Science syllabuses across the country are being updated this year - a result of Michael Gove's "educational reforms". Syllabus-alterations happen a lot though, so it's pretty much par for the course. Some topics within a subject get shelved and others get brought in (oh, and in case you're wondering, the plural of syllabus can be both syllabi or syllabuses).
The new Science schemes are heavier on content than the previous bunch and there are a few nastier topics to contend with, but on the whole they cover the same basic stuff. One thing I'm glad to see the back of however is the topic of paint drying.
Let's be clear about this: I'm not telling a joke. The GCSE Chemistry syllabus I've taught for the last five years had, as part of unit C1, the Science of paint drying. A subject so boring we have a phrase for it to mean "the ultimate in boring-ness".
Apparently, someone at the head offices of our exam board decided that paint drying was a topic which would help inspire the next generation of Scientists.
Was it a joke? Did someone submit the topic as a Christmas-party prank and it got approved so they just kept their heads down? Was the chief of the exam board married to someone who worked for Dulux? Had money changed hands?? It's a bad sign when the story of how something got into the syllabus is more intriguing than the topic itself.
So imagine you're a teacher. You care about your subject, you think it's important. You also know that many of the teenagers in front of you are probably tired and don't really want to be in school. Most of them are patient because they know you want to help them, but a few are poised to kick off if they get bored.
And you have to stand there and explain to them why they need to learn about paint drying. Do you fess up and go with the honest, although soul-crushingly familiar words "we've got to learn it because it's on the syllabus"? Or do you lie and tell them this is the most exciting, most relevant topic in the world?
One thing I've learnt about myself as a teacher is that I'm really bad at faking it. A few years ago, when I was newer to teaching, I tried to fake enthusiasm for a topic in order to motivate the students. They saw through it immediately of course, and I decided to just be myself. You can't make the Science of paint drying interesting. Well, maybe you can, but I surely can't. I mean, if you're teacher-of-the-year you can probably make anything interesting, but for most of us teachers we have limits and paint-drying is well beyond mine.
But the idea of "putting on an act" is very interesting. As a teacher you have a similar job to an actor in many ways. You have to stand before an audience, deliver some content, keep them interested for the whole show and make sure there's a clear narrative to what you say. But teaching isn't acting, and I'll try to explain why.
You're often taught, during teacher training, that it's important to put on a persona for the classroom, some kind of character to preserve your own sanity. The idea is that you are "tim" when you're in the office but you become "Mr James" when you step through the classroom door.
I remember one of the tutors on my training course demonstrating this one morning. He marched into the room and yelled for silence (a room of adults) then took a register as "Mr Grunthorpe". I even got told off for saying "yup" rather than "yes, sir" when he said my name. He kept it up for ten minutes, before he paused, grinned at everyone and went back to being Frank. I can't deny it had an impact.
I know other teachers who are very good at this. I've seen them. One minute they're talking to me in the office as "Horace" and then suddenly they're "Mr. Nipperhosen" or whatever. I'd like to say you should always be yourself in the classroom but there's a good reason for all this persona-stuff. One story in particular will demonstrate this painfully well.
I was at chess club one Thursday evening. The student I was playing outwitted me brilliantly with a discover checkmate after ten minutes. I was impressed, surprised and entertained so, as we sat laughing at my defeat, I let slip the words "Tom you clever *@$^#!" Argh.
This was how I'd respond if someone outside school had outwitted me as cleverly as this year 11 had done. But I let my mouth run away and acted like a normal person. He froze, as did I, and then he laughed even harder. The head-of-year happened to be in the room though and I was taken aside and spoken to. Rightly so.
If I'd said that to a stranger (who I was mysteriously playing chess with) there would have been no issue of course. But teachers are expected to act and speak a certain way. If you swear at someone in Tesco's you're just rude. If you swear at a student, that's a different matter altogether.
Now this may come as a surprise to you, but I'm a human being, as are most teachers. Sometimes we say silly things, sometimes we make off-colour jokes and sometimes we use naughty language. In other words, we act like ordinary people. But when you're in a classroom you've got other people's kids in front of you and you want to be a good role model. Many parents would be very unhappy if you acted like a normal person.
I remember once talking with a priest and I said something which surprised him. His reponse was to blaspheme loudly in the middle of church. For what it's worth, this made him seem more human to me, a real person who spoke like regular folk do, but I could imagine someone writing to the archbishop in complaint.
My point is that the chess-playing incident was an example of me letting my guard down. As a result of this I decided to make a real effort to be "Mr James" and I discovered two things about myself. One, I wasn't very good at acting and two, it actually made me a less effective teacher.
None of the students I currently teach have ever met the old "Mr James" but, to give you an idea, I was briefly nicknamed "The Colonel" at my first school. I strode around the playground with a determined authority. I never smiled, I never told jokes and I didn't take any nonsense. I made my sense of authority on Science clear. Nobody could question or challenge me. But I really sucked at it.
I wasn't good on discipline, I just snapped and shouted at people. I wasn't someone pupils could talk to if they needed help, I was the austere guy who bled knowledge. And I couldn't keep it up. I was spending so much time on acting that my love of Science got buried beneath my desire for people to believe the tough-on-discipline act. So I threw the whole thing out the window and decided to just be myself and talk about Science.
For me, teaching isn't about performance, it's about shifting gear. The person I am in front of a class is always there inside me, I just keep him subdued when I'm not in school. The same way people chanting at a football match aren't faking their enthusiasm. They don't act like that in the grocery store, nobody sings boisterous songs at the frozen peas, but their love of the sport is 100% authentic. They aren't putting on an act when they go to a match, they just uncage a different side of themselves.
So, when we cover a subject I'm not fired-up about, I can't fake enthusiasm for it and, if I'm honest, those lessons are probably not my best.
I went to school with a guy who could act though. He was one of those people who could vanish into a role, so much that you didn't even recognise him. That's not a joke either. I once went to see him in a play where he was a mentally-deteriorating soldier suffering from PTSD. And you'll notice my wording there. He wasn't playing this character...he WAS this character. I'd gone along expecting to see my mate playing a soldier. Instead I saw the soldier.
I'd known this guy since I was 12, yet I didn't recognise the person in front of me. It didn't look like a performance, it was just a different guy! But that's what made him such a good actor. He could somehow change his brain, voice, mannerisms and movements to bring a character to life. I still feel like that soldier was a real person. If he saw me teaching however, he'd still recognise that it was basically tim james.
When I'm in front of a class I'm probably a little bit more hyped-up than when I'm sitting at home with my wife talking about crumpets or whatever. But the guy I become when I teach is still me. I'm not pretending to be anything I'm not. In fact, when I'm teaching is probably when people are seeing the real me. I just watch my language a bit more. So if I am acting, I'm playing a character who is 99% myself anyway.
I love science, let me tell you why.