Inefficiency, Elicitation, & Pragmatism


I’ve now been doing my TEFL course for ten days and am therefore halfway through it. I’ve done a couple of observed lessons, including preposterously detailed lesson plans (though yes, of course I understand that this has to be done at this stage, as it would on a PGCSE) including a lexical analysis of the words used. I’ve written two assignments and had one of them graded; I’m handing in the second tomorrow.

I am, therefore, about to start pontificating about just how inefficient some aspects of it seem to be.

Before I do, though, I’m going to say that I’m actually having quite a lot of fun. We – there are eight of us doing the course – have to teach actual students. Needless to say, it’s not easy to persuade people to turn up for English language lessons conducted by novices. (Though actually several people on the course have significant experience teaching English.) The classes are therefore free of charge to the students. They fall into two main categories: a few kids who’ve just left school, and so have lots of time but no money; and some ladies who lunch, classic examples of the most pampered generation ever, who have retired in their late fifties in good health, with husbands still at work and the prospects of decades of leisure ahead of them.

Of the eight I am the only Englishman. There are two other native speakers of English (an American and an Indian), two Germans, a Pole, an Uzbek, and a Brazilian. Apart from one of the Germans, and me, all are women.

Twelve students have been coming to the course, and only two are men. Interestingly they are also the only ones who are neither prospective undergraduates nor retirees: one is a South American mechanic, the other a Syrian refugee.

This group is the ‘upper-intermediate’ group: the level is that of an Upper Sixth class. I’ve spent two weeks teaching them; tomorrow I’m about to start teaching an ‘elementary’ group.

As part of the course I have to produce a profile of one of the students. I knew who I’d do almost straight away: it’s one of the school leavers who, after my first lesson, told me that she’d really enjoyed it and that it was so much more fun that the lessons she’d had at school, where the approach had been, as some educationalists like to characterise it, ‘drill and kill,’ with lots of focus on written accuracy and very little on speaking the language.

This was nice to hear. Of course it was.

It was also utter cobblers. I don’t know everything about this girl, but I know that she’s never lived in an English-speaking country; she’s clearly motivated, because she’s at a language school during her summer holiday, though she’s not reading Dickens just yet. Still, her English is rather good, and – although of course much of that will be down to her, and not her school – I’m inclined to think that her English teachers at school deserve some of the credit for that.

That’s why I’ll be picking her for my profile: depending on how my relationship with the course and the tutors develops, I’ll be able to write one of two rather different assignments. When I come to write it, I’ll tell you how I did it. Promise.


I don’t think Helga (no, of course that isn’t her name) is in hock to progressive ideology. I don’t think her teachers were wrong to have taught her traditionally: in the absence of any contextual evidence all we can ask is whether it worked or not, and her English is significantly better than the German, or French, of an English school-leaver would be. But I’m willing to concede that at this point in time it may be that a different approach might suit her needs. Her accuracy in English is good; now she can focus on fluency. Thanks to her teachers at school she knows lots of language: perhaps now we can work on her pronunciation and give her lots of practice with spoken English.

It’s a bit like The History Boys. Irwin can get the lads to write interesting, controversial arguments only because Mrs Lintott taught them ‘facts, facts, facts.’

And maybe, especially in a country like Germany where the learning of English as a foreign language is compulsory at school, that’s what a language school brings to the table. Possibly. I’m not convinced. But it’s worth considering.

Here’s my worry though. I don’t think we’re teaching Helga much English. She’s practising, and that’s worth something, but she’s not leaving lessons knowing significantly more vocabulary, or grammar, than she did before coming into them.

Now part of this is an absence of homework. As a form tutor I always used to tell pupils that they had to sit down and learn their foreign language vocabulary every day. It didn’t have to take too long, but they had to do it: if they didn’t they’d never learn enough words. Were this a ‘proper’ class, there would be vocabulary to learn and to test, and that’d help.

But part of it is that  the preferred method of teaching new vocabulary is to ‘elicit’ it.

This is very inefficient.

It can be fun, for the teacher. I had to teach – sorry, ‘pre-teach’ (don’t ask, I don’t know) – the word ‘outnumbered.’ I showed them that famous photograph of Diego Maradona against the Belgians. I showed them a picture of a soldier surrounded on all sides by enemies. They came up with various wrong answers, which I responded to encouragingly. And eventually, when they got it, I asked them whether it was true to say that the women in the class were ‘outnumbered’. No, they said. The men are outnumbered. Correct.

I was praised for doing this well. Even so, I can’t help but think that telling them the German word übertroffen would have been rather quicker and easier.

We aren’t, of course, allowed to do that. Though my guess is that in English classes throughout Germany it’s exactly what happens.

But does it have to be this way?

The CELTA certificate which I’m doing is designed to be delivered wholly in English. That’s the only way it can ‘work’ – by which I mean the only way it can become a globally-recognised qualification (or, to be cynical, global brand). A course which required its teachers to have at least a good working knowledge of the language of the learners would struggle to recruit teachers; it would also lose students.

In the class I’m currently teaching there’s a Syrian and a Venezuelan. It’s hard enough to learn another language, never mind learning one language through another.

And yet … I wonder. I wonder if they’d be better off in a class in which Arabic or Spanish were available to explain points of English. I wonder if, by suggesting that it’s unnecessary, that everything can be done in English the purveyors of such courses are misleading them.

No, I’m not accusing anyone of that. I’m not. I’m genuinely only wondering. It feels to me, perhaps because of distant memories of my own language learning, like I really ought to set some vocabulary learning every week and then quickly test it at the beginning of a lesson. I suppose I could still do this wholly in English, but it’d have to involve definitions, and suddenly it’s not just ‘outnumbered’ that’s being tested, but ‘the condition of being in the minority’ or some other such definition, and it would become rather less efficient.

I’m well aware that it would be impossible to openly concede that this is an inefficient method, but that it is also the only approach which can work for an international organisation; I’m not an expert in marketing, but I would recognise that as a bad strategy. I suppose what irks me, at least for this evening, is that we therefore have to pretend that ‘eliciting’ vocabulary is based on principle and not on pragmatism.

I haven’t quite worked out what I think about teaching exclusively in English. I thoroughly enjoyed a demonstration lesson, run by one of the course tutors, in Dutch, of which I spoke not one word; I learned not only the names of six drinks, but also how to say ‘pleased to meet you,’ ‘yes please,’ ‘no thanks’ and, indeed, ‘all together,’ which is what the tutor said when he wanted us to repeat the words he’d just used. That’s twelve words in twenty minutes which I still remember now, with no reinforcement, and I think that’s not bad going. So I’m not writing it off just yet, not after only two weeks.

But there’s one more thing I dislike about elicitation, which is that for the majority of the class it isn’t elicitation at all. It’s listening to the teacher play a guessing game with the class, and waiting for someone – usually the person with the best English – to get the answer right.

“I have a friend,” I told my class on another occasion, “who works for the BBC.” [Not true, actually. It’s the Telegraph. But I thought they’d all have heard of the BBC.] He works in Jerusalem and reports on politics in Israel and the Middle East. What’s his job?”

A reporter?

“Yes. What’s another name for a reporter?”

A journalist.

“Yes. If he’s in Jerusalem, is he reporting on home affairs?”

At which point one of the students said ah, he’s a foreign correspondent.

Successful elicitation, Mr Grumpy: have a tick in your lesson observation box. That was indeed the phrase I was ‘teaching.’ So I’ll take that.

But was it, really? I don’t think so. There were eleven students in that class. One ‘got it’ – I elicited a phrase he already knew. Of the other ten, presumably some then thought ‘ah, that’s what he was looking for!’ As for the others – I didn’t elicit ‘foreign correspondent’ from them, any more than I’d elicited ‘outnumbered’ earlier in the week. They’d heard me ask questions. Then they’d heard one of their peers say the magic words.

I’m very conscious that I’m very new to this. But don’t tell me that this was somehow magically different to me saying “a foreign correspondent is a type of journalist who reports on affairs in another country.” There is nothing special about being part of a class in which another member says the correct phrase rather than it being said by the teacher.

It’s just less efficient.

Oh well.


TEFL: Initial Thoughts

On Thursday and Friday my intensive, four-week course preparing me to teach English as a foreign language began.

Well, strictly speaking this wasn’t part of the actual course. It was instead an optional two-day ‘language awareness’ course for those who thought they might need to brush up on technical aspects of the English language.

It was quite fun. I enjoyed it. And for the next month at least, I think this weblog may develop into a kind of ‘here’s what it’s like to do a TEFL course.’ For now, here’s a few things that I’m thinking about.

Firstly, I’m worried that I am not a subject expert.

It’s a tricky one, this. Obviously I know the English language very well. I know the difference between the present simple and the present progressive. But I don’t have the technical knowledge and I don’t know how to explain it so that it makes sense, at least not generically. Part of the past couple of days has been reassurance along those lines: one of the tutors told us that of course as beginning teachers we would have to look everything up, but that after a while we would know it all as well as she did.

I don’t know whether to be reassured about this or not. In a Donald Rumsfeldian way (and I always thought he got an unreasonably hard time of what was an entirely reasonable observation) discussing a couple of different forms of the present tense has left me none the wiser. I can tell you the difference between ‘I smoke’ and ‘I am smoking’. I can tell you the difference between ‘I think’ and ‘I am thinking’. Are all the differences like this? Will it be enough to say, as the ‘official’ answer is, that this is the difference between an action verb (I am having a cigarette right now) and a ‘state’ verb (I am a smoker). Is that it, done? In that case, fine. I can do that. Or are there little nuances for every verb, or at least lots of little differences? It feels like the latter will be true, because even Germans who speak English well often confuse the use of the present simple and the present progressive, suggesting that it’s trickier than it looks.

I wonder about how well an English language course, delivered entirely in English, to a group of speakers of other languages, can work. I understand that from a practical point of view it has to work like that. On the course there are people who are spending a few weeks in Frankfurt before they travel the world – this ambition seems to mostly involve southeast Asia – armed with the qualification. But I’m hoping to teach in Frankfurt and expect most students to be Germans. Will it help that I can speak German? I hope so. But because of the nature of the course, I suppose I won’t find out until (if) I get a job.

(I wonder about it particularly after being told the following little nugget which is, as they say online, interesting if true. As part of a session, our tutor nodded at one of us. “Willy,” he said, “it’s hot in here.” Willy, seated by the window, got up to open it. Now this, apparently, would not happen in Thailand. The Thais do not ‘get’ that the tutor was actually asking Willy to open the window. Saying that to Willy would be an observation, or possibly an invitation to empathise over the discomfort, but a Thai would never understand that phrase as asking you to open a window.

This in turn made me wonder about the suggestions that technology will make language-learning obsolete. If context is everything – and that was a big theme of the language awareness course – then I think language teachers’ jobs are safe for a while.)

Because context, at least according to the CELTA course, is indeed everything. We had fun discussing what the phrase ‘that’s the telephone’ could actually mean in different circumstances, and in ranking different requests according to politeness. Now I’m very much on Team Traditional, and this emphasis on the function of language rather than on its form was very much a repudiation of traditional language teaching practice, in which correct form is prioritised. And yet I’m finding it hard to form coherent objections in my own mind. It seems essential to me that someone learning English learn that ‘that’s the telephone’ isn’t necessarily a simple statement of fact.

But have I been hoodwinked? And has this been enabled because I don’t know enough about language? Are there actually rebuttals to this new progressive orthodoxy? I don’t know. Is this a cultural distance matter more than a linguistic one? If my German wife is sitting with me on the settee, and the telephone rings, and I don’t want to get up to answer it, especially not as I’m pretty sure it’s her sister calling for a gossip, and so I look up from my computer and say ‘that’s the telephone’ to her, she’ll grasp my meaning perfectly. But if she finally loses her patience and divorces me, and I marry a Thai woman, will the same thing be merely incomprehensible (why is he saying that to me?) rather than aggravating?

If that’s so, function really is as important as form. But what about the German businessman who wants to communicate accurately and respectfully with American clients, colleagues & bosses? Corporate culture in financial services is pretty similar in Frankfurt to what it is in London and New York. He doesn’t need that sort of focus. Sure, if you’re out at some work jolly then knowing that a single man’s girlfriend is different to a married man’s girlfriend and that both are different to a woman’s girlfriend (at least in the US – British women don’t have girlfriends yet, do they?) might help. But knowing the correct formal grammar is exactly what he’s doing a course in English for.

There does seem to be a lot of focus on group activity. Some of this is gimmickry: putting pieces of paper with words on them in the correct order seems to me to be an unnecessarily inefficient way of getting students to write sentences. Getting students to talk to each other while I circulate and listen to them … it’s not my normal way of doing things. But then even the most unreconstructed traditional language teachers surely don’t teach languages the way I would teach History. They won’t, most of the time, deliver lengthy disquisitions to pupils who carefully record the points on paper. Maybe some disciplines just lend themselves more to a progressive approach. After all, using and practising the language … well, to practise talking you’ve got to talk.

