At the chalkface: Speechifying

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

"Altitude is attitude,” she says cryptically. Or is it vice-versa? Are we back with the angels? Who knows? The poor pupils are bamboozled.

“Angels get to heaven because they travel light.”

A headteacher is musing to her flock. There are no angels. This is magical thinking. Still, she is finding herself fascinating. The children less so.

“You’re probably wondering why.” Nope. Not really. No luggage? No baggage? The children aren’t wondering anything much. She ploughs on. They turn off. Some staff stifle giggles and construct their faces into rictuses of attention.

Yes, it’s the time for the Annual Address. The tonic for the troops. Have you had yours yet? It’s meant to be aspirational, inspirational and motivational. It’s frequently rather the opposite. Few do them well. Few should do them at all.

My crusty old grammar school teachers had it easy. Deference ruled. They talked serious nonsense. We suffered in silence. They pretended to think. We pretended to listen. No significant transaction occurred. A patrician man in a long black gown thundered about God, cold showers, the Old Testament, stiff upper lips, the threat of expulsion – with occasional nuggets from Cicero or Marcus Aurelius. The conspicuously inattentive were carted out and hit with sticks.

It’s not much better these days. A few can do it brilliantly – like my old comprehensive head. A tiny Marxist with a piping voice, he mesmerised 1,500 pupils on topics like Plato, Sartre, Socialism or the Russian Revolution. He’d probably be arrested today. His speeches were passionate. He made the complex clear and challenging. There was no condescension, no preaching, no jargon – and no God.

Now we are often in the realm of corporate presentation, the David Brent model. A “vision” in modish jargon, embroidered by daft quotes from new-age gurus: “Minds are like parachutes – they work best when open.”

Younger teachers seem to be drawn to the dread TED talk model: 20 minutes of slick, cool, mindful, touchy feely codswallop. A smug, worryingly confident figure struts in the sharp suit around a spot-lit stage with a screen, a quote, and PowerPoint remote. There is a repertoire of rehearsed wry smiles, strategic pauses, casual hair flicks and a vacuously quizzical vibe. They are forever wondering about something or other, telling fibs or making the Bleedin’ Obvious complicated. The gist is:

“Be a swot and get rich.”

Children deserve a lot better. They’re still a bit stumped about those angels. Our head ploughs on. Perhaps she can clarify things.

“Altitude is attitude,” she says cryptically. Or is it vice-versa? Are we back with the angels? Who knows? The poor pupils are bamboozled. This speechifying is not fair on anyone – speakers or their victims.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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