When I was at primary school, our class was divided into six clusters of tables, according to perceived attainment. To disguise the fact, we were variously grouped into colours, shapes or points on a compass, but we all knew the score. Suffice to say, you didn’t want to be in the “blue” group, an “oblong” nor one of the “souths”.
This was, at least, an improvement on what we had at the start – from “tip tops” and “tops” through to “lowers”, via various categories of “middles”.
Then a new teacher – we’ll call her Mrs Flagstaff – took over our class and came up with the novel idea of naming each of our clusters after popular ice creams of the time. At first, we all liked the sound of that.
The problem lay in her choice of names. At one end of the room she had her “Zooms” and “Fabs”, at the other were her “Mivvies” and “Nobbly Bobblies”. No prizes for guessing which groups represented what.
Coronavirus school closures: Zoom is cool for online teaching
Despite my best efforts, Flagstaff never let me escape the centre ground and get into her elite “Zoom” enclave of so-called “super-learners”. “Once an Orange Maid, always an Orange Maid”, or so it seemed.
Over a decade then passed. The scars were perhaps starting to heal. But then the song Zoom reached number 2 in the charts. Every time the song came on the radio it was as if Flagstaff had come back and dropped a couple of shards of the said ice lolly down the back of my neck.
It’s probably her fault, but I find Zoom to be the most tuneless, overplayed and overrated 1980s hit of them all, despite the heart-felt and accomplished delivery courtesy of Fat Larry’s Band. (“Zoom, just one look and then my heart went boom” - you’ll probably know it? It still rears its ugly head on many a mainstream music station.)
Given my difficult personal history with the Z word, I naturally turned a deaf ear to those at the start of lockdown trying to tell me how wonderful some communication system called “Zoom” was going to be now, both for social and teaching purposes.
Four or five weeks on, however, and I am happily using Zoom almost every day. It’s not yet had any influence on my teaching – but it will do. For those of us still getting to grips with it – for online quizzes with friends, for virtual nights down the Red Lion, for virtual family gatherings and the like – all this light-hearted experience and exploration of the system is also serving as brilliant hands-on Inset training. While some colleagues are already light years ahead with it, it’s enabling the less technically adept among us to find our way around the system, through painless trial-and-error practice with our mates and loved ones.
I’m still some way off from launching any lessons this way, but I am fully on board now and heading much more meaningfully in that direction. In terms of progress, I still wouldn’t make Mrs Flagstaff’s top group, but nor am I the clueless Nobbly-Bobbly of a few weeks ago. When we are ever allowed to hug again, I will definitely “embrace the new technology”, as they say. Fat Larry was right after all: “My whole world” really has gone “Zoom”.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire