Old School Science
There used to be a position in the teaching profession that had a very basic job title – “senior teacher”. As opposed to the modern terms such as “assistant vice principal” or “associate head teacher”, the position of senior teacher was a post that was simple and easy to get to grips with. The position could be quantified by the fact that it merited an “E allowance” on the old pay scale.
You were experienced, respected, and on the ball if you were a senior teacher. They knew what they were doing. Some were gun slingers (do we call them behaviour managers now?), some were planners and organisers (suppose these folks are now SIMS/curriculum/timetable coordinators today), but one thing that they had in common was they were all superb classroom practitioners and had a bit of presence about them (were they old school ASTs?) All I know is I do not see them around these days – dinosaurs I suppose, killed off by the “fast trackers” and well-dressed office types.
Jim Chinnor was a senior teacher who remained in the same school long enough to teach the kids of the kids he had taught a generation before. Physics was his specialism. He was a legend.
Jim was a pure magician when it came to holding a class’ attention. The way he held most groups’ interest was through his anecdotes and stories that related to the science theories that he was teaching and he also loved a good practical – as most kids do.
He had a special way of demonstrating to students the principle of heat conduction in a metal bar. The bog standard way is to stick drawing pins onto a copper bar using wax or petroleum jelly. (See video below) When the bar is heated with a Bunsen at one end, the conducted heat travels down the bar and melts wax so the pins drop one by one as the heat is conducted along the bar.
Now Jim Chinnor loved the spectacular, so he adapted the method above by using white phosphorus rather than relying on waxed pins. White phosphorus burns almost spontaneously in air; it has to be stored away in a sealed container in a locker or chemical bin outside of any building. Phosphorus was used by the RAF in the incendiary bombs dropped on German cities towards the end of World War II. It is nasty stuff and has to be treated with respect.
The brainwave that Jim had was to put small pieces of white phosphorus on the copper bar which would catch alight in turn as the warmth from the bar became enough to start the reaction of phosphorus with air. Jim made two mistakes when doing this demonstration for his students, firstly he did not set out the equipment in a fume cupboard and secondly he forgot about the stock bottle of white phosphorus and left the lid off it.
Jim was chirping away to his group when suddenly he realised that the stock bottle of phosphorus had been left open too long and the air had got to the volatile chemical. The whole bottle caught fire belching out loads of noxious fumes and because the bottle had not been put in the fume cupboard the room quickly filled with smoke. By now the bottle was too hot to pick up and put in the fume cupboard or taken outside, so a rapid evacuation took place. All the kids got out without any mishaps, but the bottle continued to burn and fumes spread up through the ceiling into the room above the lab, leading to mass panic in a German class. The fire was eventually put out, but not early enough to stop the chemical mess from spreading around the lab and the room above. The building got condemned by a HSE inspector and it was a week before the whole place got cleaned up!
Today you would not see such a practical attempted, but an “interactive” visual aid would be shown to the class instead, ie another POWERPOINT©
But watching the video below you can see why Jim tried to jazz up the demonstration a bit!
Count out and count back in again.
At one time I taught a fantastic student who I will call Zed. Zed had been diagnosed with autism at an early age, this did not prevent him from doing well at school. To look at Zed was very small in stature and he had a soft voice that was almost a monotone. Zed liked telling jokes and riddles that were often homemade and told very slowly. He walked with hunched shoulders, almost in a scuttle and was a well-known character in the school. Typically of someone with autism, Zed was a talented mathematician and he also had a real interest in science.
Crustaceans were a source of fascination for Zed and he was a great authority on crabs – kids would often ask him questions about the trivia he knew on this subject.
Simply put he was a lovely lad, but you always had to look out for him. In most lessons Zed did receive in-class support, but due to his nature it was an absolute liability when doing practical work. This was a lad who was knocked over by traffic three times when walking to and from school over the years, once pretty seriously. I lost track of the times that Zed dropped something, burnt himself on hot equipment, or fail to carry out a task in the right sequence.
