In our department there is a young French teacher who reminds me of how I used to be. As the rest of us stare despondently into our coffee cups at break time, she will skip into the staff area with a happy grin on her face. "I REALLY enjoyed that lesson," she will announce, and do you know - she means it. Quite right, she's a damn good teacher and there is no trace of resentment in our pleasure that she is getting on so well, is so enthusiastic and is transmitting that enthusiasm to her students.
Shortly before Christmas, Mademoiselle entered the staffroom at break, almost in tears. "Whatever has happened?" we asked. "I've had a terrible lesson, " she sobbed. "Nobody listened to a word I said and all they did was stare out of the window and shout." Suddenly, I felt like a wise old owl. "Ah, Mademoiselle, " I advised her, "you needn't worry. None of us would have been able to cope. When you've been teaching as long as I have, you'll know that there are only two things which can bring about a total collapse in discipline: snow and wasps. "
Here in Hampshire, snow is so rare that the merest hint of a flake induces mass pupil hysteria. For the language teacher, however, a flake or two of snow can be a godsend. When else, for example, do you get the opportunity to practice "es schneit" in context? At last, you can point out of the window and legitimately claim that "il neige". Anti-transactional experts claim that it is important to learn to talk about the weather because it is such a natural thing to talk about. Well, it might be a natural thing to talk about, but it is not a natural thing to teach people to talk about. All language teachers know the knot in the stomach and the trembling fingers as they open the envelope containing the day's GCSE oral conversation topics.
Please, please, let it be Hobbies and Family . . .
Aaaargh! It's Health and WEATHER!
So, what advice do the teachers' notes give? Kindly noting that "the questions given are only suggestions", they advise you to ask:
"What's the weather like today?"
Well thanks a bunch, that's very natural, isn't it? You are reduced to: "Er, what was the weather like last weekend?" and "Er, what do you do when it's raining?"
Of course, it is natural to talk about the weather. It goes like this: "Cold today, isn't it?"
Years of humiliating attempts to carry on as normal during a snowstorm in a 1960s-built classroom consisting almost entirely of windows have left me a little wiser than Mademoiselle. This time there was, however, a spine-chilling comment from one of my pupils:
"We can get you sacked now, can't we, Mr Shawford?" "Whatever do you mean, Tom?"
"Well, New Labour say they will sack teachers who can't keep their classes under control. All we need to do is behave like this when there's an inspector in the classroom and you'll be out."
And to think I used to like David Blunkett.
Could there be anything more chaos-inducing than snow in a language lesson?
Wait until you get a wasp in your classroom. Shrieks of terror will reverberate round the room as arms flail, exercise books flap and bodies dive for cover under the desks. The GCSE syllabus doesn't contain a section on entomology and wasps don't feature in the national curriculum. No linguistic benefits.
Once more, you just have to try to remain calm while all around you disintegrates (because none of those damn Sixties windows actually OPEN). Give up all aspirations of teaching until the offending insect is well and truly squashed .
Here is a true cautionary tale. In the Seventies I worked in Germany. We had a fortnight's "induction course" which included a day's teaching practice in Blankenese, a swish suburb of Hamburg. As well as being observed by various teacher trainers and official figures, we were also watched by our peers, so that the classroom was groaning with adults as well as the hapless students being subjected to model lessons.
A dynamic young teacher called Chris had prepared a fantastic lesson to teach shopping conversation. He had set up a complete shop on the teacher's desk, made up of a range of real food and drink. "I'd like a bottle of lemonade, please," requested one student, dutifully. "Here you are, Sir. That'll be 50 pence, please."
As Chris handed over the bottle (which, in true German fashion, was made of recyclable glass), it slipped from his grasp and smashed into a million pieces on the floor, not only scattering shards of glass but also spraying lemonade throughout the room.
It was high summer. It was in the middle of a heat wave. The windows were open. Just outside one of them was a large wasps' nest. I leave the rest to your imagination.
Next time you temporarily lose control over your class, don't get too despondent. Just think, it could be a shower of meteorites. Or a tarantula.