Cynical but insightful

Nick Yapp: Bluff Your Way in Teaching
Ravette Publishing 1998 (1987)

This fell out of the bookshelves recently where it had somehow got wodged in and unnoticed. I didn’t ignore the irony as I myself had somehow got wodged into school education, only managing to extricate myself many years later by the skin of my teeth (and with my heart in my mouth, just to mix metaphors). I couldn’t finish this when I first came across it for it was much too painful — despite its deliberately humorous take on the state of pedagogy it was too close to the madness that pertained in British teaching at the time, and no doubt still does. Would a revisit bring back the pain?

Skimming through it now I note that, as is to be expected, it’s way out of date in terms of practice, acronyms and the like — but not where the mindset of authority is concerned. By authority I mean of course anybody in the echelons above the level of the humble classroom practitioner at what used to be called the ‘chalkface’, which is where I spent most of my time. When I wasn’t in interminable meetings. Or writing reports. Or having to do some creative accounting.

Bluff your way in Teaching is written by an insider. I see that the author was a teacher for 27 years before switching to writing, so he knows — or at least knew — whereof he wrote. Now a prolific writer of documentaries and light entertainment for radio and television he’s also responsible for short fiction as well as scores of non-fiction books — from photographs to film stars and from crime to cricket — and finds time to contribute travel pieces for the New York Times. By turns cynical and insightful, he vents his spleen on institutions and personnel, gives us the lowdown on classroom technique and other requirements of the job, and finishes with The Teacher’s Year and a glossary. I particularly relished his “How to get out of teaching” hints beginning with Death, working through Early Retirement, Nervous Breakdown, Suspension, Slipping to the Side and ending with Opening a Wholefood Shop or Pottery. It turns out I went for the fifth option by becoming first a supply and then a piano teacher.

His one-liners are best, though a bit tiring after a while: Rousseau “was the first person to admit that children are like wild animals,” an open testimonial is “a measuredly meaningless document that tells nobody anything about anybody” and music education is a no-no in the curriculum: “Educational research revealed that playing in a string quartet was no sort of preparation for working in McDonald’s, and anyway music was making children happy, and education should have nothing to do with making children (or teachers) happy.”

And then there’s the advice on classroom technique.

There are four techniques to be mastered:

1. How to get the children into the classroom.
2. How to keep the children in the classroom.
3. How to get the children out of the classroom.
4. How to deal with the children while they are in the classroom.

You can see why he got out of teaching. The whole slim volume (less than 70 pages) is a quickish read but, to answer my initial question, it still brought back the pain of teaching, not so much the requirement to educate those unfortunates pushed through the sausage machine as having to deal with insane systems which squeezed out any joy to be had from learning. At least that pain is only a dull ache now, flaring up when I’m reminded of it.

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14 thoughts on “Cynical but insightful

  1. I don’t know how things are in the UK but here it’s very difficult to get young people enthused about being teachers. They either remember too clearly what a hard time they gave their own teachers or don’t think it’s well-enough paid. The entry score has gone down and down for that reason, and so people who can’t get into any other course go into teaching. I don’t think there’s anything demanding more skill than teaching a class of 20 or more different personalities and abilities.. And you really do have to like kids.

    Sounds as if this book is right on the money!

    1. It’s similar to Aus in the UK, Gert. I read a recent article online that suggested that “53 per cent of [UK] teachers are considering leaving teaching according to a recent YouGov poll, and it isn’t just experienced senior staff. 11,000 young teachers actually leave in training, an exodus that has tripled in the last six years.” A rise in the birth rate coupled with workplace stress means there is a disaster waiting to happen.

      And you mention classes of 20 or more; more like 30 or more in my experience. I did like kids (and I hope many liked me too) but they too had their stresses which they brought to the learning environment; that won’t have changed. Stressed teachers + stressed students is not a recipe for “the best years of your life”.

  2. This seems to be universal. How did/do we ever survive school, as students or teachers?

    Although, I have to admit to always liking school, sometimes it was in spite of the teacher 🙂

    1. The answer is, I suppose, that some of us didn’t survive. But, speaking for myself, I have many positive memories of being both a student and a teacher. And of course I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for those experiences! 🙂

  3. I wonder how he would have regarded my own most successful teacher’s philosophy. This was that teaching was like giving a stage performance. Nothing was real. Fury worked best if carefully crafted. If interest wasn’t being maintained, the act needed a better script or better performance. The audience was there to be won and captivated.

    He admitted that some of the lines had to be written in with lightning speed before delivery. A suitable silent pose would be struck while this was happening — raised eyebrows were a stock-in-trade.

    1. I agree that teaching is to some extent a performance — as all public appearances are.

      But students (and colleagues) are quick to spot insincerity, from struck poses to crafted fury: I’m ashamed to say I used to try this and can say from bitter experience that it doesn’t work — I was seen through straight away, as were other teachers who tried this faux approach.

      You get the best results from believing in what you do and believing in your students. Those were the kind of teachers I respected when I was a schoolkid and from whom I learnt most.

      1. That attitude involves an ongoing, draining, personal commitment. The one I was thinking about was a superb actor — we never guessed what he was doing until the after-schooldays confession. He claimed it saved his sanity.

        1. “Ongoing, draining, personal commitment” … tell me about it, Col. Good that your teacher was a good actor — though that also requires commitment and consistency — but in the UK such a role these days wouldn’t get past the regular teacher observation, assessment and inspection regime that sees past any surface gloss.

  4. Dear Chris, you can survive teaching only if you were born teacher. In my humble opinion, trainings and books won’t be of any help, if you have not developed a sincere talent and passion for teaching, otherwise that teacher will be the most miserable person in the world.

    1. As ever, Stefy, you are right; teaching is both a talent and a vocation, and I certainly sense those qualities in you. There isn’t a mould out of which educators are stamped, however much the powers-that-be think that we have to conform to the strictures that require boxes to be ticked.

      I wasn’t the most perfect of teachers, I know, I had many faults, but I do know that I was able to share a connection — a love of learning, an appreciation of aesthetics, a moral compass even — with a significant number of students, whom I hope will remember me as fondly as the teachers and role models who did the same for me.

      1. No one is perfect. However, your being so humble to perceive faults in your doing has given you the key to be a most deserving teacher, I am sure. Only teachers who are fully aware of their imperfections can create a sound relationship with their disciples and improve with them. An imperfect teacher is not an oxymoron, is the best. 🤔😜

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