When Zed was in year 11, I had a free period when he had PE on his timetable and this was when I often used to come out and play football with the group for recreational purposes. This was something I did for years at both the schools I worked in. If I could wrangle it, I would come out and have a knock about once a week with a random Year 10 or Year 11 class – it was a great release and the kids loved it, as I often commentated during the games we played and generally took the piss.
The games we played in Zed’s class used to take place on the tennis courts which were concrete at that time, but just about all weather. Zed did not play football, but what he did do was run for the whole lesson around the entire perimeter of the sports field. This was something he loved to do at the same pace – he would speed up when our football went over the fence as he would always fetch it for us. At the end of the hour when bringing in the lads I would always shout to Zed to stop running. You had to time it right has he always insisted on completing the lap he was on.
Unfortunately after one tight match with an exciting finish I forgot to tell Zed to stop and come back in and this lesson was period three. I realised my mistake about 10 minutes into lunch. There was no PE lesson on the field period four, which meant that when I went out there Zed was still on his feet, but only just, still jogging around the field. Luckily he was just tired out and I had not killed him – we both shared a laugh at what a donut I had been as we walked back into school together. It was a lucky escape and so as with the scissors dished out in classrooms, the same goes for kids – count in and count back!
Watching the current crop of sixth formers trying to park their cars as close as they could to the school the other day made me think back to a lad I taught who always tried to park his car well away from the school gates, rather than close to them.
This story starts with RM* and I, who were both teaching GCSE Science to Year 10. We always shared groups others did not want; it became a sort of trademark. RM had a “way” with bottom sets; he had defined rules and unbelievable classroom management. His philosophy was based on issuing those that stepped out of line with a “good whelping” and sticking to his lesson planning of “if in doubt, copy out.”
In the lab next door I just got work out the kids through chivvying and cajoling and could only dream of having our shared groups under the same short leash as RM. But our partnership worked.
One day about half way through the school year a new lad arrived in my class. It turned out that he was an Iraqi refugee who had entered the UK via transit from Hamburg. Just because I could speak German it meant the powers that be dumped him in one of our shared GCSE wagon load of monkeys. I quickly found out that his lad could not speak much German and RM only spoke estuary English, so next day my “old school” colleague tried a different tack in his lesson.
Whilst the class silently copied out the notes on Plant Cells from Jones & Jones ‘O-Level Biology’ RM wrote down “6CO2 + 6H2O = “ on a piece of paper. He pushed the paper over to the lad who quickly scanned RM’s message. The lad knew a bit more about photosynthesis than his new peers, because he wrote “= C6H12O6 + 6O2”and slid the answer back, whilst holding RM’s cold stare. The class scribbled away in silence. RM tried a few other equations and quickly found out that the lad knew far more than an ordinary Year 10 student.
It took a while for the school to realise that the lad in question was older than originally claimed until he was sighted on a number of occasions driving to school in a Vauxhall Cavalier. What caught peoples attention was the fact that the lad was behind the wheel whilst still wearing regular school uniform! It turned out that he just used the school as a means of getting some qualifications whilst he sold cars from his “Uncle’s” car lot in West Harrow.
* RM – aka Richard Michaels the old school Biology teacher and my erstwhile mentor.
Those were the days Part 22
The West London comprehensive school where I first taught had a few Science labs that were situated on the ground floor of the “sixth form block”. Above these labs were the sixth form common room, offices and three classrooms where languages were taught. “Languages” was commonly known amongst some staff as ‘Bosnia’, as it was truly a war zone up there. On regular occasions I would be invited over to help sort out kids from my form who were messing around in class. Consequently the joke was that anyone taking a trip over there could be regarded as a UN peacekeeper.
I was lucky not to be timetabled in that block. The main reason being if you taught below a language lesson it was quite disturbing at times due the chaos occurring above you. Regularly school bags would be hung on the blinds cords and left to dangle out of windows so that they were seen swinging outside from the labs below. The kids would eat up there all the time and chuck their leftovers and other bits of rubbish outside too. The occasionally rejected sandwich would land outside the lab downstairs whilst the odd crisp packet and sweet papers would drift past on the breeze. You always had to go up and sort things out if you were teaching below.
