Time’s winged chariot… time and timing in the classroom

Words: Dominic Kirby @History_Chap

Those of you who’ve seen >The King’s Speech<, Tom Hooper’s heart-warming film about King George VI’s private struggle to overcome his terrible public stammer, may remember the following self-deprecating one-liner. Geoffrey Rush, as Lionel Logue, the speech therapist, says: “Do you know any jokes?” Colin Firth, as the Duke of York (as King George VI then was), replies: “T… t… timing isn’t my strong suit.” As a classroom teacher it helps if timing is one of your strong suits – knowing when to let your pupils into your classroom, knowing when to move on to the next part of the lesson, knowing when to reward or rebuke, knowing when to set homework. Time and timing are omnipotent. It also helps if telling jokes is one of your strong suits too. If you taught or studied AQA GCSE English Literature about 15 years ago as I did – or if you have a passing interest in iambic tetrameter – structured metaphysical poetry (which doubtless most of you do) – you may remember from the anthology of poetry Andrew Marvell’s celebrated >carpe diem< poem. Possibly written in the early 1650s, the poem is the age-old story of a man (Marvell) trying to get a reluctant woman (the eponymous ‘coy mistress’) into bed with him. He does this by telling her that if she doesn’t have sex with him now she never will because life is so short that they will simply run out of time before death claims them both. I can’t say it’s a chat-up line which has ever worked for me. Andrew Marvell was of course writing at a time when life was far more precarious than it is now. To reach 50 in the mid-17th century was to have reached old age. In 1678, the year Marvell died at the respectable age of 57, the average age of life expectancy in England was a tragic 32 (the second lowest of the 17th century). Today it is a merciful 81. The poem’s most celebrated – and most prophetic – rhyming couplet runs thus: “But at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near” The poem in general and this part of it in particular have been in my mind recently, since the start of term in fact, because like Alice’s white rabbit I seem to be perennially short of time before, during and after the school day. No sooner do I arrive at school in the morning (7:45am) than I seem to hear time’s winged chariot, in the prosaic form of the shrill school bell heralding the arrival of tutor time. And then I look at the clock and it’s 5.45pm. The one thing about teaching is the time definitely does not drag. The life of a good classroom teacher who wants to do the very best for their pupils is a fast-paced one, but starting at a new school this term – an academically very focused and academically very successful grammar school – means I am doing things to save time which I didn’t do or need to do at my previous school, where the pace of life wasn’t quite as fast-paced. I won’t bore you with a long list of how I go about saving time in the classroom – they are things that most of you probably do already. But just as an example, I have recently started to collect my pupils’ exercise books in row by row at the end of each lesson, in order to minimise the amount of time I spend handing out the books at the start of the next lesson. This probably only saves me 90 seconds or so but it’s precious time I can spend complementing a couple of pupils on the quality of their work in the last lesson (usually Year 8 and 9 girls) or checking no one’s gone rouge and decided to implement their very own bespoke seating plan (usually Year 9 and 10 boys). Be mindful of timing Time and timing are things which are hammered home in the early years of one’s teaching career – and rightly so. My first year in teaching was a year of two halves. I trained for the profession via the School Direct Salaried route (the Graduate Teacher Programme in old money). This meant I taught my own classes (and not other peoples’) from Day 1 of Week 1 of Term 1. I loved the trust I was given and I thrived. All this came to an abrupt but thankfully temporary end when I had to spend six weeks from January to February half term at a so called ‘complementary’ school, which complemented nothing, except perhaps my irritability at having to go there. At this school (we’ll call it St Peter’s) I was over-observed, a common mistake by inexperienced mentors who haven’t been involved in initial teacher training before. On one memorable occasion at St Peter’s, after teaching a superb observed lesson on public health in medieval towns – a topic I knew far more about than the person observing me – to an engaged and engaging Year 10 class, my temporary ‘mentor’, rather than complementing me on teaching a very successful lesson, advised me to “be mindful of timing” after the lesson ran 1 minute over. I wasn’t sorry to leave St Peter’s but I was sorry to leave the Year 10 class. Some weeks later I was informed that a pupil from the class “loved my lessons” and was “gutted” when I had left. The complement made my time away seem slightly more worthwhile.   Sero, sed serio Aside from some of my classes (I had a lovely Year 8 class too) one of the other redeeming features of my time at St Peter’s was that I taught the Tudors. I love the Tudors and always have done. One of the greatest of the Tudors was also one of the last – Sir Robert Cecil. Cecil’s >curriculum vitae< would easily fill the rest of this page but suffice to say he was the chief minister to both Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI. His personal motto – >sero, sed serio< – has always intrigued me. It translates into English as ‘late, but in earnest’.
They say as a society we are cash rich but time poor, compared to our grandparents’ generation. As a classroom teacher I’m both cash poor and time poor, even after the government’s apparent 3.5% pay rise. But unlike the pursuit of wealth, the control of time is beyond the scope of even the most brilliant classroom teacher.

All we can do is manage our time and our pupils’ time as best we can – and hope we’ve taught all of the content in enough depth by the time Year 11 go on study leave.