I See Tea Time

Anybody who has ever taught ICT in a secondary school context will tell you that there are but a small number of ways to arrange a computer suite, in order to fully facilitate the process of teaching.  Read all of the books on Feng Shui, and Interior Design that you like, but this is one instance where layout serves a much more practical purpose: the teacher has to be able to see every screen from every conceivable position in the room.  Concepts such as ‘harmony’, ‘balance’ and ‘vibrations’ don’t enter into the equation.

Given that this particular tale relates to  a time prior to every ICT teacher having the software to oversee all of the other computers in the room, the best way to achieve the desired effect was to imagine oneself on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and arrange all of the monitors around the outside, facing inwards: thus enabling the teacher-protagonist to strut around the room, barking out instructions akin to Captain James T. Kirk; complete with imaginary space-vest and space-paunch, should the need arise.

Sadly such precise layouts weren’t always on offer, and given my fairly comprehensive track record of supply teaching, I have found myself in plenty of situations, whereby a lesson was compromised by a constant need to supervise particular individuals prone to downloading games in a bid to avoid the prescribed lesson; as well as, pass the school day in a way more agreeable to themselves. How else might it have been possible for me, to discover the joys of ‘Bubble Shooter’ and subsequently whittle away a certain amount of my own downtime, which I could have used more productively?

So, it was on one such occasion that I found myself covering a Year 10 ICT lesson in a school that I had been regularly attending, and had seemingly – for the most part – ingratiated myself with.  That is, if one overlooks a slight feeling of ongoing antipathy directed towards me, on the part of one of the assistant head teachers.

Of course, it could quite easily have been the case that the individual in question, carried an awkward charge more generally, and subjected any number of other members of staff to the same passive-aggressive demeanour, unwittingly or otherwise i.e. it’s not all about me. It’s very easy, at the time of engagement however, to see oneself as the sole lucky recipient; particularly when one is a supply teacher, with few real allies in the staffroom.

That aside, most of the time, things were just great, with the majority of the lessons on any given day passing peacefully and productively.  Naturally, there are singularly tricky groups in every school, and this was no exception.  As was the case, with the aforementioned Year 10 ICT group: particularly if you bear in mind that I was teaching in a computer suite that had so many nooks and crannies, you could have played hide and seek in there, as well as attempting to conduct the actual lesson. Oh, and did I mention that they were a small group comprising largely special needs students, and individuals with behavioural difficulties? They certainly did.

‘We’re the naughty kids, aren’t we Sir?’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that’

‘Then why is our class called 10w, and all of the rest are called 10a, 10b, 10c, 10d and 10e?’

‘Ah well, there might be a good reason for that. The letters might stand for something. Yours might mean ‘wonderful’, or something like that?’

‘It might stand for something else beginning with a ‘w’ sir’

‘Witty, maybe? I’d say it’s probably best not to speculate?’

Despite the slightly negative deliberations on the part of the students, the lesson went off fairly peacefully, especially if we further consider that it was the last one of the day, and if anything – at least in my experience – things tend to get tougher as the day wears on: the more fatigued one gets as an individual, the more the kids are apt to exploit the ‘chinks in the armour’; more so, if they’ve been exposed to a welter of sugary drinks and snacks over the lunchtime period.

So I was quite pleased that I’d managed to keep them relatively on track with regard to the work, with chastisement regarding the business of looking at sites other than those prescribed kept to a minimum.  So much for the Feng Shui and Interior Design theories.

But such appearances can be deceptive, and rather than congratulate myself on my ability to – not only – maintain order and build a rapport into the bargain, I should have adhered to previously hard won insights along the lines of ‘if a group of otherwise disruptive students, elects to play along to such a degree that it might be deemed out of character, then it probably is out of character, and then there is a deception or a distraction at large’.

And so it was that with about ten minutes to go, until the end of the lesson, the landline in the corner of the room put in an appearance. It was the lady on the reception desk, down by the entrance to the school.

‘Have you ordered some pizzas?’

‘No, why would I do that?’

‘Well, somebody in your name has.  Don’t worry, I’ll get the duty manager to come up there and see what is happening’.

It was at this point – putting the handset down, and slowly turning on my heels – that I became aware of a fully attentive audience eagerly awaiting the next move: an audience, it seems, fully ‘in on the joke’; an audience fully aware of the events leading up to this moment, and excitedly awaiting the next scene. An air of anticipation hung heavy in the room.

‘What was that, Sir?’

I decided to play it down, in an attempt to minimize both the incident, and any potential outcome.

‘Oh, nothing to worry about.  C’mon, why are topping… er, stopping?’

Now I don’t know who the much alluded-to ‘sod’ is, or what business he or she has making laws in relation to the business of stuff going awry, and spinning further out of control, but I think it was pretty much a given that the duty-manager-du-jour would turn out to be the assistant head I had previously deemed somehow resentful of my presence. And sure enough, in that precise capacity, they ‘dutifully’ appeared.

They ‘dutifully’ appeared just as the bell rang, so that the whole episode had the unfortunate look of a pizza-delivery person announcing their presence at the door, and entering to pass their wares on to the hunger-stricken inhabitants therein. I thought it best not to suggest the possibility of a tip.

Assuming an immediate assistant head-style authority over the situation, the identity of the perpetrators was promptly established – it was a fairly small group, after all – and the whole class was dismissed without retribution; a generous move that had little bearing on their need to push things further by enquiring as to whether they might partake of the bounty they had been so instrumental in procuring.

‘Don’t worry’ said the assistant head, addressing me directly, complete with a smile that I couldn’t decide as to whether it was sympathetic or malevolent… or both.

‘I think we can make use of these at the staff meeting’

The response was so low-key that it left me in place where I could only speculate as to the potential outcome, and imagine both positive and negative developments as distinct possibilities. From the school’s perspective, I could easily see the need to add a couple of items to the ‘any other business’ feature of the staff meeting agenda: the need to rearrange the ICT suites in such a way as prohibit access to unauthorised sites, and some sort of review regarding the extent to which the school employs and utilises supply staff.

