Learning to use the messenger

25th February 2000 at 00:00

Monday. Mr Tod has announced his early retirement, on stress grounds. The shock news hit the staffroom at morning break.

"Well, it's not a shock he's taking early retirement," conceded George Crumley. "But on stress grounds? Now that is a shock. The closest that our headmaster's been to stress in the last five years was that time he lost his speech five minutes before the Rotary Christmas dinner. He's never fired a gun in anger since the day he walked through that study door and announced his 'open door' policy - always ruddy open because he's never ruddy there!" I thought he was being a little harsh until Crumley reminded me of the thousand indignities I'd suffered at the hands of Mr Tod's over-critical approach during the last 15 years. At which point I decided to join in the attack.

"Well, it's pretty clear why he's finally decided to throw in the towel now, isn't it?" "Is it? Why?" queried Malcolm Saunderson, six months into his teaching career, and only recently returned from a stress-related illness himself.

"The inspectors," I whispered, looking askance at the staffroom door lest any of them should appear. "Ever since they announced the snap inspection, he's looked like an aged Henry Cooper about to enter the ring with Mike Tyson. He's in there with them just now, going through the school development plan. Such as it is. And he knows he'll be in for a pretty rough ride when they produce their report, so he's getting his retaliation in first. Whatever they say about the English, maths and geography departments next month, he can wash his hands of the whole affair and stick two fingers in the air at them" "But I thought he said at the staff meeting that we had nothing to fear from an inspection?" "Of course he did, Malcolm," I explained patiently. "He's got to project that public persona. But if you'd known him a long time - as I have - and if you were closer to the seat of power, as we principal teachers are," - and here I allowed myself a little moment of preening self-regard - "well, let's just say it's a case of 'Heavy lies the head that wears the crown'."

"Pah!" exclaimed Sandra Bradford. "It's been a pretty rocky crown for years now, and he gets paid bloody well enough. I say good riddance, and here's to the next man - or woman - in."

"Unless it's Ruth Lees!" interjected Mrs Harry. "If there's one downside to Mr Tod riding into the sunset, it's the thought of that ambitious big bitch getting her foot across his study door!" I pursed my lips and declined to comment. Ever since Ms Lees was so helpful in my application for the PT guidance post, I've had nothing but admiration for her. Plus, of course, she could be a very appropriate wagon to which I could hitch my particular star if she does climb the greasy pole. If that's not mixing my metaphors too much.

Tuesday. Assaults on teachers. Endless extra hours of unpaid overtime, preparing new schemes of work for rearranged syllabus requirements.

Every report that hits the media these days seems destined to reinforce the message: "Who would want to be a teacher?" Not Malcolm Saunderson, apparently. The English department's answer to Howard Hughes (in terms of reclusive tendencies, if not financial standing) has once again absented himself from work, again on the grounds of an employment-related stress condition.

It seems that the prospect of tomorrow's 'crit' lesson with Mr Macintyre of HMI had his bowels in an uncontrollable frenzy, according to Simon Young.

"I don't know why," bemoaned our principal teacher this morning. "I simply told him to make sure he knew the departmental handbook back to front, not to screw up the lesson unduly, and make sure everyone came out alive at the other end. Especially Mr Macintyre ."

"Maybe it was the bit about the departmental handbook that threw him, Simon," I offered sage advice.

"Why's that, Morris?" he walked straight into the trap.

"Well he could hardly be expected to know it back to front," I reminded him tartly. "After all, you only wrote it last week."

He had the decency to look embarrassed, I'll give him that.

Wednesday. My first interview with Mr Macintyre . It didn't go very well. He explained at the outset that he wanted a full and frank exchange of views about departmental policies on discipline and pedagogy, after which we would move on to our state of readiness for implementation of the new Higher English.

