The Plane Absurdity of Autocratic Rulers

Posted on June 28, 2015

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First of all, apologies to all English teachers and fastidious grammarians out there for the title of this post. I am utterly convinced that you will be fidgeting uncomfortably at the sight of the misspelling in the title. Rest assured, fellow travellers, it’s a homophone deliberately wrought for artistic effect. I have my license to prove it.

The title and theme for this post was inspired by a conversation I had with a taxi driver on my way back to Taunton railway station having presented to a group of secondary Headteachers at their annual conference. 

Said taxi driver asked me what I did for a living, to which I replied “teacher” (for some reason I never say Headteacher when asked this question). And off he went, recounting his own school days some four decades earlier. The man had some stories in him, but the one that stuck with me is as follows. Forgive me for writing in the first person. I don’t envisage for one moment that I’ve got him verbatim, but an approximation of the horse’s mouth works better than reported speech in this instance. 

“I had this one woodwork teacher, Mr Tan, who was as psychotic as any of them. He didn’t seem to particularly like kids or teaching, but often asked whether or not I preferred him or the metalwork teacher. I lied but he said he knew I wasn’t being fully honest, and so I told him that I did indeed prefer the metalwork teacher. I never had another woodwork lesson again, but enjoyed double metalwork. 

Anyway, I remember my first ever lesson with Mr Tan. All the boys (there were no girls allowed in woodwork) were given a short length of two-by-two and told that we couldn’t do anything in woodwork until we had planed each side smoothly and squared the ends so that each angle was a perfect right angle. He gave us two lessons to accomplish this. 

So I set to work and planed the first side beautifully, moved on to the next and did the same. As I moved around the block I was leaving it smoother than a babies’ bum. I took the ‘finished’ piece to Mr Tan, who looked at it like it given him a baby’s turd. He didn’t even need a set square to tell him that the angles were all to cock, and sent me back with a flea in my ear. I thought I’d got away lightly, until the flea in my ear was almost joined by the blackboard rubber that he had thrown across the classroom at me. According to Mr Tan I was to be grateful that his aim was off that morning. As for the kid who the board rubber actually hit?  He was to be grateful that Mr Tan hadn’t thrown it harder.  (Incidentally, that kid’s mum wasn’t grateful. She was livid! With her son!! Surely he must have done something to annoy they teachers, but times were different then). 

Two lessons became four and, true to his word, Mr Tan wouldn’t allow any of the boys (in other words, all of the boys) to do ‘proper’ woodwork until this first task was completed. By now, I’d started using the set square myself so that Mr Tan couldn’t get annoyed with me. Instead I simply annoyed myself, minute after minute and lesson after lesson. 

Four lessons became six, and six became eight until I thought I’d be doing this all year and would never get to make an ashtray for my parents. 

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, it was done. The set square fitted snugly to all four corners of the perfectly planed pine. It was October by now, but I was still the first one to finish. 

I tentatively walked over to Mr Tan and, as quietly as I could, cleared my throat to rouse him from the form guide in the newspaper that some of us suspected was stuck to his fingers (perhaps the fourth years got to do stuff that involved wood glue?). 

He looked up with a mixture of astonishment and loathing on his face. He held out his hand, took the piece of wood from me and gazed along each face of it through a single squinted eye. Gradually his features melted and I sensed that a respect for my craftsmanship (not to mention diligence) was emerging. He didn’t take the set square out once but I could see that he could see that these angles were as right as they could be, and when a broad smile split his visage asunder, mine followed suit. I had done it!!

But then the smile broadened further – too far – and the sense of unease within me was back and overwhelming me. This man was too misanthropic to be smiling this much and too sadistic not to be smiling at something other than my offering. The crackle of caustic cackling that came next confirmed my worst fears. 

He asked me if I remembered what his once-issued instructions were. I told him that he asked for the piece to be planed and with each side to be at a perfect right angle to its neighbour. He agreed, but then said, “Yes, but I also asked you to square the ends. I gave you a piece of two-by-two. You’re giving me back a piece of one-by-half. I asked you for a squared block of wood, not a fucking ruler!” And, to ensure that the viciousness of his words wasn’t lost in translation, he picked up my ‘ruler’ and rapped me over the knuckles with the thin edge. It hurt like hell, but didn’t come close to the sting in the tail of his laughter and the venom of his verbal attack, a sting compounded when he placed the ‘ruler’ over his knee and snapped it in two. The only good thing was that he was satisfied enough not to give me another piece of two-by-two and make me start again. 

Shortly after this denouement was related to me, Taunton station hove into view and the taxi driver bid me farewell and wished me a safe onward journey. As I gathered up my belongings, he confided in me that he never understood those who criticised teachers so much these days, not when so many people his age had so many horror stories to tell about teachers like Mr Tan. 

As I waited on the station platform for my late-running train, all the way home, and periodically since then, I’ve been thinking about the story he told me. I had been in Somerset to present to those Headteachers all about the work we have done at Canons that has helped us achieve so much in the past five or six years. 

One of those things was our short, fat curriculum offer of one-year GCSE options to Y9, Y10 and Y11 and, at the end of my talk, I was asked how we were going to respond to the latest DfE pronouncements about the EBacc for (almost) all, and about the fact that legacy GCSEs will count for zero in the Progress 8 indicators for 2018, thus threatening our school’s position in league tables, with Ofsted and possibly with parents making choices later in the decade. 

I replied then that we would be likely to continue doing what we think is right and stick to our recently-evaluated (positively so for all involved) KS4 curriculum and take the hit for a year. Events since then have firmed up my belief that this will be the right way forward, but it feels like a scary step in light of the latest volte-face by our esteemed rulers (oh for the days when “academy freedoms” was the vocabulary of choice). 

All of which got me thinking that schools are like the taxi driver as student in his story. Given the vaguest of instructions in the first instance, a lack of guidance and support during the process, limited and limiting feedback at the outcomes we present, and a sharp rap on the knuckles when we get wrong whatever it was they expected from us. 

But the more I think about it now, the more that I think that it is the DfE who are like the student in the taxi driver’s story. Not listening to the experts because they don’t value them and so being unaware of the real requirements of the brief they have been given. Too keen to get to the finished product and move on to the next job to spend time thinking about the process too carefully. Constantly reforming their original plans because their own actions have fundamentally altered the circumstances in which they are working. Whittling away the ‘deadwood’ with such thoughtlessness that they leave themselves in a position where there is not enough raw material to enable them to achieve what they set out to achieve. Leaving themselves open to failure in achieving their original goal, and in possession of something that was not what was wanted or needed. 

Of course, if it is the political class that are the student in this allegory, then that makes the profession the ‘ruler’. Resisting the temptation to scoff at the irony of that, I’ll hope instead that once we have been planed and shaped by our nominal ‘rulers’ we at least emerge from the process as being useful and, using the illogic of ‘unintended consequences’, that we are stronger and better as a result. The only other option, that we are broken in two, is too worrying (and perhaps too close to happening) to contemplate. 

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