Ruminating on the latter as I walked home that afternoon, I wondered what I might do, in the absence of further offers of temporary work. And although I didn’t settle upon anything immediately, given the speculative nature of the ruminations, I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling, by way of a cruel irony serving to underscore my plight that I might somehow end up working in a fast food emporium. But presumably, not in charge of the computer?

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Supply Teaching? It’s a bit like Stand-Up Comedy apparently.

A little while ago, I was asked to contribute an article to a renowned Teacher blog and website: along the lines of how stand-up comedy might be compared to supply teaching. It didn’t make the cut. No biggie, really. The exposure would have been nice but given that I work as a stand-up comedian, rejection and failure are an ever present reality. While I can’t claim to enjoy those sensations any more than the next person, they are – thankfully – a minority outcome, and when they do happen, one learns to get philosophical fairly quickly.

In fact, like a supply teacher, as a stand-up comedian you reach a point – in most cases – whereby you see yourself as someone who is doing a job, and if the persons gathered in front of you don’t like what you do, so be it. Unless you say or do something truly outrageous, it doesn’t mean they have a problem with you as an individual; they just don’t like the cut of your jib.  Mostly, they are indifferent to you as a person, beyond the confines of the given environment. Experienced comedians, like experienced teachers seldom talk along the lines of how much ‘they hated me’ unless it’s with an ironic after-the-event-type-smile. They talk in terms of how the situation might be improved for all concerned.

‘They need to shut the place down. They don’t pay me enough to put myself through that sort of nonsense. Not now, not ever.’

Setting facetiousness aside, are there genuinely any links that can be made between stand-up and supply teaching, however tenuous?

If anything, stand-up comedy is easier. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had people say to me ‘Stand-up comedy? I couldn’t do that. That’s so brave’ but think about it, a comedy audience have paid to see you, and have an expectation that you will justify their investment. That’s a long way away from the potential ‘Great, we’ve got a cover teacher, let’s create mayhem’ outcome that is an ever present possibility at the outset of a day’s supply work. I know which the trickier situation to negotiate is by far.

And anyway, conflating the idea of stand-up comedy and bravery is a trifle excessive, is it not? While there have been instances of boundary-breaking comedians who set out to challenge convention, broaden the cultural palette, and in so doing faced a great deal of hostility, in the majority of cases, stand-up comedy is populated by a certain type of – albeit talented – narcissist who’s initial motive is an abiding need to have their existence validated in the immediate moment, by virtue of laughter.  The better ones are aware of this of course, and concentrate on getting good at the craft.  Whether they regard themselves as brave or not is a matter for the individual psyche, but I’ve yet to see a stand-up colleague featured on ‘The Pride of Britain’ awards; unless they’re the one presiding over the event.

Given then, the accepted belief that that we have a relatively short amount of time in which to make an impression, my experience suggests one is much more likely to receive a heckle from a student in a ‘supply’ situation rather than an audience member in a comedy club, irrespective of how much confidence is being exuded: ‘Sir, you look like Billy Connolly’ being a frequent contribution at one time, in my case. I don’t but what are the chances eh? And I’ve lost count of the number of times my surname has inspired a succession of poor but good natured Gollum impersonations.

In a comedy setting any dissent (i.e. heckling) is dealt with in the form of highly amusing spontaneous counter remark, or in many cases, a potentially brutal put-down. You can’t do that at the beginning of a day’s supply.

‘Sir, you look like Billy Connolly’

‘In which case, so will you one day, given the extent to which I know your mum’ (I assume we understand the thinly veneered and highly ‘hilarious’ comedy subtext being implied here?)

Any retorts, witty or otherwise at the start of the school day are likely to backfire. It’s too early, you haven’t won over the kids sufficiently, and anyway, you’re not being employed to provide entertainment. No, the approach that is required is to respond with an air of relaxed but controlled authority, and do your best to avoid clichés along the lines of ‘It’s your time you’re wasting. Any time we lose now, you will have to make up for, at break time’. If for no other reason than you don’t want to talking in terms of surrendering your own break time already, in the process.

And what of the material you might ask? Well, in a comedy situation, much of what one offers, is a bunch of ideas you’ve taken around the place already, polishing them as you go. Which is why, whenever I get complimented and an audience member asks me if I just made it up off the top of my head, I always tell them ‘yes’. I wouldn’t want to disappoint anybody.

Conversely, on a supply job, if the plans you’ve been handed by a helpful TA – always an asset – are any good, you’ve got about 10 – 15 minutes, in a primary situation, to reduce the first lesson to a series of bullet points, before the kids come in, and you have to hit the play button. Less so, in some secondary situations whereby you might have to absorb them at the top of the lesson, with the students already present in the room.

If anything it’s more akin to the semi-spontaneous skills required of the comedy MC: the individual who performs the thankless task of keeping the audience on track between the acts, and when not being met with indifference, meets with suggestions along the lines of ‘You were pretty good as well. You should have go at it’. Duh!

Teaching supply can also be like the role of the MC in that you to have to keep going back to the scene of the awfulness, if you’re having a rubbish time.  If a comedian ‘dies’ on a gig, they’re out of the building. Dying as an MC is much worse: ‘Hello, it’s me again. Yes, I’m still terrible, it would seem’. And so it is with supply. Start badly, and not only is there a chance that will continue, the likelihood is that it’s only going to get worse, as the kids get more animated, and you get more tired. And that’s before we factor in the possibilities of the high sugar content lunchtime, and ‘difficult to control’ open spaces such as drama studios and fields. Yup, there’s nothing quite like arriving at a supply job, and realising that there’s a lesson or two of PE on the agenda. If you ever thought PE teachers looked vaguely ridiculous encircling the throng with their whistles and their tracksuits, you want to try doing the same in a suit.

Overall though, in the case of both stand-up and supply teaching, it’s true to say that if you do well, you’ll get invited back. Obviously, there can be an element of ‘the face don’t fit’ in both instances but, for the most part, merit wins.  So much so that in both areas of endeavour, you can build up a bit of a portfolio of potential work outlets, and choose how to balance the two, or further, choose one over the other.  Over the same period of time, you may even get to grips with the sometimes trickier business of negotiating both the dressing rooms of the comedy world and the staff rooms of the teaching world. But those are a couple of other comparisons entirely.

