The day we never got out of first gear

11th November 2011 at 00:00
An anti-speeding course taught Geoff Brookes how not to teach

When the letter came I selected the speed awareness course. I had been harvested on a quiet Saturday afternoon on an empty road. I have no one to blame but myself. And so I was sent for re-education.

I was in the odd situation of being in a class I didn't want to be in, with people I didn't much care for: a situation I have put lots of my own pupils in over many years. It felt faintly humiliating as we gathered in the bleak car park, united in our criminality. We watched as one of our class roared into the car park at high speed. We all resolved silently not to sit next to him. Except it was someone who I used to teach. "Hello Mr Brookes. What are you doing here? Don't tell me, let me guess," he said affably. Crime is such a great leveller.

We went in to meet Teacher, our mentor for the next four hours. He was a man for whom driving was his identity. For most of us it was something that we had to do. But it defined Teacher. Without his subject he was nothing. Bit like a technology teacher, I suppose.

We were told the objectives of the lesson. To stay there for four hours, for a start. Then to reflect on our wickedness. Perhaps it was the other way round. There was to be no differentiation, no accommodation of different learning styles. We just had to sit and listen and feel guilty. I found all three difficult to do.

We were given a pen, which is always best with a difficult class like ours. We used it to complete a little starter while the register was taken. Like lots of kids, the questions were so easy we wondered if they were trick ones and started to doubt ourselves. We had a work book to complete and there were big bubbles to fill in.

Teacher was affable enough but we were taught from the front all the time. He read from PowerPoint slides. The only acceptable answer was the one in his head. Opinion was constantly confused with fact. Answering questions was not about truth or belief, it was about reading his mind.

Teacher kept checking we were actually writing stuff down, but never checked on the content. Making marks on the paper was all that was important. But we were a mixed-ability class and we were all desperate to pass. And the onus was always on us, not on the teacher. His performance was irrelevant. Not like school at all. Which is just as well.

At one point he told us there were no circumstances at all where speeding could be justified. He asked us to suggest some. The naughty girls at the back invented increasingly unlikely scenarios where the choice was either speeding or death. Teacher became flustered. He told the girls that this was silly and that if they didn't behave they would fail the course. And at that moment he lost his credibility. The girls had won. He had only been able to deal with the situation by re-asserting his power, not his knowledge, like poor teachers everywhere.

Oral work was that moment when we confessed our sins. We were all murderers who drove at 60mph outside primary schools at home time, even though none of us had.

Like kids everywhere we were delighted to get away. The sense of release was immense. No wonder detention works as a sanction - none of us could take much more. And what has been the consequence of the course? Am I a better a driver? Or am I just paranoid about speed cameras? What do you think?

Geoff Brookes, former deputy head of Cefn Hengoed Community School in Swansea, is a part-time quality champion.

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