I am occasionally able to dredge up one or two memories of my own experience of initial teacher education for the secondary sector; one experience in particular remains vivid. During a lesson in which I was being observed I sent out a small group of students to prepare a brief role-play task. For some reason or another, the room was rearranged slightly before their return. The lesson proceeded for a while. At some point I asked a question of the class and a girl, in attempting to raise her hand, fell to the floor. When I moved towards her to investigate (either with concern or to admonish her for whatever delinquent practice had resulted in her being so unsteady on her seat) I realised that she had not in fact been sitting at all. This girl had been part of the small group I had sent out of the lesson. She had returned to find that she no longer had a chair. Rather than informing me of this, she had contrived a way of half-crouching and half supporting herself on the table with her hand which (in my memory at least) had lasted her a good ten minutes until she had wanted to raise her hand and found herself unable to remain upright. To this day I wonder (among much else that is mysterious about this event) whether her intention had been to answer my question, or to inform me of her own uncomfortable predicament.
After the lesson came the inevitable ‘debrief’. The girl was apparently unhurt, but the incident had caused not inconsiderable amusement to her peers and clearly loomed large in our shared consciousness for the remainder of the lesson. My school-based observer could hardly have missed it (although I presume that she had not noticed the student’s plight before I had). I think I opened the dialogue with some remark to the effect that I had been thrown somewhat by the chair incident (as indeed I had). Much of the mood of the subsequent exchange now escapes me. I may have considered being amused by the situation, although I wonder as I recount this story whether humour is the appropriate reaction to what happened. I recall or imagine an interminable awkward silence. I am not sure what my immediate response to the incident had been during the lesson. Perhaps my reaction had been too cruel, or too cavalier, or had revealed some broader negligence or lack of awareness of safety concerns that it was somehow too uncomfortable for my observer to raise at this point. Perhaps she merely sensed my acute embarrassment and was concerned to ease my discomfort. Perhaps the whole event was so exceptionally odd that it represented a frustrating diversion from the business of evaluating pupil learning. Whatever the explanation, my observer eventually cleared her throat and said, ‘And now, over to the learning’ – and that was all we ever said about the matter. The next item on the agenda was very likely that – as usual, but perhaps with more reason on this occasion – my ‘timings were off’, and that I ‘hadn’t got as far as I planned’.
The persistence of this recollection is connected to its increasing inexplicability as the years go on; the event has a questionability that grows with each reminiscence. What did this event reveal about the situation in which I was involved, which I had some responsibility for creating? A student in my care had felt unable, for some reason or another, to alert me of her discomfort. What did this say about my unconscious demeanour or bearing in the classroom? What did this say about the humanity of the wider practice, institution or system in which this event had taken place? What did this say about the quality of the relationships I was attempting to form with my students, or the quality of the insights I had into their attitudes and engagement, to say nothing of my more everyday powers of observation? What duty did I have to explore the situation further with the pupil herself? This was an event – it now seems clear – that potentially called me into question in fundamental ways; it challenged my understanding of my personality, my relationships with others, and my vocation or profession as a teacher (in terms of whether I was really up to the task, or perhaps in terms of whether it was a task I really found myself inclined to want to continue with). I think my observer was also implicated in this in no small part. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) this existential import, the event was dismissed as tangential to the business of learning that was the subject of our discussion.
Maybe in dwelling on this example I make too much of an extraordinary occurrence. Perhaps what was passed over was not, in hindsight, of such incredible significance. But it would somehow seem hubristic to claim that any doubts I might have had about my vocation have now been so sufficiently allayed as to consign this event to the realm of the bizarre rather than the existentially challenging. Certainly any number of events, perhaps more recognisable to my colleagues because they have experienced similar happenings, still have the power to call my vocation into question in related ways. The doubts raised here never really go away. One of the things that is in fact so intriguing about contemplating this event is that it also calls into question any criteria I might hold for distinguishing an educationally significant event from an unremarkable diversion.