 

 

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Parking on the School Run and Other Misdemeanours

While there many things teachers and parents might disagree upon, one thing that unites everybody is the business of negligent parking – some of it wilfully so – on the school run. There’s no doubt it drives both parties to utter distraction, and while the majority of parents maintain an admirable community-orientated approach to the whole business, there are a number of those who don’t. Let’s have a look at a few of them, shall we?

 

The Bulldog

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, there used to be a children’s game called ‘British Bulldog’.  The game was simple in that it consisted of an individual child – in the guise of the ‘Bulldog’ – attempting to block their classmates as they rushed towards him or her, in an attempt to get past. This was way before the’ health and safety’ people – the spoilsports – stepped in and decided that children actively hurling each other into the concrete was a bad idea; and also before there arose an increasing unease in relation to the right-wing connotation inherent in the game’s name.

One can only assume that the thrill of the game has been internalised within the car-driving Bulldog (not the right-wing bit necessarily) insofar as their school-dropping modus involves a variant on the same theme, by stopping in the middle of the road at the busiest point in relation to the school gates: thus ensuring that nobody else can get past.

And let’s face it, if you going to play the Bulldog, what you’re going to need is a dirty great 4×4 or one of those huge American truck-style monstrosities that evokes images of predatory banjo-playing hillbillies, just to make absolutely sure that the possibility of anything edging its way around is rendered completely and utterly negligible.

Of course, the Bulldog makes the occasional allusion to the environmentally unfriendly nature of their choice of transport, but they’re fooling nobody: ‘We realise it’s a bit of a beast but what else can you do when you’ve got four children so close in age’. Dunno, maybe make a few concessions towards contraception, as you’re casually hurling your various undergarments around the bedroom, after a night on the Shiraz. Might be a good place to start?

Taking time to walk around their ugly motorised people-carrying contraption, dispatching each child individually, the bulldog makes a suitable gesture of acknowledgment to the car heading up the significant queue behind them. Make no mistake, it’s not really a gesture of acknowledgment, it’s status-confirmation. They’re letting you know who is boss, and it sure as heck ain’t you babe.

Even on those very rare occasions when the Bulldog does park in a designated spot, it’s pretty much a given that they will do so in such a way as to compromise the number of cars originally intended to fill the space. It is after all, expected of them.

Half close your eyes, imagine a large motor vehicle straddling two supermarket places, and a lonely abandoned trolley soon to be occupying the third. Yup, that’s them as well.

 

The Trainer

While not as inclined to block the traffic in the same way as the Bulldog, the Trainer will nevertheless park immediately outside of the school, on the yellow zig-zag lines, and preferably at the most hazardous point on the entire road.

For theirs is a different agenda. Whether or not academia constitutes any sort of a priority, when it comes to the Trainer’s children is an unknown quantity; it’s pretty much a given that athletics most certainly does; the sprint, in particular.

You see those doors on the Trainer’s car? At the precise point when the Trainer stops, they aren’t doors anymore. To the Trainer, they are traps. Traps waiting to be sprung, and the best time to spring them is just at the point when the risk of another car hitting one or other of their children is at its highest.

I don’t know if you’ve had the unfortunate experience of having to hit the brakes to avoid hitting the Trainer’s kids, but a funny little game of chicken it isn’t? It’s stressful and it’s potentially bad for your own laundry situation.

Nonetheless, satisfied that their kids – having narrowly avoided the carnage once more – have reached the other side of the road, and presumably improved upon their time, the Trainer takes off at great speed intent on subjecting other parents’ children to the same rigorous methods in relation to their own individual ability to cross the road rapidly; noting a comparable level of underachievement, as they go.

Whatever the individual merits of the Trainer’s method, it’s worth bearing in mind that no post Gold Medal win interview ever contained the sentence, ‘I owe an awful lot to my parents who encouraged me to put my life on the line everyday on the school run’.

 

The Sloth

While it is conceivable that the Sloth could easily qualify as a Bulldog or a Trainer, the main attribute that they bring to the proceedings is that they live less than five minutes’ walk from the school; and yet somehow, they persist in driving the kids to the school every day.

The Sloth lives but a stone’s throw away. In this instance, were the term ‘a stone’s throw’ to be taken literally insofar as if one was to throw stones from the Sloth’s house in the direction of the school, it would more than likely take out half of the windows in the foundation area. How close does the Sloth live to the school? So close that that the vast majority of other parents – on any given day – are parked further away from the school than the Sloth’s actual house. That’s how close.

And this is taking into account the fairly accepted norm that kids are best served by regular exercise; even as little as five minute walk to the school, one would imagine? But no, the Sloth’s dog commands a greater level of priority in the exercise stakes; although the logic suggests that if it were possible, the dog would be taught to drive, and have done with the business of walking as well.

So, not only is the Sloth going to drive the kids to school, they’re also going to clutter up the parking arrangements for everybody else, in the process: because the Sloth comes armed with the perfect excuse, and that is ‘I have to drive to work immediately after I have dropped them off’.

So urgent is the need to get to work that the Sloth can often be seen outside the school gates with a number of other parents catching up on a spurious piece of gossip or three, fifteen minutes after the kids have all gone in; the urgent dictates of capitalism grinding to a halt in the process.

And anyway, what sort of job other than – quite possibly – the emergency services is so important that there isn’t room for a little five minute manoeuvre here and there? You can always petition the boss in relation to the possibility of sticking an extra bit on at lunchtime, can’t you?

But there’s no discussion as far as the Sloth is concerned. And even if there was, do you really want to share the same oxygen with someone who in answer to the question ‘Why not let the boss know you’re walking the kids to school, and you’ll make up the time elsewhere’ comes back with ‘I haven’t got a boss, I’m self-employed’.

 

The Player

On any other day, the Player might easily qualify as a model citizen. But in this instance, the Player is a model citizen who just before reaching a Michael Douglas-style ‘Falling Down’ point, has pulled themselves back from the brink and decided that the only to deal with the horrendous nature of the parking situation is via the means of stealth, and cleverly outwit all of the other players on the block. To that end, they turn up between thirty to forty minutes before there is any need to take the kids into the school i.e. very early indeed. But to be fair, their parking is impeccable.

