I Am A Weapon of Mass Instruction

Chapter 13: Period One - Year 9 Graphics - 8:30-9:30am 

It’s been noted by several commentators that there are only two institutions in the world that
are run by the sounding of a bell: prisons and schools. The suggestion here is that both kinds
of institution require the rigidity and discipline that a system of timed bells provides, and, one supposes, that will get everyone where they need to be at the right time. Allegedly.

The bells at school were not a source of contention or discussion, but it was clear that they weren’t 100% effective, and a couple of things had been tried out over the years. We’d tried warning bells, followed shortly by the actual bell to tell everyone that class had started. We’d tried having ‘travelling time’ between lessons so that the next class could start with a full compliment of students, but this hadn’t lasted as some of the kids saw this travelling time as just another  opportunity to have a chat.

There was an on-again off-again conversation that we should do away with the bells altogether - we weren’t a prison after all! - and that we were all grown up enough to be able to manage our time-keeping. At this point in the conversation the participants would all pause and images of those staff members - and there were a few - who we all knew wouldn’t be able to either function without the bells or were so hopeless at time keeping that their classes would be all over the place in very short order.
“It wouldn’t work, would it.” would come the verdict, and the issue would be laid to rest until the next time someone got annoyed with the bells and the idea was resurrected again.

I was somewhat ambivalent on the issue myself; yes the bells were something we could probably do without, but I was not entirely reliable when it came to telling the time. When I was at school, I had once turned up to a music lesson an hour early because I got the time wrong, and just lurked around for an hour wondering where my teacher was. Another time when I was apparently a highly trained and qualified responsible professional, I got a little confused with the timings of the school day and let a class out 20 minutes early.

My defence, your Honour, was that the timings of the school day had just been changed and I hadn’t gotten used to them, plus I was rubbish at telling the time and it was while I was in the huts while the new building was being constructed, so the bells were rarely heard anyway. While it was my responsibility to manage the students and get them to their next class on time, I did notice afterwards the not one of the kids mentioned that they had been let out early, and no wonder as they weren’t going to complain about having their break time doubled. Luckily, no one noticed my gaffe apart from one other teacher, but she too had gotten things a little wrong and let her class out too, so we kept it between ourselves.

As a compromise, there was a warning bell five minutes before Period One and Period Three which was after break. It was reckoned that this gave everyone ample time to get where they needed to be. As someone had been compulsive enough to time how long it took to walk from one end of the building to the other - three minutes - no one had any excuse at all for being late, not that this stopped people from actually being late of course.

The warning bell rang, and the day officially started.

We were all supposed to stand outside our rooms at the start of lessons - it was us ‘owning the corridor’ and we were also supposed to greet the students. We all knew that this was yet another educational fad and was probably being done to tick a box in order to show Ofsted something - what exactly I’m not too sure. That we could all get jobs as greeters in various retail stores once we got the sack for being rubbish teachers? If I were at all a cynical man, I would have noticed that not very many of my D&T colleagues owned their bit of the corridors, and neither did too many other staff if I was able to be out and about during a lesson change over. If I were in any way grumpy and bitter about the stupid hoop-jumping we had to do, I’d theorise that this was because most of us saw that it was a stupid thing to do and only did it when being observed, but I’m not, so I’ll move swiftly on.

I did stand at my door, but whether I owned the corridor because of it is debatable. I certainly didn’t greet my students as they trickled in, but instead generally told them the first thing I wanted them to do, parroting the line again and again as they walked past me. It was usually,
“Up the front please,” or “Grab some paper and something to draw with.” I didn’t bother getting the students to line up, it was generally something I didn’t do. I preferred to get them in and sorted. If
it was in the five minute warning period, it meant that I could squeeze a few more minutes from the lesson, and anyway, I assumed that my students, at least the older ones, were more than capable
of finding my room and sitting down without having to be directed.

Our lessons were an hour long, which if you had a difficult class or were feeling ill felt as if it was being dragged out to near-infinite periods of time, but if you were on form actually went shockingly quickly. When I’d started teaching at our school, lessons had been an hour and twenty minutes long, which was better for a practical subject like mine.

