The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Chief Regional Examiner came to spend a few hours coaching kids for their key stage three SAT tests, for a stupendously large fee.
The point of the process is so that we the staff can eavesdrop, and see if they let slip any cheats to the contents of the upcoming examinations. You usually get at least two appalling loose mouthed hints rolled into the mix.

Bookish chap, in his late sixties, rumpled brown suit, receding salt and pepper hair still dropping hints of a Hugh Grant style floppy fringe in days gone by. A self abnegating humble manner, in fact a professorial manner, punctuated by frequent throat clearing 'ahhhh -ahright' noises, and rapid darts towards his printed materials mid sentence, casting his sentences adrift into neverending sub clauses of random direction. Affable old duffer, in other words - what you'd call old school.

He reminded me of the crappier profs at university. Slightly ill prepared, but well meaning.

The students were incredibly well mannered and polite to this stranger from an unfamiliar social bracket, who used unfamiliar words like 'forsaken'. They sat almost rigidly still, politely stifling yawns, and only discreetly turning to roll eyes after about forty five minutes.
Ten minutes into the session, and it was painfully obvious the old duffer was going to jaw and intone dully at the front without even the slightest attempt to involve students. Requests for action were asinine in content - 'who can number the paragraphs on this page?' - explanations were infantilised as if for a primary school audience - 'you can see the introduction is at the top of the page - here, see, in this different typeface, that's sort of italicky, there.'

Yet the answers he read out to the sample test paper in a stentorious monotone, requested they use complex vocabulary (such as 'colloquialism'). I wondered, bored, what the National Curriculum grade for an answer using the word 'italicky' might be?

Attempts to nudge the few participatory elements into a more demanding direction were sternly rebuffed.
Duffer: "Can anybody tell me where on each page the introductory information is?"
Students: < stupefied silence >
Teacher: "Sir - are you perhaps asking us to tell you what different text types are suggested by each introductory statement?"
Duffer: "No, i most certainly am not. Children, I am asking you to point to where the information is."
Students: < stupefied silence >
Duffer: "Very well, here it is." < points to small photocopied sheet in the distance, from his lectern > "The introductory statement is here, at the top of each page."
Teacher: < stupefied silence >

The pity of it is, that he didn't realise how gallantly generous these students were behaving towards him. Bored to hell by his blithering, as he proceeded to illustrate through frequent errors that he had only skim read his material, that he had no sense of vocal delivery, timing or audience, that he was fairly unfamiliar even with the contents of his test papers, that even reading aloud in a haughty sounding drone he would miss lines or lose his place in the story, they sought refuge by actually silently, secretly taking the test.

Think about that. It was less boring for ninety under achieving fourteen year olds to sit in silence and take an hour's SAT exam than to listen to Mister Seventy Pound an hour Chief Regional Examiner.

Ending his session in a flurry of surprised bluster, and the obligatory three 'accidental' cheater-hints blurted in a final rush, he turned to me and couldn't even take responsibility for his own performance. In contrast to the standards expected and upheld by examiners, he blamed his own awful delivery on having been given ten minutes less than the expected time to get through his material. (It wasn't even true.)

I walked out happy, though. My students have manners. They've had a lesson in appreciating the brilliant teaching on offer to them in normal lesson time (not a single teacher at my school would be so lazy and arrogant as to try to teach a lesson in that burbling lecturing, hectoring passive manner), and they'd wangled themselves into a position where the only alternative to death of the soul was to try taking an exam. Just brilliant.