Of course, we’ve all seen (and pitied) their like before: sleeping outside department stores on Christmas Eve in anticipation of the Boxing Day; or similarly in relation to the Black Friday sales. You may scoff but bear in mind, the Player thinks they are being clever. And we wouldn’t want to burst their bubble would we?

To the credit of the Player, their children are much less likely to dash recklessly across the road, like those of the Trainer. The flipside however, is that they may well be more prone to Stockholm Syndrome in later life, in the event of a kidnap: given the amount of time they spend in the car with their original captor.

More conspicuous in the afternoon, having initially thought the Player might be some sort of sleuth on a stakeout, some of the local residents have taken to informing the school that there’s a suspicious individual hanging around outside the school on a regular basis. A waste of time for all concerned when you consider that a member of the admin staff is now duty bound to come and check that that the aforementioned ‘suspicious individual’ is indeed the tediously predictable Player.

So how – you might ask – does the Player fill the time? It would be nice to think that they’re studying the classics or revising for a degree wouldn’t it? But the truth is they’re reading ‘Take a Break’ magazine, and creating facebook posts which overuse the word ‘literally’ (literally) and feature pictures of their own beautiful steering wheel: ‘Literally outside the school again. Can’t get any closer to the gates. Literally’.

With all of that time on their hands, you’d think the Player would volunteer to do some work in the school? Say helping the kids with their literacy, numeracy or some such. The chances are it comes with a free parking space within the school grounds after all.

Then again, maybe not. I mean what who wants to have to listen to their own kid coming home and telling them how great it is that one of their mate’s parents is clueing them in on the best way to get to the front of the dinner queue. Literally.

 

The Sociopath

Around the same that the nation’s children were merrily engaging in the ‘British Bulldog’ game, there lived an old and very divisive lady who, for many, was the last great individual to embody that same ‘Bulldog’ spirit (in the right wing sense) associated with the name of the game.

Whether or not the old and very divisive lady played the ‘Bulldog’ game as a child is not known, but those that disliked her said that, as she was fond of selling people shares in things they already owned, they could easily imagine her stealing other children’s sweets, as a kid, and selling them back to them at a higher price (or selling them to her friends in the Tuck Shop at a knock-down rate). They said their argument was backed by her behaviour in later years when she gleefully stole the milk off the little children as well.

But those that loved her, loved her even more for this, and they fawned excessively. In return, and as a means of acknowledging the ceaseless fawning they heaped upon her, she would dispense nuggets of political wisdom, most of which they lapped up like dogs. There were some nuggets however such as ‘there is no such thing as society’, that even some of her biggest adherents struggled with.

And even though the old but divisive lady is no longer with us, for some people, these words still have the power of a great spell. The idea that ‘there is no such thing as society’ is alive and well, and being promulgated by those who would put a bag on the seat next to them on a train, or drop litter, or let their dogs defecate everywhere without picking it up. Or most significantly, park on the double yellow lines outside of the school with qualities of vigorous impunity they feel the old but divisive lady would no doubt admire; assuming they realise the origin of her ‘no such thing as society’ mantra. Her detractors say such individuals are her true legacy. They are the Sociopath.

Every single day the entire community has to put up with the Sociopath and their inclination towards doing as they damn well please, despite the constant diplomatic pleading of the school, via the updates they send in the form of a weekly newsletter. But to no avail.

Some have tried confronting the Sociopath but it only seems to fortify their sense of entitlement further. And as for leaving passive-aggressive post-it notes on the Sociopath’s windshield… forget it, it only provides them with increased opportunities to discard litter.

Even the occasional appearance of a traffic officer – admittedly a delightful event to witness from the perspective of a bystander – only allays the problem for the duration of their stay. The minute the traffic officer disappears, same old, same old.

For good measure, the Sociopath sometimes brings along an accomplice, and one or other will remain in the car while their partner-in-crime goes about the business of collecting the child or children. The Sociopath and the accomplice are easy to tell apart. The Sociopath remaining in the car, looks for ‘all the world’ like they couldn’t give a flying one, while the accomplice has the anguished appearance of someone wishing a third party would bestow an invisibility cloak upon them. But that’s what you get if you play gimp to the Sociopath, and their hand-me-down ‘no such thing as society’ outlook.

You see, when you think about it in any depth there is such a thing as society. There is such a thing when it comes to the business of engaging with others, when all of our paths cross and we are obliged to pay deference to ‘the other’, when we agree that certain fundamentals make for an easier and more peaceful time for all concerned. When we interact.

But let’s just say, there isn’t such a thing as society, and we are all free individual economic agents, with nothing to bind us together – as well as free to park where we like – as the Sociopath no doubt believes. Well, equally doubtless, there are those amongst the Sociopath number who own businesses in the locale. It’s simple. Don’t endorse them. Then we’ll see whether there’s such thing as society or not. We’ll see how far a lack of custom equates with a lack of society.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this post, and you would like to discuss them further, please feel free to comment below.

 

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Teaching Puns to Germans

During the time that I was studying at Brighton University, I got the opportunity to supplement my meagre scholarly income by doing some teaching over the summer, at one of the very many foreign language establishments in the city.  To be fair, I didn’t have a TEFL qualification but in this instance, as far the company I was working for was concerned, it didn’t seem to matter.  Thus, I was able to deduce that we weren’t talking about the most upmarket operation in town. But given the level of popularity that it enjoyed, an operation that was clearly within reach of a certain budget: the fact that some English was being taught seemed almost incidental to the process.

In truth, the whole thing seemed to function as a means by which the reasonably well-off parents of foreign children, offloaded the responsibility of their teenage offspring for two or three weeks during the school holidays, on the spurious notion that they were being ‘educated’; whilst the parents presumably continued to live the childfree existence to which they were accustomed. As a consequence, my mind was continually subjected to images of a multiplicity of both European and International kiddies singing ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’ as they wept into their host family’ pillows.

