Mile-high moments

19th August 2005 at 01:00
This report is brought to you by John Mitchell, Foreign Correspondent for The Times Educational Supplement Scotland.

For 30 glorious seconds, I could see the byline... I've been writing for this newspaper for more than 20 years, but summer 2005 offered an exciting new challenge as the Editor enquired of my availability for a Summer Diary slot. As it happened, I was sailing the Mediterranean at the time of asking (swank, swank), and had just checked my e-mails in the ship's satellite internet cafe.

The publication date was possible, I replied, if I "filed my copy from the seven seas" (only one of which I was sailing, if truth be told) - and if the paper would pick up the tab for my onboard internet expenses, which came in at substantially more than your average street-cafe rate.

The Foreign Correspondent vision faded as quickly as it took for an ethereal exchange of alternative - and more economical - suggestions, wherein Ewan Aitken and I swapped places. Thus, I appear at the fag-end of the holidays, and send copy from the less expensive base of my own internet service provider.

When I started writing for The TES Scotland, I used my dad's old typewriter with a carbon copy kept for reference, so the issue of whizzing copy back and forwards between my holiday ship and an Edinburgh office certainly got me thinking again about modern means of communication, and (I'll get to the point eventually) their applications in education.

I'd started to think about modern means of communication on the airplane to our embarkation port, long before any delusions of FC grandeur had entered my tiny little head. It was the pre-flight safety announcement ("your safety is our number one priority") that had started my grey cells running.

For once, I realised that almost everybody was paying attention.

No raised newspapers. No chattering. No kids wailing. And even I was listening.

Why? It was different. It was new. It was technological. No self-conscious mid-aisle stewardess on this plane, gallantly donning a lifejacket and pretending to blow an imaginary whistle "to attract attention in the unlikely event that we should land on water". On this plane, we had state of the art video presentations, with LCD screens clunk-clicking noisily as they disengaged from the luggage racks above our heads and kick-starting our short attention spans with glorious ease.

OK, Pixar it wasn't, but these genuinely lifelike animations showed us virtual people (expressions included) who demonstrated what it was like to fasten our seat belt properly, or how to conduct our DVT exercises to best effect. For entertainment, it certainly beat Big Brother hands down, especially (from a hands-down point of view) when they were showing us what to do if the captain said: "Brace! Brace!" And for a moment I joined the throng of technology groupies who believe that kids (and adults) will interact more easily, more eagerly, with a screen than with a real, live human being But - surprise, surprise - the novelty value soon wore off and by the time those screens jerked back to their umbilical electronic womb, the vast majority of the class had grown disinterested and were returning to their comics, their books, their papers and their mixed boilings.

My mind went back to the only flight I've ever taken where we actually listened to all of the pre-flight safety announcement. It was in the early days of easyJet, when entrepreneurial spirit and a genuine desire to engage with the customers seemed to imbue all staff, even those weary cabin attendants who had made the same speech, taught the same lesson, so many times before.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Brian had announced grandly, "there may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft, and your cabin staff are pointing them out now."

We all laughed, then looked, and I've never since forgotten where those exits are. Brian continued in similarly engaging and interactive vein for several minutes. His high spot was reminding us, completely deadpan, that "smoking is not allowed on this aircraft, not even in the toilets. Any passenger found smoking in the toilets will be immediately ejected from the airplane."

Video screens, plasma screens, LCD screens and whiteboards might make your job a little easier; but it's the teacher within you that will make teaching the job it was always meant to be: one that connects with your audience because you've found a new way of saying something, and because you're ready to interact with your listeners. It's what makes teaching worth it.

Welcome to another term.

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