Viking shamans used runes, cast and counted. Druids buried their hands in a goose’s gizzards to do the same (or worse: Tacitus said that “the Druids consult the gods in the palpitating entrails of men”). Tea leaves, crystal balls, blood on a mirror – these have all been used as supernatural lenses from which apocryphal wisdom could be distilled. Sherlock Holmes famously (and fantastically) used his inductive acumen to draw forensic narratives from the meanest and minutest of details. These are all (sadly or not) unrealistic methods of gaining wisdom. But there is something to be said for noticing the small stuff, and working backwards from it.
Take one simple example. Pick any lesson and ask yourself: who turns up first? Who comes in last? Then flip the question: who bolts first? Who dawdles? And then ask: why? It took me years to even notice that such a phenomenon was happening. They arrived en masse, and left like a wolf pack; they were present or absent, and stragglers had their names chalked on the naughty slate for their troubles. But after a while, I started to see patterns. The same pupils, the same days, the same times. Of course, most teachers go through this phase. When you begin in teaching, you regard making it to the end of the day with enough activities as a win. After a while, you start to see their abilities and ambitions in broad groupings, perhaps their behaviour, too. Then you start to know the pupils by heart (hopefully before the first parents’ evening).
Probing the why of the what was part of this process. One boy used to beat the rest of his peers to period one by many minutes, which, for period one, is a country mile. Cheerful and upbeat, it was easy to accept this with pleasure. It took a half-term of conversations to realise that it was because he missed every assembly; a few conversations later to unpick that he missed them because a pupil on the balcony above spent that time spitting slowly on him from above. Pulling teeth would have been easier than extracting that little nugget.
Some children run to your lesson because they love it, and bless every one of them for it, and their rarity. Some because they like you, and relish a little personal time. That’s fine; these are the kids who want to ask you about your weekend, your thoughts on EastEnders, and your views on Heart FM, all in the three minutes they have before the scrum, and starters overtake you. Those are some of the loveliest moments of your day. Some moments are less lovely and more important.
Years ago, a girl used to drag her feet leaving my GCSE class, even though the bell entitled her to 20 minutes of playground liberty. There was always the sense that something was unsaid, and, when she finally said it, I knew why; her boyfriend was forcing her to have sex against her wishes. It was my first serious disclosure, and I beat myself up for ages wondering if I couldn’t have made it easier for her by being less brusque, or more approachable. (Happily, the system worked – she was supported and she’s now a wonderful mother with a young man who does deserve her company).
Some kids slack in because they hate school; because they want to signal their disregard publicly and loudly; because they travel for two hours to get in because parents are separated; because they get no sleep because mum’s a violent drunk. I never judge. Some stay because your room is the only place they feel safe; some because they just want to be noticed.
Now when I see a kid wait, I make a point of using the moment. Sometimes, you can find a whole universe inside it.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71