Such was the cut-price nature of the enterprise that I was frequently subjected to the kids complaining about, not only the temporary accommodation they were expected to inhabit (spare rooms in council houses in some of the most deprived parts of the city), but – worse for them – the food that was being stuffed into their less than appetizing lunch boxes.

Picture then if you will, affluent Norwegian students, filled with burning indignation, pulling apart the paltry offerings contained within the plastic re-sealable packaging that passed for the aforementioned lunch boxes; one step shy of the old Sunblest variant, myself and many of my contemporaries had known during the period of our own sweet youth.

‘Sir, what is this?’

‘My goodness, that’s Sandwich Spread. I haven’t seen that in years’

‘It looks and tastes like vomit. It makes me want to throw up just looking at it’

‘Well, there’s no faulting your grasp of English is there?  Nor your ability to use aspects of the vocabulary in a suitably expressive manner. Your parents will be pleased.’

Or – on a similar tip – Finnish students decrying the lack of hygiene and sauna facilities in relation to their respective abodes.

‘Well there are saunas in Brighton. Public ones.  But I think you might have to be of a certain age before you can attend’

Despite the various pitfalls, I – nonetheless – saw it as my duty to try and enhance the students’ experience in whatever way I could, and as well as teaching the perfectly reasonable material in the text books that were on offer, I took every opportunity to add my own thoughts and experience to the mix; sometimes even going as far as to create bespoke lessons inspired by events or conversations in class.  None more so than when the opportunity arose to teach puns to a bunch of German students: an opportunity arising out of an innocuous exchange during a break in proceedings.

‘Would you like a chicken crisp sir?’

‘No thank you, they’re fowl’

Nothing.

It’s worth pointing out that, in the ongoing progress of this particular stage of my life, I had already been putting myself out there as a stand-up comedian.  That is to say, alongside my teacher-bound studies, I’d been attempting to further supplement my student income by routinely travelling up and down the train line to London, a number of times over the period of any given week, with a view to not only learning the craft of the comic, but also get paid for doing so.  And even though it might be described as a bumpy ride – learning the craft of the stand-up comedian, that is – I was doing sufficiently well enough to know when a humorous remark warranted some sort of a response? Added to which, there was the fact that I had been using humour socially for as long as I could remember and more often than not, getting said response, in so doing.  Otherwise, why would I even contemplate the life of a professional humourist? So I said it again:

‘No thank you, they’re fowl’

Again, nothing.

Floundering, I began to explain the joke: ‘Y’know, foul as in ‘awful’ and fowl as in ‘chicken’?

The metaphorical tumbleweed once more brushed past and caressed my ankles.

There’s an old saying in stand-up comedy – attributable to the American humourist E. B. White – ‘Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.’ But here was an instance whereby dissecting the frog was not only desirable, it was imperative: the lesson possibilities opening up like a new dawn in Anglo-German relations, as a result. Obviously, overriding any cheap attempts to seize upon the word ‘frog’, explore the synonymous content therein, and bond over mutual and historical enmities.

That night I went home and googled hard, searching for the sort of tortured wordplay that illustrates a huge facet of English life and language: our strange reliance on crap puns. A reliance primarily illustrated in the form of newspaper headlines and the names ascribed to hairdressing salons… for reasons best known to ourselves.

The next day, I headed back to the classroom filled with the sort of enthusiasm it’s impossible to manufacture, and armed with a bunch of worksheets, designed specifically to fulfil my chosen mission: to initiate a bunch of German kids into the ways of the crap-end of British humour. Phrases like ‘Otter Devastation’, ‘Warnings about Lights Were Kept in the Dark’, ‘Curl Up and Dye’ and ‘Crops and Bobbers’ dancing fervently in the forefront of my psyche. Obviously, great pains were also taken to avoid the likes of ‘Germans Wurst at Penalties’, and ‘Nayim Lobs Seaman from the Half Way Line’, for fear of crossing the boundaries of what might be considered to constitute ‘good taste’.

And it was hard.  Not because of the longstanding and tiresome cliché about Germans not having a sense of humour. They do. It’s just that the German system of grammar and word construction is not suited to the ways in which the English construct certain types of jokes, puns in particular. And anyway, our assumption about the Germans and their humour tends to reside more upon a longstanding orientation towards remarks specifically about ‘the war’ which, given the possibility of the roles reversing, I’m sure we would find equally uproarious.

But no, the reason it was hard is because in the end, most of the wordplay stuff that was on offer passed for wryly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious.

‘This is funny?’

‘Well no, not funny-ha-ha more funny… er, funny… well, funny as in… it makes you smile’

So I’d now gone from the business of explaining the English disposition towards puns, to requiring a lesson on the possible responses to different types of jokes.  The frog was not only dying in the process, it was being subjected to an ever increasing number of dissections, in the hope that this would somehow assist its potential to be revived.

Nonetheless, I laboured onwards, if not actually convincing my German protégés that all of this was in any way funny, then at the very least, managing to convey to them, a playful facet of the native language; and a means by which we as a nation, manage to keep ourselves amused in the process of digesting our news, and cutting our hair.

And did I succeed? It’s difficult to say. While I can’t assert with any great conviction, the extent to which ‘Sandwich Spread’ has impacted upon the northern reaches of Scandinavia, in the same way that I could suggest that every home in the Brighton has yet to succumb to the idea of a personal sauna, there is a part of me that imagines a small group of Germans amidst the larger population, channelling the occasional English-inspired linguistic double-meaning.  Maybe, a gentlemen’s’ barbers with the name ‘Herr Kutz’? Or post-EU offerings such as ‘The English have bitten the Hans that feed them’ and ‘Do not put all of your eggs in one Brexit’?

In which case, my job as a mild mannered teacher of foreign students by day, versus that of a rambunctious stand-up comic at night, will have been done.

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The Detainee and his ‘Mum’

Broadly speaking, there are two types of kid who are likely to give you a problem in the classroom: those that have an awful home life, and are therefore suffering some form of neglect or – worse – abuse; and those that have been overindulged by their parents.  While, I think we can all agree that it’s important to be as sympathetic, and as understanding as possible, with regard to the former, accommodating the latter can be a problem. A problem, as in ‘why should I?’  If that sounds more than a little flippant then just for good measure I’ll add that I’ve never once found myself in a position whereby I’ve had a colleague suggest to me: ‘You need to go easy on him/her… their parent(s) have spoilt them rotten.  I feel ever so sorry for them’.

