'Are you a mime?' The day I stopped talking in lessons

The secret supply teacher has experimented with a number of teaching strategies. But what would happen, he wondered, if he didn't talk in lessons at all?

The secret supply teacher

It all went wrong the moment I opened my mouth.

In my ongoing quest to find the most effective teaching strategies to get the best from a class – particularly a class I’ve never met before – I’ve experimented with all manner of approaches

Recently, I tried something a little different. When I first considered it, I ruled it out immediately as a clearly absurd idea. And then I tried it anyway. My idea was to teach an entire lesson without saying a word.

Thinking for themselves

The thinking behind the strategy had some educational merit. As a supply teacher, you’re often only seconds from conflict or confrontation. The trouble mostly occurs when a student makes a request that you have to deny, or when you need to step in to prevent something untoward from happening.

As much as I try to be reasonable and even-handed in my dealings with students, it’s these verbal interventions that are often the catalyst for dissent. 

It wasn’t only about avoiding conflict though. I’ve long believed that kids perform best when they have to do more thinking for themselves. I wouldn’t be the first teacher to bemoan how education today often spoonfeeds kids until they develop a form of learned helplessness. How many times a day does a teacher hear the plaintive cry of: “But I don’t understand what to do,” when a student hasn’t bothered to read the instructions on the whiteboard, or on the worksheet in front of them, or listen as they were carefully explained to them? 

The prof who's buggered off

My plan was to make my presence felt as little as possible in the classroom, in the hope that it would encourage the students to work a little harder themselves. No longer the sage on the stage. Not even the guide by the side. More the prof who’s buggered off.

It went down like this.

I let the Year 8 class into the lab and, as they settled themselves at the benches, I wrote the work on the board, handed out the books…and that was it. 

I sat down and waited for them to get started. To begin with, things played out in the usual way: they chatted, fidgeted and waited for someone to tell them to be quiet. When nothing happened, just as I’d hoped, a few of them started to work. Taking a cue from their peers, a few others soon followed suit. Everything appeared to be going to plan.

When anyone asked me what they had to do I simply smiled benignly and pointed at the instructions on the board. The idea had originally been to remain completely silent, but it soon became apparent that this was totally impractical, if only because the bloody TA kept asking me a bunch of questions and was honestly more needy than the kids. I also had to send some students to the prep room for more textbooks, which despite my best efforts I couldn’t manage to explain with gestures alone. 

Although the majority of students were now working, for a few, my silence was proving a distraction. “Sir, can’t you speak?”, asked one, sounding a little worried. “Are you a mime?” ventured another. 

Not a proper teacher

I tried the experiment again the following day, in a school where I’d had the misfortune to work previously, and which I knew had a decidedly more challenging intake. If I could make it work with this bunch of delinquents, I could make it work anywhere. 

Just as before, I wrote the work on the board, laid out the textbooks and returned to my desk. And as before, after some confusion, most simply got on with it. Not all, to be fair. And a bunch of boys at the back of the room just carried on chatting about the football. 

About 20 minutes into the lesson, people started to lose a little focus and drift off-task. So I stood up and walked round the room. This seemed sufficient to get things back on track, several students even thrusting their exercise books at me for approval. The boys at the back slumped across their books at my approach, presumably to conceal the fact that they’d done arse all for the last half hour. 

Foolishly, I called them on their lack of work and was immediately drawn into an argument about my teaching methods, the relevance of the work to their lives, and some none too friendly charges regarding my not being a “proper teacher” anyway. 

Despite the brief moment of mission creep with the boys on the back row, I’d had a virtually trouble-free couple of days, and I’m pretty sure the kids got more done than usual. I judged the experiment to be a roaring success, and one I’m sure I’ll be repeating. Although it does make you think – what’s the point of having teachers at all?

The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job

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