If you took off five minutes at the start for getting everyone sorted and taking the register, and then five minutes at the end for packing up, you were down to 50 minutes already. If you had planned
to do multiple tasks within a lesson (as were were all supposed to according to Ofsted and various other ‘official’ sources), that cut your time down considerably for actually getting anything done.
I always told the students that the most valuable thing that I could give them was time - time for them to get on and work on their projects - so I didn’t want to waste any of that time waffling on giving instructions or chopping and changing activities.

As it was, by the time the students really got down to it and got in the groove of working, it was
time to pack up. In the old hour and twenty lessons, they’d have almost another half an hour in which to produce some quality work, but we had to work with what we had. Even so, I felt lucky compared to the PE staff who were even more pressured for time. The students walked past my windows through the playground on their way to the fields, and I couldn’t help but notice that it took a good 15 minutes for them to get changed, registered and on their way to the fields, and
at least another 10 on their way back, so nearly half the lesson was gone already. It was difficult enough to get a top-notch observation score doing a practical lesson, so the PE staff had an even more tricky time of it than we did.

With my game-face firmly in place, I leaned up against the door frame and asked the students to
sit themselves up the front of the room so I could tell them what they’d be doing that lesson. When most of them had arrived I headed in myself and started to take the register. It had been years since we’d had to work with something so old-fashioned as a paper register, and we all used a piece of software that allowed us to take digital registers - it also had their data and targets on a separate tab, and we could also access each student’s behaviour information and their personal details. It was a very handy tool, but everyone moaned about it anyway because, as I’ve mentioned before, teachers like to have a good moan.

It was very annoying if the software crashed or if it was glacially slow, and it was at times like these that I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to have a nostalgic flashback to the old registers you filled out by hand. Generally though it all worked well, except if you forgot to do it in the first place. There were certain staff members who were notorious for not taking their registers. Now, this might not sound like a bad thing, but it had an impact, especially if they forgot to do it for Period One.

If you somehow managed to skip a student on your class list, when you hit Save you’d get a prompt to mark them in or they’d be marked absent. Not a problem, and as I’d missed more than one student over the years it has a handy reminder to have. If you didn’t do your register at all, all of the class were marked as absent. This was an issue because we had an automated text message system that once activated by our Attendance Officer would send a text home notifying the parents that their child had not been marked in. This was fine if the student was at home ill and the parent hadn’t had time to call in and let the school know,  but if the student was in fact in school, it led to the parent at best angrily ringing the school to tell them that their child was in the building, or at worst an angry and frightened parent ringing us to demand to know where the hell their child was.

Again, it was a handy tool to have, and there had been a couple of cases over the years where neither we or the parents knew where the student was and we could start looking for them. But if they had gotten a message and we didn’t know where the student was because one of the staff had forgotten to take their register, then the parent could rightfully be angry and we looked like idiots.
Thankfully, I was pretty anal about the register being the first thing that I did every lesson, so that it was done and out of the way, but there were times were I forgot to save it, or even forgot to take it altogether. But equally thankfully, these were rare occurrences, and I was not on the list of staff who regularly failed to do their registers. I know this because I was friends with the ladies in the Student Support office, which is where the Attendance Officer happened to work, and they told me exactly who didn’t do their registers - have I mentioned how prized gossip is in a school? The ladies were usually up for a chat, and if especially annoyed at certain people for causing more hassle than they should, they could be quite free when name-dropping the culprits.

For a short time, the register situation got so bad that all the staff were told in no uncertain terms that it was part of our professional duties (you could always tell when we were getting a telling off because the word ‘professional’ was over-used in the rant) and a legal obligation to complete our registers. We were also told that from now on, if a parent got a message that their child was not at school and it turned out that they were in fact on-site, it would be the responsibility of the teacher who should have marked them in to call home and profusely apologise for the mix up. Not a problem for the likes of me who might at worst miss one or two students out, but for those who didn’t mark in a whole class, this represented a huge chunk of time spent calling home, and for a little while at least it did the trick.

I rarely did the traditional call and response way of taking a register, I just looked around to see whether the student on the list was in or not. It helped me either learn or remember the names of the students if it was a new class for me, and it also put off having to start the lesson properly a little. I also took my time as I knew that with the older classes at least a few of the kids would dribble in late and disrupt whatever I was saying at the time, so I’d learned to wait at least for a little while for them to show up.

