This post stems from some conversations I had with my wife and a couple of friends recently, on the subject of teachers we have known. At heart, the notional heading was “the best and the worst teachers you ever had”, which is always good for a few laughs, but it got me thinking.
This post is not intended to be any of the following, though some will undoubtedly take it to be so:
(1) It is not a topical link-in with recent horror stories about the deteriorating level of achievement of English schoolchildren compared with their peers in other countries, though it is true that some of the conversations were prompted by the relevant news coverage.
(2) It is not a cheap swipe at the teaching profession, for which I have a great respect. A surprising number of my relatives – including most of my cousins – are or were teachers, and my mother was also a teacher, though she worked mostly with special-needs kids. I remember very clearly Miss Smallman, who taught all three of my older sons in their first year at primary school. She was in her early twenties when I knew her, and I’m sure they didn’t pay her very much or listen to her at the staff meetings, but each year she produced another cohort of kids who could read, had the beginnings of numeracy and were excited about school and about learning things. That is fantastic – by comparison, most of the convoluted, obscure, clever-clever, unnecessary achievements of my own working career shrivel into dust.
(3) It is not a blind rant about the education industry, though such a rant is never far below the surface, if prompted.
My own experience – of my own teachers, of my children’s teachers and of teachers I have known personally – is just what you would expect. A few exceptionally good ones, a whole raft of solidly competent ones, and a small number of nightmares. A good teacher is a gift from God – I could never have done such a job. At various times I have done some coaching – in mathematics and guitar playing (all right, all right), and I know from that experience the difference between coaching and teaching. A coach can be a great help to someone who already has some knowledge and some enthusiasm; a teacher has to be able to generate enthusiasm in a complete novice. I would have been a terrible teacher – if my students didn’t do their homework, my instinct would be to kill them, and if they didn’t like what I told them I would take it personally and agonize about it.
You will undoubtedly be able to think of really good and bad teachers from your own experience – the good ones may well have been inspirational – often their influence will extend far beyond the subject they taught. Think about the bad ones – how much damage have they done? How many subjects do you hate, entirely because you once had a teacher you didn’t relate to?
In my occasional role as a music coach, I have met a good few people who told me that they once had piano lessons, but they hated the teacher and so they gave it up. Interestingly, very few said that they gave it up because they were lazy or devoid of ability, so I guess the poor old teacher is a useful cop-out but – whatever – I decided long ago that I didn’t wish to be the person that put someone off music, or destroyed their interest in it for life. I would find that very difficult, even if I knew it was a cop-out.
OK then – this is a job which requires certain qualities, and which demands respect for its intention, if not always for the execution.
Some odd thoughts:
(1) When I left school, most of my friends who went on to teachers’ training college were those who failed to get into university. When I left university, a proportion of those who took their new degrees into education definitely did so because they couldn’t decide what else to do (and the holidays were attractive), or because education seemed a safer, more sheltered option than the competitive worlds of industry or commerce. I make no generalization about the candidates having a lack of something, or being second-rate, or even about whether this is still true, but I find it interesting.
(2) I am not sure, but I think one of the respected professions which are identified as acceptable for the purpose of signing the back of passport photos (and similar) is still that of teaching. Teachers, by tradition, are pillars of the community – people to be trusted – and that is how it should be. Yet, when the eldest of my grown-up sons was studying for his “O-Grade” school certificate exams, the unthinkable happened – the teachers went on strike. All his revision, all the final cramming for the weeks leading up to the exams had to be done by us, without any guidance or support from the Trusted Profession.
I have sort of got over that now, but that is the defining moment when teachers, as a species, stopped being pillars of the community in my eyes and became just another lot of contract-checking, penny-pinching union activists. Teachers should have been above that sort of social blackmail, in the way that we expect doctors to be above it.
(3) A good teacher, as I said, is a jewel – from my own schooldays I recall Mr Percival (History), Mr Yule (Maths), Mr Colvin (Latin) and a Mr Burnett, who was an English teacher, a supportive, empathetic character who broadened my tastes in reading, and who is noted elsewhere as the individual who – some years earlier – had encouraged an unruly and rebellious boy named John Winston Lennon to persevere with his art, his creative writing and his music. I think I was lucky enough to have very few truly bad teachers at school – there was an apoplectic Religious Instruction teacher who was rather too fond of corporal punishment, but he left quite quickly. There was also poor old Mr Nixon, who was a decorated hero of WW1 and who had deferred his retirement well beyond the limits of commonsense. No longer able to maintain control, he used to sit with a bewildered smile while the riot developed around him – not his fault, but that was not a good year for Maths.
