations.
One accidentally educational conversation that I remember from my own A Level Art classes was
a brief examination of what can get stuck in certain orifices, thanks to our teacher’s sister who was an A&E nurse. I’ll never think about mangoes or lightbulbs in the same way again.
Conversations like these just happen, and are, I think, just normal workshop chatter. As a teacher
it was part of my job to keep the students on track, but not the the exclusion of everything else, so random topics arose quite regularly. I never really minded when they were made, or extended into rambling conversations, as it was just part of the job - but don’t underestimate how much a teacher listens to everything. We might look like we’re not paying attention, but we are. I think my hearing was possibly the sense I used most in the classroom.
You’ll also notice that for some of the comments I was included, and some of them I wasn’t, that was just how it went. Say what you like about the students we taught at our school, but they weren’t backwards in coming forwards, and if they wanted to ask you something, they’d just come out with it. Perhaps I was much more restrained, or shy, or just less nosy, but I would never have dreamed
of talking to my teachers in that way, even the ones I liked.
The amount of times I was asked if I was married (I’m not), why wasn’t I married, did I have a girlfriend, what I did on the weekends (“What, you just read?! You must do something else as
well?”. A good question was always what I watched on tv because it provided the response of,
“Nothing. I don’t have a tv.” which prompted the reply of,
“WHAT?!” which was always good for a laugh as the kids tried to wrap their heads around the concept of life without tv.) or a hundred other questions; the kids were both incredibly nosy
and actually interested in what we did. It just depended on who you were as a teacher as to
what your response was. Sometimes you chose to answer, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes
you lied outrageously but with a completely straight face so that they kids bought everything
you said hook, line and sinker. Sometimes you just stared at them until they got the message
that the question was unwelcome.
Within each class you had to be prepared for 24 different temperaments, personalities, energy levels, knowledge levels, skills, humours, quirks and potential time bombs. To be a teacher you
had to be mentally flexible and be able to react very, very quickly if you needed to.
The last thing I should perhaps point out from the above exchanges is that I could - allegedly - sometimes be a little sarcastic. Okay, I’ll confess, I was always sarcastic with the kids, but most
of them never really seemed to mind, and those that did comment [read: whinge and complain]
on it just showed that they were aware of what sarcasm was and they couldn’t be told off for that. To be honest, quite a lot of the time, my standard response to accusations of sarcasm was,
“Actually, I think you’ll find I was being ironic and sarcastic at the same time.” More on my
reputation as a teacher later.
The second time that I heard the dreaded “Sir, how long is a metre stick?” was in a very different situation.
Only a couple of years after I had started at this particular school, the trend for project-based learning in education was very strong indeed. For those not in the know, project-based learning
was concept where you presented the students with a driving question or problem, which they would then attempt to solve, in the course of which they'd have to independently research and present information. It was quite different to the traditional Chalk & Talk model where the teacher stood at the front of the class and delivered on a subject while the students took notes.
Our Headteacher was very receptive to new ideas, and when it was proposed that we set up
a project-based learning programme for our Year 7s, he said yes, and REAL - Relevant Engaging
Active Learning - was born.
I very much liked the sound of REAL, and wanted to be part of the team. I was even sent on a training trip to learn all about project-based learning from a school that was actually doing it successfully, but it was not to be. When the REAL team was selected, I wasn’t part of it, and I continued to work in the Design & Technology department. I watched as REAL developed and
grew, and started to produce results. I tried several times to get on the team whenever an opportunity to do so arose, but it never happened, partly as I was the only Graphics teacher in
the school and no one could take over my classes if I switched departments. Yet, there came a
time when I did switch departments and I was on the REAL team, and this is where the second incident took place.
Part of the selling point of REAL to our parents was that the students in Year 7 spent most of
their time with one teacher, who taught them, via the medium of cunningly-crafted cross-curricular projects, their English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, ICT, Business and RE. The students would only leave the REAL department and corridor when they needed to see specialists like the D&T, PE, or Languages departments.
The upside to this was that the REAL teacher got to know the students very well and could make
the transition from Primary school to Secondary school easier. Instead of potentially over ten teachers to get to know and work with, which can be very intimidating to an 11 year old who
might have gone from a school with 100 students to a school with 1200, they’d only have to
work with a handful. It went down a storm.
As a REAL teacher I saw my students a LOT. One of the bonuses of being a Secondary teacher
was that you could say goodbye to a class after an hour - particularly handy if that class contained
a difficult to handle student or ten. It gave you a breather and made sure that the pace to the day was quite quick. Being a REAL teacher was different, very different.
