A boredom of silence by Dr D A C McNeil

A boredom of silence by Dr D A C McNeilMy excuse for becoming an invigi lator was that I was a school governor at that particular school. To occupy such an exalted position I needed an overview of the ‘processes’ taking place at that establishment – I am afraid that my background in school teaching was limited to being taught and to a couple of terms as a part-timer at two local private institutions one of which catered for overseas students. So I had no measure of the quality of the ‘raw material’ nor of the miracles wrought by the teachers in persuading these beings to learn. Add to this the pressures from governments of many and varied hues, the damning generalisations of the upper echelons of certain industries, few of whom had ever taught in a school so had any idea of what was involved, and one can see that to take my post seriously I had to do a bit of digging. I did have a slight head start over any total outsider – I had lectured to prospective commercial I.T. students for many years in the oddities of computer programming.

The problem was – how best to observe the victims of all this teaching without drawing attention to myself. To sit in a class could be intimidating to the teacher and a source of amusement to the students (I am not allowed to call them pupils any more – this is politically incorrect), though governors were required to visit classes as part of their brief, but such visits had to be pre-arranged and may thus not be representative of the day-today work. So, when ‘my’ school advertised for part-time invigilators I volunteered. I admit there was no actual teaching taking place, but I thought one could gauge from the enthusiasm and behaviour of the candidates what it would be like to teach them.

The actual work involved in being an ordinary invigilator was simple; this suited me. The senior invigilators had more to do, were paid more, but usually did not have the motivation that lay behind my application. So what might I have to do? The desks had already been laid out by the caretakers, so my job was to arrive 30 minutes before the start, lay out the correct paper for a given candidate (several examinations could be taking place at the same time) on the right desk; shepherd the mob in, collect their mobile phones, stop them talking and start the exam. Then watch and wait. At the end, collect the papers in, shepherd them all out again, then take the papers to the exam office. Of course there were several of us plus one senior, and often a member of the teaching staff was there at the beginning.

Observation one: before the room is opened a large noise of students will gather outside the door and effectively block it. This makes getting in and out almost impossible, especially if you are running late, which is my disease.

Observation two: on entering the noise rarely listens. Telephones have to be prised from their owners; coats and bags are supposed to be left at the front - usually they are hung on the chairs behind the students, and have to be removed. Phones will ring in pockets long after they are supposed to be in a tray on the invigilators’ desk. Girls talk non-stop, and boys show off to their mates. In one hall the acoustics were so poor that the senior could rarely make him/herself heard above the din.

Observation three: despite all warnings, someone will have forgotten an item of equipment they should bring, or his/her pen will not work.

Observation four: (exam law 1:) rush through your answers, finish early, look bored, disturb as many other candidates as possible without being caught, then carve names on the desk.

Observation five: invigilators have just to watch; boring.

Observation six: students are released by rows except of course for the cocky lad who tries to slip in to the exodus when his row has been told to wait. Groups gather to analyse who said what and hold up the process of collecting coats, etc and/or getting out the door.

Observation seven: the empty room will be littered with forgotten pens, bits of paper, water bottles, mislaid heads, etc, which have to be cleared up.

There are odd things apart from rebellious students that make this job a little less dull. On one occasion one lad turned his name-tag into a paper aeroplane and threw it. Sadly, it had his name on one side and the solution to one of the questions on the other. Then there is the occasional escort trip to the gents, which requires some tact when other students want to use that facility as well. Lads tend to slouch out into the gangways when bored and wave to their mates – this has to be discouraged. And finally there are difficulties with the exam papers themselves. There was a map on one with code numbers on the various hatchings which referenced what they were, including a black number on a black background. Finally there was one young lady who found a certain sevenlettered word which meant ‘off-spring of unwed parents’ on her paper, and wanted to know if she was allowed to use it in her answer.

So – I am familiar with teenage ‘fashion’; with odd statistics about the distribution of left-handed students in a room (I have to do something); the acoustics of various rooms, and the difficulties of controlling a load of students who can make desks squeak when moved. Did I achieve my original aim? No. All I found was that you have to be very patient to do that job.