Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 19 Colleagues and pupils

Chapter 19

Colleagues and pupils

Although a teacher may sometimes feel alone when facing a class, in fact in a good school a teacher should always feel part of a team which is striving toward a common end. Communication is key to the success of a school – listening and talking to colleagues and pupils. All should feel valued, supported and respected, and essential to that end are the character and personality of all concerned.

I have been very lucky over the years to have some wonderful colleagues to whom I could turn with professional or personal concerns. The camaraderie and support among the staff helped me get through some difficult times and helped to create a family-like atmosphere in which the surface of familiarity, gentle teasing and banter was underpinned by care, compassion and consideration.

Within the languages department, Margaret was a rock of common sense and stability in what became a sea of change and occasional madness. She also loved “Les Misérables” and introduced her daughter Amy to it at a fairly tender age. This clearly did her no harm at all as she went on to become a drama teacher and, as I write this, she has just announced that she is to direct the schools’ edition of “Les Mis” within her own school.

There have been some interesting characters who have produced memorable moments – moments that help to enliven daily routine or provide an entertaining diversion in what can be a repetitive business.

One colleague (who shall remain nameless) seemed to be drawn to our assistantes. All of them. Each year he indulged in a little harmless flirting with our young lady (I can think of only two male assistants in all my time at the school), exercising his French to compliment and general charm them. One year, however, I couldn’t resist the temptation to have a little fun at his expense ….

Our young lady (I’m afraid I can’t remember her name) had been taking classes in the base next to my room. She finished her lessons mid-afternoon and, after a brief chat with me to ascertain how things had gone and to make arrangements for her next visit, she left early to catch a bus, leaving behind a half-consumed bottle of water. As I sat in the base writing a few notes, I noticed the bottle and an idea came into my head.

I jotted a brief note on a scrap of paper, picked up the bottle and carried it to the room of my flirtatious colleague just along the corridor. His door was open and he was in full flow, reciting some notes from the back of his room while his young class took them down in their jotters. I entered his room as quietly as I could, though not without attracting the attention of those pupils nearest the door. I put my finger to my lips and placed the bottle and the scrap of paper on the teacher’s desk, but a bemused giggle from a pupil caught my colleague’s notice and he looked over at me. I had no choice but to deliver the message in person. I picked up the bottle so he could see it and whispered (loudly) what I had written on the scrap of paper, “Her lips have touched this”, whereupon my dear colleague virtually flew across his classroom as I exited as fast as my legs would carry me, with the sound of pupils’ laughter dimming behind. My colleague seized the bottle and, laughing and yelling somewhat incoherently, he set out to pursue me along the corridor, launching the contents of the water bottle in my general direction.

Fortunately, his sense of duty outweighed his desire for revenge and he returned immediately to his class, laughing and uttering threats toward me to the great amusement of his pupils.

Every year in June, the incoming Primary 7 class would visit the Academy for a week’s transition and acclimatisation. They would follow the timetable set for their first year with us, get a taste of life in the Academy, meet their new classmates and, of course, meet their new teachers.

One teacher of geography, John, had a highly developed (almost wicked) sense of humour and if an opportunity to have some fun presented itself, he was quick to take advantage of it.

At the end of a class with the visiting Primary 7 pupils, a young lad stayed behind to ask John a few questions. Naturally, John did his best to provide answers, but in so doing he caused the lad to be separated from his classmates who moved on to their next class which was French, with Arthur.

After satisfying the lad’s curiosity, John gave him precise directions to Arthur’s room and advised him to apologise for his lateness and to simply say why he was late, assuring him that Arthur was a very reasonable and pleasant man, and telling the boy exactly what to say as he entered Arthur’s room.

Now, you have to be aware that Arthur had a thick dark moustache and bore, at the time, an uncanny resemblance to the comic actor John Cleese (of “Fawlty Towers” fame).

The lad followed John’s directions to the letter, found Arthur’s room, entered and said, “I’m sorry I’m late, Mr Fawlty, but I was talking to the geography teacher”, upon which the class roared with laughter and poor Arthur was left to pick up the pieces.