With this group, I could guarantee that Daisy would be late, despite the fact that I’d seen her lurking by the Sports Hall before the bell went. In her case, it was better to wait for a while in the hopes that she’d turn up sooner rather than later and not disturb the whole class in the process. Harvey would also be late, but he always was as he claimed that his train was late. Later in the year as I was given a couple of additions to the group, I could also count on Caspian on being late. At some point however, I had to bite the bullet and get started.

In theory, this should be a fairly straightforward, if not easy lesson. The kids had been working on a project for a couple of weeks that I had adapted from the controlled assessment task that the Year 11s had had to do a few months before. It was a nice variation on my standard geography-based project, and they had to pick a city to work with and produce the cover for a travel guide book for that city. They’d done the preliminary work, generated their ideas and were now working those ideas up on the computer - easy.
All I waned to do was to remind them where they were, what they should be doing - as opposed to what they wanted to do - and how long I was giving them to complete the work (never as long as they would like).

I was about ten seconds in to giving them their reminder when Daisy burst into the room, and I’d learned to just stop and wait for her, as challenging her this early in the day was a waste of everyone’s time, and I really wasn’t up for an argument this early. You might think that stopping what you’re saying and just standing in front of a group of 28 teenagers like a total lemon would be somewhat uncomfortable, but you get over that sensation pretty quickly. One of the things that we’d been told in our training very early on is that if you felt flustered, or you didn’t know what to say, just stop. Stop and wait. It would feel like whole decades are passing while you collect your thoughts, but in reality, no one notices a pause of a few seconds.

It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I truly appreciated just how long time was. In my fist year of teaching, I’d had a student accuse me - along with me picking on her, and we all know how I feel about that - of staring at her. This might sound like an odd thing to accuse me of, but I soon discovered that staring at someone and in the process, ‘Giving Them Evils’ i.e.. giving them an evil look, was not a good thing to do.

“You’re givin’ me evils!” was one of the gravest insults that you could give in the South East - it was certainly a different world from good old Cornwall. When another teacher tipped in to try and sort the inevitable argument out, April, the offended student practically wailed out,
“He keeps staring at me! For, like, five minutes at a time!” April was actually a really nice girl, and after this spat we got on really well. For the moment though, the situation was not quite so amiable, but I sensed a swift victory approaching. Before my colleague could open her mouth, I got in there first with,
“Five minutes? Please. Look at the clock.” We all turned and watched as the second hand slowly made its way around the clock face. Within five seconds of uncomfortable silence the point had been made and we all knew it, but never one to let an opportunity to go to waste, I dragged it on until 30 seconds had dragged by.
“Five minutes? That wasn’t even one minute and I’m already bored. If I was staring at you for five minutes, neither of us would get anything done.”
“I s’pose” she muttered.

It was in April’s class that I uttered a line that both frustrates me and makes me chuckle every time I think about it. I’d been telling off another one of the students, a girl named Kendal, and it was clear that I may have cranked up my vocabulary a notch or two in the process.
“Urgh!” she grunted, as only a teenager displaying her full range of emotional disgust can, “Speak English Sir!” was her witty barb, as she apparently didn’t know some of the vocab I was using. Somewhat frustrating as Kendal was in Year 11 at the time.
“I am speaking English” came my reply though gritted teeth. Generally Kendal and I got on quite well, and she became an ally when I had her little brother in my tutor group as we all knew that Kendal was the only thing he was genuinely afraid of - I’d threaten him with her wrath if he wasn’t being co-operative, which usually did the trick.

I seem to be segueing from one student to another here, but thinking of one brings up memories of another. Kendal’s brother Justin was one of those lads at school who only functioned when he was with his mate, James. They were something like a biological co-dependent couple, sharing a brain or something. You always saw them together, more or less out of trouble and stumbling around like puppets with at least half their strings cut.