There was also a whole pile of teachers who did the job – unmemorable but adequate.
(4) The brother of my ex-wife was a primary school teacher. He was a devoted, hard working fellow, but I don’t think he got much help from the kids in his class – I suspect they crucified him every day. I remember that he was terrified when he learned that new, more rigorous appraisal systems were going to be introduced for teachers – he felt victimized. When I pointed out that there is no job in the world in which you can avoid being judged on performance and results, and that appraisals were a fact of life for the most humble clerk in the world outside teaching, he just stared at me.
The thing is, you can find damage-limitation jobs for the less gifted in industry. You can keep Ten Thumbs Smith away from the circular saw on the building site; you can make sure that certain people do not get to answer the phone to customers. I’m not sure, but it may be possible to avoid having idiots run banks, but, unless you sack them, all teachers get a class of children to look after. The consequences of letting a disastrously poor teacher loose on a class can be chilling, so the need for appraisal was, and remains, more pressing in education than in many other jobs.
(5) There is a risk, for anyone spending their working days as the largest, cleverest person in a room full of seven-year-olds, that they eventually come to see this as their natural role, and their treatment of adults and people outside the classroom may be affected by this. One would hope this is not common, but my experience suggests that it might be.
(6) A surprising number of teachers have only other teachers as friends – this is particularly strange. Why would this be?
Which brings me to Dr Huntley. In my first year at Edinburgh University, he was my lecturer for Pure Mathematics, and his teaching style was unique. The setting is one of the big, ancient halls in the Old Quad – a lot of dark, ancient carved timber, a general atmosphere of Presbyterian gloom which is not lightened by the thought of probable traces of DNA from Walter Scott and countless other worthies, three very large, dusty blackboards and Flash Huntley, who appears, with his gown streaming behind him, at exactly 9:00. There are about 300 cold, weary students waiting for him, banked up in the rows of long desks.
Huntley opens his old briefcase, and takes out an old folder containing some very old notes. He cleans the blackboards, and then he takes a sheaf of pages from the folder and begins to copy them on to the left hand board, in small, fussy, chalk writing. He writes very quickly. When the left hand board is full he moves on to the middle one. When the right hand one is full he cleans the left hand one and continues there. The room is silent, apart from gasps for air and occasional groans. Everyone is copying Flash’s ancient words from the boards, as fast as they can, and you’d better not fall behind or he’ll have rubbed out the bit you need. After an hour, Dr Huntley stops writing, puts his notes back in his briefcase, and disappears. He never speaks – I cannot remember him ever speaking. He leaves a hall full of anxious souls trying to finish off the notes before the servitor throws them out – some, of course, have just given up ages ago.
The process was that you then took your notes to the library and read them to see what they said – understanding in real time being something which the format of the lectures did not support. Assuming that reading them took another hour, this is now a two hour investment of time just to have read the material. Three mornings a week this is repeated – hour by hour, week by week, Dr Huntley’s ancient script will, all being well, have been copied down by at least some of the hardier of his pupils and will provide them with the complete Pure Mathematics course for the year. The only glimpse of reason is a one-hour, small group tutorial on a Friday, where the students will get to discuss the notes and do some practice examples.
Astonishing – I can still hardly believe it. If a pile of Roneo’d copies had been handed out, Huntley need not have appeared at all – in fact he maybe need not have existed at all. We could all have read the copied notes without the hour of scribbling. In a modern age, the students could just have downloaded the entire course from some server library, and then they could have spent the time reading it, working with it and learning something, rather than going through this torture ritual.
Dr Huntley – I haven’t thought about him for years, and he must be long dead now, but the achievement stands – I cannot imagine a better way of breaking the hearts of all those young people – cold and a long way from home, most of them – than getting them to speed-write 1000 lines every morning in a gloomy, smelly old hall with cobwebs and a bad echo. Whose model of education was that, anyway? Who wrote the original bloody course notes? – did an angel pass them to him? Please say we can do better now.