I’m going to find this interesting. And disconcerting.

Dear White Teachers

A lot has been written recently on the educational blogosphere, and on Edutwitter, about race.

Much of this has involved people – often our fellow white people – describing you as racist, privileged oppressors.

I share your irritation at this. Those on the more moderate wing of the ‘social justice’ movement will carefully explain to you that this is sociological terminology, and that you aren’t quite being accused of having campaigned for John C Calhoun or to have prepared leaflets for Peter Griffiths just yet, but that by virtue (by vice?) of being white, you are nonetheless all of those things. It’s not personal: it’s structural.

Meanwhile those who belong on the more militant wing will suggest that although you may consider yourself morally superior to members of the Ku Klux Klan, you and they are essentially on the same side: if you don’t sign up to the tenets of their movement you are a white supremacist just like them.

And yes. I agree with you. This is hooey. The use of terms like racism, privilege and oppression – terms which already have well-established meanings – is, I’ve come to think, not just irksome but deliberately antagonistic. If, after all, every white person is a privileged racist oppressor then those terms are redundant. Being called a white supremacist by someone who uses terms in this way is meaningless. So you shouldn’t worry about it.

So why do they do it? Partly to make themselves feel better, I suppose: there’s nothing like righteous moral superiority. Perhaps partly as a purity test too: are you willing to call yourself a privileged racist oppressor? If not, you’re fighting for Evil against Good.

Anyway. You don’t have to take any of this guff seriously.


There’s a big but.

We do have a problem with racism.

Yes. We do.

And here’s what I think we have to do about it.

I think that if a Director of Sport tells a group of teenage boys that they should see their opponents as ‘savages … you’ve seen the film Zulu? You kill the opposition like you’d kill a savage’ that it’s probably not enough for a history teacher to wince and then share a look with a fellow teacher, hoping that it’s obvious to the boys – especially the black boys – that he disapproves. I don’t know what the right approach to take is. Should the history teacher have interrupted the session at the time and said that this sort of language was unacceptable? Or should he have done it afterwards? Should he have made a formal complaint? I don’t know. But a rolling of the eyes and a shrug wasn’t enough.

Yes, of course that history teacher was me. I’ve a long and dismal record of not doing enough about things like this. During the handshakes at the end of a rugby game one of the opposition players ‘bounced’ his hand on one of my boys’ Afros. It wasn’t enough to give him a dirty look and say ‘Really?’ which is all I did. Should I have raised it with their coach? Yes. But I didn’t. I didn’t want the hassle. I didn’t want to be that teacher making a fuss, and therefore implying that my fellow teacher hadn’t made his boys behave. I didn’t want an awkward match tea afterwards if he thought that such conduct was no big deal.

When, on a residential trip, I was in the hotel bar (it had a perfect view of the front door, since you ask, so I could see if any of the boys were trying to sneak out) and I was accosted by a teacher from another school, telling me that my boys were harassing girls at his school, I was profusely apologetic. I went up to the room of the boys concerned ready to launch into them. They told me that this was a misrepresentation of what had happened, that they’d been in their room the whole time just like I told them, and that these girls had been knocking on their doors and ringing their telephone. Just then, with glorious timing, the telephone rang. I picked it up, and was greeted with female-sounding squeals and giggles. I turned to leave, happy that they had done no wrong, and bumped into another couple of girls from the same school outside the door acting in the same way.

The two boys in that room were, as you’ll no doubt have worked out, black. All the girls were white. I didn’t say anything to their teacher, who was not around. I was satisfied that my boys had not harassed his girls. Job done. Should I have sought him out to tell him so? Should I have told him that he had just indulged a classic racist stereotype and unfairly accused two lovely boys of being sexual predators? I’m inclined to think I probably should have. But I didn’t. I just mouthed off about it in the bar to my colleagues instead.

When a colleague asked me about a boy whom I’d just been speaking to, and I told him that he was a very likeable kid, just not very hardworking and not bright enough to get away with it, and he replied that this was standard ‘for our negro pupils’ … should I have done more than raise my eyebrows, widen my eyes and say ‘what?’ When he replied that he was just ‘telling it as it is’ (a phrase which rarely indicates what the speaker thinks it does) should I have done more than shaken my head and said ‘you’re on your own with that one, pal’? If so, what? I don’t know. But I don’t think I did enough.

It gets trickier. When a tutee of mine, a Muslim girl who wore a headscarf, told me that two boys in her Physics set had been doing that ever-so-brave thing of coughing a word – ‘terrorist’ in this instance – at her in class, I passed it on to the Deputy Head Pastoral. When the girl came back to me and reproachfully told me that she hadn’t wanted me to do anything about it, it was awkward enough. But when that Deputy Head Pastoral – now a Head who is involved in the Girls’ School Association, and speaks at conferences – told me that she knew those boys, and they wouldn’t do things like that, and that she had spoken to them … I think I should have done more than say ‘oh, is that it?’ And when she nodded, I think I should have had something to say. I don’t know what. Should I have told her that I was disappointed? That I thought she was wrong? Should I have spoken to the boys myself? I knew them – they’d been in an Association Football team I’d coached. We got on well. Should I have spoken to their parents? I knew one of the boys’ fathers fairly well – he was always on the touchline and we always had a little chat. I don’t know. It would have been unconventional. But doing nothing, which is what I did, was feeble.

Some things, of course, only a Head can do. I’ve admired most of those for whom I’ve worked. I know I couldn’t do their job. And yet sometimes I wonder whether anyone can. It seems to me that a boy who can call his teacher a nigger, to her face, deserves to be expelled. I know that a Head’s responsibility is to the school as a whole, and that includes its finances, but this feels to me like one of those areas where reasonable people can’t disagree. The boy who sent an email to his teacher inviting him to “fuck off back to Poland, you cunt” (the teacher was in fact Hungarian) wasn’t expelled either. (Not the same Head, since you ask.)

Maybe I’ve been unlucky in my schools. But I don’t think so. I think racism is a problem. And I think we have to say so. And I think we have to do more about it. I don’t think the sociologists have the answer – if, after all, their diagnosis is that racist oppressors are perpetuating white supremacy then there probably can’t be a solution. I don’t agree with that. I think things are far better than they used to be. But racism hasn’t gone away. And I hope you’re better at dealing with it than I was.

Anarchy, School & Utopia

In the last two years my weekly duty was Breaktime Refectory Queue Supervision.

In the good old days my school would have had a tuck shop. But not any more. Tuck shops are out of fashion, perhaps because they summon up images of Jennings or Molesworth, perhaps because they seem to invoke the unashamed purveyance of sugar. In any case, at my school breaktime provision for hungry adolescent boys takes place in the same place used as a lunchtime cafeteria, so even an educational reactionary like me would struggle to call it a tuck shop.