Well, the first part went very well, because he seemed to agree with my (highly constructive) criticism of Simon Young's management capabilities, especially the creakingly ancient curriculum we provide in first and second year. But when I gave vent to even fuller spleen on the fact that I nevertheless fully agreed with Simon's stand against the new arrangements for Higher English (I called them ill-conceived and completely unworkable, if I remember rightly), he seemed strangely silent.

"Perhaps," Simon Young explained to me later as I gave him a highly selective version of the interview, "that's because he was one of the chief architects of the new arrangements before joining HMI."

"Ah," I nodded slowly. "I see."

Unfortunately, he is visiting my classroom on Friday. I can't say I'm looking forward to it much.

Thursday. The scourge of mobile telephonic communications continues to make the humble teacher's life a misery. In spite of Mr Tod's strict injunction forbidding pupils from talking to each other on the wretched things during their lessons, they still try to find a way around every rule we create.

Only this morning I had to read the riot act to Kylie Paterson (2C), whose mobile's ringing interrupted my lesson on the apostrophe three exasperating times!

"Kylie!" I exploded eventually. "You know full well that you're not allowed to speak to anyone on your mobile during lesson time."

"But ah'm noat speakin tae anyone!" she insisted vehemently.

"Ah'm getting a text message!" "You're getting a what?" I enquired archly.

"A text message," she explained patiently. "So ah'm no speakin tae anyone. Joanne'n'me are arrangin whit wur daen tonight."

"Show me!" I held an outstretched hand. So she did.

And there, before my very eyes, was an electronically-recalled litany of textual messages that had been exchanged between herself and Joanna Grieves (sitting next door in Ms Honeypot's social education class, for heaven's sake!) about their plans for the evening, as well as enquiries about their health.

"RUOK" said one (Are you OK?). "CU2N" said another ("See you tonight"). So much I could follow. But some of the shorthand codes they had worked out to save on costs ('phone cards are pound;5 each, apparently) were beyond my comprehension, and would have caused puzzlement amidst the finest minds at Bletchley Park. "DUFMW" was, apparently, an enquiry to Kylie as to whether she "fancied Michael Willis", and "NW - POFOK" had been the considered response ("No Way - Peter O'Farrel OK", for the uninitiated).

"And what about this one?" I replayed another message.

"Ah wis just answerin Joanna," Kylie volunteered. "She'd asked whit lesson ah wis gaun intae, an ah said..." she looked at the initials "EWMS:BFW" and thought back to her answer: "Eh - English with Mr Simpson: big fu-" and then she suddenly went bright red and clammed up.

I scanned the alphabetic possibilities and arrived at one or two outcomes. Sensitively, I decided not to pursue the matter further, and confiscated the telephone. For once, she did not complain.

Friday. Last night I had a brainwave. Having long deliberated about the best possible lesson to offer up in front of Mr Macintyre (ranging from my legendary dramatic re-enactment of trench warfare as a prelude to some war poetry, through to some more contemplative reflections upon death in readiness for some D H Lawrence), I eventually decided to avoid literature altogether and prepare a vocationally-orientated lesson on language in society.

From everything I'd read about the new Higher (not that I've read the document itself), I thought it should please Mr Macintyre .

Thus I found myself using Kylie Paterson's mobile telephone as a basis for 55 minutes of active language work on the use of codes in society. We went quickly from the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians right through the basic alphabet systems as used by Enid Blyton's Secret Seven and Jimmy Clitheroe's Black-Hand-Gang. And then we spent most of our time on a spurious worksheet I'd constructed using Kylie's mobile telephone-speak.

Of course, the pupils were delighted. They'd never had anything so close to their pathetic real-life experiences. And Mr Macintyre was delighted too, because (as he memorably put it) "that was a genuinely pupil-led activity that enhanced the value of their own everyday language."

What a load of mince. But it was good to know I'd lost none of the true educationist's abilities to don the emperor's new clothes when the occasion suits me. I look forward to a suitably glowing mention in HMI despatches.

John Mitchell Next month: Will HMI give a good report? Will Ms Lees apply for the headship? Will Malcolm ever come back?

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