The word sabotage, perhaps apocryphally, is derived from the practice of 19th-century industrial insurgents in the Netherlands who would drop their clogs (“sabots”) deliberately into their own factory machines (source: Star Trek VI).
I had space to ponder this today as an agitated can of pop exploded inside my school satchel and turned a good leather bag into a bladder. Swimming in the froth and the NutraSweet was a phone charger, a fruit stew, a cornucopia of lidless pens and every page of photocopying I needed for five lessons solid. (Somewhere, tech zealots are chuckling at my Dickensian approach to resources; the tsunami also claimed my iPad). This, five minutes before curtain-up. It’s fair to say that my mindset was less than growthy.
It’s striking how little things can transform an engine into an angry paperweight of chaos. All it takes is one razor blade and suddenly the water slide isn’t as much fun as it used to be. I turned up for the interview lesson for my first school job confident that every classroom had a projector, as the receptionist has assured me the week before. I can only assume the switchboard patched me through to the Marx Brothers, because when I walked in on 9F the room was as barren of tech as Gandhi’s larder.
I threw smoke in their eyes with worksheets I’d prepared as an option if they finished earlier and a few trust games that I pinched from a corporate weekend away. I dodged that bullet by millimetres.
As the old poem goes:
For want of a nail a shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle
For want of a battle the kingdom
And all for the want of a
We are surrounded by nails in teaching – so many things we count on to be there, invisibly, unconsciously, below our radar until one day they break, or they don’t show up, or you forget that you need them. That’s the nature of working inside the organic machinery of school bureaucracy, where every cell is part of an organ, and every organ is essential to the school body. Lose a cleaner and the bogs back up; drop a librarian and suddenly room booking falls apart, homework clubs dissolve.
Some people are planners; they terrify me. Others are more like me; I build my house from straw and sticks and just hope the wolf of fate isn’t doing a learning walk. I snag myself on more nails than most, I suspect. If you’re lucky, you get a mix of both in every department and school – if you’ve ever covered a lesson at the last minute you’ll know immediately the signs of a department run by people who look out for nails. They’re the ones with prepared lessons for the cowboys or the transients who need only stretch their hand out to collect.
The 1998 film Sliding Doors demonstrated how different a single timestream could be if one small detail differed – in that case, catching a train or not. Here’s a secret I’ve learned after years on the job: problems never go away, but you start to see patterns; they repeat. Eventually you get a feel for the where the nails are, and a sense – if you’re smart – to bring a needle and thread into school.
Even so, there still might be a Coca-Cola grenade in your rucksack.
“Was that meant to happen, Sir?” said the first pupil to come across me.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71