All of which brings to mind, a classic instance from my own teaching career where I came up against the behaviour of a particularly spoilt individual – a frequent occurrence in his case – and in so doing, finally got the opportunity to deal with his doting mummy, bless her little cotton apron strings.

The individual in question was not only talkative, unfocused and prone to interrupting during class, he was also inclined to answer back when such matters were brought to his attention; all of which was apt to slow the proceedings down, and throw the lesson off kilter. Implementing the behaviour policy invariably had little effect, and many’s the time, having gone through the entire process, I would offer a detention, only to find it left on his desk at the end of his lesson; or worse, stuffed in the tubing that constituted the framework of the desks that we were using at the time.

A neat little countermove on his part, and one that rankled less in terms of the actual manoeuvre, and more from the point of view of finding myself temporarily outsmarted.  Although it’s equally fair to say that from the inanimate desks’ point-of-view, already overburdened with all of the chewing gum stuck there, as well as the other notes also concealed within the tubing (detailing assignations the likes of which don’t bear repeating)… didn’t need detention slips adding to the fray.  And that’s before we factor in the business of whose responsibility it is to remove the various offending articles from the desks. ‘Not I’ said the cleaner. ‘It’s on my list’ said the premises officer – that’s the caretaker to you and me –meaning of course, at the bottom of his list.

And so it was that the aforementioned caretaker who, in the process of contemplating the awful chore, decided that removing the various desk-related items might make a highly suitable punishment for those detained, on the grounds of poor behaviour; a short-lived venture that was brought to a sudden halt when a parent protested on the grounds that it was demeaning.  Rightly so, if we bear in mind that the caretaker gets paid to do as much, but – arguably – a little delusional from the parent’s perspective, in relation to their cherished offspring’s potential in the job market. No disrespect to the caretaker intended.

The upshot of all of this was that I spent an unnecessary amount of time chasing the tube-stuffing detainee, his head of year, and his not-so ‘understanding’ mother, in an attempt to get the child to commit to his – by now – regular half-hour after school.  A pattern of behaviour that became so frequent that I, in line with a great number of other school-related activities, had begun to suspect I was living a life akin to that of the antihero in one of my favourite films: Groundhog Day.

Eventually however, things took a turn for the more promising.  Having once again, played our respective parts in our ongoing little ritual, culminating in the usual business of the spoilt kiddie in question, leaving the detention slip on the table, there came a point where I was able to pick up the offending article, with more than a little wry smile on my increasingly malevolent features.  To wit, had he bothered to listen to, and also, check the suggested date of the detention, he would have realised that the date was a little further ahead than usual: Thursday the following week.  He would have also realised that, having just entered Year 9, the timetable had changed, and that according to his new schedule, he was due to attend my lesson on the last lesson of the day, once a fortnight on a Thursday.  Back of the net, it would seem.

The school policy at the time, dictated that there was only a requirement to give 24 hours’ notice in relation to a detention. The onus was on the student to notify their parent(s) of the impending event, and for one or other of the parent(s) to sign an accompanying slip acknowledging the fact that they were ‘in the picture’, so to speak. If the student chose, or forgot, to notify their respective parent or parents, it made no difference whatsoever in relation to the prospect of the detention taking place.  It’s possible that things are much more electronically-orientated nowadays, and the likelihood of a parent not being made aware of a forthcoming detention much less so, of course.

Finally, the appointed Thursday came around. If anything, the lesson proceeded along relatively civilised lines, with all on board, and work taking place at a reasonable pace i.e. without interruption.  It was almost as if someone had realised their presence might be required after the lesson had elapsed and was trying to make said presence as low-key as possible, in the hope that the teacher might either get distracted, or – preferably – forget altogether.  Clearly I had underestimated the offending party’s willingness to note the date on the detention slip; or perhaps more realistically, it had dawned on him that he had a detention outstanding, and the likelihood was that this was the day when he would be required fulfil his obligation.

As a consequence, the lead up to the bell had all of the drama of a shoot-out in a spaghetti western; you could split the tension with an Ennio Morricone sountrack. I had no idea there was such professional delight to be had, putting such a plan into action, and watching the events slowly unfold. I had to give the fellow his due for maintaining a level of composure for – in truth – that was the only way he was going to hoodwink his way out of this one. Unfortunately for him, his adversary was also maintaining a similar level of composure, despite an overwhelming desire to let go of a theatrical cackle. Eventually, after what seemed an agonising last few minutes, the bell rang.

‘Ok everybody, let’s go… all except for you, young man. In case you’ve forgotten, you’ve got a detention with me’.

He let out a gasp of genuine annoyance, ‘But sir, my mum will be waiting. Can I go and tell her?’

‘I’m afraid not. I gave you the detention slip a week and a half ago and you should have told her then’

‘But sir… ‘

‘Save your protests. Your mum will eventually realise that you haven’t come out. She will approach the office, and they in turn will contact me. Don’t worry, your mum will soon be in picture. Now let’s find something for you to do’

Sure enough, it wasn’t too long before a member of the admin staff appeared at the door, inquiring about his presence, the gravity on their face suggesting they’d already taken something of an ear bashing from ‘Mum’.

‘Mum’ – or ‘Dad’– in this context is an all-purpose term that teachers and school staff use to objectively convey a parent’s sentiment or state-of-being, whilst seemingly remaining detached with regard to the aforementioned sentiment or ‘state-of-being’; the same way that TV coppers talk about the mothers of suspects and victims, on Monday night dramas.   As in ‘Mum is being very helpful’, ‘Mum is not being very helpful’ or in this case, ‘Mum is very concerned’. Meaning ‘Mum’ is throwing an utter wobbly in the reception area.

Admittedly, it would have been highly unprofessional to gloat in these circumstances, but no one ever said you couldn’t do so inwardly, and so I acknowledged the situation, and continued to point my face in the direction of the work I had set about, so as not to convey any such facial registrations. And thus it remained, a silent tone set for the rest of the designated time, except for the occasional excursion over to the detainee to make sure that his work was proceeding in the way that had been requested.