Luckily I did not teach in these labs that often, normally it was for a room swap. On one occasion I had to cover a test in one of the labs. The kids in my class were quietly doing the task in hand, whilst it was clearly kicking off upstairs. All of a sudden a large, dark shape wizzed down past our windows and landed on the playground outside with a huge thump. “Oh my God!” shouts a kid, “someone has fallen out the window!” It did look like it, and certainly sounded like it. Pandemonium broke out in my room; one kid started screaming. I dashed out the fire exit to check, only to find that the premises manager was replacing some carpet in an upstairs office. He had lugged out an old roll of underlay from an upstairs window onto the playground to save carrying it downstairs!
Been thinking about CJ lately. A proper teacher from the Old School. Keep on rockin’ in the backstreet boozer in the sky Big Man!
Escape from INSET
My first ever September inset day convened in a small library that was laid out with rows of chairs pushed back as far as the bookshelves. I do not know where the venue was, being new to the school, so arrived late and had to tiptoe my way to the back where there were some spare seats. Little did I know that I had landed amongst the hardcore members of the tea club one of which was MM the music teacher with the optics. As the proceedings started the hubbub died down and introductions were made, notices given out etc.
As time went by I noticed MM who was sat near me start to shuffle his chair away from me towards a line of bookshelves. He did this in stages, sometimes coughing whilst shifting the chair of further and further away. As soon as he made the cover of the bookshelf he jumped up and stood out of the view of the people of the front of the meeting.
He then started gesticulating and pointing at me. One thing I did notice was that he pointed a fire exit which he now had direct access to. He beckoned me across to come and over to him, at this point in time I did not even know who this bloke was, and nevertheless I followed his instructions. He quietly popped the five door open whilst I shuffled across to join him. The last few feet I covered by crawling on my hands and knees using a bookshelf of periodicals as cover, but we got there in the end.
We both ducked out of the meeting via the fire exit went for a cup of tea in the music room until the meeting went for a break. I was later to learn that this is typical behaviour of MM, an old school legend.
There is a certain uniqueness about Billy Bragg. He is clearly no political giant, but well thought of enough to be invited onto Question Time by the BBC. Cannot see that happening for many other people who have played live on Top of the Pops!
It was interesting to hear his response to the question posed by a member of the audience at the live show which was along the lines of ‘what would you do to solve the current economic crisis?’ After suggestions from politicians to cut public spending, stimulate small businesses and ease pressures on world economies by essentially printing more money, Billy said “I would pay the ordinary workers a decent amount of pay by increasing the level of the minimum wage.”
I will leave you to think that how that compares with George Osbourne’s ideas on quantitative easing.
My mind goes back to Billy Bragg as I first saw him play during the miners strike. Strike is a word that has become metamorphosed into ‘industrial action’. Not too sure about that one.
A strike is still a strike in my book.
At some parents evenings you get some kids that bring Mum, Dad, Gran, the dog etc. Yeah, I have had dogs on leads, that were being puppy walked, introduced to me. As if Fido would be that bothered about what I had to say.
Sometimes you had an older brother or sister that rocked up to be the interpreter for the Mums and Dads who do not have a great command of English. On the odd occasion you could kind of tell that the brother/sister was watering down the bad news which you had to give when the folks nodded appreciatively and mumbled “thank you very much” to my comment that “I am afraid to say that Sunil has not done any homework this term.”
A Mum who will remain anonymous used to come and sit down at my desk regularly without making an appointment. I taught or had taught most of her kids over the years. But even if it was a night for a year group of one of her kids that I did not teach, this Mum would always park up with me for 5 minutes.
The reason being was that the rows of desks were set out alphabetically and my spot gave a prime viewing position at which to gaze at CJ (Clive Jarvis) This is precisely what this Mum would do. She had an enormous crush on CJ and would tell me quietly what a wonderful teacher he was and how she would like to repay him for his professionalism!