Anyway. For twenty minutes I was, along with another colleague, responsible for managing the queue of boys waiting to get their grub. We keep them in an orderly queue outside the building, just letting a few in at a time, so that there are never too many boys around the counter areas or at the tills.

If I have any readers who aren’t schoolteachers they may be surprised by this. How much supervision does a queue need? Can’t they just stand in line and get served one at a time?

No. They can’t. Left unsupervised, boys will, in fact, find all sorts of ways to prevent the fairest, most sensible, most practical and most efficient way to get themselves fed being observed. Bigger boys will push in front of smaller boys. Boys of all shapes and sizes will subvert the queue by letting their friends in front of them, only to be thwarted in their turn by boys ahead of them doing the same. Boys will form alternative queues next to the already-existing queues and pretend that theirs is an equally valid queue.

And that’s just what happens when there are teachers on duty. (We usually have two, supervising two queues, one for each door, about thirty yards apart.) On the rare occasion that one doesn’t turn up, and the other doesn’t lock that door – or indeed that neither turns up, which doesn’t happen very often, but enough to serve as a terrible warning – there is, as I believe they say on UniLad, carnage. No queue forms: there is, instead, a crush by the tills as the baying hordes behave like the Crusaders entering Jerusalem in 1099.

It’s an interesting test of a teacher, the refectory duty. Standing on the door and only allowing a trickle of boys into the refectory is an easy way to acquire a reputation for being a petty and unreasonable teacher. It’s much easier to shrug and let lots of boys through at once regardless of what’s happening on the tills: that, after all, is what they want, and once at the tills they’re someone else’s problem. The temptation to preserve some easy popularity by letting them through is one I’d like all my colleagues to resist, but of course they won’t.

Boys don’t have to be very clever to observe that being held back at the door doesn’t actually make them any later to their food. The queue moves at the pace of the tills, after all. It’s a little frustrating to be outside when the food is inside, I get that. It feels farther away. But then it’s surely more congenial to be able to browse the offerings with more space and stroll through the tills like a civilised human being than to participate in the disorderly hurly-burly which happens without regulation.

I suppose part of the answer to this is that people are irrational, and schoolchildren are people, so this is just what you’d expect. I remember John Prescott being greeted with a round of jeers on Top Gear when he attempted to explain that restricting the speed limit on the eastbound section of the M4 inside the M25 actually increased the speed of the traffic. Now the Top Gear studio audience must contain among the most knowledgeable petrolheads in the country. They must understand the reasoning behind it. (It’s based on the principle that slower cars take up less road space, so many more cars can travel at 50mph than at the de facto speed limit of 80mph, or 99mph if you’re confident there are no speed cameras around.) And yet they hate the idea of being regulated like that, because they don’t see the greater good, just the outrageous restriction of individual liberty.

Or maybe it’s like car parking. Everyone complains about double-yellow lines and unreasonable traffic wardens, and every so often someone campaigns for political office by suggesting that people might be able to violate the rules for five or ten minutes. And individually of course we’re right – the odd bit of illegal parking does no one any harm, just as allowing an extra boy or two a little flexibility wouldn’t either. If, instead of parking ten minutes’ walk away, I could leave my car outside the shop just for a minute … well. Some would say that the world would be a better place. I’m not convinced. My guess is that enough people would park inconsiderately to ruin it for everyone.

Are these just cautionary tales about anarchism? Well … I think it’s more complicated than that. Like many schools, mine has a couple of businesses – a shop and an ice-cream van – which at certain times are patronised exclusively by our pupils. And here, without any supervision, our pupils would queue up just like ordinary, civilised people.

Some anarchists will tell you that laws are unnecessary because people, left without formal state coercion, will naturally co-operate with each other. Others will say that regardless of whether they will or not, it is better to be free. I find the latter more intellectually satisfying than the former, which has always struck me as being unrealistic.

I’d invite them to observe a group of unsupervised boys in our refectory at breaktime. But they could invite me to observe the same group of boys, unsupervised in the cake shop up the road, and they could suggest that the school’s imposition of too rigid a set of rules was actually counter-productive, and prevented them from learning: left to their own devices, they’d say, they’d work it out pretty quickly. After all, there’s nothing in wider society to force people to queue properly. And yet, most of the time, in most circumstances, we do.

Should we proceed according to the principle that our pupils don’t need rules? Or, indeed, that too much regulation of their behaviour is unwise? I don’t think so. And yet I’m not wholly confident in saying so.

Uncertainty, said Howard Jacobson, is the only respectable intellectual position to have about anything.

Running & Reading

I’ve just read this, by Nick Cohen.

It resonated with me. And it’s really good too. Go have a read of it, I’ll wait.

I’ve had a similar experience to him with running. It wasn’t wholly the same: I think I was in somewhat better shape than him when I started, because I could go a full three miles (which just so happens to be the length of the only road loop suitable for running in my village) on the third occasion. I haven’t lost any weight: indeed, according to Mrs Grumpy’s rather nifty electronic scales I am now heavier than I’ve ever been. But my waistline is nonetheless in retreat. Maybe the scales are fibbing, or maybe the canard about muscle being heavier than fat is true. I don’t know. It hasn’t been dramatic: I’ve always been a prop forward, I’ve always looked like one, and I always will. But I feel so much better.

Another difference between Cohen and me is that I haven’t been dieting. I like food too much. But I have found that a not-quite-daily run seems somehow to have reduced my appetite for junk food. I expect there’s a physiological reason for this.

What is this doing in a blog about teaching?

I’m glad you asked.

I think running for teachers is a bit like reading for pupils. I even had a certain spiel for it, which I would unleash in class at the beginning of the year, then at parents’ evenings for sixth-formers who didn’t do enough reading. It’d go like this.

“I’m on a diet,” I’d say. And I’d sit back and pat my paunch. “Yeah. Have been for a decade. It’s not working, somehow. You know why? When I get home from this I’m going to have a glass of wine and some cheese. Probably with crackers. And maybe Mrs Grumpy will ask me about my diet, or maybe she’s given up already, but either way I’ll rationalise it to myself thus: my diet is an ongoing thing, yes, but I’ve had a hard day, and just for tonight it won’t make any difference, will it?

And just for that night no, it won’t. I’ll be in no worse shape in the morning than I’d be in had I not had those cream crackers with Reblochon. Should I have gone for a run instead? Well maybe, but again, one run won’t turn me into Mo Farah.

