Whole-class teacher's illness diagnosed

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Ah, Miss K, please come in." Her Majesty's Chief Inquisitor unwound himself from his chair. She heard the door close behind her, and footsteps echoing down the dark corridor. "You're a primary teacher, I believe. Do sit down. A headteacher." The Chief Inquisitor was a tall, lean man. As he gestured to the chair he seemed for a moment to have more than the usual number of arms and legs. "Headteachers don't often ask to see me. Your letter was a pleasant surprise. Now, what can we do for you?" "I've come to help, Mr . . ." "Quis. Please, they call me Quis."

"Quis," she said. "I think I know what you're doing. I want to help." He raised his eyebrows above the horn-rimmed spectacles. "Really? And what am I doing, Miss K?" "It's the whole question of plurality." Quis stiffened, then regarded her with new interest. "Go on." "What you call the culture. It boils down to the denial of plurality. You see, I have an interest in grammar, I know the books were banned, but I had some at home and I kept on reading them and I know that children is a plural noun."

"Indeed it is, Miss K," nodded Quis. "Child, on the other hand, is a singular noun."

"Yes. And they've denied it for decades. We were all taught there was only one child - the child - the one we had to lead out, to help learn, the one who would discover things for itself, if only we teachers didn't spoil everything. "

"When were you inducted into the profession, Miss K?" "The early 70s. I was desperate to be a teacher, to help make the world a better place. So I believed what they told me, even though it seemed a bit silly. I learned to look at a class and see only one - the child."

"You really saw it in the singular? Despite your interest in grammar?" "I think I did. It's difficult to remember. I think we all did. They still do, some of them."

"Yes, it's touching, the depth of their faith. But not very helpful." Quis took off his glasses for a moment and she saw the intelligence in his eyes. "When did you realise you'd been brainwashed?" "Quite soon. When you know some grammar it's difficult not to be aware of the difference between singular and plural. But I tried not to know. I wanted to be a teacher so much, you see. And I saw what happened to the others."

"Non-believers?" She nodded. It had been terrible. "We ostracised them. We drove them away. Broken, many of them. People who wanted to teach.

"You had to toe the line. In my classroom, when no one was watching, I treated the class as plural. Maybe that was why my classes always did so well. But in the staffroom, you had to pretend it was singular, just one child, or people turned on you."

"Do you think others were pretending, like you?" "I suppose there must have been - probably quite a lot. But we didn't dare speak out. It was easier to recognise the ones who weren't pretending, the ones who really believed the culture. They drove themselves mad, poor lambs, trying to do the impossible, believing a class of 30 or 35 could be child-centred. They worked themselves into a frenzy, developing the child, facilitating its growth, providing a meaningful context for it every hour of the day."

"Such a waste of time and energy." Quis shook his head.

"And all the time it wasn't an it, it was a them! Oh, if only I could have told them about pronouns!" "They wouldn't have listened" Quis regarded her appraisingly. "So how did you cope all those years? Most people would've retired early with stress by now." "Keeping my head down, getting on with it, trying to keep my superiors happy and do the best for the children at the same time. In the end I got promotion, and that made it easier. And it's been getting easier still since you started to speak out. That's why I want to help, if I can."

Quis smiled. "It's good of you to come forward. We need people in the field, people who know about teaching." He drew himself up, unwinding the long lean legs. "There are just a few formalities before we can accept your offer. "

He pressed a button on the desk and a video screen lit up on the wall behind him. "Different times, different issues," said Quis kindly. "There are new imperatives now, economic imperatives - I need to be sure you truly understand. "

The screen showed a primary school classroom, sunlight pouring through the windows, children's work mounted on the walls. The teacher stood at the front, talking animatedly, and the children leaned forward to catch her words. When she asked a question they strained, to be the one to answer, then listened to the chosen child attentively. There was discussion, interaction, engagement, enjoyment - teaching and learning.

Miss K found herself smiling. "Wonderful," she breathed. "This is what you're aiming for. It's wonderful." "Indeed it is," agreed Quis. "Now tell me, Miss K - how many children do you see?" She counted quickly. "About 15." Quis was silent for a moment and she felt displeasure in the atmosphere. "Are you sure?" he said. His voice was still warm, but with a slight edge which she knew was important. After all, she'd heard it before. "It's the ideal class, isn't it - a whole class?" Quis went on. "Can't you see rather more children there? Say 45, 50, even?" Miss K's smile faded, and her eyes blurred with tears. The children on the screen swam and multiplied before her. "No."

"Count again, Miss K. Count again. I'm sure you can see a whole class if you really try." She stared at the screen, wanting to help. Through her tears each child could easily be three. Maybe it was possible that numbers weren't important. But she knew they were. The tears began to run down her face.

"You're wrong," she said slowly. "A whole class may be plural, but each child is still singular. I understand your economic imperatives, but they mustn't make us lie. The ideal class is about 15 children. That's how many I see. " Quis sighed and spoke into the intercom. "Miss K is ready to leave now. Could someone come and collect her?" He glanced up dismissively, then spoke again to the machine. "Room 101, I think."

Sue Palmer is a former primary teacher and now a consultant on language. She is general editor of the Longman Book Project

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