Assemblies: surfing the ripple to keep pupils focused

After wiping out on a wave of disruption of his own making, James Handscombe reflects on how to keep assemblies meaningful – and focused

After wiping out on a wave of disruption of his own making, James Handscombe reflects on how to keep assemblies meaningful – and focused

James Handscombe, executive principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, has told students to stop calling teachers sir or miss

17 Oct 2022, 5:00

When the millennium was still in short trousers, I worked for a very charismatic and somewhat eccentric headteacher. Last week, I failed to live up to his mesmerising standard of school assemblies.

My old headteacher’s eccentricity was never more on show than during our annual Hats Day celebration, an Easter ceremony of his own devising. Each of us, staff and students, would construct and wear a hat and then go to a special assembly in which the students would be wound into a frenzy of millinery-related excitement that might generously be described as chaos.

Then he’d pause and continue delivering his reflective and uplifting message to a happy but rapt audience.

As I came out of my first Hats Day experience, somewhat bewildered, entirely delighted, an old hand said to me: “It’s not getting them so excited that’s impressive – anyone can do that – it’s bringing them back afterwards.”

Those words rang in my ears last week. I’d just delivered an assembly at my new school in which I’d told a joke. It wasn’t even a particularly funny joke, but it got a gratifying giggle. I paused, but the giggle became a murmur, then a whisper, then an open discussion. A ripple of disruption spread through the hall. I’d lost my audience.

It’s getting them back afterwards that’s impressive, and I had failed to impress. One solution would be not to tell a joke in the first place, but it’s not just flippancy that can cause the ripple. Talking about something controversial or emotionally loaded can do it too.

So, unless we’re happy for assemblies to slip into bland irrelevance we have to find a way to surf that ripple, control it and use it to power our message.

Once the ripple has become a great ocean roller of noise that’s crashing over you, there’s not much you can do. As I did last week, you can stop talking, take a deep breath, and use your ‘Teacher Voice’ to demand silence before delivering a short lecture about politeness in audiences. It’s effective, but it rather spoils the mood.

Better is to keep the ripple under control, to prepare beforehand for their enjoyment of your wit and wisdom and be ready to surf. If you’ll forgive advice from someone who has just confessed to being wiped out by an over-sized wave, then here are my top tips.

Emphasise the theatre of the occasion

The idea is to make it more than a teacher lecturing a crowd. Staging to give you height, a formal introduction to set you apart from the humdrum, a routine that connotes silence. A bit of pomp and circumstance goes a long way.

Don’t give them too much to cope with at once

The ripple becomes a tsunami when it represents discomfort and uncertainty, so don’t leap straight in. Warm them up with some light wordplay or something that isn’t too surprising.

Avoid cheap gags

Go for something slightly more obscure. If only those paying attention get it, you get a lighter disturbance and incentivise your audience to do the same.

Or at least warn them first

Alternatively, tell them in advance what you’re going to do and the response you’re looking for. This is strongly advised if your ‘joke’ is not, in fact, funny. It’s also a good idea if it’s something serious or meaningful you want to get across.

Use your teacher tricks early

Pause at the first sign of a giggle and fix them with a steely eye before moving on to your next line. A large hall is a step up from a classroom and it pays to be a bit more conservative in what you’ll allow.

An assembly is an amazing moment of connection between speaker and audience; it would be a shame to squander it by not building in humour or meaning. And so, next week, I shall be climbing back on my board and paddling out to sea with a glint in my eye and the hope of riding the next wave – all the way to shore.

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