Trouble is, the same calculation applies every night. (I expect economists have a term for this. Maybe philosophers too.) And that being so, while it may make logical sense at any one point to just shrug and say ‘what does it matter?’, only those of us who have the willpower to force ourselves to go for that run instead of reaching for that biscuit will see the benefits.

And that, boys and girls, is why you should take out a subscription to the Spectator and read it every week. That’s why you should read a quality newspaper every day, and stay up to watch Newsnight. (You’re up anyway, you don’t have small children.) You won’t see the benefits immediately: the chances of a particular issue cropping up in the news one evening only to appear in the classroom the following morning is rather small. But if you can stick to that not-particularly-onerous routine throughout your time in the Sixth Form, then by the end of two years you really will see the benefits. Your understanding of the subject will be so much more sophisticated and you’ll know so much more.”

I’ve chosen Politics, because this is where I’ve found most resistance to the idea of ‘reading around’ the subject: history students tend, at least in the abstract, not to need persuading that reading history books is the sort of thing they ought to do. But it applies, I would suggest, equally to History. I’ve learned to be careful about the broader application of such points beyond my own disciplines, so I’ll leave it there, but my guess is that this is the sort of spiel which could easily apply beyond them.

Reading. You can’t tell immediately, but in the long run (see what I did there?) it’s really good for you.

Germans, Americans, & History

Eighteen months ago, before a game in Hawaii, the American tennis association managed to play what the Guardian described as the ‘Nazi-era’ national anthem of Germany.

I remember seeing the headline, and wondering if they had managed to play the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Nearly twenty years ago, when I was at college, the university Conservatives managed to get themselves into trouble by singing National Socialist songs at a function. That particular one was named, and I remember wondering what it was all about: as an undergraduate historian I had access to a vast collection of books, and no doubt had I searched exhaustively I would have found the text of the song eventually, but in those days before the internet there was no way to quickly find the lyrics, and I gave up, knowing only that the Horst-Wessel Lied was essentially the Nazi anthem, and seems to have overshadowed the Deutschlandlied in the same way that the swastika overshadowed the traditional German flag during the era of National Socialism.

(My little attempt at research did make me suspicious of that particular group of Tories. Did someone hand out songsheets? Did they all know the words? How?)

Anyway. Of course they hadn’t played the Horst-Wessel-Lied in Hawaii. They’d just played the German national anthem. Only they’d played the first verse, Deutschland über alles, which is now verboten, instead of what was originally the third verse, Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit (Unity and Justice and Freedom) which is now the official anthem.

(So what’s wrong with Deutschland über alles? Well … it’s not just that ‘Germany before everything else’ sounds a bit too nationalistic. The rest of the verse talks about ‘from the Maas to the Memel, from the Etsch to the Belt,’ all of which are now beyond the borders of the Federal Republic, and irredentism is of course totally unacceptable in today’s Germany. The second verse, which commemorates German women, German honour, German wine and German song should be forbidden on the grounds of taste, but its repudiation strikes me as being even sillier – you have to work really hard to construe it as being sinister. But the Germans are good at doing that.)

But it was a bit excessive, wasn’t it, of a German tennis player to get so upset about the wrong verse? You’d understand if it was a politician who had to ‘perform’ disapproval, or even some other public figure who was trying to demonstrate her disdain for the bad old days. But no one would have criticised Andrea Petkovic if she’d shrugged and said ‘yeah, bit of a mess, but I wasn’t really paying attention, just concentrating on the game’.

Well, maybe in Germany they would. But more likely Petkovic, like her compatriots, has had the evils of nationalism very effectively drilled into her. Germany is like that. I suspect she genuinely was upset by the whole business.

It’s not just drilled into Germans in schools, where the National Socialist period is emphasised even more than it is in the UK. It’s in the physical fabric of the country. Walk down a street in a German city and soon you’ll see a stolperstein (a ‘stumbling stone’), a little plaque on the pavement commemorating a victim of the Nazi regime who used to live there. Go to the famous Frauenkirche in Dresden (it was destroyed in the notorious bombing in 1945, left as rubble throughout the Communist era, and then rebuilt) and every piece of explanation about what happened to it is surrounded by reminders that the war was Germany’s responsibility. In the small town of Speyer, near Germany’s western edge, there’s a little Great War memorial, erected during the Weimar period, which says Deutschland muss Leben, auch wenn wir sterben mussen (‘Germany must live, even if we have to die’) – it’s no different to ‘who dies if England lives?,’ which was inscribed on the Great War memorial in the village I used to live in, but in Speyer there is a little information board next to it that says something pretty close to ‘this is an historical monument and the town of Speyer does not endorse its values.’

I suppose I don’t really approve of Germany’s ban on Holocaust denial, or on the owning of National Socialist insignia, or on the existence of political parties which espouse Nazism … but I will concede that there are good historical reasons for the laws; and in the light of yesterday’s events in Charlottesville I wonder if the United States could learn from Germany.

Of course anything now will be a hundred and fifty years too late. While (the Federal Republic of) Germany has taken denazification very seriously for the past seventy years, the Americans abandoned Reconstruction after just ten. The difference in how those societies then proceeded to treat their own past is, I think, interesting and instructive.

German denazification was not perfect, but it was an ongoing process. It might be criticised for its inadequacy, but there was a trickle of trials of (alleged) perpetrators of Nazi atrocities from Nuremberg onwards. Those with a shady past were not fully purged from public life, but having been a National Socialist did become something to be ashamed of. This is especially the case now that the last people to have experienced the regime as adults are in their nineties. Some of them may still talk about the good old days, as do the soixante-huitards and, as I now have no doubt, I will about the 1990s, but only in private. Such opinions are not welcome in public.

The contrast with the United States is obvious. After the initial attempt at Reconstruction, there was no attempt to drum white supremacism out of the former Confederacy. Instead it has been celebrated ever since. History has been grievously abused with all the drivel about how the Civil War – sorry, the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ – was about states’ rights, and that slavery was a mere incidental detail. The flying and the parading of the flag of the Confederate States of America is defended as being all about ‘heritage, not hate.’ I haven’t been to the USA, but I doubt that there there little notices next to every statue of Robert E Lee in the South indicating that this is an historical monument, so we’re going to leave it here, but that we should not forget that he was fighting to preserve a political system which kept people in slavery.

