My unspeakable Top 10

17th January 2014 at 00:00

Why are lists so seductive? It doesn't matter how studiously you're searching online for teaching resources, an article titled "The 10 cutest kittens in the world" or "The 10 most telling symptoms of liver damage" is sure to pull you off track.

As a nation, we might struggle with Shakespeare, subordinate clauses or remembering which bin goes out on which day, but "10 most anything" is always irresistible. We don't even care what the lists are about. As long as they contain a superlative and a specious ordering of objects, our curiosity eclipses our judgement.

Some of the worst lists are the ones that look the most truthful. Take the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings. These are as useful as a countdown of kittens. For example, after noting its Pisa performance, you might want to pull Little Sophie out of her poorly ranked UK school and sign her up to one in high-performing South Korea. However, a glance at the "Top 10 industrialised countries for suicide" chart might change your mind.

One list I found was of things for which there is no English word. My favourite entry was the Japanese "tsundoku", which refers to the act of leaving a book unread after buying it. I also liked the German "Kummerspeck" (literally "grief bacon"), which refers to weight gained from emotional overeating.

Our ability to describe classroom life would be enriched by such evocative language. There isn't, for example, an adequate word to describe the subtle pleasure of a rival's teaching being designated "good" rather than "outstanding" (Schadenfreude is too blunt a tool). So in the hope that someone will come up with apposite terms, here's my list of "10 things in teaching for which there are no words":

1. The sudden realisation that you are due on yard duty, it's raining and you have no coat.

2. A photocopying queue consisting of five or more people, three of whom are advanced skills teachers holding sheaves of coloured card.

3. Dinner ladies who give male teachers extra dollops of pudding.

4. A collective noun for the promotion-hungry teachers swarming around the school leader's head.

5. The moment it dawns on you that you are standing in front of a rowdy Year 10 class with a Year 7 lesson plan.

6. The over-the-top performance of teachers signalling their readiness for leadership through exaggerated use of voice, hand signals and elements of Noh theatre when managing the traffic flow of children through corridors.

7. The barely audible sound of 1,500 children breathing the words to a hymn they do not know.

8. The realisation that you can't recall the name of the child sitting opposite you at parents' evening.

9. The abject horror experienced by teachers on first encountering their new students' end-of-year targets.

10. The diversionary habit of tweeting, blogging or writing columns about lists rather than marking overdue coursework.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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