The Swansong of the Hamster Teacher

Once, there was nothing more real than the wheel.

These days, I’m more of a cat person. Each day I rechristen my cat (much to his nonchalance). Today’s name is ‘Mr Tits’. I’ve spent the last five minutes or so chasing him around the house, crying out “Where’s your nip, Mr Tits? Have you got your nip?” in falsetto (his ‘nip’ is his food: a kind of brittle fish-food, for cats, called ‘Supercat’). He’s less bothered by these goings-on than you might expect – much less so than the neighbours, who time their bins-out so as not to meet me in the stairwell.

It’s been a rum year. I’ve hardened as a teacher: am less flaky, more direct and have a greater sense of urgency about getting on with the business of learning rather than rolling out my box of engagement tricks. I’m more comfortable with textbooks (so long as they are great textbooks) and more likely to tell my students things than wait patiently for them to find things. I think I’ve said before that dropping apples on children’s heads doesn’t create scientists. By which I mean that time is of the essence and I don’t have time to wait for my students to go through an entire culture’s worth of serendipitous happenstance in order to enjoy a montage of eureka moments. I guiltlessly resort to telling my students things.

Does this make a tiger of me? I guess that depends on what you think of as a tiger. I remember wandering around Rome Zoo on my honeymoon. It’s one of the worst zoos in the world, I think (based on my having visited somewhere in the region of five zoos in three different countries): the animals are profoundly unhappy, with patches of fur either matted or missing. The chimpanzee is particularly heavy with woe; his look has such weight to it as to be almost impossible to hold and return. I watched him eat a green tomato whilst fixing me with this heavy stare. He then developed an erection which rather ruined the moment for me.

I’d walked past an empty swimming pool full of smaller monkeys – almost literally a bowl of monkeys and a neat metaphor for our current human condition – when I felt my hackles rise (like a thousand tiny chimpanzee erections on the back of my neck). I was being watched.

Across a row of hedge was a tiger. His mascara’d eyes fixed me like those of the dark angel Metatron. Never in my life had I experienced such bonedeep terror. I say ‘never’ – I did once experience a similar ‘water-legs’ moment whilst playing Knock Down Ginger on an old people’s home. It turned out that the smoked glass doorway opened onto the lounge of the old folk’s home (where, incidentally, my mum worked). It also turned out that the glass was only really smoked on my side. So it really turned out that twenty or so elderly ladies and gents watched a young Whatonomy press the doorbell of their abode and run away. Even as I ran, my legs turned to water with the realisation that I’d just been seen doing something phenomenally, pointlessly stupid by a host of people with whom my mum worked and for whom she cared. It set a template for a road less travelled. I guess I’m too stupid for regrets.

The tiger looked at me; I looked at the tiger. Somewhere to my left, lions were rumbling. Thousands of years of instinct were fizzing and sparking within the helical loops of my nervous system. Luckily for me, what looked like simply a hedgerow over which the tiger might bound, was actually amplified with a deep trench. I didn’t know this initially and felt my legs absent themselves.

I used to be more of a hamster person. Indeed, I’ve owned more hamsters than I think is decent. They would sit in cages (or retro-futuristic perspex ‘modular systems’) and quiver for about two years before exploding. Most hamsters end with an explosion. They work their wheels (usually at night, when I’m trying to sleep) and then sit quivering or hiding in small plastic kennels (during the daytime, when I’m trying to pet them). Hamsters hamster away at life and then explode. I think, as a teacher, that I have been a hamster.

Now I’m a cat. Not a tiger, as such. I’m aloof, circumspect and prone to the odd strut. But, like the cat and much like the me that regarded the tiger in Rome Zoo, I hold the tiger in high regard. I’m not a tiger, nor do I wish to be so. But I have the utmost respect for a beast so committed to its art. And I appreciate that the tiger teacher holds the same values as myself, the Teacher Formerly Known As Hamster: that our cubs are the core of things.

In a roundabout and rather strange way, what I’m trying to say is this: the taxonomy of learning warrants a range of teaching styles. But, crucially, knowledge sits at its foundation – not as a minion and not merely as fodder for critical thinking. Criticality and knowledge are one and the same: they are the green tomato and the chimpanzee’s erection, they are the tiger, the hedgerow, the exploded hamster and the lounge of elderly ladies and gents looking on, bemused behind smoked glass.

Knowledge is more than simply my Supercat. Each fish-shaped flake is an ingredient of thought.

Time is of the essence, Mr Tits. We don’t have time to waste scampering on our wheels – for soon we will explode.

Make haste, Mr Tits! Your nip waits for no cat.

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4 thoughts on “The Swansong of the Hamster Teacher

  1. ” I don’t have time to wait for my students to go through an entire culture’s worth of serendipitous happenstance in order to enjoy a montage of eureka moments. I guiltlessly resort to telling my students things.”
    The problem is I work with postgrad scientists who may have experienced ‘telling’ when they were in school. It turns out there is a lot of school science that they don’t know or understand.
    I really don’t think it’s down to ‘discovery learning’ when they were in school. I don’t see a lot of school science depts teaching in that way, and I’m not necessarily saying they should.
    What I’m saying is that we have a problem, because I don’t think the Tiger Teachers, or anyone else, have come up with a solution that means that a culture’s worth of science can be learned, such that it is understood and retained by the age of 23 (when they train to be teachers).

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