The next day, I thought it might be a good idea to have a word with the individual’s Head of Year in relation to the possibility of further interaction on the part of ‘Mum’ and promptly ascertained that there was a very real likelihood.

‘I’d expect a phone call’, he said, eyes rolling.

Sure enough, the phone call dutifully arrived. It arrived right at the beginning of the break via the staff room telephone. Clearly, we were dealing with a player.

‘I want to know why you detained my son without informing me’, she asked, getting straight to the point.

‘The onus is on him to inform you; hence the fact the detention notice contains a slip to that effect’ (I’m pretty certain you know that already but let’s play along)

‘He forgot, so you should have let him go’

‘School policy states that we’re only required to give 24 hours’ notice’

‘But I’m telling you he forgot’

‘As I say, school policy states that we’re only required to give 24 hours’ notice’ (He didn’t forget, he’s playing us off against each other.  Or if he did forget it’s because he didn’t anticipate that he would be seeing me on the last lesson of that particular day. You’re repeating yourself, I’m repeating myself, and this is getting tedious)

‘I was waiting in the car-park.  Don’t you think he should have been allowed to come and tell me that he had been kept in?’

(Do you think I was born yesterday?) ‘I’m not required to do so, especially as that involves a risk that the student might not return.’

‘Are you saying he can’t be trusted?’

‘No, I’m not saying that.’ (That’s precisely what I’m saying).

‘So you don’t care that I was kept waiting for an hour?’

(Not really, no.  The truth is that despite my professional façade, I was struggling not to revel in the sensation). ‘That is unfortunate…’

‘What if there had been an emergency?’

‘Depending upon the circumstances, I would have let him go.  But there wasn’t an emergency, and so based upon the aforementioned school policy, he can be detained in such a way, having been provided with sufficient notice.’ (How long is this going to take? I am on my break after all).

‘I don’t like your attitude.’

‘Then you are free to take the matter up with his Head of Year, or the Headmaster himself, should you wish.  They will tell you the same thing with regard to procedure.’ (I know this to be true because I’ve already checked with one of them, I’m pretty certain the other will concur and I really wouldn’t be relating any of this had I not covered my backside).

‘You really fancy yourself, don’t you?’

(More than I fancy you) ‘I’ve no desire to get involved in name calling.  If you wish to take the matter further, feel free to do so.’ (Please do, I look forward to a satisfactory outcome in which I am completely exonerated).

‘Don’t worry, I will.’

And with that the phone went down. I don’t really think there’s any moral to this tale other something about ‘just desserts’ or some such, but I can say that the rest of the day went with an absolute swing; my enthusiasm for the job renewed by the fulfilment of a long standing desire to have something with which to proffer in relation to any undesirable behaviour on the part of the detainee.

And if all of this seems a little petty, and a little weak-minded, I dare say it probably is, but I know at the very least, if anyone did wish to take issue with the attitude on display here, there is one person who would back me up, pretty much without question, and that’s my own dear old ‘Mum’. After all, what greater insight is there to be had – in some situations – than that of one’s own similar experience?

 

 

 

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By way of introduction: cue the music

Somewhere back in the recent mists of time, I wrote an entire stand-up comedy show devoted to the business of teaching, entitled ‘Not Appropriate’; so-called, because the term had become something of a cliché when it came to admonishing kids with regard to certain aspects of their language and/or behaviour. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to grasp the sort of language – predominantly – and behaviour we’re talking about here. Not that the show reflected that specifically. It was more of an attempt to take an honest and unabashed look at the day-to-day business of the profession.

So, in the interests of creating an immediate impact on the audience, I – like many a performer before me – was keen to get a great tune by way of an introduction, in the hope of grabbing them straight away, and presumably, not letting go thereafter.  The obvious thing to do would be to choose a teacher or school-themed tune, in the hope of reflecting that which is contained within the show.  Easier said than done.  Not only were many of the tunes on offer lacking anything like the requisite sentiment… many of them were also – ahem – ‘not appropriate’.  Here’s some that came in for consideration:

 

The Anti-Authoritarian Anthem

Schools Out – Alice Cooper (1972)

An absolute stone cold classic; and quite feasibly, the most compelling anti-school anthem in the entire historical existence of rock and pop music. I remember seeing Alice perform this on Top of the Pops when I was a child, and subsequently feeling quite disturbed by the whole experience. A bloke called Alice? Black eye-liner all over the place? What’s he doing with that rapier? (ok, to be fair, I would have said ‘sword’ at the time, given the naivety of my years)

Then you’ve got the sheer overwhelming quality of the song. Containing four different sections of theatrical overload, combined with a garage-rock sensibility, it’s so confident in its execution, at one point Alice declares he can’t even be bothered to write a suitable rhyme, as far as the second verse is concerned. Make no mistake, having four sections in any song – particular of this length – is a feat very few can pull off with this level of panache; Abba, believe it or not, are the only immediate contender when it comes to considering the competition.

So it’s an amazing piece of pop history, but it’s too obvious when it comes to an intro to the show isn’t it? It’s like sticking ‘Streets of London’ on a documentary about homelessness, or – alternatively – a newly single female, singing ‘I Will Survive’ with tearful gin-soaked abandonment, on a karaoke night out. The last thing one wants to do is create an immediate eye-rolling cynicism from the collective, before things even get going.

Still, it did give producer Bob Ezrin an idea with regard to the choice of backing singers on the track; an idea, he was happy to repeat seven years later in relation to another UK number one record about the business of school.

 

Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) – Pink Floyd (1979)

Let’s face it, this is a dirge; a well-meaning dirge, but a dirge nonetheless. And I’m speaking as a Floyd fan. When I say I’m a Floyd fan, I’m not just talking about the Syd period that the tragically hip seem so keen to identify with… for the sake of some notion of their own desperate more-knowing-than-thou status. It’s just that when it comes to Pink Floyd MKII, there is a pretty inexhaustible list of much better material on offer than this, their most successful individual song.