There’s an interesting point here about constitutions, by the way, sometimes seen as a rather dry part of the A Level Politics syllabus. The Western Allies, and their German successors, were able to make a (West) Germany in their own image because they could craft the Grundgesetz (the German Basic Law) as they wished. Even were there the same appetite in the United States, that country’s Constitution would not allow the sort of measures which are on the German statute books. The Americans had their opportunity in 1869; it was thrown away in 1877, and it’s not coming back.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. Obviously there is no prospect of persuading the inhabitants of the former Confederacy: while Americans could learn from the Germans, we all know they’re not going to. (The dominance of liberal-left political ideas in the American academy has been a phenomenon for quite some time, but it doesn’t seem to have made much impact on the political culture of the South.) But having typed out over a thousand words, I’m not going to abandon the post now.


Here’s a couple of different ways in which societies have dealt with their histories: here’s how it turned out. Sometimes that’s all history gives us. Oh well.

The Youth of Today

“Good morning sir! Mind if I join you?”

Yes, I told him, as it happens I do mind. I’ve just dropped my son off at nursery, and my daughter’s spending the day with her grandparents, so for once I get to sit and have breakfast in my favourite café with my Spectator, and now you’re interrupting me just as I’m savouring my croissants and my double mocha choca skinny latté macchiato.

But because I taught him for two years he knew that tone of voice and sat down anyway. “It’s all right sir, I’m meeting someone here. She’ll be here in five minutes, then I’ll leave you in peace, I promise.”

And I was pleased to see him. He’d always been an immensely likeable young man. In the Lower Sixth I’d actually seen him six times a week instead of the usual three, because we’d had the delights of each other’s company both for a Politics unit on the Constitution and for a History module on India in the first half of the twentieth century. We always had a harmonious relationship, even if he was a bit of a feckless wastrel.

He was a fairly bright bloke but he wasn’t much of a reader. I don’t have particularly strong views on textbooks, but I do think that a certain type of A Level textbook can be very damaging to pupils like this. (There is a dedication inside several Access to History textbooks, praising someone for producing books ‘for students as they are, not as we would like them to be. Well, one day I’m going to write a series of textbooks ‘for pupils as they could be if only we were prepared to demand a little more of them’.

Anyway. I’d wanted to teach his class using Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer and Denis Judd’s The Lion & the Tiger, both very accessible, written for a general audience, and actually far more readable than the Access to History textbook. My Head of Department told me that I could do what I liked (independent schools are pretty good like this, in my experience) but that he wouldn’t buy sets of those books, and that I should distribute the Access to History textbook to my pupils: if I wanted to photocopy Judd & von Tunzelmann then of course I could. In such circumstances I’m not wholly sure I can blame him for shrugging off the importance of reading proper books.

Nonetheless when at the end of the Lower Sixth he told me that he wanted to read Politics at university, my advice to him was that he really had to read something other than a school textbook to support his application. I’d told his parents in person; I also put it in his end-of-year report. As it happens our last lesson of the year had taken place in the school library, and I told him to find something which would both enhance his understanding of politics and look respectable on a UCAS form.

He was struggling.

And look, I’m not proud of what I did next. But I don’t think it was the wrong thing to do, necessarily.

This boy was a bit of a ‘lad.’ So I thought that as a gateway to other books about politics, maybe he’d find Nigel Farage’s autobiography, Fighting Bull (then reissued as Flying Free) engaging. The leader of Ukip was, after all, a ‘lad’ too.

I know, I know. But if I’d recommended Revolt on the Right he just wouldn’t have read it.

This wasn’t last summer, but the summer before that, June 2015. Farage wasn’t the triumphant victor of the referendum campaign, but he was the leader of the political party which had won a plurality of the British vote in the most recent elections to the European Parliament, and he was the leader of a group in that institution. He was certainly part of the reason why the Prime Minister had committed to the holding of the referendum. So I stand by my recommendation.

The Lad loved it.

I’d had no idea what his views on the European Union were. He’d never said anything one way or another, and it only came up occasionally in class anyway. His Lower Sixth year was 2014-5, so it wasn’t the overwhelming issue it was soon to become. Maybe he’d always been Eurosceptic. But Fighting Bull quickly became his Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a book which converted him to the cause. And thereafter, in his Upper Sixth year, he was an outspoken Leaver.

He never read any other books, at least not to my knowledge. Flying Free went on the UCAS form, he got his place, and that was that.

In the café we talked about his course: he’s been there for what sounds like a pretty relaxed first year and is choosing options for the autumn. We talked, as you do, about who the new Prime Minister will be. And then I asked him whether he preferred a Hammond Brexit, a Davis Brexit, or a Rees-Mogg Brexit.

He shuffled in his chair a bit.

Come on, I said, you’ve had a year to think about this: you might not have thought you’d win a year ago, but now you must have a preference?

“Actually sir … I voted Remain.”

You did not.

“I did. I was going to vote Leave. You know how excited I was. Even that morning I was going to vote and I was feeling all patriotic and democratic and thinking yes, we’re going to leave.

And then I couldn’t do it.

It just felt too irresponsible.

So I voted Remain.

Are you proud of me?”


The kids are all right.

The Cricketer

I’m watching – or I was when I started this post – the highlights of the first day of the Test Match at the Oval. This made me think of a pupil I taught in my first year in the classroom, a young man who is now a fairly big player in the First Class game – if you’re into county cricket you’d probably recognise the name, but if you’re not you won’t.

I taught him History, and I took a liking to him fairly early on. I had set the old chestnut of designing a First World War recruitment poster (I know…) and he had wrinkled his face in disappointment. “Don’t worry if your artwork is bad,” I announced, “mine is worse than yours. I’ll be looking for the point that you’re making.” He was far too polite to say so, but I could tell he was unconvinced.

And rightly so. He had a point. I even thought so at the time: I remember worrying about what I would say if he asked if he couldn’t just think of a point he’d want to make and write it down, which might possibly have taken as much as five minutes if he really thought about it, instead of the twenty or so I’d allocated to this dismal task.

He produced an appalling poster, which also made me wonder. Some of the others produced some nice pieces of artwork, which I duly laminated and pinned to the walls just outside my classroom as an example of the sort of twenty-first century learning which was going on inside. But I took his from him and gave him a look which I hoped conveyed sympathy tinged with disappointment.

But I didn’t act as though he had slacked off with a piece of written work. If he’d handed me in an essay which was a quarter of the length that it should have been, scrawled and scruffy and quite clearly the product of very little effort, and I’d spotted it, I’d have kept him behind, and there wouldn’t have been any sympathy: it’d have been full-on disappointment at best, possibly with some confected anger and almost certainly with an instruction to do it again in his own time until it was of an acceptable standard. Obviously I didn’t do that with a poster. It’d be unreasonable. And even as a brand-new teacher it occurred to me that this suggested that it wasn’t really a wholly respectable assignment to set.

