In the world of day-to-day supply teaching, it’s not unusual to find yourself in front of a class with no cover work. It doesn’t happen every day, but let’s just say that for the regular supply teacher, this is a situation worth anticipating. But it’s not necessarily the panic-inducing disaster you might imagine, like the lesson recently where I found myself covering a GCSE music class. When no work could be found, the 15 students simply picked up their instruments and began to play. I even grabbed a guitar and joined in with a passable version of Stairway to Heaven, although my mediocre talents were brought into sharp relief by the boy who gave a near faultless recital of Beethoven’s Pathetique. Not a bad way to spend an hour.
That, however, is not typically how things turn out when faced with a class of eager (or not so eager) students and you have nothing to offer them.
This is what I did when it happened to me last week.
It was a Year 8 maths class, last lesson on a Friday (isn’t it always?), and although not in possession of any hard data to back this up, initial impressions led me to believe that they were a bottom set. With no work in the room and no one nearby to ask, I sent the teaching assistant to the faculty office to see what she could find. She returned five minutes later, empty-handed and saying the office was locked. Then a boy who’d wandered into the lesson five minutes late said that he was pretty sure he knew where to find the head of maths (the pub? having a crafty fag behind the bins?) so he was duly despatched in search of the missing work. From the triumphant look on his face about leaving the room before he’d even had to remove his coat, I wasn’t all that hopeful I was going to see him again.
In the meantime, I tried something else. “Who’d like to talk about Brexit?” I asked, imagining a sea of hands shooting into the air and a clamour of inquisitive voices desperate to try and make sense of our country’s ongoing political crisis. Most of the class ignored me completely; a few students looked at me like I was an idiot. At least I now had more of a feel for the room.
Brexit politics played out in the classroom
Not yet willing to abandon the idea of turning the lesson into an opportunity to build a sense of citizenship and community, I tried an issue they might actually give a crap about: who was going to take the class register down to the main office?
I threw the question out to the class and quickly received a number of suggestions as to the fairest way to decide, although at this early stage in the negotiations these amounted to no more than several insistent cries of “I should take it”. When I pointed out that no one individual had any a priori claim to the role (no, I didn’t phrase it quite like that), we began a round of other possible mechanisms to find a mutually acceptable solution.
Some students asked to be given a brief moment on the hustings to make their case, so for the next 10 minutes we pursued that idea. If I’m honest, the quality of their arguments was quite rudimentary and mostly got no further than “I should take the register to the office because I want to”, but at least we’d made progress towards some form of public debate. It appeared that we might have made a breakthrough when one girl suggested that someone other than herself should be given the job, a quiet boy at the front of the class who up until this point had remained resolutely outside the febrile deliberations. This sudden switch in approach appeared to destabilise the self-interested sentiment of the crowd, and it looked like the deadlock might have been broken, until the quiet boy who’d been nominated said he didn’t want to go. Back to square one.
We might not have been discussing Brexit, but it felt very much like we were living it.
We then moved towards establishing a voting system, with a brief detour into whether we’d require a simple majority or if the winning candidate would need two-thirds of their classmates’ support. We also addressed the issue of whether a candidate should be allowed to vote for themselves and of how many votes they’d be permitted to cast.
It was hard to make much headway as everyone seemed very keen to push their own agenda without paying much attention to what anybody else was saying. At one point everyone got so frustrated that they asked me to take the register to the office so we could be done with the whole business. I managed to stretch the procedure out for around 45 minutes.
To their credit, most of them were quite engaged with the process, even if they did get a little testy at the lack of actual progress over what had at first appeared to be a very simple task. In the end, and after repeated rounds of voting (sometimes for the same deal, sorry, person, several times over) by sheer force of will and bloody-minded persistence, a loud girl triumphed and the rest conceded. She disappeared off with the register, looking very pleased with herself.
I’m a firm believer that you can engage young people in politics if you can only find the right angle. And it’s just as well, because the kid I’d sent to get the head of maths never did come back.
The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job