Golden Oldie – Opposites Attract

After my last two-part epic rant about corruption last time, I thought a little light relief was in order. So, here is a post from my older blog that is a little less serious and gives yet more opportunity to read of my lack of ability in life. Enjoy…


Opposites Attract

“Right then,” I said to the attentive Grade Eights “Today we shall look at magnetism. And I have some magnets right here to show you.”

This was a moment of some excitement for both the students and myself, I have to say. In the course of the two years I had spent at LAMB, most of the subjects I have taught have been science related. Not bad for someone who qualified as a musician and has spent most of the last eighteen years teaching music. Although my teaching qualification qualifies me to teach “any subject” to “any age group” there are some subjects I am not likely to try my hand at.

Physical Education, for instance.

Anyone who really knows me will need no telling what a disaster it would be if I was left in charge of a bunch of teenagers to use what I consider to be illegal weapons in the form of cricket bats, balls and that most deadly of weapon, the skipping rope. And then there is hockey. The thought of me controlling (just not possible) a group of teenage girls playing that particular form of abuse does not bear thinking about. I suspect I would find myself in hospital as much as most of the losing team (and a fair number of the winning side too).

Still, most other subjects I have taught from time to time and I very nearly went down the maths/science route for my own career before choosing music so this is a reasonably safe area for me to teach. Except for one area.


Now, it is a well-established rule in the science world (at least in the one involved with education) that if an experiment can go wrong it will go wrong. I regularly suggest to my students that if they do an experiment that actually goes right then they must take care not to damage the universe further as when an experiment goes right the whole universe is destroyed and instantly replaced with an identical one (who says I can’t screw with their minds at least a little bit). We would never know it has happened, but it is just damned annoying to know that it has.

On a more realistic plane, I do have the very real fear that if I am responsible for an experiment I could be responsible for a whole range of deaths and disfigurements. Electrocution, acid burns, poisoning, glass shards ripping out eyes, hearing loss, fingers trapped in contraptions and (most heinous of all) tea spilt on the teacher’s laptop. I have not heard of a single school in the UK that has not had some kind of accident usually resulting in a trip to the hospital. Of course, the staff there will have been fully trained and are experienced, they themselves having conducted hundreds of experiments so that when it goes wrong (and it will) they know they did everything right. I don’t think I could ever be entirely sure.

So, I will teach theory up to any level of complexity but I do not do experiments. Instead I spend hours downloading videos from the internet (legally, I hope) of others doing experiments to show the kids instead. Generally, this works well but, well, it must be said, it can be boring. I’ve not yet fallen both asleep and off my stool whilst actually talking and teaching but I have come close. I am reminded of the teacher at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter stories who died during a break time and didn’t realise it, so has carried on teaching ever since. That could be me one day.

So, it was for all this reasoning that there was great excitement that I had got a bunch of magnets out for the Grade eight science class. Magnets, I thought, are perfectly safe short of flinging one into someone’s eye. Even I, with my lack of practical experience, can handle magnets. Though playing with magnets would seem a simple and boring thing to do in a UK high school, here in the Dinajpur region of Bangladesh the resources we have are very limited though they increase with every coming year thanks to helpful donations from many supporters all over the world. And the fact that ‘Uncle Ken’ does not normally touch anything he is suspicious of being ‘scientific’ in purpose (let alone ‘sportslike’) meant that this was a special occasion.

I had just been teaching static electricity and putting forward the concept that opposites attract and like charges repel. We had drawn up diagrams of magnets with North and South poles and how the magnetic fields point towards or away from each other depending on the polarity. I took out two magnets with their poles clearly indicated.

“So, let’s make sure that you have all been paying attention.” I said with that smug air of a teacher who knows he is on safe ground “If I move the North pole of this magnet towards the North pole of the other, what will happen?”

“They will repel, Uncle”

I confirmed that I considered this a most excellent answer and proceeded, slowly to push the two north ends together demonstrating in practice the wisdom of my teaching.

Kerchink went the magnets…

…as both North ends stuck themselves together with such satisfying speed as to leave no one in any doubt that, far from repelling, they had in fact shown every indication of being attracted.

I doubt I could have been more embarrassed had I come to school and too late realised I had forgotten to put any clothes on (well, ok – maybe that one would top it) and the class (including another teacher who was observing me teach to ‘learn’ how I do it) burst into laughter. I, in true Basil Fawlty manner then did it again and again, putting South and South together, watching North and South repel and so on in some vague hope that somehow the result would change. It didn’t.

Having gone from the heights of excitement and confidence, I now plummeted to Eeyorelike depths and realised that my hopes of demonstrating controlled nuclear fusion in the science lab before I leave were irrevocably and permanently put on hold. I could not make even the simple laws of magnetism work in the classroom.

In truth, it was funny and I quickly did what any self-respecting teacher would do.

I blamed someone else.

“Oh.” I said. “Someone must have written N and S the wrong way round.” True enough, though one magnet had the letters etched, the other had them written by hand in pen and must have been written in error. The class was pacified and we moved swiftly on. The class departed at the end of the lesson and I was left to ruminate on what had happened.

This, I thought, is why I do not do experiments.

Still, it could have been worse. I could have been teaching hockey to girls.

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2 Responses to Golden Oldie – Opposites Attract

  1. Nicky B says:

    I feel your pain there FP, Although I now teach music (badly) I have the same panic no matter what subject or task we’re doing.. waiting for the kid that has a perfectly legitimate question to entirely stump me…

    Strangely though I have found that I am capable to teaching not only music.. but Art, Drama and… wait for it… PE.
    All the ‘creative’ subjects are rolled into one faculty in my school and as a result I am expected to assist/teach/help out/know everything about each on of the subjects. And so far no hospital trips! (and only 1 broken nose but she managed to do that when she was just sitting cross legged and managed to headbutt the floor..)

    So I recon just going for it and hoping for the best is probably the best cours of action… just never let me loose near a maths classroom or we’ll end up with a generation of numerically dyslexic children…


    • LOL thanks Nicky. I can just picture your little lass headbutting the floor! Bless her 🙂

      I think you’re right that we have to just go for it and acknowledge that we’ll never get it perfect and things come along to trip us up along the way. I’ve never been one to hide a flaw – especially if it can bring a little sunshine into somebody else’s life when I screw up – and I hope that in the classroom it is a positive thing. Still, its going to be a long time before I try to make hydrogen in the classroom. Some mistakes you just don’t want to be around…


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