The girl who fell off her chair

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.

6 thoughts on “The girl who fell off her chair”

  1. This reminds me of something that happened to me as schoolboy long ago. This is probably the first time I’ve ever related this story, but I’ve thought about it often. Maybe it will provide some small insight.

    When I was in 5th grade, a speaker came to our classroom. She was roleplaying as an early American settler. The intention, I guess, was to give us students some insight into the way things were. A bit of background first, our 3rd grade teacher was an extremely strict and domineering man, like some kind of horrible Dickensian schoolmaster. He was the type of teacher who’d punish the entire class if one person did so much as stand up to adjust their shirt before sitting back down. So to cope with this miserable authoritarianism, it seems we just became accustomed to receiving and obeying orders.

    The 4th grade teacher was similar, but not as bad as the 3rd, so by the time 5th grade rolled around, we were still wound fairly tight (at least I was). The 5th grade teacher, however, was a lot different, and the atmosphere was much more relaxed–maybe too much.

    At any rate, the Settler Lady showed up to show us, among other things, how much more ‘strict’ school was back then. At some point, she told a joke or said something silly, I can’t remember. The class chuckled. She responded by scolding us. “There is to be no laughing in the pioneer classroom!”

    The woman then went on with her act, talking about the prairie and telling jokes here and there. There was silence from our end and I seem to remember her becoming increasingly uncomfortable. At some point, and this was her big finish, she started telling a scary story about Mary who caught cabin fever. There was this tremendous build up over the course of five or ten minutes, as Mary worsened. Then, at the final moment, when Mary couldn’t take it anymore and ran out of the cabin into the snow, the Settler Lady screamed wildly.

    There was dead silence from the class.

    The woman then kind of diminished into this quiet mouse, nervously thanked us, and left. I think at that point we were dismissed (mercifully) for recess.

    Later, our teacher asked us, “Why didn’t you laugh at any of her jokes, or when she screamed at the end?”

    “Because she told us not to,” said a student.

    I often wonder what that woman must have been thinking as her act completely ‘bombed’ in front us. What kind of bizarre ‘children of the damned’ nightmare she’d fallen into. And while she did say “There is to be no laughing in the pioneer classroom!” I don’t think our unwillingness to laugh was ultimately her fault.

    Regardless, the incident must have taught me a very deep lesson, because I’ve held on to it for nearly my entire life.


  2. Your questions about the quality of relationships between teachers and pupils go to the heart of the matter.

    If it were the case that the girl felt that there was too much ‘distance’ between you for her to allow herself to reveal her surreal plight, this would be deeply disturbing.
    I did say ‘if’, and of course we do not know what was going on in her mind. Moreover, you were just starting on the road to teaching, so if the verdict of ‘disturbing’ is appropriate, it’s no reflection on you at that time.

    I just want to offer a few more general observations. Thanks for stimulating them.

    Adults who have worked with teenagers and who need to retain a measure of authority know only too well the danger of trying to be ‘one of their mates’. I have worked with teenagers, as well as with students of many other age groups. I know how challenging they can be, and that, like human beings in general, some of them are not always very ‘nice’ or ‘kind’. Most of them will not appreciate it at all if you pretend to be a teenager alongside them. Many will try to take advantage of you if you give them half a chance.

    Yet there seems to be a spirit abroad now, linked to the ‘Zero Tolerance’ idea, that adult-student ‘distance’ should be profound and unbridgeable, particularly at secondary school. We are supposed to think that adults are somehow superior beings, who ‘ought’ to be paid respect by young people, who are not quite fully persons.. who are not entitled to the same respect as those who are really adult.

    It goes without saying that children are children and not adults – that they do not always know what is good for them. Neither do many adults, but yes – we have a particular duty to take care of children while they are still particularly vulnerable. In school, we herd teenagers together, and so, for their own safety as well as for many other reasons, we have to have sensible rules, and we have to have sufficient effective authority for these rules to be kept.

    Yet children are fully persons, fully human beings, with all the rights and entitlements to respect that this implies. We already subject them to compulsory education, and most of us think that we are morally justified in doing so. Nevertheless, this democratic decision by adults should not undermine students’ status as persons. I believe it places adults under a particular obligation to ensure that students feel they can talk to us when they need to – even about the ontological insecurity of a chair.

    Are some adults, including some teachers feeling increasingly insecure? If they are, why is this happening so much at this point in time? Are they trying to mask their insecurities with a kind of authoritarianism? At its extreme, and in the hands of those with talent of a certain kind, the adults actually succeed in persuading the young people that they are ‘happy’ to be compliant in authoritarian regimes.

    Some explicitly deny that teachers ought to ‘earn’ respect from young people. They hold that pupils are somehow under a moral obligation to accede to teacher authority, simply because teachers are teachers. This claim is often made in a peremptory fashion, as though it is absolutely obvious, as if it should not be questioned in any circumstances, and that anyone who has the temerity to think otherwise is unforgivable.

    In the long run, such ideology poses yet another threat to our fragile liberal democracies.


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