Keven Bartle is the Headteacher of Canons High School in Edgware, NW London, which is a Teaching School as part of the Canons Park Alliance. He is a lifelong Labour supporter from one of the few remaining bastions of Labour support, the North East. He tweets as @kevbartle, blogs here and does so in very much a personal capacity.
Imagine. You’ve settled your feisty little year seven class down after a wind-swept, thunder-stricken, snow-confettied lunch-break. If you’re a teacher you’ll get the picture instantly. You survey the now-impeccably-behaved, lion-tamed cohort in front of you, put the chair and whip away (metaphorically-speaking for any safeguarding-smitten inspectorate out there) and launch into your ‘starter for ten’: “What did we learn about [insert subject-specific knowledge-base here] last lesson?”. Fifteen little hands pierce the air above their heads with all the intent of pedagogical Nuremburg Rallyers (again, purely metaphorical – keep calm and carry on reading).
Hamza is quickest on the buzzer (quelle surprise), but you know there’s a good answer in him sometime this year, so you forgo better judgment and go for him. A hush of anticipation and breathing in descends…
“Can I go to the toilet, sir? I’m busting for a …”
Fortunately, the collective out-breath of the class drowns out the remainder of what gushed forth, and you all move on with at least one of you crossing his legs and the remainder crossing their fingers for something more solid from the next inquisitee.
And so it goes on. Five more responses from your eager beavers, each one designed to build a dam between the class and any recalled prior learning. You discover who has no pen, no book, no planner and no recollection of your SLT-rated outstanding lesson yesterday morning. But, out of the fog of despair, emerges a contender for the throne. Let’s call him Ed (or Nick, or Dave, for, as you are about to see, it seems to matter little what we call him).
With the joy in your heart that only a period 4 teacher who knows what fills a bladder and what doesn’t fill a pencil case can muster, you anoint him with the chrism of your blessing and he speaks forth:
“Let me answer that question,” he begins, certainly uncertain, “Let me answer that question for you.” Is he stalling for time?
You nod assent for him to continue.
“Can I ask your name?” he asks, rather bizarrely given that you’ve taught him all year.
Nonetheless you remind him.
“Well, Mr Bartle. First of all, what I’ve got to say, in answer to your, may-I-say-so, very pertinent question is this…”
A pregnant pause? Nope. A phantom pregnancy.
“Let me just explain to you what I think this question means to me…”
You intervene to urge him on.
“Let me directly address you, Mr Bartle…”, he says whilst his eyes drift off into the middle distance and a wider audience somewhere, who must be equally unimpressed.
Your eyes plead with him.
“Let me tell you how I’m going to do it…”
He’s descended into the realms of meta-answering. You give it one last go, eyes on the clock. This failure to re-cap prior learning now threatens all future learning. You’re in an Escher lithograph.
“Let me tell you very specifically what we need to find out…” he drones on and, finally, you give up hope. You let him finish his self-nihilism and ask him to sit down (how an earth had he managed to wander away from his seat to address you at a disconcertingly condensed distance?).
You give up hope? Not really. You’re a Labour Teacher and never give up hope. It’s too late for the start of this lesson and that ought to be a lesson learned for all, yourself included. Next time you’ll ask more focused questions so you can demand more focused responses. In fact, you resolve to begin asking those more pertinent and more specific questions immediately. Some things are best not left till tomorrow. In five years’ time this lot will be starting again as sixth formers and better to get it right, now. Right now.
Little Ed’s turn in the spotlight might be at an end, but there are others lined up to take his place and, rather than allowing them to say everything whilst saying nothing, it is your responsibility as a Labour Teacher to ensure that they know how to answer the bloody question. Their answers may not always hit the spot, but when they do it can be a joy to behold, for everyone.