I was equally lucky to have lively but attentive pupils who were willing to “play the game” with me. Just as teachers can play an important part in pupils’ lives, so too do pupils play an essential role in teachers’ lives, and my pupils helped make my professional life relatively easy and worthwhile. That is not to say, however, that they did not, occasionally, present challenges ….

In one S3 class I had a pupil (we’ll call him Paul) who liked to make his presence felt each time he came into my room. He had a routine of minor defiance of which he was, I think, largely unaware, but after this initial “entrance” he usually settled down and was largely co-operative, though French was certainly not his favourite subject.

He had been placed in the front row so I could keep an eye on him and he would come in, plomp himself down on his seat, dump his bag at his feet and then put his feet on the chair next to him. I would tell him to remove his feet from the chair (eventually it was enough just to look at him), which he did with a show of reluctance, usually within three seconds, and then I would have to tell him to take his things from his bag so he could get on with the work of the class. After that, while he hardly set the heather on fire, he would make enough effort to get by and keep me off his back.

During our inspection in November 1999, I was to be observed with this S3 class. I was not unhappy about it – they were not especially keen on French but they were lively and made the effort required. I did, however, let them know that an inspector was going to join us for the following lesson and Paul seemed surprisingly concerned. He even asked a few questions about what we were going to do during the observed lesson. I advised him and the whole class just to be themselves, do what they normally did and everything would be fine.

I had known and worked with the inspector in question for some years and was well used to his appearance, but he cut quite a conspicuous figure as this tall man in a good suit with red cheeks and a long, flowing grey beard toured the school, and pupils certainly took notice of him.

On the day of our observation I was, as might be expected, a little nervous – it’s never nice to be judged – but I knew what I was doing and I had confidence in the kids. The bell rang and the pupils trooped in. Inspectors often give classes a couple of minutes to settle so I wasn’t surprised when ours wasn’t there at the start of the lesson.

Everyone settled and Paul took his place. I had hoped he might have abandoned his routine for once but no, up went the feet on the chair next to him. I took a deep breath, looked at him and said, “Feet.” After a moment’s hesitation, he removed his feet from the chair. I started to explain what we were going to do that day and as I did so, I realised that Paul, as per usual, had no equipment on his table so I stopped myself mid-flow, looked at him sharply and said, “Books” rather pointedly. He gave me a look of disapproval and bent down to gather what he needed for the period.

It was at this point that the inspector crept into the room, opening the door and closing it behind him as quietly as he could so as not to interrupt the flow of the lesson. He walked past me and made his way to the rear of the room where he propped himself against a pillar, and as he did so, Paul sat up and placed his materials on his table, ready for work.

Once again, I started to introduce the lesson, this time for the benefit of the inspector as well as the pupils. However, I didn’t get very far before I was interrupted by a familiar voice in the front row:

“Excuse me. I thought that inspector gudgie was going to come in today”, said Paul.

The atmosphere in the room suddenly became very tense as the rest of the class jumped to the same conclusion as I had, that Paul was trying to be funny and draw attention to himself. I couldn’t be bothered indulging him on this occasion – I had other things on my mind, so I gave him a knowing look accompanied by a slight shake of the head which were supposed to mean “Not today!”

I re-turned my attention to the class and for the third time I began to introduce the lesson. Paul looked outraged and insulted that I hadn’t answered his question.

“Excuse me. You didn’t answer my question. I thought we were having a visitor”.

I looked at him, uncertain of how to respond but certain in my own mind that Paul was up to mischief. Paul lost patience with my hesitation and added:

“You know – Santa. The guy with the beard”, and he feigned stroking a long beard as he said it.

At this point the others in the class erupted in laughter or gasped with embarrassment.

“You mean the inspector who’s standing at the back of the room and is looking at you right now?” I asked.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a head swivel any faster as Paul turned around and stared, open-mouthed and quite aghast, at the inspector who icily returned his stare. He clearly had not been playing up and had been genuinely unaware of the man’s entrance and presence in the room, and now he was totally confused and shocked.

The class was highly amused but quickly regained its composure as I embarked on my fourth (and final) attempt to introduce the lesson. Paul, whose credibility had completely evaporated, just got on with his work that period – until the next time.

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