Not only is it a dirge, Roger Waters didn’t even bother to write a whole second verse (unlike Alice Cooper who was struggling with the odd rhyme). Instead – encouraged by Bob Ezrin, as suggested – he gets a bunch of kids from the school round the corner from the studio, to repeat the first one in the hope that no one will notice.  And that’s before we get to the pseudo-Orwellian guff about ‘thought control’, and the like; a sentiment with which I might ordinarily concur, were it contained within this clumsily expressed ode to insurrection. When it comes down to it, if the best bit of any song is the guitar solo, you’re in a spot of bother, number one record or not.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s not the kick start to any evening of upbeat stand-up comedy, school-themed or otherwise. It’s a funereal kick start to the end of most enduring part of the whole Pink Floyd story.

 

 

The Paean to the Pervy Teacher

Don’t Stand So Close To Me – The Police (1980)

Oh dear, this is just a wrong ‘un all around isn’t it? Having achieved a slew of massive hits already – repeating the same formula of quiet verse with a reggae-styled backbeat building towards the big rock chorus – the question in mind, as far as the more discerning punter was concerned was ‘do Sting and the boys have anything else they’d care to offer in the musical department?’. And that of course, is before we even get to the subject matter.

One can only assume that Sting was patently aware of what a good looking bloke he was, and although there’s – arguably – an ironic detachment to the whole thing, there’s little doubt that the idea of teenagers fancying him either as a poptastic heart throb or as a jobbing teacher was by this stage in the proceedings, pretty much a given.  To be fair to Sting, we are talking about a time when the whole business of the sexy school girl was a cultural touchstone in terms of both film and TV, as well as the glamour business; to which end, we give him the benefit of the doubt… in terms of ironic contemplation rather that of any active engagement. But what dark times those days of such casual jailbait frippery turned out to be in retrospect? With that in mind, this comes off as something of a tacit endorsement, if nothing else.  And from the point of view of the show, we don’t want that.

That said, by far the bigger crime with regard to this particular offering is Sting’s desperate need to let all and sundry know that, despite his working class roots, he was quite the literate fellow.  In so doing, he created quite possibly one of the worst rhyming couplets in the whole entirety of pop and rock history, crowbarring in a reference to the old man in the book by Nabakov, in the process. Unforgiveable.

 

School Mam – The Stranglers (1977)

You’d think having just critiqued Sting and his anguish when it came to batting the teens away with a shitty stick, I’d have stayed well clear of this dark little ditty: a dark little ditty, which goes even further lyrically than Sting, by graphically illustrating all of the stuff that the onetime spiky haired Geordie only hints at, in passing.  But I did use it once, and once only.  I used it, in the spirit that you might when referring nostalgically to a band who occupied a significant part of one’s youth. I used it the very first time I performed the show and having realised immediately thereafter, that the music alone had completely wrong footed the audience, didn’t do so again.

Bless the Stranglers. They did devote an awful of time to winding up people on the left, despite seemingly espousing left-wing ideas themselves. The fact that a lot of what they had to say came wrapped up in a sense of humour so nihilistic, so misanthropic… a lot of people of people clearly missed the joke at the time.

To be fair, looking back, there are Stranglers’ songs content-wise that don’t date well. Whether or not, this is one of them, does depends upon how receptive you are to the idea of a voyeuristic female head principal watching the whole business of an unfortunate affair via the seemingly futuristic medium of CCTV in the classroom; and deriving a certain amount of pleasure, in the process. Still, there’s no doubting the hilarity of the mathematically-inspired coda. The 1970s eh? So much to answer for.

 

 

The Song of Celebration

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – The Ramones (1979)

Nonetheless, it is with the 1970s we stay, and a rousing refrain to indolence courtesy of the hugely dysfunctional ‘brothers’ from the Queens neighbourhood in New York; with Tommy’s replacement Marky occupying the drum seat, by this stage in the proceedings.

On any given day, anything by the Ramones is guaranteed to lift the spirits on the basis of the inherent musical vitality alone.  The fact that the bigger part of their earlier output also couches hilariously bleak subject matter wedded to a buzz saw bubble-gum backing track seemed to have eluded them on this occasion, and this seems positively life-affirming by comparison.

Unfortunately, as far as the show was concerned, I just couldn’t get past the idea of the ‘getting some kicks’, getting some chicks’ approach to the lyrics; not because there was anything inherently wrong with them, it’s just that it sounds so damned American, and my take on my own experience of both schooling and teaching was ultimately so terribly English. I tried it once but as a result, and once again, it felt like another classic case of audience misdirection.

 

Madness – Baggy Trousers (1980)

Although, The Ramones offering is arguably anti-authority as well, the tone rather like this Madness classic is more of a celebration of the extent of the mischief to be had at a time when the rules were – to some degree – a great deal more lax; contrasted with the punishments which a great deal more formidable. In much the same way that the likes of Dennis the Menace used to get up to much greater degree of off-colour behaviour and then end up getting slippered for his trouble.

I suppose the bit that really gets me is the business of the teachers going down the pub on lunchtime, and having a drink and a smoke with utter impunity.  That really did used to happen, and I know as much because I happened to find myself in the same environment on more than one occasion. Not without consequences of course but perhaps we’ll save that tale for another time.

In the end, I went with this. It is after all a classic take on British schooling from a certain period, with a music hall sensibility entirely in keeping with the notion of a stand-up comedy show; if not, a tad predictable, admittedly.

Having said all that, the Madness tune didn’t last that long either. As suggested, I wasn’t entirely happy with it, and I abandoned the whole idea of attempting to match a teacher-themed tune to a teacher-themed show. The fact is it’s equally possible to employ something seemingly abstract in relation to the subject matter, and create an excellent atmosphere regardless of the lack of comparable content contained therein.

 

And in a similar sort of way, it’s typical of the sort of experience one has as a teacher: creating hugely ornate lesson plans, agonising over every detail, only to find that despite the level of effort involved, nothing really works, and a much more spontaneous approach to the whole business produces a far greater interest and input from the students; providing there is at least some structure to the proceedings. Yet more ways to interpret the term ‘not appropriate’ then?

Of course, if anyone’s got any suggestions with regard to possible ‘Teacher Show’ themed intro tunes, feel free to comment below.

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