This was when the new building was being built, and half the school was in huts as they tore down half the site to put up the new building. Our Headteacher - newly appointed and in his first post as
a Head - came across Justin and James one day when they obviously should have been in lesson, faces pressed up against the fence to the building site, staring at what was going on. With a gentle reminder that they should be in class, Justin’s only response - which certainly wasn’t to scuttle off to lesson as fast as he could - was to stay exactly where he was and say,
“I just love diggers, Sir. I could watch them all day.” something which he apparently hoped he would be allowed to do. Sadly, he and James were ushered off to their lesson, and I was informed of their little adventure later in the day by a slightly bemused Headteacher.

Back to the Year 9s and Daisy. She burst into the room, only managing to look slightly guilty. I knew that if I challenged her on why she was late - which we were all supposed to do, to reinforce our behaviour expectations - she’d just claim, with a scowl, that she wasn’t, ignoring the evidence that both bells had gone, the corridors were empty and she’d just walked into a lesson in progress. So I stopped what I was saying, put on Grumpy Face #7: ‘Barely Tolerant Get A Move On And Be Quick About It’, and waited and waited and waited. I’d learned that this was also part of the show, and that she was just waiting for me to say something so she could bite back.

She went all the way to the back of the room, dumped her stuff and grabbed a chair. She dragged the chair along the floor - my floor was lino, not carpet - making a noise not quite like fingernails on a blackboard, but not too far off either, only to put an ‘innocent’ smirk on her face when I raised an eyebrow at this. She finally sat down and not completely unlike a chicken settling itself on the nest, sat down. A less wise teacher than I might have made a snarky comment at this point, but I was much wiser than that, mostly because I’d learned through experience that making a snarky comment at this point would just start an argument, so I kept my mouth shut.

Picking up where I stopped, I ran through what the students were doing, getting them to remind me about certain points to prove that they were paying attention, but there really wasn’t much to say to this lot, and I really wanted them to just get on today, so I finished up and they scrambled to get to their computers. Never underestimate just how territorial a teenager can be - there were a couple of mini-groups in this class that would almost come to blows defending what they saw as ‘Their’ computer or even ‘Their’ seat. My usual response to this sort of thing was to quip that whatever they were arguing over didn’t have their name on it and to find another.

Predictably, as soon as I’d finished talking and the kids were sorting themselves out, in walked Harvey, which meant that I had to call him over and go through it all again. As ever, I was tempted to let him just figure out what he was supposed to be doing, but I knew that would be a recipe for minor disaster, so I pushed my annoyance down and ran through what I wanted from him - the quick version.

I remember one lesson where because of one reason or another, five students came in late one after another, and each one got an increasingly quicker and briefer set of instructions each time. It was somewhat unfortunate that the last student to show was James, a notoriously nervous student, and one of the Special Needs specialists had come down with him to give an explanation to his class teacher for his lateness. He may have gotten a curter version of the instructions than he probably deserved, and the SEN specialist didn’t deserve the irritated comment about having to go through instructions five times either, but this just shows that it’s difficult sometimes to control your mood and comments at school, even though you certainly knew a lot better.

Fortunately for me, I had a good working relationship with James, mainly I thought because I didn’t treat him any different than any of the other students, and I think he appreciated that. I think he quite liked it when I came out with my obligatory,
“James, that’s awful,” when looking at some of his design work, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you.” He knew by now that I was probably joking, and would just try to defend his dodgy design choices by claiming that they were ‘pretty’.

With the lesson started, my main job began - roaming around the class looking over shoulders, being nosy and giving direction where necessary. These guys were not too bad in terms of their designing, they were focused and no one was veering so off-track that it required me to get them back on-track. There were a few students who I needed to keep an eye on but nothing major.

Sam was notoriously lazy, and needed a verbal prod every time I’d pass him to get him working again. I was always a bit bemused when a student was as lazy as Sam was, especially in the exam classes when they’d allegedly chosen Graphics due to some vague level of interest. In some cases,
it was a matter of the student coming around to my way of thinking, but in others I had to come to the conclusion that they’d do what they’d do as no amount of haranguing or persuading on my part seemed to have any impact. You learned where and when to fight your battles.

