It's all an act

Sometimes insights into the skills of teaching pop up in the most unexpected places. For me it was the chlorinated haze of a swimming pool changing room. I was going out as they were coming in - 20 or so small boys prattling away to one another as they prepared for their weekly supervised dip.

But it wasn't so much the boys' behaviour that caught my attention as that of their teacher. "Come on, now," he announced. "No one's going anywhere until I have complete silence." Possibly one or two of the meeker ones piped down, but "complete silence" it was not.

"All right, then." His voice was no louder than before, but it was certainly several degrees sterner. "We'll all just stay here and you can miss your swim. Carry on chattering for the whole of the period if you like, but you'll never get to see the water."

Was he serious? Would he really carry out his threat and cancel the whole lesson? The boys obviously thought so. Several voices called out "Shush!" and the racket quickly subsided. It was a pretty good performance, I had to admit, but what really struck me was that it was just that: a performance. The teacher was not so much the disciplinarian as playing the role of the disciplinarian.

To what degree does the craft of teaching overlap with the art of acting? Certainly I can see it in my own practice. I play the role of counsellor well - oh, what a heroic shoulder to cry on I can offer - but I'm really not good at stern. Apart from anything else, if the students laugh, I'm afraid I might, too. Serious, I can do. And you should see my "more in sorrow than in anger" when half the class turn up sans homework.

Perhaps my most masterful performance comes when I am required to play the part of custodian of the deadlines. Anyone who works in British FE knows what a fiction these are. Such is the pressure to get students through (or to maximise our success rate, as the jargon has it) that any piece of half-decent writing that comes in right up to the moment when the external verifier walks through the door in early July is likely to be marked, passed and slotted straight into the students' portfolios.

But they believe me, or at least pretend they do, when I wag my finger and announce gravely that if their work doesn't come in on deadline day then they can forget about university and start preparing for a life of flipping burgers.

Even in my dreams I can't get away from the art of the thespian. There is one I have quite frequently that goes like this: I am an actor onstage in a play, the performance going on all around me. Very soon, I am going to have to speak, to play my part. The problem is - and this is where dream becomes nightmare - I don't actually know my lines. Not a single one of them. Sometimes I don't even know what play I'm supposed to be in. My cue arrives and.and.thankfully, at this point I always wake up.

But surely that's not about teaching at all. Or is it?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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