Saturday, 24 December 2016
What have I done?
Memoirs and anecdotes from a lifetime in teaching (and learning)
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!
I can’t say it was all fun and frolics in Le Havre – there were some difficult and lonely periods as well, but it was my first lengthy experience of independence and I learned a lot about myself, others and how to get on with people. It also had the effect of making me tire of academia. I had had a taste of freedom, responsibility and participation in the world of work, and that made my return to student life (with its instruction, deadlines and imposed structure) all the more difficult to bear. I did what I had to do in my final year at university, but I certainly felt the need to move on. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life, so I started applying for anything that vaguely took my fancy. I no longer remember the detail but I do recall that I put in some 27 applications, including one for teacher training at Moray House in Edinburgh.
My application was somewhat half-hearted. I only had to think back to some of the experiences of my own teachers to understand why this was the case, though I did enjoy my time as an assistant in France (even if I realised I wasn’t a “real” teacher), and that was why I applied.
Apparently, that year (1980) was the first time candidates were called to interview and I duly presented myself for interview in March.
It didn’t go particularly well. I did not shine. I was acutely aware of potential discipline problems and although I had got on well in Le Havre, I was only too well aware that the style of teaching I adopted in France was not what would be expected of an “official” teacher in a Scottish secondary school.
My two interviewers did not introduce themselves, appeared to simply go through the motions and did little to put me at my ease. I can recall little detail, but their questions were dull and uninspired while my responses were equally mundane and revealed little flair or enthusiasm. The low point came toward the end when I was asked how I would deal with a difficult second year class last period on a Friday. Rather predictably, I came out with some advantages of learning a language which they instantly and rather dismissively rejected as “far too philosophical”. I snapped back, asking what they would do, and they suggested giving the class comics to read or games to play – something simple and undemanding that wouldn’t cause ripples.
I would later recognise the wisdom of that strategy (or more substantial variations of it – it’s never that simple), but at the time it seemed to me they were expecting an insight I couldn’t possibly have, or if this was something I should have known then I was not what they were looking for and I didn’t have what it took to become a “proper” teacher.
In any case I gave up on the idea of a career in teaching, a decision confirmed by the letter of rejection I received a few weeks later.
Shortly afterwards I obtained my degree and wanted to find a summer job, since a more permanent position wasn’t in the offing, to keep me going. I replied to an advert seeking teachers of English for foreign students at a summer school in Edinburgh (thinking my experience and informal approach as an assistant might suit their requirements), and I got the job!
I was able to apply the same strategies as I used in France – I was friendly, open, willing to share thoughts and experiences and I used music, books and personal input to try to engage students’ interest. We also went on trips to St Andrews, local tourist sites (Edinburgh Castle, Tantallon Castle), the cinema, and I even acted as a barman at a leaving party.
It was altogether a successful time which was eventually extended to include the following Easter and summer periods.
However, I still didn’t have a permanent job and my time with the Edinburgh language school was due to come to an end in September.
Just as I was becoming anxious and started to wonder just what I was going to do, I received a phone call at the beginning of October from Moray House offering me a place on the PGCE course (Postgraduate Certificate in Education, leading to a teaching qualification for secondary education)! One of their students had dropped out and I was next on their list! Naturally I was delighted to accept, especially after my successful time with the language school. I was aware I was a second choice, but at least I had something to aim at and I could give it my best shot.
My recollections of classes at Moray House are fairly vague. There were classes on legal aspects of the profession, and social aspects involving raising awareness of various potential problems and situations, and awareness also of your own response to these problems and situations. Of course, there were also classes on teaching your subject, but these seemed to consist largely of recollections from our tutor rather than structured lessons on how to go about teaching a class, dealing with form, content and behaviour. There were broad suggestions, but little in the way of concrete ideas or advice. On the other hand, so much depends on the particular composition of a class – age, ability range, interest, conduct, background knowledge and, of course, the relationship with the teacher, I suppose it was difficult to generalise and cover all eventualities.
Half the time was spent on placement in local schools, and I much preferred that element. I attended three very different schools and gained something from each.
