I recently asked a friend how much beer he needed to sink before he could step into the spotlight and perform at his scintillating best. He knew the answer instantly, earnestly assuring me that it was precisely “five pints of St Miguel”. Anything less than that and he cannot “flow”; he is too nervous and cautious. Anything more than five and is “all over the shop”.
You were right to assume that he wasn’t talking about teaching. He was telling me how he best readied and steadied himself for his weekly pool match down at the Red Lion. He is personally undefeated in three seasons. The fact that he is still able to polish all opponents off with five pints sploshing inside him may perhaps explain why this popular pub game has never featured as an Olympic sport.
Nonetheless, his achievement did make me wonder what the optimum level of alcohol unit consumption might be for a teacher in order to maximise performance. Some will firmly assert that the answer to this is zero. They will say that teaching is a skill requiring us to be in full charge of all our faculties. This is the conventional wisdom. It is, of course, nonsense.
'Teachers are artists, not motorists'
Teachers are artists, not motorists. As with Picasso, Pollock and the best pool-players, a little preliminary pre-lesson drinking may help us to get into the groove, release the creative juices, encourage us to try out a few daring new strokes. Of course, I am not advocating five pints of lager, but the occasional glass over lunch would surely help rather than hinder?
I can already hear the howls of horror. “Was he drunk when he wrote this?”, “Doesn’t he realise that alcohol is actually a depressant?” But is the inevitable reaction because teaching has become so boxed into a prevailing puritanical mindset? If so, perhaps we very occasionally need to break free.
Of course, I am not calling for drinking to the point of tottering, swaying and singing our way into our lessons. But why not, for goodness' sake, brighten up our now seemingly obligatory Tupperware working-lunches with the occasional glass? And why not revive that Friday lunchtime staff trip to the pub, rather than merely frowning upon it as representing some educational dark age?
Besides, the question of optimum quantity has little to do with the occasional modest tipple when at school. The much more significant section of the performance-maximising calculation concerns the ideal amount of intake when at home.
What, for instance, might be the optimum amount of drink to help us surge more rapidly through our pile of marking, without it overly interfering with judgement? And never mind the tedious debate over which colour marking pen we should use, are we at our best with red, white or rosé? Or does beer go better with marking?
Do we need a wholly different drink and different degree of intoxication when lesson-planning? The amount will need to be quite limited, I will concede. We need something to help the flow without causing “overflow”? Two glasses, maybe? Anything much beyond would probably take us to a less good place with our students: “Were you drunk when you made this worksheet, Sir?”, “Well yes, I was actually!”
And what is our performance-optimising amount of leisure-time drinking? When does a helpful weekend oiling of the teaching engine begin to flood our engine and cause it to malfunction?
What about the occasional midweek session, maybe with a few colleagues? Is there a net gain to our teaching from this occasional defiant act of late-night dare-devilry? I certainly believe so. Too often we hear these days that the camaraderie of the staffroom has disappeared.
Drink – along with friendships, regular exercise and whatever TV or artistic entertainment takes our fancy – can surely help us to maximise our weekly performance as teachers. What’s true for pool-players is true for teaching – just watered down a bit. We just need someone to research what our optimum amount might be. A few selfless volunteer teachers should be paid to research the issue for us. Would there be any takers, I wonder?
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire