Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 1 Foreword and Beginnings – being an assistant in France

Chapter 1

What have I done?

Memoirs and anecdotes from a lifetime in teaching (and learning)


Stuart Fernie

Before I forget, and am forgotten ….


Countless reports have been written offering advice on content and evaluation of lessons, and strategies to drive them. I once attended a meeting chaired by members of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) in the course of which some ten elements were proposed as representing excellence in the classroom - presentation of learning intentions, differentiation of content and evaluation, use of ICT, evidence of progression, summary of key elements at the end of a lesson etc. – all very admirable and worthwhile, and all rather “mechanical”.

We were then asked if there was anything we thought had been omitted and would be worthy of inclusion, and it struck me that something that underpins all elements of good teaching and learning is relationships between teacher and pupils, so I put forward that point. The Inspector chairing the meeting looked at me, somewhat bemused, and asked if I meant discipline or good order. I agreed, but suggested there was more to it than that, involving why pupils were willing to work with a teacher, the atmosphere in the room and the rapport between teacher and pupils.

The Inspector continued to look bemused and it was clear that this element had not been factored in to the official perception of excellence in the classroom at that point. However, it is precisely this element that made the job viable and worthwhile for me. If I hadn’t been able to get on with my pupils, have a bit of banter with them and just plain have some fun at the same time as teaching and fostering learning, my time in the classroom would have been unbearable.

I feel I was never very good at making the work itself fun, but I often found myself injecting touches of humour in order to engage the attention of my pupils and enable them to enjoy the process of learning, at least to some extent.

Of course, this is a two-way process and I am eternally indebted to my pupils who were willing to “play the game”, i.e. produce the work of the class while indulging my desire to amuse and engage.

Beginnings – being an assistant in France

When I was at school and university and I was asked what career path I wanted to pursue, I always said I was unsure but the one thing I didn’t want to do was teach. This response reflected a lack of guidance and direction combined with a considerable lack of self-confidence on my part. It may also have been based in good part on my perception of the experience of some of my teachers. Several did not have a pleasant time with some of my classes at school and I was none too sure of how I would cope with some of the challenging and at times downright awful behaviour I witnessed from certain classmates.

How, then, did I become involved in teaching?

As M.A.(Hons) students of French at Edinburgh University in the seventies, we were expected to spend our third year in France and we were encouraged to apply for an English assistantship in a French school (assistants are usually native speakers who provide linguistic and cultural support in modern languages classes). I can’t say I was very keen as I was very unsure of myself and how I would cope, but my application was successful and, at the age of twenty, I spent the academic year of 1978 – 1979 in Le Havre at the Lycée Porte Océane and I have to say that although I was initially apprehensive and anxious, it was one of the best formative experiences I could have hoped for.

Le Havre is hardly a beautiful city. Strategically important in the Second World War, it was virtually razed to the ground by the Allies and was rebuilt after the war. It is very “practical” in feel with everything carefully placed and planned and there is a great feeling of space and openness while the roads are nearly all straight, long and at right-angles to one another. It doesn’t feel like it has evolved and grown because it hasn’t – it was carefully and deliberately rebuilt after its devastating destruction. It is France’s second port and has an enormous industrial complex on its outskirts. Having said all that, I found the people warm, caring, friendly and welcoming, and in the end, it is the people who make a place.

Porte Océane was a fairly large upper secondary school (for pupils aged fifteen to eighteen) with approximately 1,200 students and about 80 staff. As an assistant I was contracted to give 12 classes per week, though my timetable varied from week to week to ensure I saw as many students as possible within the English department.

The greatest (and first) lesson I learned was the necessity to “throw yourself in”. I had to cast aside inhibitions and “perform”. I had to lead classes, plan activities, deal with any problems (in terms of linguistic questions and/or behaviour), and I had to try to engage the interest of the pupils.

Of course, I wasn’t a teacher as such and so that allowed me the freedom of developing a more informal approach and style within the classroom.

I quickly realised that my youth (I was only three or four years older than most of the pupils) and the fact that I wasn’t a “real” teacher worked in my favour when dealing with pupils. Since I didn’t share their language or their culture I needed some way to break down barriers and engage with them, so I set out to be friendly, share experiences with them, “make a spectacle of myself” as one member of staff put it, and ensure I didn’t adopt a tone of superiority. Several assistants I knew tried to act as teachers, insisting on certain standards of discipline and formality, but I discovered pupils reacted well to humour and self-mockery and as a result there were few problems concerning good order or engagement.