Still, the Cricketer forgave my teaching, and in the Lent Term he found himself in his year group’s Association Football team. Because of course he did. He was his year’s outstanding sportsman, and he was the obvious choice for the role of midfield general and team captain. This meant that we would be spending more time in each other’s company, because that was my team.

One afternoon we had a fixture away at a similar sort of establishment. One of the very civilised elements of this sort of school sport is that the hosting teachers will meet travelling staff straight off the coach and whisk you off to somewhere for a cup of tea at least, and sometimes for something stronger, while one of their boys will take the players off to get changed. And that’s just what happened on this occasion. It was February, so the roaring fire and tankards of beer were particularly appealing, and we stayed indoors until the last minute. I strolled out with my opposite number, and everything seemed fine. The boys warmed themselves up: they were used to doing so.

The game kicked off, and I noticed that our one substitute was walking rather oddly. Was he trying to hide an injury? No. He was trying to hide the fact that he was wearing school shoes instead of football boots.

I asked him, as you do, to explain his unconventional footwear.

He was unwilling to give me an explanation.

All right, I told him, no one’s in trouble. But we’ve got a problem here now, which is that we have eleven pairs of boots for twelve players. Which feckless wastrel have you given your boots to?

The Cricketer.

I sighed. Well, I told him, let’s hope that no one gets injured, especially no one whose feet aren’t the same size as yours.

Now this would, I suppose, for some sports coaches, present a dilemma. The Cricketer was by some way the best player in the team. Taking him off at half-time would therefore be controversial. But I wasn’t going to take a substitute to an away match and make him spend the whole game on the touchline because someone had forgotten his boots.

Furthermore this was a midweek game, and only one parent had made the trip. Now I don’t think you can have a blanket policy of not substituting players whose parents are at the game, even when you might be aware that it’s fairly likely that such a parent will have travelled quite some distance to be there. It’s not fair on the others who are already missing out on their parents being there to watch them to play. But on any one occasion, if there’s only one parent there … I think – or perhaps I just feel – that it’s a bit insensitive to take off the one player whom that parent has come to see.

Why not ‘roll’ the substitutes then? Have several players take a ten-minute break? Well, regardless of whether you think this is normally a good idea, and I have my doubts, every substitution in this game was going to involve the swapping of boots and shoes, so barring injuries this game was going to have one half-time substitution only.

You have I’m sure worked out that the only parent in attendance was the Cricketer’s father. Fortunately at half-time we were 3-1 up and in a dominant position. So I told the Cricketer that he’d better return the boots on his feet to their rightful owner. He had the decency to look embarrassed. I told him that I wasn’t trying to make a point by taking him off, but that I was going to give the substitute a game, and that there was therefore only one logical change to make, and that change was going to involve him taking the rest of the afternoon off.

The father was very classy, and while I hope that neither Schoolgirl Grumpy nor Toddler Grumpy are daft enough to turn up to a sports fixture without their kit, I also hope that one of them does so that I can repay the universe by acting as he did: a few minutes into the second half he came up to me, slapped me on the back and commiserated with me for having such a fool for a captain. “He’ll learn his lesson now,” he told me, “at least let’s hope so.” I taught the Cricketer in the following year as well, and we always got on very well, so that at least was a happy ending.

As for the game, we had several good chances in the second half, missed them all, then conceded a goal with ten minutes left to make it all a bit tense; we then conceded another goal with two minutes left to ruin our afternoon; and we then conceded a corner in injury time, which our diminutive right-back heroically headed off the line to keep the scores level at 3-3. It was quite some finish to the game.

Would it have all been much easier if I’d asked all the boys with size eight or nine shoes to put their hands up and organised some way to keep the star on the pitch? Yeah, probably. I’m pretty sure that several sports coaches with whom and for whom I’ve worked would have done so. But I don’t regret that I didn’t.

Even Humour Requires Knowledge


Not all the time, obviously.

But let me share a joke with you. I didn’t make it up: I was told it by an extremely likeable man by the name of Heiko, who took a Karl Marx -themed walking tour of central London which I accompanied a group of pupils (some studying politics, some nineteenth-century history) on last year. This is the company that runs it. In return for nicking a joke I’ll advertise the walking tour: it was terrific. Take your pupils if you’re allowed. It’s three hours, but you stop for a coffee halfway through, so they even get their caffeine/smartphone break.

To fully appreciate this joke, you need to know something about the nature of the East German regime. You need to know what the Stasi was. Ideally you’d know that teachers were required to be ideological supporters of Communism. You might get away with understanding the essence of this joke, and how subversive it would have been to have told it, if you had some familiarity with other Eastern Bloc regimes. But if you didn’t, then you really wouldn’t get it.

Anyway. Here we go.

It’s East Germany, and the protagonist of our joke is a schoolteacher.

In class one morning he asks a question of one of his pupils. “Felix! Who wrote the Communist Manifesto?”

“I don’t know sir,” replies Felix, “but it wasn’t me. Promise.”

This answer upsets the teacher. He broods on it for the rest of the day, and when he goes home that evening he’s still a bit down in the dumps. His wife notices, and asks him why. He tells her. “I asked Felix who wrote the Communist Manifesto, and do you know what he said? He said ‘I don’t know, it wasn’t me’!”

“Well,” says his wife, “maybe you should believe him. Maybe it wasn’t him.”

The teacher sighs, and decides that he’s going out to the local bar. There he takes a seat and nods at the barman, who also spots that he’s in a bad temper. He asks him what’s wrong, and the teacher tells him the story.

The barman shrugs. “I was never any good at school,” he says, “and I was always in trouble. Give Felix a break. Maybe he really didn’t do it.”

Our friend the teacher is now really forlorn, and he sits drinking his beer slowly. But when the barman goes to the lavatory, a couple of nondescript men who’ve been sitting quietly in the corner come up to him.

“Good evening,” one of them says conspiratorially, “we’re from the Stasi.”

The teacher starts to sweat. “No no,” one of them says, “don’t worry. We’re going to help you.” The other nods. “We’ll find out who wrote the Communist Manifesto. Don’t you worry.”

The teacher slumps, his head in his hands, appalled at what the world, or at least the GDR, is coming to.

A few days later, on Friday night, he’s back at the bar with a couple of colleagues. He has almost forgotten the whole affair, when one of the Stasi men comes up to him and slaps him on the back.

“Hey,” he said, “you look like you’ve cheered up! And I have good news for you!”

Oh? says the teacher.

“Yeah, it turns out Felix was telling the truth after all! He didn’t write the Communist Manifesto! And we found out who did!”

