The table-top war game Warhammer 40,000, with its armies of science-fiction models and libraries of rulebooks and background fiction, has been played for over 30 years now. Generations of teenagers have pored over the game’s tome-like manuals during morning registration, doodled space marines in their exercise books, and allowed their minds to wander off into the grim darkness of the far future to escape the grim darkness of a fifth-period cover lesson in the drafty portable classroom.
Background: Teaching GCSE English with Red Dead Redemption 2
Many of those former teenagers are now teachers themselves, and it’s easy to see shared challenges between the all-consuming hobby and the all-consuming profession.
1. The rules change all the time
Every few years, a new edition of Warhammer “40k” rules is released. Sometimes the shape of the dice changes, other times your entire bookshelf full of supplementary rules that you’ve spent the equivalent of a student loan on will be rendered obsolete overnight. Similarly, in teaching, every new government usually means a new rulebook too. Remember Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) from the late 2000s? The hefty matrices we were filling in weren’t dissimilar to the tables you had to cross-reference to work out what damage your laser had done to an orc battlewagon back in the 1990s. APP was mercifully binned around the same time as “learning styles”, which had defined how we planned lessons for years.
2. Nobody takes any notice of the rules changes
Given the years we’ve invested in learning the rules and developing our own effective strategies based upon them, it’s unsurprising that many players stick with what they know and justify it by asserting that anything new is terrible. Some clutch their original 1987 rulebook reverently and define themselves as “retro” or “oldhammer” gamers. It’s no different in teaching, where practitioners tend to stick with whatever was in vogue during their training, which is why you can still occasionally walk into a classroom to see “all/most/some” lesson objectives lingering like a sixth-edition chaos-space-marine army; quaintly nostalgic - and completely ineffective.
3. There’s always more to do
No matter how industrious you are in painting your little soldiers, you’ll never finish them all. Even if you’ve neglected your pets, family, and personal hygiene, even if you’ve spent so long hunched over painting tiny details on tiny models that you’ve given yourself acute rhomboid spasm, there will be another box of grey plastic waiting impatiently for your attention. Likewise, you can pour your blood, sweat, and tears into a teaching group but there will always be a new set of faces staring back at you come September.
“Won’t you miss them?” I asked a more experienced colleague during the leavers’ assembly at the end of my first year of teaching.
“There’ll be more next year,” she said, wisely.
Whether as hobbyists or as teachers, we have to keep a check on the chest-crushing anxiety that can take hold if we think of all the things we could be doing. We’re never going to get to the bottom of that list.
4. Everyone else is doing it better (on social media)
When you’ve spent three weeks painting an inch-high figure and are unreasonably proud that you’ve managed to just about keep the colours within the lines, it’s soul-crushing to scroll through social media apps where a 12-year-old has posted photos of the same model looking like a Fragonard portrait. What’s more, he’s done a freehand rococo pattern on the armour. Oh and he thought that using metallic paint would be cheating, so he created the illusion of metal through highlights and shading.
It feels the same to me, scrolling through the humblebragging and resource flaunting of teachers on social media. No, I’m not going to post photos of a display I’m proud of because displays are nowhere near the top of my infinite to-do list (see point 3, above). In fact, in one school I rescued several crates of landfill-bound novels and filled the entire rear wall of my classroom with bookshelves, conveniently removing the need to ever worry about the display. I am also not going to post my resources: I like to think that the ideas are often pretty good, but I still have to insert a new slide whenever I want to add a new bullet point to a list in Powerpoint, so I’m never going to impress Prezi and Sway natives.
5. Ideological extremes take over
In the fiction of the Warhammer 40k universe, the evil forces of Chaos nearly overcame order 10,000 years ago, with Earth itself narrowly saved, and as a result, humanity has become a fascist, intolerant race intent on the preservation of tradition and quick to condemn “heresy”. In teaching, the forces of chaos had nearly overcome social progress 10 years ago with wide adherence to the idea that “kinaesthetic learners”, a term that correlated strongly with economically-disadvantaged boys, couldn’t meet the same expectations as other students and that the activities they were to be set needed to be less demanding. This has been rightly challenged, but we must be wary of the pendulum swinging too far the other way and stifling pedagogical innovation and creativity. Call me a heretic if you like, Inquisitor, but not all mutation is bad.
It might sound glib if I were to quote "the most important rule" that has appeared prominently in 40k rulebooks for decades - "to have fun" - and suggest that it applies to teaching too. But just as playing a sci-fi tabletop wargame should be intrinsically enjoyable, so should a profession that provides the privilege of sharing the subject we're most passionate about with colourful, imaginative, young minds every day.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE