Samuel Elliott takes us through a day in the life of a teacher connecting with students on their level, all the while bringing them up to his.
I turned to see five lads ambling towards me like Boris Karloff. Manbags and Air Max trainers against a glowering Edwardian school building – welcome to Birmingham.
‘How are we, this morning?’ I said. ‘How were the Rice Krispies?’
‘It’s all about the warm milk, sir.’
‘You keep telling me that but I’m not a rescue kitten, am I? I’ll eat my Rice Krispies with cold milk like a civilised human being – now stand in the line, lad.’
We all laughed.
‘Thassa violation,’ said Kieran. ‘Sir’s mocking it.’
I smiled. Kieran was right: I really was mocking it. With a hand chop, I signalled the line again, reiterating my expectations. Because what kind of bouncer doesn’t create an orderly queue?
‘We focus on one thing at a time,’ I explained. ‘You need something: you wait. The line is the priority.’ At the back, a lad was gesturing fiercely enough to wave down a Boeing 747. ‘What is it, Hamza?’
‘Sir, I need to give something to –’
‘Is it an inhaler?’
‘No, but the thing is…’
‘Not that bottle, surely?’
‘Yes, the thing is that…’
‘That bottle is empty, Hamza, and you’ve twisted it. In fact, it’s not even a bottle anymore – it’s litter. Give me the litter, Hamza.’
He looked at me, thought better of renewing his request, and traipsed to the bin.
The one thing that always bothered me about Shardley Heath was the bins: blue and resembling an ordinary pedestrian bin – until you drew near, that is. They were subtly larger than they should have been. I’m not sure if this was a conscious decision of the designers: a kind of ‘choice architecture’ where larger spatial extent would encourage increased use, or whether they doubled as stage-props for budding Doctor Who enthusiasts in Key Stage 3. Either way, the paradox of them having more litter outside than in was inescapable.
I got inside, booted up SIMS, my timetable looking like a losing game of Tetris.
‘Here we go,’ I thought while taking the register, adrenaline infusing my spit like I’d licked the top side of a battery – a shock to the system, but on the plus side, remaining positive. There was muttering, so I paused my instruction. The muttering continued. ‘Little boy,’ I said, looking at one in particular. ‘Do you have any idea who I am?’
New to the class – a veritable greenhorn in Elliott-ology – he didn’t have a clue. But the question was geared to impress. There is something about it: ‘do you have any idea… who I am?’ I mean, who am I – really? Ronnie Pickering or someone? But no, this was no YouTube road-rage video. The stateliness of the question was an answer in itself, and the Little Boy stopped muttering and told me, ‘It’s calm, sir’.
Not something you’d find in your Bill Rogers.
Lesson one and I’m in a room with a projector and whiteboard. The desks remind me of my own schooldays, where you’d avidly scratch ‘lighthouses’ into them with the point of a compass – because back then, apparently every teacher was a teacher of geography. As for today, I’m a history bossman – certified. Medicine through time. And the starter is questioning:
‘How would medicine in medieval times be different to today?’ [open]
This question is the hook. It does not require much in the way of knowledge, although if they do proffer a factual response, it could then constitute a form of retrieval. Largely, the value of this question consists in the placebo – to soothe, calm, and establish confidence. Once they’ve sat down, I begin writing letters on the board:
‘FH – BB, YB, B, PH.’
I tell them that the prevailing theory is the Four Humours, which are Black Bile, Yellow Bile, Blood, and Phlegm. And everyone says it aloud. Soon, I point my pen at each of the initials and the students respond chorally. In five seconds, we have it permanently memorised.
One boy arrived late with his manbag fastened tighter than a seatbelt in a rally car.
‘Off,’ I said. He screwed his face at me before deciding to ignore me and sit with his friend. ‘Young man,’ I said. ‘Come here a second.’
I was never a fan of Praise in Public (PIP), but Reprimand in Private really does spell RIP to bad behaviour: ‘come here a sec’ will do more for your classroom management than any amount of verbal warning or written consequence. All the C-system does is establish a kind of league table for bad behaviour. C4s, meanwhile, are so incendiary that they could just as well be called ‘plastic explosive’.
‘What would your mum and dad think,’ I said. ‘If they knew that you were in your history lesson with incorrect uniform, talking over and disrupting your teacher? Listen, young man. I don’t know you and you don’t know me – but I show respect. You know what I’m saying?’
‘What happens if you wear your manbag in lesson? Why do I care about that?’
‘Because if I can wear it, anybody can wear what they like.’
‘Exactly. Now, am I going to have this conversation again?’
He shakes his head.
‘C’mon,’ I hold open the door.
He was good after that, and I had faith that he would continue to behave. And because I had that faith, he continued to behave. This irrationally rational knot of circular logic is often referred to as the Pygmalion Effect, named after the sculptor of antiquity whose love brought a statue to life.
Up and down the country, history teachers with chisel-tips can hew forth similar miracles wherever they combine strong systems with a faith in the kids.
But forgive me the sermon. In the frenetic blur that is the five-hour day, Period 5 is soon bearing down on me like an Atlas stone – as it does this time every week. Quick toilet break, a perspective change, and my memories cast back to that barren room with the textbooks and the IKEA desk. Back when I grafted out those five A levels on my own because nobody could teach me. I snap back: I’m in the midst of that Period 5 and it’s time for Sisyphean shotput as I hurl that rock into the horizon and watch it caroming between hard places in V-shaped valleys. A board-pen, a burgundy tie, and some serious Badmanism for Learning (BfL) – just what the doctor ordered.
‘You know what I’m about,’ I say nonsensically, gesturing as if to resuscitate myself. ‘Siddown, with the books out – you gotcha pen?! Right, John Snow and the pump!’
‘He vandalised the pump,’ says Raihana.
‘The Broad Street Pump.’
‘Disease and symptoms.’
‘Cholera: dehydration and diarrhoea.’
‘Papa Smurf!’ says Alex.
‘Papa Smurf?! What does Alex mean, Riley? Do you know?’
‘They called it the blue death – the loss of fluids would render them blue. Like a smurf.’
‘I want Billy to tell me about the inventions of the medical renaissance,’ I say. ‘And I want five key figures of the industrial period named – that’s you, Ameera.’ Billy begins reeling off the inventions as I jot every key letter from the topic. On that bruised and bludgeoned board, grown scabby with smears and indelible curlicues: the residue of thought.
‘You see me? You look in this direction’, I say, too direct to come at them with a SLANT. ‘Florence Nightingale: her life. I want to know, Abbas.’
‘Expand upon that.’
‘In the – er – that war, sir.’
‘Boo hoo,’ I say. ‘Think rivers.’
‘Crimea,’ he laughs. ‘In that war, the soldiers were out in the tents with poor… sanitation.’
‘Raihana, what do we mean by this word? Billy, use it in a sentence afterward.’
The fine filaments of knowledge can channel sparks. But to galvanise classes, see the questions as frames in a broader animation. Each question adds motion and life to static historical figures. But remember: maintain that continuous circulation of factual recall, because if your lesson is a ‘dead ting’, no amount of defibrillation will save you.
For Samuel Dunn