The teacher looks at him. He lowers his voice.

“It wasn’t Felix. Turns out it was his father.

He confessed after three days of interrogation.”

My Favourite Class

(I have, in fourteen years in the classroom, taught exactly one hundred different classes, though if a class which begins in the Fourth Form (or the Lower Sixth) and ends in the Fifth Form (or the Upper Sixth) counts as just one class then the number is seventy-seven.

Classes do take on their own character. Many independent school teachers will tell you how irritating it is when classicists attain high academic office, because they’re used to tiny Latin & Greek classes and don’t quite understand how much more work a proper class is. But I wouldn’t swap with them. The smallest class I taught was an Upper Sixth class containing four boys. I got to know them well: an intellectual, a mouthy debater, a trier, and a traditional public-school jock. It was easy. But if one of them was missing the dynamic wasn’t there. I can’t put my finger on why: debate was harder, questions were fewer, and there’s something intangibly odd about delivering a traditional lesson to just three boys sitting in a row.

I haven’t liked every class I’ve taught. In my first year I had two difficult classes and struggled with discipline. At the country boarding school where I spent a couple of years I had a bottom-set Third Form class, with pupils of significantly lower ability than those I’d taught before, and it took me longer than it should have to pitch the level right. So although I got on well with the class on a personal level I dreaded teaching them, because I knew I was doing it badly. A few years ago I had a Politics set which I’d loved teaching in the Lower Sixth. Many of them were political animals, and they were keen and argumentative and a lot of fun. As a collective they got very good AS results. But two of the cleverest didn’t do as well as they’d expected. (We’re not talking catastrophe, but they’d hoped for the sort of results which would have impressed Cambridge admissions tutors and they didn’t get them.) In the Upper Sixth these two were a sullenly malignant presence in class and by the summer we were all relieved to see the back of each other.

Most classes, though, I’ve got on with fairly well. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Upper Sixth class, in the very august public school where I started teaching, to whom I taught Oliver Cromwell, and for the class to whom, a couple of years later, in another school, I taught King John, which is a topic just made for sixth-form study. There was a Fifth Form class at the country boarding school, which had a few boys and the under-sixteen ‘B’ girls’ hockey team, all of whom were also in the same boarding house; in history as in hockey what they lacked in natural ability they compensated for with enthusiasm. (The Director of Sport used to put them on the school’s only grass hockey pitch on the basis that it might drag the opposition down to their level. It didn’t work: they won one match all season.) Their tutor was also a history teacher, and she and I would sometimes watch them play on a Saturday afternoon: being hockey-playing historians together became part of their collective identity, which was nice.

And there was Bad Fifth Form. Having struggled a little with behaviour management in my first school I was determined to be tough at my second. A fellow history teacher, who had joined the school at the same time, but who had come from the sort of girls’ private school which doesn’t have detentions because it’s never needed them, had been taken by surprise at how badly-behaved private school boys could be.

(This, by the way, is one of the sector’s dirty little secrets. At every interview I’ve been to someone, usually the sort of Grand Pooh-Bah who has been at the school for thirty years, and who on interview day is often to be found escorting candidates on their tour around the place, has told me that their establishment has no discipline problems. I have never found this to be true. I’m not suggesting that private schools are really just like Waterloo Road, and I imagine teachers in tough comprehensives rolling their eyes at my presumption, but then you might be surprised at some of the things which I’ve known pupils to have got away with; and the actual impact of disruption on learning can be mitigated by extra catch-up sessions and private tutoring.)

Anyway. By the end of our first year my colleague wanted to get rid of her Fourth Form class, which contained all of that year group’s detention regulars, and our head of department, who taught in the adjacent classroom and so was well aware of the difficulties she’d had with them, agreed.

No, of course he didn’t take them on himself. Don’t be silly. He allocated them to me. And don’t go kidding yourself that this was because the timetable only worked that way: the shuffling that this reallocation involved meant that I had to pick up another Fourth Form class. This set, which contained all of that year group’s meekest and quietest boys, had been taught by a popular and respected man, and they weren’t happy about losing him.

So I had a Good Fifth Form, which would never give me any trouble, but which always resented me for not being their favourite teacher. And I had a Bad Fifth Form. I prepared for battle.

I didn’t tell them that they had a terrible reputation; I didn’t tell them that I’d been given them because they’d been so troublesome. I just let them believe it. My classroom became a military dictatorship. I might blog about everything I did with that class, because I think I did all right with them. But actually a significant part of it, I discovered after a while, was that they really did want the smack of firm government. It was one of those classes which made me feel much better about myself as a teacher. Quite possibly unreasonably. But that’s how I remember it.

But my favourite class was a Lower Sixth set. I’d managed to persuade the Head of History to let me teach the Norman Conquest, and this was a class of pupils who’d not just opted to do History, but who’d opted for this instead of the twentieth-century dictators course. I was predisposed to like them.

I knew they were special when, in a lesson on the exile of Ælfgar (that’s the son of Lady Godiva, by the way) in 1055 they quickly appreciated how the different versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s accounts of the witenagemot meeting where it happened might be reconciled. I knew I’d fallen for them when a couple of the boys went on a long cycling trip and told me excitedly that they’d taken a detour to Waltham Abbey to pay their respects to Harold Godwinson. One of the girls is now a history teacher herself, which makes me … well, I only taught her for a year, so it seems appallingly presumptuous to say that I’m proud of her. But it makes me happy. Another is doing a PhD in History. Another wanted to run a vegan cafe on the south coast when he was seventeen; he’s not doing that yet, but he’s a support worker for a charity, and because he was always the sort of idealist who actually likes people I’ve no doubt he’s helping to make the world a better place. They were special and I miss them.

One morning, in March, one of them told me I was looking a bit tired. Not quite true: I’d just been dumped, by the woman I thought was going to be my wife, half an hour before the lesson started. I was feeling very sorry for myself indeed. And that’s what I told him, as the rest of the class filed in, at least the part about feeling sorry for myself: I wasn’t going to say why, but I’d really appreciate them being on good form that lesson, because I needed a good cheering up.

And sure enough they did turn it on that morning. You’ve never seen a class keener on arguing with each other, and with me, about the Salisbury Oath. And after forty-five minutes of setting each other straight on the nature of the Norman regime, when we were done, I puffed out my cheeks and raised my eyebrows. “You’re all intolerable apologists for the worst sort of tyranny,” I told them, and they laughed; and as they were shuffling their stuff to depart one of the class, a wannabe wide boy who’d played in my football team the previous year, grinned at me and said “so do you feel better now then sir?”

Teaching can restore the soul.