I tried to incorporate less formal strategies of language-learning in my lessons such as songs which could be translated and discussed (usually played on cassettes!), extracts from books (one of which was a series of comic observations by Ronnie Corbett), discussion of topics of interest to them, and I chatted about my experiences in their town. I also invited and offered correction of language, emphasising humorous interpretations or misinterpretations of words and phrases which allowed and encouraged pupils to relax and contribute where otherwise they may have remained silent.

I should say that the teaching staff were all warm, approachable and encouraging. Each (there were five of them) had his/her own style with varying degrees of discipline and different ways of engaging with pupils. They were all supportive, helpful and happy to invite me to social events which helped build my sense of belonging and self-confidence.

Of course, I wasn’t the only assistant at the school. There were three of us – me, a German called Joseph and a Spaniard called Julian. Both were older than me - Joseph was in his late twenties while Julian was thirty-seven, married and had three children. We each had a poorly insulated and soundproofed room (with hardboard walls separating us) on the top floor of a block of flats attached to the school, built specifically to house school staff (a common practice in France), with my room in the middle, Joseph to my left and Julian to my right.

Joseph was quite a gregarious character. He wore NHS-style glasses, had long dark hair, was confident and direct to the point of being abrupt and in a loud, almost booming, voice, he was not slow to express his thoughts and opinions. He was fond of playing music loudly into the wee small hours of the morning and would accuse me of behaving like an old man if I dared complain about the noise. We may not have been great friends, but we got along and even attended a few social events together, and it is for one of these events that I particularly remember Joseph ….

As I already indicated, the staff at the school were exceptionally welcoming and sociable and one evening they were due to meet a former colleague who had fallen ill, and whom they had not seen for a considerable time, in a restaurant not far from the school, and the three of us were cordially invited.
We arrived at the very ornate and fairly busy restaurant where we met our colleagues and were introduced to several guests who were unknown to us. Introductions involved shaking hands with all the male guests and kissing (once on each cheek) all the female guests, a process which took several minutes and which was repeated as each further guest arrived.

We took our places at the large table set aside for our group, to friendly and understanding looks from other patrons, and set about drinking aperitifs while the other guests arrived.

About twenty minutes later, the guests of honour arrived (their former colleague and his wife) and they proceeded to meet and greet each and every guest with a handshake or embrace, but this time with not just one but two pecks on each cheek, thereby at least doubling the length of time already spent on simply saying hello and significantly delaying the start of our meal.

This all got a bit much for Joseph who by this time was rather hungry and had downed a reasonable quantity of wine, and who couldn’t believe the sheer amount of meeting, greeting, embracing and especially kissing that was going on. He stood and in his usual direct, bold and very loud manner, he asked everyone in the restaurant in his vaguely Germanic but perfectly clear French, “Mais, combien de fois est-ce qu’on baise en France?”, which translates roughly as “But how many times do you screw in France?” !

(This is an easy mistake to make as the verb “baiser” originally meant “to kiss” in the dim and distant past, but has gone on to have a MUCH stronger meaning in present-day French, a fact of which Joseph apparently remained blissfully unaware).

Reaction was rapid, widespread and amused. Several mouthfuls of wine narrowly avoided being spat on the floor and there was much gasping followed by polite and understanding laughter, while it was left to Julian and me to explain to Joseph what he had in fact said rather than inquire about the number of kisses the guests had shared, as he thought he had done.

Julian was something of a rarity – a ginger-haired and ginger-bearded Spaniard. He was very kind, human and a lot of fun. We became very good friends to the extent that six years later he drove all the way from Seville in the south of Spain to Tain in the north of Scotland to be the Best Man at my wedding.

We helped one another and shared many trips and adventures. We toured the local area in his car, went further afield to Lille, Brussels and Bruges, and were even invited together to colleagues’ homes for dinner, forming a sort of double act as our hosts apparently found us entertaining.

One evening we had been invited to the home of a friend of a friend and, perhaps because he was missing his wife and three children and was upset at the thought of spending another five months or so in Le Havre without them, he got particularly drunk before we even sat down at our host’s table.
We made a start on our entrée, French Onion soup which contained Mozzarella, a type of cheese that goes very stringy when heated and which appeared to stretch almost infinitely as we dipped our spoons into our soup and raised them to our mouths. Unbroken thin cords of cheese clung to the spoons and refused to break free from the motherload of molten cheese hidden under the surface of our soup. The bigger problem was that as we put the spoons in our mouths these cords of cheese simply transferred their grip to our lips, thereby creating the effect of a virtual rope bridge consisting of strands of cheese between our mouths and their apparently never-ending source in our soup-bowls.

The other guests were unhindered by this problem – clearly there was some technique whereby it was possible to eat the damned soup without establishing visible and unbreakable connections to it, but no-one informed us of what it was.

Somewhat embarrassed by our predicament, we began to giggle at our inadequacy, but Julian had an even bigger problem than I had. The cheese strings attached themselves to his beard and appeared to be multiplying at an alarming rate as he tried to disentangle the cords, succeeding only in spreading them ever further.

We shared knowing looks and giggles, made worse by the fact our hosts and the other guests steadfastly and politely tried to ignore our situation.

I don’t know if he simply wanted to break the grip of the cheese strings or if he acted out of devilment to see how far they would stretch before snapping, but Julian started to swing on his chair, going ever farther back, giggling increasingly and in disbelief as he was ever more impressed by just how far the cheese cords would stretch before giving way.

Well, Julian’s ability to maintain his balance gave way before the cheese cords as all of a sudden, he hurtled backward toward the wall, his head ending up at a 45° angle between his shoulders and the skirting board, the cheese strings intact and Julian giggling uncontrollably but managing to utter the odd “Merde!”

We were not invited back.

Spending a year on foreign soil brings with it many advantages in terms of language, personal development and professional experience, but also in terms of development of cultural knowledge and awareness. You tend to accumulate such knowledge without really realising it – you simply adapt to your circumstances and environment, and assimilate. I do, however, clearly remember my introduction to “Le Trou Normand” (The Norman Hole) and Calvados, a strong brandy made with apples.

During my stay in Le Havre I opened a Lloyd’s bank account and became friends with Michael, one of the young ex-pat managers. One Saturday evening, he and his wife Hilary kindly invited me to a gathering in their home.
Everything went well and a good time was had by all. About 1 a.m. it was time to leave, but as I was about to set off someone in the group mentioned “Le Trou Normand” and asked if I had heard of it. It was explained to me that this is a tradition in the north of France whereby if you have enjoyed a hearty meal and would like to indulge in a little more, but feel you have insufficient space for an extra course, you drink some Calvados.

Calvados is an exceptionally strong brandy produced from apples and is offered after a large meal (in a thimble-sized container and in a single shot) to burn its way through the food already consumed, consequently leaving room for more – The Norman Hole.

So, at the end of the evening with Michael, Hilary and their guests, I was offered a Calvados largely, I think, because they wanted to see what effect this strong brandy would have on the young fresh-faced Scot before them.
I accepted their kind offer and consumed my thimble of Calvados in one go. Maybe it was because I had eaten well or maybe it was because I was already merry, but the emphatically strong Calvados had no effect on me.
Visibly disappointed, Michael, Hilary and their guests insisted I should have another before setting off on my mile-long journey across the city to my flat.

I downed the second Calvados and this time I did feel some effect, a slightly increased wooziness and merriment, but hardly the effect my hosts clearly hoped to see. Still, they were satisfied their “digestif” had produced some effect, so they let me go.

I made my way down the stairs from their flat to the street below, and as I opened the door onto the street the cold air hit me, and so did the Calvados!
Suddenly I was energised! I felt dynamic and vibrant! No wooziness, no lack of clarity – just a desire to run!

I was off – the first part of the journey was downhill in a quiet (it was 1.30 a.m.) suburban area, and I negotiated the twists and turns of the streets with no problem and with no shortage of breath – I was a running machine!

I then came into the city centre and so had to negotiate zebra crossings, wide roads, and a not inconsiderable amount of traffic (city traffic never stops). I was thoroughly enjoying my return journey and felt like my upper body was sitting astride some kind of automated travel machine which my legs were driving like pistons and my feet were the wheels. I was particularly taken with the fact that I was overtaking motor vehicles which had to slow down and stop for traffic lights while I simply waved at the drivers and was able to weave my way across junctions and crossings, and between stopped cars, all at a steady speed!

I arrived at my flat with no breathlessness, no fatigue or light-headedness, and with absolutely no desire to go to sleep!

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