Tom Bennett

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My Next Book: some clips from the cutting room floor.

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‘Please teach us, Mr Bennett.’
Here’s a short excerpt from my new teaching book I’m writing AS WE SPEAK, to be published sometime next year with Continuum. I’m not sure if I’ll leave it in or not at this stage, but I thought I would give it some sunshine. Hope you enjoy it:
A typical cover lesson:
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I walk into the unfamiliar classroom (maths- references to Pi and Pythagoras on the walls, piles of graph paper, foreign to my Humanities mind, lie scattered on the floor in defiance of conventional storage patterns), with the familiar and unlovely cocktail of aromas unique to the post-adolescent holding pen- some artificial, some organic- in a cocktail that Coco Chanel is unlikely to market as long as humans possess noses. Although it’s the start of the first lesson, the registration class prior to my arrival has decided to scorn the reactionary principles of rows and columns in furniture, and has attempted to recreate Carl Andre’s minimalist Pile of Bricks from the Tate Exhibition in 1972, using chairs and tables. 
The word CUNT is written on the whiteboard; not the wipeable whiteboard, of course, but the eternally indelible interactive whiteboard that costs £1000. The effect is similar to scratching a cartoon phallus on the immaculate scarlet bonnet of a cherry-red 1975 Ford Gran Torino (symmetrical white vector stripes optional). 
The children are, of course, there before you, because they are familiar with their timetable, and you are a visiting dignitary in their private sphere. Not all of them obviously, because a significant minority has discovered that navigating between registration and their first class is impossible without several essential pit stops; things just need to be said to Darren, and Carmen has something she wants to let some people know, those sorts of missions. Darren, Carmen, Olatinji and the rest of the Baker Street Irregulars will be along presently, causing at least five restarts to the lesson. The students who are there then notice you for the first time. One of them shouts across the room, ‘Are you our teacher?’ in a way that fails to convey the reserve and cautious respect that they no doubt intended to display. ‘Yesss!’ he shouts to his friends, my presence now no more than peripheral to his concerns.
  
That ‘Yesss!’ carries a lot of context. For a start it means that the students are delighted. Now, unless you are actually Santa Claus, the Candy Man, or in the final five of the current Reality Talent mincing machine on ITV4+1, this reaction is unlikely to denote genuine delight at seeing you. The student is probably not celebrating you as a person, or saluting the holistic totality of your spiritual journey. Rather, he will be doing a little monkey dance at what you represent- which is a cover lesson, or in student parlance, a free lesson- and what you are not, which in this case means an authority figure. Your arrival has triggered the dopamine stores in their cortexes reserved for the start of the Summer Holidays or the final school bell. In other words, they’re delighted that they won’t actually have to work. As far as they’re concerned, I’m smoke. Now all I have to do is sit down and let them get on with conversations about Sartre, Dark Matter, Superstring theory, or more likely, has Hailey Mears got better norks than Jordan? 
I’m in a room with two dozen students; most of whom I most likely haven’t taught. Many of them will look familiar, like déjà vu in a dream, strangers to soap, academia and social convention. There are a number of hoods and jackets still on, and unlikely to come off without a lobster pick and some solvent. A variety of mobile phones are displayed as proudly as the pikestaffs of the Swiss Guard, and were I capable of seeing beyond the visible spectrum and into the ultraviolet world of radio waves, I would be blinded by the maelstrom of grammatical violations and inanities that the information age has facilitated. ‘Around the world, words will fly,’ the sixteenth century Christian mystic Mother Bernadette is alleged to have to have prophesised, ‘In the twinkling of an eye.’ She might have added, ‘But most of it will be total crap.’
With this, my life will be complete. Since 1978.
Some of the students, smelling mere anarchy, move seats in order to be closer to that special someone. Islands of lonely hermits start to appear; these are the ones who are perfectly happy to start working, and have made themselves pariahs for their temerity. Backs are turned to the front. A brave minority is eyeing the open doorway; a fearless vanguard of that subset actually storms it and vanishes down the corridor, hooting like geese. Somewhere at the back, someone’s Mum is cussed- the unforgiveable cuss- and swords are drawn. A book is thrown. Something – possibly Blutak, possibly a snotter wrapped in loathing- sails close enough to my desk to suggest volition. 
And you know what? You just deal with that too. 

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    The reason I hate cover lessons. And this is also one of the small things about American education I would have imported to England, teachers don't cover other teachers lessons, only supply teachers because teachers in England barely have enough planning periods as it is.

  2. Colin says:

    It's the summer holidays, I'm slightly inebriated, and I've just returned home from my girlfriend's.

    Reading your last book, “the behaviour guru”, on the train ride back home cherry topped this rising tide of elation inside of me–you published a question I asked two years ago. The male NQT hated by his year 10 girls, particularly after dropping a sarcastic joke that went down like a fart in a lift. Me: in a book.

    I do not know if I thanked you for your advice then, but I thank you now. Keep on trucking!

  3. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Anonymous. Fortunately we only have to do so now in emergency situations- it used to be very common indeed.

  4. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Colin

    Power to your drunken elbow! Thanks for the comment; I rewrote everyone's questions a) to avoid infringing any sense of copyright anyone felt they had and b)to avoid identifying anyone. Glad you enjoyed the inclusion. Breaker, breaker 10/ 4, good buddy. *attempts CB*

  5. Chrisdafunk says:

    This paints the picture I think every member of the public imagines when they think of teaching. I hope the book goes on to discuss how to deal with it. Or is it just an observation and actually we are all fucked!
    Cheers.

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