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Persuasive mix of morals and marigolds

Only rarely do teachers get a chance to leave their educational environs and step into the real world. But take the step and it can be refreshing to become the learner for once. Alter your routine, see how other people work, watch and learn - and often what you learn is about yourself.

Such an opportunity presented itself to me recently when I was called up for jury service. A venture into the real world taught me a number of lessons.

Initially, I had to rid myself of dramatic images of Henry Fonda eventually persuading a whole jury with his powerful rhetoric in Twelve Angry Men, or the quiet dignity of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. This wasn't Hollywood but the world where one of my first tasks was to persuade a judge that I was unable to do duty in a trial estimated to last three months.

I'm a teacher, the exam season is upon us, coursework moderation needs to be completed and reports need writing. I enhance the life prospects of young people, I make a difference. The soundbites and the interview rhetoric counted for nothing in the implacable face of the judge. Where were the persuasive skills of Henry Fonda when I needed them? Thankfully, a prior commitment to a sixth-form residential, booked and paid for, enabled me to stand down and serve instead on shorter trials. Lesson number one: my job is not as all-important as I thought it was.

Lesson number two? In the subsequent trials in which I served, it was obvious that good and bad, innocence and guilt, donot have a clear line dividing them. Some people find themselves in the dock not because of any innate criminality, but because they allow their lives to get in a mess.

Shakespeare, as always, got there first: "Condemn the fault and not the actor of it". Pause for thought. In future, those who fail to bring a pen to my lesson or default on homework may find a more sympathetic English teacher passing sentence on them.

And the third lesson was a rather delightful one. For although I kept in touch with colleagues via email over the 10 working days of my absence (how they must regret the advance of technology and the allocation of laptops), marked some essays and wrote reports, for the most part the evenings were my own and the Sunday afternoon tyranny of preparing for the week ahead was lifted.

Oh joy! This year we'll have some marigolds as I spent some time in the greenhouse, and even the watercolour brushes had a rare excursion. It seems as though there are some real advantages to be had in the real world.

John Clarke is head of English at Balby Barr community sports college, Doncaster

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