Smoke, Mirrors, Teachers and The Truth

I was sat with a group of five children today, cross-legged (like one of them). This is classic ‘deep cover’ teaching: get right down there with them, roll your sleeves up, smiling well before Christmas. The whole time, they’d be talking and I’d be listening; I’d be talking and they’d be listening; and then maybe a couple of them would be talking and I would be, like, listening. It was textbook dialogic and it felt great.

I presented them with a couple of books to choose for this half-term’s Guided Reading sessions. We looked at and talked about the covers, the blurb, read a couple of paragraphs, scoffed at the dedication and one of the authors’ use of a biblical quotation (“Get him!”). And they voted for their choice of book.

Overwhelmingly, they chose the book with the biggest font, line-spacing and the most words that they understood. And, when it came to explaining their book choice, they pretty much told me just that. “This book looks like it’s going to be the easiest to read.” I nodded and smiled, plenty of eye contact – just like one of them. (Remember, ‘deep cover’.) If there’d been a TA in the room, I would have found it difficult to resist looking at them, winking, and ostentatiously tapping my nose with my finger. (God, Duncan, I miss you so much.)

You see, I’m all about choice. But, you see, I’m really not.

I remember once, early in my teaching career, watching a colleague choose a student’s name randomly from a plastic cup. The kid, clapping gleefully, went off to do some gruntish job (like clean some whiteboards or rearrange a book corner) and the teacher went off on his rounds, checking on some writing task or other. And I went over to the plastic cup to have my mind utterly and irretrievably blown. Forever.

You see, the cup was full of small, blank slips of paper.

I looked at him, as he moved in slow-motion around the classroom, his sing-song speech slowing to a stretched drawl. I watched flecks of spittle fly from his lips, then freeze in mid-air. I saw time stop completely amidst revelation. And then start again.

In the same year, I also realised that some items of children’s work – test papers, stories, drawings and what not – do not in fact end up in some central security vault in a bunker beneath the school. They sometimes (if unclaimed) end up… [lowers typing sound to a silent tippy-tap] being thrown away.

In the same year, I heard a teacher say to a bustling, noisy classroom, “I can hear you talking.” And the classroom fell silent.

In the same year, I heard a child ask “Can I go to the toilet?” and a teacher instantly reply “Ask me in five minutes.”

If Elon Musk contends that it is most likely that we are living in some grand simulation, then I am willing to lay bets that, at some stage in this grand equation, there’s a blimmin’ teacher messing with our visual periphery. One thing you can’t fail (mustn’t fail) to learn as a teacher (especially in primary) is that, even though you value the truth and work earnestly towards the objectives you hold for your children; you do so using more smoke and more mirrors than Paul Daniels could ever have shaken Debbie McGee at (God rest his impish soul).

So, deep in cover as a normal human being, what were the two books that I gave my Year 6s to choose from, this fine morning?  

Well, one was Thomas Pynchon’s psychotropic fantasy of post-war scatology, Gravity’s Rainbow (weighing in at around 700 pages of densely-scripted, almost unparagraphed and unfiltered imagism. And the other was Coraline. With pictures by Chris Riddell.

The choice, child, is entirely yours.

And the toilet is just down the hall on the right, but always five minutes out of reach.

[Nostalgic wink to long-absent TA.]


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