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Another brick in the wall

| August 20, 2014 | 0 Comments

The Law of Diminishing Didactic Encounters states that the longer promoted teachers have been out of the classroom, the more convinced they are that they know exactly what teachers should be doing, but aren’t.

Headmasters are especially prone. Having mostly operated from a podium 10 feet above contradiction, over time their view on the jungle of classroom practice has drifted into the la-la world of unreality. And so teachers find themselves subject to eternity-length expositions from headmasters on My Theory of Discipline, beginning with, “When I was a teacher…”

Fortunately, there is a reality check called Temporary Teaching After Retirement. In a nobly philanthropic mood, the ex-headmaster returns to do his bit in the classroom. But he finds himself at a new school, where he has no god-like aura. He is exposed to the real classroom, which one can liken to one of our current pupils’ setwork novels, Life of Pi.1 In this novel, a young boy, Pi, finds himself stranded on a lifeboat after a shipwreck. His only companions are a zebra, an orang-utan and a hyena. Oh, and a tiger.

As you can appreciate, this tale can easily be compared with the average teaching experience. Unless Pi (armed with little more than a whistle), can tame the tiger, he will go the way of the zebra, the orangutan and the hyena – down the tiger’s throat. In the classroom, guess who’s who?

So, when the staff heard that the temporary substitute teacher arriving was an ex-headmaster (and an advocate of corporal punishment, which he termed, “A barbaric punishment suitable for barbarians”), we were full of anticipation. He had a theory (of course he did!) about discipline called Keeping Them in Line. “If the desks are exactly in line, pupils will also be in line,” he said crisply, making chalk marks where each desk should be. Erasable chalk marks.

The class took full advantage – much to our satisfaction, I’m ashamed to say. With the class bully, Bismarck (an especially devious attention-seeker) at the fore, they were soon out of line. Echoing down the corridor, we heard lots of, “You, boy! Why is your desk not straight?” and Bismarck’s wide-eyed innocent rejoinder, “I can’t find my chalk mark, Sir.” The interchanges eventually ended with, “You, boy! Get out! Straight to the principal!” and an injured, “Sir, what did I do?”

Bismarck returned, sore but unrepentant, with his ‘street-cred’ further enhanced. The ex-head lasted less than three weeks. But then Mr D arrived. Also an ex-head, he was an energetic, Peter Pan-esque character with an irreverent sense of fun. He took one look at the setwork: “Ah, a tiger? My old headmaster told me, ‘You are fond of animals – why don’t you become a teacher?’”

We wondered what he might do about Bismarck – employ corporal punishment? “Oh, no! That never works. I need an insecure attention-seeker the class fears to demonstrate my theory of corporal reward!”

Intrigued, we observed his early class encounters. He began with a Q&A session about the novel. Naturally, Bismarck’s answers tended towards the distasteful to attract attention: “Sir, did Pi teach the tiger to poo over the side? Otherwise…” And, snickering in a nauseating fashion, “Sir, wasn’t the tiger lonely for a mate? Imagine two tigers doing it in a lifeboat…”

Mr D was unfazed. He chuckled with the class, but emitted an enthusiastic roar of approval, “That’s right!!” when a correct answer happened. And then he played his trump card. Seemingly unable to contain himself, he exuberantly thumped the setwork on the nearest boy’s head. He just happened to be next to Bismarck’s desk. And the next correct answer also excited him so much he then turned his attention to Bismarck himself. Another cheerful thump caught the lad unawares.

The class soon caught on. They wracked their brains to find correct answers so as to get to watch Bismarck desperately bobbing and weaving. The corridors now echoed with much hilarity. Bismarck, unable to object without losing face, found he was too occupied to be disruptive. The pattern was set.

Curiously, he soon became a Mr D supporter.

Who said ex-principals need a badge, or even a whistle? Creative use of the teaching materials at hand can be enough.

1. Martel, T. (2003) Life of Pi. New York: Mariner Books.

Category: Regular Columns, Spring 2014

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