I will grudgingly admit that I’m a fairly intelligent guy (I have the certificates to apparently prove
it and everything), but a Maths teacher, I was not. Nor a Science teacher. English and History I
could get away with, and I could wing it with the others as well. Learning a whole year’s worth
of projects and Schemes of Work was a daunting prospect, but I was up for the challenge and enthusiastic, so it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. I also very handily had one of my good chums
at school just across the corridor to ask for help if I needed it.
My first REAL group was mid-range mixed ability group of 28 students, all shiny-faced and mostly eager to learn. I had a couple of interesting characters, but they had been deliberately placed in
my class because it was thought that they might need the level of discipline that I was known for, and also the very low tolerance I had for being mucked about.
You might be thinking that we’re talking about 11 year olds here, how much trouble could they cause? Never underestimate how disruptive even one student can be to an entire class. One student can create mayhem and have a teacher running ragged right from the start, with the consequence that most, if not all of your time was spent on that student rather than the whole class.
In this group I had two boys who were high-functioning on the autistic spectrum, one boy who
had been very disruptive at his Primary school and who had missed a lot of school time and was therefore quite behind where he should be academically. There was one girl who was known to be sly and manipulative and I was warned early on - before the students even saw us, or we saw them - to be very careful with her and to not be alone with her in a classroom as she had made (false!) accusations against teachers in the past.
There was one lad who, while not an issue in himself, would have to be treated with kid gloves because it was suspected that his mother suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which meant that the student might be missing time from school due to ‘illness’. I also had one boy who would turn out to be very difficult indeed, and would require a lot of support and investigation
by myself, my head of department, the student support team and the Special Needs team.
As well as the students who needed a lot of support, there were some kids in the group that were extremely happy, confident and bright. It’s all too easy as a teacher to be negative about the job or any given day because we tend to focus on what has gone wrong, or on that one horrible student who ruined your day, but the truth is that the majority of the students I taught were really nice
kids, lovely in fact.
One particular student in this class deserves special mention above the others. I will remember
her fondly for a lot of reasons: she was bubbly and enthusiastic (she was just on the sane and controlled side of being hyperactive), was hungry to learn and do well, was chatty and wanted
to make new friends while being fiercely loyal to her best friend from Primary school, who was
also in our class. Her name was Lamarah.
This book is mostly about the silly, funny things that students have said, but credit also has to be given to the incredibly clever, perceptive or wise-beyond-their-years things that they said as well. Lamarah fits into this category (at least on this occasion. She also dropped some absolute clangers in the five years that I knew her).
On our first day as being a group, I eased the students in gently by having a discussion about Secondary school, what we were trying to do with them and what the aims were. As part of this,
I asked them,
“What is education?”, fully expecting a sea of blank faces, or some basic, straightforward responses that I could lead in the direction that I wanted to go.
I hadn’t counted on Lamarah. Her hand shot up at once, and while you don’t always call on the student who puts their hand up first, giving some of the other kids a chance, it was hard to ignore Lamarah, especially when she started to bounce a little in her seat and start to murmur enthusiastically and excitedly,
“Ooh, ooh!” in an effort to get my attention. Yes, students really do do this, quite a lot actually.
“Yes, Lamarah?” I asked as I gave in to the inevitable.
“Education is our will to learn, you’re just here to guide us.” she said without a trace of irony, sarcasm or doubt.
Boom! Consider me completely blown out of the water. Out of the mouths of babes indeed.
This was - and still is - possibly one of the strongest, most accurate, and profound comments
on education that I had ever heard, and it summed up exactly what I thought education should
be, and it came from an 11 year old who said it with such confidence and trust that that was
exactly what was going to happen in her experience of education.
I suspect that there was a moment when everyone in the room paused to take in what Lamarah had just said, and when I recovered enough, I turned around and put what she had said on the board. This was my standard practise for things that the students said, profound or otherwise.
A lot of the time it was comments of the nature that this book is based on, but strong comments like Lamarah’s went up there too.
One of the down sides to working in the REAL department was that while we got to know our groups really well, we only worked with them that closely for one year in Year 7. In Year 8 they saw more teachers as the transition to GCSE level studies continued. Very close relationships were built up, and then, as with all our students in one way or another, we had to let them move on to find their own way.
Lamarah will stick in my mind because of what she said on that first day, but also because she
was one of the students who would regularly just come and chat to me all through her five years
at our school. She’d usually appear early in the day at about 7:30 because she travelled quite a distance to get to school and was reliant on public transport. We’d chat, and I’d give her advice.
I’d try and wheedle some gossip out of her (schools do not run on enthusiasm, passion or professionalism. They run on gossip, and getting a juicy nugget of information be it from staff, student or overheard in the corridors made everyone happier.), or she’d try and get some gossip out of me.
When she was in Year 11 and her exams were looming, the chats would regularly become rants about the expectations of other teachers, at which point all I could do was nod, murmur something non-committal and try and steer her to safer waters.
She’d also try to convince/cajole me into making her a cup of tea (I never caved on this. There are some things I would do for students, but domestic service was not included on that list) as it was sooooooo early and she needed a cup of tea to be on top learning form. Lamarah is a truly amazing person, more a force of nature than anything else, and I hope she succeeds in her ambition to be
Enough misty-eyed nostalgia, back to the plot.
As part of the REAL curriculum, I took a group of low-level Maths students, the aim being to get them up to speed so they could progress to pre-GCSE topics. I didn’t mind having a lower ability group as this meant that there was less possibility of me cocking up any of the content. As I have already said, I was not a Maths teacher, and despite (somehow) being in the top sets for Maths when I was at school, I’ve always thought it to be my weakest subject.
My confidence in teaching it wasn’t great, and it was one of several occasions in my career when
a veneer of authoritative confidence hid the fact that I wasn’t too far ahead of the students in
some cases. The students might whinge and moan and complain a fair bit, but sometimes they were right. When do you need to be able to work out a quadratic equation in real life? I hadn’t
done some of these topics in a long time, and I was somewhat rusty.
Thankfully I had help at hand. Not only did I have two brilliant LSAs helping me in my Maths classes and in my REAL classes - Kate and Lewis - I also had Debbie, the school SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) helping me as well, partly because I was a bit rubbish at Maths, but mostly to support the students in the class.
I’d like to point out at this point how amazing Maths teachers are. The amount of marking they
have to do! I know teachers always moan about the amount of marking that they have to do,
but I strongly suspect that as a Design & Technology teacher, I had had it very easy indeed. A lot
of the time we were looking at design work and it was really easy to see what level the student
was at and give an appropriate grade. This made marking a bit tedious, but fairly quick.
The Maths marking that I now had to do, oh my goodness! It took AGES. I was finally getting
a taste of what proper teachers had to do all the time! And I only had one class to do, proper
Maths teachers might have ten or more groups each week; I had a new-found respect for them. Even worse was English marking. My best friend at school, Sandra, was an English teacher, and
she would do hours and hours of marking most evenings. I was heartily glad that I did not have
that marking load on my shoulders.
(Fun teaching urban myth: apparently an easy way to mark a set of books is to throw them down the stairs, the reasoning being that those students who have written more will have more ink in their books and therefore be heavier, which will make them go further. The books farthest away from you get the higher grades, the closest to you the lower. I haven’t done this myself, but in the spirit of experimentation and discovery, a friend of mine did try this out and allegedly it was true! Sadly I lived in a flat and had no stairs of my own to try this out on.)
It was in one of these Maths classes that,
“Sir, how long is a metre stick?” was uttered for a second time.
On this particular day it was just me and Kate with the group, and due to the nature of the
question, we must have been doing some work on units and measurements (although I can’t
be sure - as I’ve pointed out, there can be no predicting when or the context of some of these comments). The unfortunate speaker of the question was David, a student who also happened
to be in my REAL group, so I knew him quite well. A good kid, not particularly bright, but not very low-ability either; a little bit lazy, he had a good sense of humour and was one of those kids who was fun to work with.
When the question left his lips, I just groaned and rolled my eyes (another of my standard responses to stupid questions). Luckily, in order to share the hilarity, Kate was at the same table and also rolled her eyes. Kate was a very strong LSA who didn’t take any rubbish from the kids and who has since gone on to do her teacher training.
Like me, she could, on occasion, now and again, possibly be a little cutting and sarcastic with the kids. Funnily enough, most of the kids were fine with us being this way and generally took it in good humour. Kate had three children of her own and was used to tormenting... er, guiding kids. Because these were Year 7 students, we couldn’t be as withering in our responses as we usually were. Add
to this that this was now a few years on from the first Metre Stick Incident and I was somewhat mellower in my attitude and a lot more tired - I had to pace myself!
My response this time was to simply walk over to my board, get my handy metre stick - which
I had inherited along with the room - walk back to the table with David, hand it to him and said,
“Figure it out.”
You’d think, you’d hope that the resolution to this incident would be fairly swift and simple. There
are several easy solutions to the problem David had set himself: realise that the clue was in the name. Look at the numbers on the stick itself… Not for David.
He proceeded to get his own ruler and measure the metre stick, to a growing audience of gleefully appreciative students, who knew entertainment when they saw it. Again, you would hope that this tricky mathematical situation would be quickly resolved. No.
David dropped his ruler, several times. He had to get down on the floor to manage the task. He used the inches side of the ruler. He lost his place on the stick and had to try again. All the while Kate and I were standing there giving him a hint now and then, the other kids looking on in amazement.