My first placement school was very near where I lived. It was a fairly large secondary school and the pupils were very mixed. The school as a whole, and the department where I was placed, were highly organised but fairly cold. There was little rapport between pupils and teachers. It was efficient and productive but rather stolid. The distinct distance between pupil and teacher made me fairly uncomfortable as I was used to trying to build a bond with students in order to engage and involve them, but it seemed to me that this establishment was too regimented for that. Indeed, I was told I was being “too nice” to pupils, including some who actually turned to me for help with homework rather than go to their “proper” teacher, presumably because they felt I was more approachable, yet I was being told this was not the way forward.
I left that school with serious misgivings about my place in such a rigid and disciplined environment – I felt it just wasn’t for me.
My second placement was a little farther away but was still within easy travelling distance from home. After my previous experience, I was more than a little anxious about what awaited me.
The first lesson I learned from my second placement is that each school has its own atmosphere and “feel”.
Here the staff were firm but friendly and fair. They entered into conversation with pupils and there was a warmth in their relationships, though there was a clear line not to be crossed. I was delighted and felt much more at home in this environment. My attempts at engagement with pupils met with approval and I even received praise for my teaching of a difficult grammar point. This was something of a breakthrough for me in that I felt I was making progress as a teacher, and it led to the development of a strategy I’ve used time and time again ever since – break down the point you’re covering into its component parts, revise what may be familiar and ensure understanding of these parts, then build up understanding of each new element until knowledge is complete and pupils are able to apply what they have understood.
All told, a much happier experience and one which gave me hope for the future!
My third placement was in a much more modern and avant-garde establishment. Here, pupils were encouraged to be responsible for their own learning – a modern and laudable policy, but in this school it was interpreted by pupils as meaning they had a choice in terms of attendance, focus and concentration. There was considerable variation in teaching methodologies and levels of discipline, but at its worst, there was informality taken to the point of disrespect and lack of responsibility which appeared to do no-one any good.
So, I had seen three distinct variations on the theme of education. I was fairly unhappy with the restrictive practices of the first, encouraged by the less formal but effective policies of the second, and left perplexed and anxious by the apparent lack of structure and effectiveness of the third.
Although I preferred a less formal and cordial approach, I recognised the need for limits. I hoped that being reasonable with people would produce reasonable behaviour, but I had to accept that not everyone was open to reason and a certain level of discipline had to be imposed – for everyone’s benefit.
Of course, all of this was academic and of no importance unless I managed to find a job. Toward the end of the year we all embarked on the process of finding employment, which was going to be particularly difficult for me (my tutors kindly pointed out) as I had only one language to offer while all my fellow teaching students had two. It appears it was principally on that basis that I was initially rejected – nothing to do with my weak responses to my interviewers’ questions!
Thus, it was with something of a heavy heart that I took part in what was called “The Milk Round” toward the end of the session. This consisted of a set of preliminary interviews (not job offers) at Moray House with representatives of all the local authorities or regions in Scotland. Their purpose was to establish the chances of gaining employment in each authority and therefore whether it was worth applying to them.
I attended interviews/conversations with representatives of several authorities (which existed at the time), including Central, Lothian and Strathclyde. In each conversation, I was told politely (yet indifferently) there were few posts coming up for Modern Languages teachers, and what few there were would go to those with more than one language.
A sense of hopelessness fell over me. It was clear that every authority was going to say the same thing. What was I going to do?
As I was walking along a corridor, I came across a door with a sign saying “Highland” above it. I actually walked past it, asking myself what was the point. However, emboldened by a feeling of pointlessness and thinking I had nothing to lose, I turned around, put my head in the open doorway and, vaguely aware of four gentlemen, one in each corner of the room, I called out quite cheerily but hiding a sense of desperation, “Don’t suppose you have any jobs for French teachers, do you?”.
Three of them shook their heads sorrowfully and said no, but the fourth in the corner diagonally opposite the door called back, “Come over and we’ll have a chat.”
After a millisecond of raised hope, I realised the chap was simply going through the motions, probably because he was bored and would rather chat to someone for a few minutes at least than just leaf through some papers for the umpteenth time.
And so, he asked the usual questions about what subjects I did, where I had studied and for how long. Then, however, he asked what Moray House thought of me. I answered honestly as I was sure I wouldn’t be seeing him again – that I was OK, but nothing special. He then asked me what I thought of Moray House, so I told him about the strengths and about the weaknesses I perceived in their course. Finally, he asked how I felt about working in schools, and I was able to tell him I vastly preferred that aspect of the course to any other, and that I particularly enjoyed being with young people.