The weirdest entourage I dealt with concerned two families that had wife swapped. Both families were very amicable and in fact all four parents turned up for the appointment for the kid I taught. So extra chairs were brought out and it was always most confusing trying to talk to four faces about one student. Very weird!
And the molecule at the top of this post?
Well for a while a few staff used to dress up their desks in not quite a “Pimp my Ride” sort of style. One maths teacher covered his desk with green poster paper and put loads of pot plants on or around the work top. It looked like a display from the Chelsea Flower show. A CDT teacher rigged up some Christmas lights to his desk that pulsed all evening long in a really annoying way. I used to make Molymod© molecular structures and leave them on my desk. Ethanol looked like a little dog which caused much amusement, but little opportunity for teaching and learning!
I used to teach in a lab that was joined to another with a prep room in between, in a self contained detached block. The block was a bit like a pair of huts, but a bit more substantial. The whole block was brick built with a flat roof that leaked like a sieve. Both labs had a huge bank of windows that looked out over a grassed area called the Quiet Green.
Richard Michaels (aka RM) – the hard-nosed mentor of mine and T-club member taught next door. RM had a way of controlling kids that was second to none and was always willing to “give ‘em a good whelping” if they stepped out of line.
One day I was chalking and talking to a class that were clearly being distracted by something outside on the Quiet Green. So I turned around to see a lad sheepishly standing on a picnic table right in the middle of this open space. I went outside to investigate and the kids I left behind in my lab jumped up on the side benches to get a grandstand view, faces pressed up at the glass of the windows. They all stared at this lonely looking boy stood on the picnic table.
RM had the whole of his own class lined up outside his lab and was barking orders at this clearly bewildered student as the rest looked on.
“That’s it son, up you get!” bellows RM.
The boy stands on the picnic table, blinking and unsure.
“You have not been paying any attention to me back there in that room; it is as if you are sticking two fingers up to me for the whole lesson”
The kid shuffles a bit with his tail between his legs.
“So you can come out, do it properly and stand up there for the whole world to see!” comes the cry, which is so loud that kids in the English block are looking out too at the spectacle.
RM stands there, arms folded. He barks again at this lad, who looks like he needs the toilet,
“So let’s be having you! Stick your two fingers up to me!”
The kid is very unsure as to how best to proceed. Giving RM the old “V” sign is something he is not comfortable with, nevertheless he slowly raises his hand.
“That’s it! Stick your fingers up!”
Two girls in the line stood outside the lab muffle a titter, but RM still turns around to glare at them.
“That’s all that I am good for isn’t it son? Two fingers…..”
The lad still stands there giving the salute.
I shake my head in disbelief and get back to my class.
The shutting of Slough Ice Rink
Once I took over the form tutoring role of a tutor group that had had four form tutors in three years. As a consequence of the constant changes they were a bit feral when I took them over in year 10. The group turned out good in the end, in fact they won the overall form Sports Day Trophy in that same year.
At this stage I had worked out what method motivated them – bribery. A girl in form won the 800 m, literally by beating the only two other girls that turned up, due to the fact that I promised her a bottle of vodka if she ran.
I was good to my word, but I do not let her have the bottle until she was 18!
One promise to them that I later regretted slightly was a trip to Slough ice rink – a reward for good behaviour. On the big night we piled the kids into two minibuses and drove down the A4. We left the kids to it and then swiftly retired to the bar.
Not long after we had settled down an announcement came on the PA system:
“Could the teachers from QM School make themselves known to a member of staff as we have to close the rink?”
Fortunately no was injured, but the cause of the crash was Celine Dion. Titanic was the blockbuster that year and when “My heart will go on” came on for the public to skate to one lad decided he was Leonardo DiCaprio and tried to hold his girlfriend up as if he was on the bows of the doomed ship.
His girlfriend was not going to have any of this, and when the boy did not put her down when she asked she decked him with a neat right hook.
Both of them came down in a heap causing complete carnage.