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The dark side of the whiteboard - My Doc Martens take a kicking

I pay no attention to detail. I'm great at "getting the gist", but I tend to ignore the specifics. A zillion years ago, when I still had ambition and a functioning pelvic floor, I worked as a freelance writer for the NME. It wasn't a big deal. Basically, they took on anyone who wore Doc Martens and used amphetamines or a thesaurus. My synonyms had them fooled for a while, but I didn't really fit in. The rest of the staff looked like Iggy Pop; I looked like I worked in Greggs.

After three weeks, the editor offered me a scoop: The Sex Pistols were playing a last-minute, undercover gig. He gave me the address. That night, I headed for the Underground and waited for a central line train that never came. Then I saw them. Two signs: "eastbound" and "westbound". Right line, wrong platform. I was down in the Tube station at midnight and, of course, I'd missed the gig. They never asked me again.

I thought of this last week when my inattention caused a problem in school. This time the collateral damage was a Year 10 girl. It had been a chaotic morning. Buses were late and the first hour was disrupted by kids drifting slowly in. We were studying poetry, but the pupils couldn't focus because of constant interruptions. My metaphor lesson was going to the dogs. I resorted to some group work, but my half-arsed attempt to "carousel" their feedback was a disaster. They all ended up in the corner, huddled around one desk.

"That's a bit of a motorway pile-up happening over there," I said. Stunned silence. They stared uncomfortably at one another, the way people do when you have pasta sauce dribbling down your chin and everyone notices but no one is brave enough to say. "Now, who can explain what I mean by that?" They all looked away. One girl in particular avoided my gaze. Something was up.

After the lesson, I checked my emails. There, between the perennial "lost USB" and the invitation to join the PTA's Christmas shopping trip to York, was the announcement that Sophie Jackson's mother was in a coma. Apparently she had been put on life support after a car accident the previous night. No wonder they couldn't look at me. It was an unforgivable mistake to make.

And I am to blame. But so is my school. They offer us too much information and not enough intelligence. We are swamped with data: kids on EMA, Ritalin, or report; kids with free school meals, IEPs or autistic spectrum disorders. Kids on Duke of Edinburgh or who owe 50p for non-uniform day. It's an Orwellian Listopia. And we are supposed to commit these facts to memory. But they give us no time to sift the important stuff from the stream of info-slurry. So one day we are likely to hurt more than someone's feelings.

A child collapses in the corridor. What does he need? Insulin or an EpiPen? You remember he needs to use commas more effectively. A paramedic arrives. "Anything more you can tell us?" That he has 97 per cent attendance? A reading age of 12? Out come the paddles. Charging. Clear! Too late, you remember he has a peanut allergy.

It has to stop. We need to prioritise the information: highlight the good data and sort it from the bad - so that when a child in your class gets cancer, or is coping with a crisis, ignorant twats like me get round to reading the email.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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