In my memory, David measured that stick at least three times, and got a different result each time. Not one of them was correct. To this day I do not know if he was playing to the crowd - something he was perfectly capable of doing - or was genuinely that… I struggle for the right word here. Inept? Rubbish? Stupid? ‘Challenged’ or ‘limited’ would be the educational way of phrasing things.
In the end, it just got too painful, and it was time to get both David and the rest of the group
back on track, so I took the stick away from him. It was one of those moments that happen in
a classroom that probably isn’t supposed to happen (we’re supposed to be in control of the room and the students at all times, and - according to Ofsted [the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, the government office that insects schools] - every student should
be engaged and working at all times), but which crop up frequently and that actually make the job memorable, and in a strange way keep you sane and satisfied.
Yes, some of the comments might want to make you bash your head against a wall or pull your
hair out in frustration (sadly not an option for me, my hair had made a strategic retreat years ago), but they also made you laugh and showed the students that you were human and not some emotionless educational robot.
That first REAL group quickly learned that what came out of their mouths could potentially be fodder for my upcoming international best-selling book (fingers crossed!), and they certainly contributed their fair share of material for it.
During one Geography-based project on environmental impact, we were discussing water shortages and how they could impact both human and animal populations, in particular endangered tiger populations in India.
I will admit that I was having an off day and I was not on top form…
One of the students had said something silly and for once I hadn’t written it down, but it was worthy of sharing with someone else. My REAL room happened to be one of the showcase rooms in the school. We were in a brand new building, and the rooms were large, light and bright. It had been decided in the planning stages that my room would be a larger, open plan room with the result that it was a bit bigger than the other rooms in the corridor, but also that I had no wall to the corridor - it was open to all the comings and goings of the school.
This made it a bit tricky if I had a double lesson and we had to put up with several classes essentially tramping through our room on their way to and from their second classes, but it was a small price to pay. It also made it really easy to pop into another classroom for something and still keep an eye on the class.
I took advantage of this on this day, and stuck my head into our office, where our media technician Dan worked. I told him the silly and amusing thing that had happened, we both had a laugh and then he suggested that to spice things up, I should tell the kids something that was blatantly untrue to see who would pipe up and tell me that that was wrong. I’m not entirely proud of what happened next, but hey, it was funny and again demonstrates how gullible, naïve and possibly stupid kids can sometimes be.
I went back to the class, and in the process of moving the students on and delivering a bit more content on the subject, I may have told them that tigers were the only animals in the world that could talk, but that they generally chose not to. I delivered this ‘fact’ with no break in my rhythm or a change of tone, completely expecting to be drowned out by a chorus of young voices telling me that I was lying and/or an idiot.
There were a few raised eyebrows and mutterings of doubt, but, unbelievably, there were a couple of students who registered only mild surprise and one or two actually added this new ‘fact’ to their PowerPoint presentations! I’m convinced that there are, at this moment, several sixteen year olds hopefully wishing that they’ll be able to have a conversation with a tiger one day.
While on the same project, the subject of tigers being orange came up, and a brief discussion on stripes and camouflage took place. I also brought up the existence of white tigers…
“White tigers?! That’s about as likely as, as… pink camels!” exclaimed Megan.
“White tigers?! They’re not real!” piped up Jacob, “They must spray paint them or something!”
Sometimes the honest and heartfelt protests of a hard-working teacher really can’t convince a
child of something they really don’t want to believe in.
Megan is also the source of a couple more great quotes. Megan is a sweet girl, very hard working, but sometimes had a somewhat… unique perspective.
“I don’t like fish fingers,” she announced one day (I have no idea why), “They’ve got too much chicken in them.”
Megan’s solution to global warming and rising water levels:
“Why don’t we just tip the Earth on its side, then all the water will run to the bottom.” she announced with complete confidence in her ability to manipulate cosmic forces.
Every year the school ran a trip for the Year 7’s to EuroDisney, and I was ‘lucky’ enough to be one of the staff to go the year of my first REAL group. (Residential trips can be hellish. Imagine 60 Year 7 students all over-tired and completely overdosed on sugar for four days. It was common for the staff to be awake at 1am, ever-alert for little heads poking out of doors.)
Part of the trip included a day in Paris, with a chance to go up the Eiffel Tower. To foster group spirit (and to be able to keep an eye on the whole group), each year the kids would be given a trip hoodie with their names on the back. This year’s colour was a bright pea green. While we were at the Eiffel Tower, with the group milling around, Megan observed, looking over the sea of green hoodies,
“Look at us Sir. We’re like a virus, we get everywhere.”
All I could do was nod in agreement to an astute observation.