Mr Alan Forsyth, Education Manager for Easter Ross, smiled benevolently, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I think I can offer you a post at Invergordon Academy.”
Stunned does not cover it. “A job? You’re offering me a job?”, I asked in a somewhat high-pitched and disbelieving tone. He confirmed it. I couldn’t believe my ears. This was not supposed to happen – these were not job interviews as such and in any case, I was the last person they would want! Of course, it was true, and I discovered the following day that I (the most unlikely candidate) was the only one of our class to be offered a job.
I rather arrogantly asked to visit the school before finally accepting (I’ll put that down to shock), but there was never any doubt about my acceptance.
All I had to do now was find out just where Invergordon was! It transpires it was some 200 miles north of my home, but that was of no importance – I was just relieved to have found a job.
My first visit to Invergordon Academy went well, on the whole. I managed to find the school eventually after speaking to a shop owner on the High Street – bear in mind this was in August of 1981, in the days prior to the internet, Google Maps or indeed Google anything!
I was introduced to various members of staff, including Evelyn Wilkie, the head of department who wasted no time before letting me know she hadn’t really wanted her “rotten” job, but had been asked to take it on in view of the fact there had been no applicants. Approaching retirement age (probably a little younger than I am now), she was a nice, caring lady who felt a little out of place as things were changing rapidly in the world of Modern Languages teaching in Scotland. She explained that we were about to embark on the strategy of communicative competence which demanded far greater focus on spoken communication and less on written work, and less insistence on accuracy across all disciplines, instead recognising successful communication at varying levels. This approach ran contrary to virtually her whole experience in teaching and she was naturally apprehensive and doubtful.
I was also introduced to Andy Murray, a young teacher of German who shocked me when he told me he had been in post for four years. At that time, that seemed like a lifetime as I intended doing my two-year probationary period there, and then moving on. He was a spirited and friendly young man, and I was sure we would get on well.
There was a meeting with the Headmaster, Tom Bownes, a gentle and polite man, and Depute Ian Goldsack, who was also pleasant and friendly, to confirm my acceptance of the position.
However, the most memorable (and embarrassing) introduction came toward the end of my visit as I stood at the doorway to the staffroom, about to say farewell. Russell Preston, Assistant Head and person responsible for probationers approached in the corridor. He was about my height, slim, slightly balding and had a moustache. He wore a checked suit and had a purposeful gait.
Nothing I saw, however, prepared me for his voice. It was deep, guttural and virtually unintelligible.
We shook hands, and as we did so, he spoke:
“Ha fa u tavd dae?”
Unable to detect or identify any key words that might unlock the phrase for me, I was unclear as to whether this was a statement or a question. I didn’t want to ask him to repeat himself so, after what felt like a very lengthy pause, I offered a cautious and unsure “Yes”, whereupon he gave a slight shake of the head, muttered “Huh” (I was to discover this was an expression he used frequently), turned on his heels and walked away.
I was somewhat shaken and embarrassed by this experience – I was going to be a languages teacher, after all, yet I couldn’t cope with the man who was going to guide me through my probationary period!
I said my farewells and took note of start dates and times, but that conversation with Mr Preston (such as it was) kept replaying in my mind. I don’t really know how it came to me, but suddenly, as I was driving out of the car park, I realised what the man said to me!
“How far have you travelled today?” I was astounded, embarrassed and worried. Russell had asked me a simple and friendly question and I responded with a nonsensical and unsure “Yes”. Hardly the best first impression to make.
I did feel better a few weeks later, however, when I realised I was not alone in having difficulty understanding our dear Assistant Head. A pupil actually came up to me and asked if it was true Mr Preston had been shot in the throat during the war, such were the attempts to fathom the origin of that voice.
At the time of my retirement from the school, every classroom was well equipped technology-wise. Each room had a computer through which we delivered our lessons, accessed the internet and registered each class, a SMART (or equivalent) board which allowed interactivity, a sound system and a telephone.
I was thus able to use a variety of DVDs, video clips from YouTube, songs, cartoons, word documents, PowerPoint presentations and the occasional game to enliven some of my lessons. I amassed several hundred sets of documents into which I could dip within seconds to reinforce a point or provide structure to a lesson, and I was able to print sheets at will as I had access to numerous printers around the school.