I wouldn’t say that there were any bad designers in this class, although a few of the students were still finding their feet and their design direction. Jess, who had originally been part of Daisy’s little group but who had now allied herself with Leia to great results, was a bit odd - she loved flat greys and minimal colour, which while wasn’t my personal preference in the use of colour, was her decision to make. It wasn’t until the Year 9 Parents Evening that it all made sense, as she said - to my surprise - that Graphics was her favourite subject, and that she wanted to be an architect when she left school. Several pieces fell into place, and I was able to have a conversation that I’d had a couple of times over the years - that her design style was in fact quite blokey and male: very flat, very structured, very geometric. Nothing wring with that style at all, but just a bit surprising when some of the ladies used it regularly in their work, but it made complete sense if Jess wanted to go into architecture - the structural elements of her designs would work well in that design context.

As ever, it was always a bit strange to see how some students just got it and their designs seemed to take no effort at all, and the work was jaw-dropping in its quality, and how some students just laboured over their work and made it far, far more torturous than it needed to be. Having been in both situations many times over the years myself, I could appreciate both ends of the spectrum.

At the brighter end of the class were Connor and Carter. Carter’s cover design was simple, restrained, subtle and beautiful. He’d picked absolutely the right image to use on it, and was just letting it do the work for him. His colour choices spoke of a designer who had been working in the industry for years, had gone through his phase of using bright, bold colours and had come out the other side, and understood how soft, almost neutral colours could do the job just as well. He was well into the phase of making those really small adjustments to his work, where just one cursor-nudge in one direction or another could make all the difference to the piece.

Connor’s piece, while similar in a way in its simplicity, was all strength and boldness. Really strong colour blocking building up horizontals and verticals in the piece, and mirroring the colour scheme from the front cover to the back. Part of the brief was that they had to use at least one image on the design, and while Carter’s image wrapped around his cover, Connor had only used one image and that was small and only on the front, yet both of them worked extremely well. It was interesting that they had both chosen New York as they city they were working with, and despite two extremely different end products, they both suited the city and communicated something about it.

More importantly, and also meeting a point in the brief, they were doing it in a non-clichéd way. If
I walked past these products in a book shop, I certainly wouldn’t think that they’d been designed by 14 year olds, and would most likely stop and pick the book up. In cases like these, all I was willing to do was to make really small suggestions to the work as the students very obviously knew what they were doing - an example of what I always said when students produced good results: that it had little to do with me.

On the other hand, students like Liam annoyed me no end. It wasn’t that his behaviour was awful or that he couldn’t do the work, he was actually quite talented when he put his mind to it, but he rarely did that, and was more interested in chatting and distracting those sitting next to him. His work so far this year had been okay, but I could see that he could do better. He was one of those annoying students who had talent, skill and potential but who didn’t do very much with it.

For this current project, he was absolutely determined to work with Naples for his city as he’d visited it and I think had a family member living there. He was so determined to do it that he couldn’t see that what he was coming up with was far too obvious, cheesy and just a bit rubbish. This is far too easy to do as a designer - you get too close or too involved in a design to actually see it for what it is, and you work really hard to make it work, when you should be realising that it’d be easier for everyone involved to stop and try something else.

Liam was completely convinced that using the colours of the Italian flag was a good idea - I did
not. He was equally convinced that rather than less being more, more was in fact better and had repeated these colours rather generously on both the front and back covers. My comments and direction had changed and evolved somewhat during the course of his design process, from,
“Hmmm, I’m not sure about that…” implying that what I was looking at was horrible and not working, to,
“That’s not working, is it?” through to the more direct,
“You need to change that.” going on to list the various design sins that needed to be gotten rid of,
to finally just coming out with an unequivocal,
“That's horrible, get rid of it.” which might produce a spirited, but short design discussion between myself and the student, but which ultimately resulted in me getting my way.
Liam, however, was not picking up on any of these subtle clues, and just carried on creating something that was messy and not very attractive at all.

And so the lesson went. A brief discussion with one student about how bright orange probably wasn’t the best colour choice in the world, especially when teamed with that font and when you made the text that disturbingly 70s shade of brown. A couple of situations where a carefully timed and toned,
“Really?” got the student on the receiving end to question their design choices a bit more carefully.

