Pauline's earthquake enthusiasm gave her pupils the tremors

25th February 2011 at 00:00
There's a thin line between excitement and bad taste, and teachers must know what it is

It could have been a tough gig. I had promoted the course as useful for the new Higher physics, but two working days before it, a rumour broke out that the changes to physics would be postponed. There wasn't a lot I could do. The Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre had invested heavily in kit to give the teachers to take back to school. If we pulled the plug and lost delegate fees, we would be severely out of pocket.

Our friends at the British Geological Survey had gone to great trouble to line up researchers at the frontiers of their fields to make a first-class seismology day for 20 physicists and geographers. A speaker pulled out for reasons both understandable and laudable, given the circumstances. I began to wonder if I was in for a metaphorical kicking.

Fortunately, kickings were not on the agenda. I had forgotten three things. Firstly, I was among friends: there were few delegates I had not met on previous occasions. Secondly, physics teachers are generally good at seeing how ideas and kit can be used across their subject. So, it would appear, are geographers. If I ever again make cheap shots about colouring in, tell me to shut up. Thirdly, I had forgotten Pauline was coming.

Pauline recently retired from a Glasgow secondary. She had been to a previous seismology course that issued schools with a free seismometer and had offered to share her experiences. Inconsiderately, I talked her into presenting in the vacated slot. I knew she would be good. Previously, she had wowed 19 of her peers and the SSERC physics team with her report on a suite of lessons she had made up and used on sun beds and skin cancer. What I hadn't anticipated was how thought-provoking she would be on ethical issues.

A story from Pauline's Intermediate 1 class stood out. She had told them about the seismometer. A particularly devastating earthquake was in the news; had the school's instrument picked it up? They went to look. Pauline was genuinely excited. Here in her school, the seismogram showed a huge disturbance on the other side of the world. Some children were captivated by her enthusiasm, but others were unsettled. "There are folk dying because of this earthquake," she was told, "so how can you be excited about it?"

Now, I considered myself reasonably sensitive. When I discussed how an atomic bomb worked, I was careful to tell pupils I was helping them to evaluate issues concerning nuclear weapons, not glorying in our knowledge. Pauline's children were making a more subtle point. I came away knowing that the word "disaster" does not apply to the situation where you have to restructure a slot in an inset course.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre

Gregor Steele's favourite earthquake experiment involves jelly.

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