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My sixteen year old son will tell you that I’m a fairly lousy mathematician, that I don’t know my vectors from my variables and unfortunately, he’d be right. Not that I’m a complete dunce, after all I do have a respectable grade at O level. It’s just that I don’t get it. I learned the ‘how’, I just never understood the ‘why’, or, more importantly, the ‘why not’. My husband, a proper mathematician (i.e. he can’t add up, but he can do the hard stuff) tells me of the beauty of pure mathematics, the elegance, the symmetry…but he may as well talk to a wall, poor man, because, as I said, I simply don’t get it. For beauty, symmetry and elegance, give me a Shakespearean sonnet any day.
The reason for my lack of understanding, is not, as my son would claim, my basic stupidity, but the way maths was taught when I was at school, which was sometime around the time that Noah was in his teens. We were taught the rules. How to do the sums. What techniques got you the correct answer. I was good at learning rules, so I used to get the right answers. But I never understood why.
Jonesy was a typical grammar school teacher of that era (60s and early 70s). He knew his subject and couldn’t understand why every student brought in front of him didn’t know and love it too. He had little patience with those of us lesser mortals who didn’t have his facility with numbers. Not that he was nasty or cruel like his colleague Shortman; he simply couldn’t understand the problem and consequently couldn’t help.
This was during the time when teachers wore academic gowns and while Shortmans’ gown used to create dust clouds as he prowled the corridors by trailing on the ground, Jonesy used his to clean the black board. So engrossed was he by his subject, he would frequently forget at which hapless student he had thrown the board rubber (in jest of course!) so he would wipe his calculations from the board with the hem of his robe. It made assemblies amusing, as among the gathered black robed teachers, Jonesy was the only one who resembled a badger with his white streaked gown!
No one feared Jonesy but we didn’t particularly respect him either. We respected his knowledge, but his inability to connect with the less talented mathematicians among us cost him our complete devotion.
But I remember clearly the day when I was in the fifth form when the light dawned. In preparation for the upcoming O level examinations, Jonesy had, as usual, put the class into pairs to work through practice exam papers. I was seated with my best friend Vic, who, as a natural mathematician, was an ideal partner for someone like me. The paper in front of us was the usual jumble of nonsensical words and numbers and I, as usual, didn’t get it. So Vic was patiently explaining to me, for the umpteenth time, the esoteric intricacies of quadratic equations or the like, when something strange happened. I understood. She was no longer speaking in tongues. Her words made sense and as I looked down at the paper, the jumble of symbols rearranged themselves into recognisable and comprehensible shapes. It was as if someone had flicked on a switch and light had flooded in. I’d got it! Before I could stop myself, I shouted out in total glee, “I understand!” Horrified at my thoughtless ejaculation, I glanced at Jonesy, expecting an angry tirade at my loudness, but he simply smiled. And the smile grew into a grin. “Oh good,” he said, “better late than never I suppose.” And without another word, turned and wiped the board with the hem of his gown.
Jonesy’s reaction to my outburst puzzled me for years. In fact, it took until I became a teacher myself to understand. The undoubted joy in his widening grin was not of amusement at a student’s inappropriate behaviour, but the joy of witnessing the dawning of comprehension, of knowing without a doubt, that a student, struggling to understand new and difficult ideas, has suddenly and completely ‘got it.’ It’s a wonderful feeling. And it’s why we do this job.
My father-in law, a gentle, pipe-smoking man was a dog-trainer. What he didn’t know about our canine friends wasn’t worth knowing and could be written on the head of a pin with space to spare! He told me once that he liked ‘real’ dogs. ‘Real’ dogs were those animals that were what he considered to be ‘normal’ sized, left as nature intended and not genetically modified to suit the fashion of the time. So he had little patience with yappy little terriers or molly-coddled lap dogs. Give him a Labrador or a Retriever or an Alsatian any day. He always said that with a big dog you knew where you were. They had nothing to prove. If they wanted to, they could do a lot of damage, but since their size made that fairly obvious, they generally couldn’t be bothered. A small dog, however, had something to prove: that they could be as ferocious as their bigger brothers. And since they didn’t have the size to impress, they used nastiness. He believed that this was sometimes true of people.
I don’t know whether or not he was right, but Shortman certainly gave weight to his argument.
Shortman was a very small man. Almost as short as the youngest students in the school and he taught geography. He didn’t teach children. He didn’t like them.
He was a very short man and had clearly decided that this would not stop him from terrifying his students, which he did. Every lesson.
Unlike Killer, Shortman didn’t shout. He spoke softly. Very softly. He had the kind of voice that chilled. You hear it everywhere. Not the blustering shouting of the obvious thug, but the controlled menace of the genuine article. The real bully. The one who controls through fear and intimidation.
I dreaded Shortman’s lessons. His method of controlling the class involved making you feel stupid and worthless. As the school I attended was a grammar school, the students were generally fairly bright. But at the end of every one of his lessons, I, along with my classmates, would feel defeated and depressed.
I actually remember very little from his lessons, at least, little of the subject he taught, as I was too busy keeping a low profile and not making eye contact. Of the subject matter he taught, everything I know of geography I’ve learned from watching David Attenborough or Michael Palin on television. What I did learn from Shortman was that calling someone ‘stupid’ was like a self-fulfilling prophesy; that the target of the abuse would behave exactly as Shortman said, after all, if teacher says you’re stupid, teacher, who knows everything, must be right.
Recently, while discussing Othello with my year thirteen students, my attention was drawn to the boy reading the part of Iago. His accurate, coldly menacing interpretation of Shakespeare’s most terrifying villain froze my heart. Through his chilling portrayal of cruelty, disdain and thorough dislike of others, my gifted student had channelled Shortman, and I was reminded forcibly how teaching involves a lot more than simply knowing your subject. It also involves people. Something that Shortman had never understood. Isn’t it sad that that is what I remember of his lessons?
I heard later, while I was at University, that Shortman had left teaching to work in a library. This was a really good thing, I think, as it meant that future generations of children would not be subjected to his vicious tyranny. I don’t know how he fared among the inanimate books, but I do know that the students spared his cruel taunts, had a lucky escape.
I was sixteen years old and walking down the corridor behind two of my teachers. They weren’t aware of my presence, as they were deeply engrossed in a fairly acrimonious argument, so naturally, I listened in.
Killer was a teacher universally feared for his loud voice, his dramatic outbursts of anger and his metal-tipped shoes that gave his terrified classes forewarning of his approach. His partner in this ‘debate’ was my English teacher, mild-mannered, gentle and the object of my fleeting schoolgirl crush. The argument centred on whether or not one could control a class without instilling fear into them. Killer of course, advocated the use of terror, “You can’t get their respect unless you instil the fear of God into them,” he stated. English Guy was quiet for a moment and I risked detection by creeping closer to hear his reply. Eventually he replied that if a class feared you, then they did, in fact, not respect you at all. That fear and respect were not compatible. You earned the class’ respect, not by making them fear you, but by treating them with the kind of respect you yourself wanted. Of course Killer laughed at this idea saying that it was that kind of namby-pamby, liberal thinking that caused class disruption and that way lay ruin. At that point they disappeared into the staffroom and realising that following them in would have been a bit stupid, I never actually heard what English Guy’s reply was.
Looking back over the years I remember that English Guy’s lessons were perfectly controlled, never disrupted and that we were never afraid. This man controlled through respect. Like Music Man, he showed us through his example the kind of respect he wanted. And he got it. In spades. As for Killer, yes, his lessons were perfectly controlled, but what I remember of them is not the content, the subject, but the fear. Years later, the sound of metal-tipped shoes clattering on tiled floors still brings me out in a cold sweat.
A close friend of mine, a science teacher who decided that his teaching skills would be better utilised in special needs departments, told me that whenever he was asked what he taught, he would always reply that he taught children. It may seem like a facetious answer, but he’s right. That’s what we do. We teach children. The subject matter of either our degrees or our lessons comes secondary to that fact. The really important thing that we do is teach children.
My music teacher didn’t have a degree. I’m not even sure he had a teaching qualification. At least, not one that would be recognisable by the authorities today. But he was supremely qualified in another way. He loved his students and his music. And this was something we all understood and appreciated. As I was brought up in Wales and attended a Welsh school, music, or in my day, singing, was very important. After all where do you think all that singing in international rugby matches comes from?
Our school choir was renowned throughout Wales. And we could really sing. But we didn’t sing for the glory of the school, or for Wales or for anything like that. We sang for him. He could be crotchety, hung over and foul-mouthed on a Monday morning (and haven’t we all been there!) and we would dread his mood. But once he opened the lid of the grand piano that graced our school hall and run his nicotine stained fingers along the ivory, the spell was cast, his bad mood would lift and with it our hearts and we would sing. For him. He never told us we were lousy singers, and surely on a Monday morning we must have been a bit ropey. He simply told us to try again and this time to raise the roof. So we did. And the praise would come. And to receive praise from this man was worth a dozen ‘O’level certificates. When he conducted the choir, we would watch his face light up with real joy as our voices harmonised to create the perfect chord. We would do anything for this odd, Einstein-haired musician and we travelled the length and breadth of Wales, giving up our weekends to perform in concerts all over the country, not out of fear of his wrath but out of fear of disappointing him. He loved and respected us and we knew it. And it was reciprocated. It’s what made us the best school choir in Wales and despite not being a natural musician myself, I remember him with affection and gratitude, for showing me what an inspirational teacher really is.
Inspirational teachers are not a breed apart. They’re just like the rest of us. Teachers who sometimes get it right. And when we do, we inspire the students. We inspire them to learn. And that’s our job.
We can probably all remember a teacher from our own school days. Not the horrible, sarcastic, frightening monsters that we all knew and hated, but the others. They might not have been the ‘best’ teachers, they might not even have been the ones with the glittering degrees. They were the ones who got on with the job. The one of shaping young minds and showing them that there was more to life than what was immediately visible. I always remember my Latin master (not the best of teachers, as his love of writing poetry overshadowed his desire to enlighten the next generation about Caesar’s Gallic wars – which come to think about it might not have been a bad thing) telling his class (all four of us) that ‘to educate’ came from the Latin ex duco, meaning ‘I lead out’. This stuck with me. Teaching is about showing the way. Drawing the knowledge from the students. Socrates understood this. That’s what the question and answer sessions that most teachers use is about. Ask the question. Get the student to work out what the ‘right’ answer is. Simple really. The classroom is not a showcase for a teacher’s skills, neither should it be a battlefield (even though on bad days it may feel like it). It’s a place of learning, where we, the teachers, have the incredible power to manipulate the minds of the young. We have the freedom (despite the attempts of successive governments!) to shape the minds of our students any way we like. We can choose either to instruct, or to educate. The first requires knowledge. The latter requires considerably more.
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I’ve taught in secondary schools for many years and fourteen of those with dysfunctional teenagers, so working now in mainstream English lessons, I foolishly believed that I could handle anything the kids could throw at me. And so I have, for a long time. Until now.
This year, I have a particularly difficult Year 10 group. They are the usual mix of teenagers, fifty per cent of whom actually want to learn and the other half busily determined to stop them. This is fairly normal and I’ve been limping along trying to educate them since the beginning of the year.
The problem lies with a handful of students who have decided that they don’t want to learn and see no reason why anyone else should be allowed to either. This little group of ‘funsters’ is led by a chav princess (‘chav’ is a British term for a particularly brainless and world-owes-me-a-living personality). If there is such a thing as a stereotypical chav, then she is it. She actually uses the catch-phrase “Am I bothered?” without any trace of irony.
I’ve tried hard to teach this girl and I’ve tried even harder to like her. I’ve failed in both endeavours. There is something completely unlikeable about someone who spends every one of my lessons turning her back on me and deliberately talking continuously in a successful attack on everything I do. All usual methods at building mutual respect have been like water off a duck’s back.
Things came to a head the other day. I was trying, in vain, to teach The Hound of the Baskervilles to the class. I say ‘in vain’ because the chav princess would deliberately interrupt every time I began to speak. Having endured the deliberate sabotage for some time, I finally gave up and told her to leave. She tossed her hair and flounced out. And I got on with my teaching…for about ten minutes. Chav princess had found a new game. Pulling faces and chewing gum, open-mouthed through the glass panel in the door, she succeeded disrupting the lesson even from outside. So I went to speak to her. Reasonably, I thought. My idea was to appeal to her better nature and care for her classmates. Stupid idea that. I’d made the assumption she had a better nature. That was my first mistake. My second was actually trying to talk to her at all. I asked her what gave her the right to destroy my lessons for all her classmates, to deliberately spoil their education and their chance of decent grades. Her answer left me gob-smacked, something which doesn’t happen often. She told me that it wasn’t her that was destroying the class’ education, it was me. She informed me that she, along with a handful of her friends in the class, thought that I was a very bad teacher. They didn’t like my teaching methods and that I clearly couldn’t do my job. There was a lot more in that vein, but that was the gist of her tirade.
I was stunned. Not by what she had said, because I understood, after I’d calmed down, that her words were chosen in a deliberate attempt to destroy me and what I do. What shocked me was the fact that she felt that she had the right to do so. In the guise of “honesty.” It was a vicious, calculated attack on someone she knew could do little about it, as it was her “right” to have her say.
What made it worse was the fact that I then had to carry on teaching as if nothing untoward had happened and then move on to another class. Fortunately, my next class, a Year 11 group, realised that there was something wrong and carried on with their work (which was actually a group presentation of a poem …which included some hysterically funny exercises, including pin the sting on the scorpion (the poem was Night of the Scorpion) and a competition involving origami scorpions!).
It took me several days to recover my equilibrium after chav princess’attack. It’s fact that no matter how long one has taught, and no matter how good one’s results have been over the years (and without false modesty, mine have been pretty good) a vicious attack on one’s ability and methods shakes one’s confidence. My colleagues were all equally shocked and highly supportive but the chav princess’ attack had its intended effect. In one well aimed salvo she had managed to do what dozens of “problem” boys over the years had never, or more accurately, would never have even thought of doing; deliberately hurting and trying to destroy someone with years of experience and success.
Chav princess’ punishment involves removing her from my lessons and making her study on her own in the department office for as long as it takes for her to realise that she needs to be taught… By me.
I think it’s going to be a long wait.
A large number of my brightest Year 9 kids disappeared today, all going off to Belgium to visit the Trenches. Having spent weeks introducing them to the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, I hope that they understand the enormity of what they are about to see. However, a small number of their classmates remained. And I do mean a small number: about a quarter of the class were left behind. What was interesting, however, was the concern that those jumping ship had. They were concerned about what the rest of us would do in their absence. In fact, they were so bothered that several of them said that if we did anything fun, then they would not bring me back any chocolates! Threat indeed!
The threat might have been light-hearted, but there was some basis to their anxiety. Over the past months I have had several students from other classes asking to transfer into mine. When questioned about their motives, the answer invariably has been that they know that my class do “fun” things!
I find this intriguing as I frequently feel that I don’t ‘do’ fun. What I do feel that I do, or at least try to do, is “Interesting”. True, I have been known to stand on chairs and declaim Shakespeare or burst into song… but there has always been a reason. (Kids remember the unusual, and doing something different will implant an image in their brains that they will not hurriedly forget!)
But doing “fun” suggests playing. Which does have its place, and I have occasionally been accused of playing in my lessons, but you can’t play unless you know what you’re doing. I have seen colleagues ‘play’ in their lessons, determined to make their teaching fun, but it frequently becomes apparent that the fun is just that, fun and nothing else, as the subject knowledge does not match their desire to entertain.
In fact I’ve just watched a TV programme which was presented by a chap whose teaching technique involves a great deal of playing. It’s fascinating to watch, but listening to him speak, I can’t help but feel that the showmanship has taken over from the educating. If there is no substance or depth behind the “fun”, then it becomes an empty exercise in showing off, similar to the kind of performance we are all guilty of when Ofsted appears!
Children can do fun without help from us. It’s our job to educate and not be stand-up comedians. It’s our job to inspire and to create interest. Fascinating really that that is what my kids have deemed is “fun.”
Oh and if you’re interested, while they were all buying chocolates in Brugge, the rest of us looked at the story of Dracula and examined its gothic elements…as depicted in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Think I’ll still get my chocolates?
I was asked the other day why I went into teaching. After all, the conditions aren’t brilliant, the pay is even less inspiring and the clients – the students, are often obnoxious, mouthy and – how dare they – ungrateful!
The answer, I admit, didn’t immediately spring to mind. It had, after all, been a particularly bad day. Half of my year eleven students (that’s fifth form to those of us still thinking in 1970s speak) hadn’t done their coursework, didn’t want to do it and couldn’t see any valid reason why they should. (And while they were at it, couldn’t see any reason either why the students who wanted to achieve decent grades should be allowed to do so!) My year ten students, a mixed bag of (on this day) the lazy, the disaffected and the plain ornery, were also being particularly unpleasant. One boy, big, tall and loud, (but also, annoyingly, very bright – something he would deny to his dying day as it’s not ‘cool’ to be bright) had told me in no uncertain terms (and language) what he thought of me and my ‘crap’ lessons. I have to admit, that as I walked out of that classroom at the end of yet another fraught session, I couldn’t think of any good reason why anybody with half a brain, a decent degree and even half an ounce of sanity would go into teaching.
Then I walked into my next lesson. Year nine. Shakespeare. And I remembered.
I’m one of those peculiar creatures who met the Bard when I was eleven and I fell in love. With a man who had been dead for four hundred years. A man whose plays had confused and bored generations of school children. A man whose words had reached out to me across the chasm of the centuries and spoke of life and death and love. And in that year nine class, with the ghost of Macbeth squatting like and evil spider in the corner of the room and his hapless wife screaming her despair to an unheeding heaven, Shakespeare spoke again. To a new generation who were entranced and enchanted, drawn irrevocably into the morass of ambition, murder, black magic and despair. For that hour, Shakespeare walked the corridors of my school, firing the imaginations of my thirteen year olds like a latter day Spielberg or Jackson with a passion for learning that I had been afraid had been lost forever. And I remembered. This was why. It’s not the ‘failed’ lessons that matter. It’s not the rudeness of the disaffected. It’s that spark. Every teacher recognises it. It’s when something happens that inspires both students and teacher. It’s when magic happens. And this is why we do it.