I studiously ignored Daisy as she seemed to be more or less getting on with her work for once
and I didn’t want to say or do anything that would disturb her somewhat fragile concentration.
Not the most exciting lesson in the world, and if I was being observed, I’d be criticised for not showing enough progress, but all the kids were working and they were making progress on their deigns, so I was more than satisfied. There hadn’t been any arguments... okay, there had been arguments, but it had been over design decisions, but that was perfectly acceptable in my book. What I meant was that there hadn’t been any arguments with Daisy, and managing that, keeping her in the room and working as well was a big tick in anyone’s book.

I kept an eye on the clock throughout, seeing the hands move oh so slowly around the face. There was enough time left for a last round of the class before it was time for them to pack up. Not much had changed while I had been getting the resources together for the next class, but one last look cemented in my head who had worked well and who was producing some really lovely work. As I quite often did, I told the whole group,
“I think I know who’s in the lead,” as I made a quick round of the computers. Not that I explicitly made their projects into a competition, but the students always liked to know who had done well, and for some of them, this spurred them on to improve their own work.

It was also good in a design subject to point out which work was good and why, so that all the students had a better idea of what to aim for. Completing my circuit of the room, with more than one pair of eyes on me, I told the group,
“There are two people who I think are doing really well,” which made more of the students look around. “Who do you think they are?” Getting the students to be critical of work, and to be able to justify their decisions was one of the more tricky tasks, because a lot of the time they were overly critical of their work, or just didn't want to voice an opinion in case it was wrong. I’d done some work with this group on putting their ideas forward verbally, and while some of them had no problem with it, there were still a good few of them who needed to get more comfortable with
it, and asking them who’s work they thought was best and why was a simple way to do it.

There were the inevitable claims from certain students that their work was the best despite everyone knowing that it wasn’t, but even this was good because looking at work that wasn’t up to scratch was just as valuable as looking at good work. Unusually for our school, where the students weren’t shy in letting you know what they were thinking, the students whose work I had identified as being the best kept quiet, so it was down to the others to do it for them, and thankfully a couple of them did name Connor and Carter, and they could even say why their work was successful too, so it was pats on the back time for all concerned.

A good lesson, their work was closer to being finished, no arguments and they could even identify and talk about good design features and a little positive reinforcement thrown in to boot - all in all,
I couldn't have asked for a better start for a Terrible Tuesday.

All that was left to do was to get the group packed up and ready to go. I issued my usual (and often ignored) warning to make sure they saved their work before they logged off - I think all the staff were very bored and unsympathetic when the inevitable cry of,
“I’ve lost my work!” or,
“I can’t find my work!” or, even more doubtfully,
“The computer’s deleted my work!” came from students when we all knew that they could be rubbish at saving work. A usual  trick was to just click save on a new document, without even knowing where it was being saved to on the school server, or without naming it something
obvious first.

Once the Year 9s had logged off and shut down the computers and got their coats and bags, the traditional end of lesson refrain of,
“Can we go?” started up - not that they were that eager to get to their next class, they just wanted
to go. I replied with my standard,
“No, we have to wait for the bell - I get in trouble if I let you out early.” which wasn’t a total lie as it was certainly noted if you let your classes out too early on a regular basis. My usual measure was that if I could see at least a class-worth of kids wandering about, it was safe to let my group go too as they could all mingle into one unidentifiable herd.

It was often the case that I would be standing at my door, peering out into the corridor to see any other students, while the PE staff would be doing the same, holding their classes back a well - it
was like an educational version of playing chicken, seeing who’d break first. As I was usually very comfortable playing the Mr Grumpy role to the hilt, I rarely let them go when they asked and yet they would ask the same question lesson after lesson even though they knew what I’d say. If I was feeling especially magnanimous that day I’d let them go about 30 seconds early, which made the kids feel as if they’d won some sort of concession and gave me a little bit of a breather before the next lesson.

Fatigue Lv: 1.5 - minimal; energy levels holding steady
Preparation Lv: 2.5 - I’m sure I’ve forgotten to do something
Fear & Dread Lv: 31 - Year 11s are always a bit unpredictable
Fake Anger Lv: 8 - the normal appearance for grumpy Mr Austin
Real Anger Lv: 2 - some of the Yr 9s really are lazy little things
People who have annoyed me: 4
Time remaining in the day: 7 hours, 20 minutes