My PGCE year had been great fun, but now it was nearly over and I was the only one on the course who didn’t have a job.
I had been hoping for a post somewhere in the South West so I could spend my weekends surfing. I wasn’t very ambitious. And I didn’t have too many criteria. The only things I was absolutely sure about were that it mustn’t be single sex, and it mustn’t be in London.
But suddenly it was June and the only advert in the TES was for St Paul’s Boys’ School, Hammersmith. I had never heard of the place, but a little research quickly confirmed it was way out of my league, somewhere my complete lack of a relevant Biology degree would be quickly exposed and I would be torn to shreds by packs of contemptuous 15 year old geniuses.
But my PGCE supervisor gently encouraged me, and so I sent off the application and, to my general astonishment, they called me for interview.
Running round frantically trying to locate a suit and tie, I was actually far more worried about the lesson I needed to plan. I had been asked to teach a class of Year 9s, which was fine, but my heart sank when I saw the topic: plant defences. The lesson was only going to be 35 minutes, but I have never spent longer formulating a lesson plan.
The first idea was to play safe: chalk and talk, a few examples, a few pictures, deliver the information clearly and effectively. Job done.
But the thought kept nagging me that this was deathly dull. Wouldn’t they want to see something a little more adventurous? Shouldn’t I be… myself? But then again…. the topic… plant defences!?!?!?? What could I do?
I can’t remember when inspiration struck, but at some point, looking at the various examples, I came up with the idea of a party game, the kind where you have to find someone else with a matching role. How would this work? Maybe animals would have to find plants? And plants would… ah, yes, that’s it…. plants would have to find an appropriate defence. With 24 boys in the class, I could have 8 different sets of three, plants predated by specific herbivores and requiring specific defences.
I was very pleased with this, and set about designing and drawing the cards that each student would have. I’ve since lost the resource, and I can’t remember most of them, but there was a caterpillar and a leaf and nasty taste, and a gerenuk and an acacia and a thorn, and so on. There was also an elephant, a maize crop, and a chilli pepper grenade…
But I kept wimping out. A serious academic school like that would surely frown on such frivolity. The boys would laugh and dismiss me out of hand. It surely wasn’t “cool” enough. I kept returning to Plan A. Play safe.
And then kept circling back to Plan B – make it fun! And memorable! And different!
Two things swung me to the final decision. On the night before the interview, I suddenly realised that I had to be true to myself, they had to see the kind of teacher I aspired to be, even if the lesson was a crashing disaster, it would not fail for lack of ambition. But I had also had another thought, an idea for the opening, because I wanted a memorable start, a way to “hook” the students at the start….
… which is why, in my career defining interview lesson, I started the lesson by opening a pack of cigarettes and handing them round to the boys.
I can still remember the slightly stunned silence into which I dropped some cheerfully relaxed questions. So, what’s this stuff? Go on, pull it apart. What’s all this stuff inside? The stuff that people smoke? Yes, right, tobacco. Which comes from where? Yes, it’s a leaf. Do you know how big a tobacco leaf is? I sketch one on the board. They’re impressed. I start to relax – maybe this is going to work. What sort of things are in tobacco? They’ve all heard of nicotine. Any idea why a tobacco plant goes to the trouble of making nicotine? No? Well, it’s highly toxic, a thimbleful of pure nicotine will kill an elephant.
No question they’re interested now. They engage. They answer the question – yes, that’s right, the nicotine deters other organisms from eating the leaf. It’s protection.
We move on to the game. I deal out the cards at random – they have a silly little cartoon of the organism/protection, along with a few details of distribution and biology to help them find the right match. The gerenuk lives in Africa, so it needs to find an African plant. It browses on tree leaves, so it needs to find something suitably tree-like and leafish. Meanwhile the Acacia tree that matches the description, needs some spiky physical deterrent to fend off the gerenuk’s predations. Somewhere out there are some spines!
This lasts maybe 10 minutes and seems to go well. I get the “plants” to present back – what are they, what were they threatened by, how did they defend themselves? They learn from each other about the various spikes and stings and toxins and thorns and so on.
And so to the wrap up. The last “plant” to present is a maize plant. It’s grown by African villagers for their staple diet. And it’s predated by elephants who can trash a year’s supply of food in a night. In Uganda, they’re trialling the use of chilli pepper grenades to fend off the elephants without killing them. Appropriate technology, if ever there was some. But I think this is really neat. Why doesn’t the maize plant have it’s own defences? Because we’ve selectively bred them not to. And now we have to exploit the formidable defences of another plant, the chilli pepper and it’s potent chemicals, to protect our pampered, pathetic, selectively bred food plants.
The bell goes. Blimey, that was fast. Thank you very much. Er, can I have the cigarettes back?
Next day comes the letter. I’ve got the job.