This contrasts fairly sharply with the situation at the school when I arrived there. There was just one phone in the entire school. It was located in the school office next to the Rector’s room, and you had to have a very good reason if you wanted to make use of it. Calls were timed and made in public.
There was no photocopier for general use. Sheets for use with a class were prepared on a sort of carbon-copy affair and then reproduced on a Banda machine which managed about 30 copies for each original document you hand-wrote.
There were no computers. At that time they were hugely expensive, would occupy an entire room (seriously), and were distinctly limited in what they could produce. The production of a worksheet on computer was virtually unthinkable.
Class work was written on a blackboard using chalk, and was immediately rubbed out after use in order to make way for work for the following class. The introduction of the overhead projector, allowing teachers to hand prepare work on acetate sheets (sometimes on a roll measuring several metres) using felt-tip pens, was a huge advance as it meant materials could be stored and re-used. Colour could be added, as could overlays and covers which could be withdrawn to reveal answers. Professionally produced acetate sheets could also, eventually, be bought in.
Just as I started teaching French, the new approach explained to me by Mrs Wilkie, communicative competence, was introduced. In brief, this was a strategy based on immersion and lots of repetition with emphasis laid on spoken work rather than written work, and a deliberate turning away from insistence on accuracy. Indeed, during our inspection in October of 1981, Mrs Wilkie was instructed by the inspectors to remove grammar posters from her walls as they were considered counterproductive.
A new course in keeping with this new ideology was introduced across Scotland, “Tour de France”, which was divided into numerous chapters, each one presenting a fresh context with new vocabulary and structures. Introducing a new chapter usually involved the playing of a reel-to-reel sound tape containing sentences in French which were accompanied by still cartoon pictures to match the sentences which were shown through a projector onto a collapsible screen.
The horizontal film strip (consisting of some 15 or so pictures) was advanced image by image by means of a bracket device with a knob on each side which was placed immediately in front of the projector bulb, and then focused onto the screen by adjusting a lens.
The teacher (or responsible pupil) knew to advance the film strip when he/she heard a “beep” on the tape.
And they say technology is a recent development?
“Tour de France” was bright, breezy, fun (though not always intentionally – an introductory film containing removal men pointing at a table and asking one another what it was usually caused mirth rather than learning), and was virtually devoid of grammatical content – pupils were expected to assimilate vocabulary and structures as they would their mother tongue.
It seemed to me that the writers had failed to take in to account that learning our mother tongue by immersion means being surrounded by it day and night, and usually involves some kind of explanation or correction when mistakes are made, while school immersion meant three periods/hours per week in which little or no correction was encouraged, apparently for fear of traumatising the poor wee pupils.
I’m afraid I introduced elements of grammar fairly early on (and was made to feel uneasy or even guilty at doing so), but I was delighted to see the positive reaction of pupils who finally found a “hook” or a means of understanding rather than simply depending on memory.
With the publication of each successive book (I think there were four), we desperately sought official grammatical input but it came in only a minor way with the last book. The course was abandoned some eight years later, though it left a positive legacy of increased emphasis on spoken work.
It was with some anger and bitterness that I heard one of the co-authors of the course say, at a meeting to mark the demise of “Tour de France” and to look ahead to what was to come next, that “good teachers have always incorporated elements of grammar in the delivery of “Tour de France”.” I was left speechless.
When you start out in teaching, it is essential to establish good order and a level of discipline which allows learning to take place. I realised from my experiences on placement at Moray House that discipline was, indeed, essential, though the imposition of authority wasn’t something that came naturally to me.
I did my best and on the whole my classes were biddable and pleasant. Pupils appeared a bit unsure of me, as I was of them, but generally we got on reasonably well. I felt that my position was now entirely different and I couldn’t deal with pupils as I had done in France and in Edinburgh. I was painfully aware of the possible consequences of indiscipline so I tried to impose order by more traditional and authoritarian means.
As luck would have it, I had a potentially difficult S2 class last period on a Friday, including a large number of kids who had decided half-way through S1 that they were going to drop French at the earliest possible opportunity, which was not until the end of S2! Although they were not without their charm, they were often inattentive, frequently noisy, and nearly always uninterested. I tried hard to persuade them of the value of what I was attempting to teach them, and which they were not making an excessive effort to learn, but questions about the correct "er" verb ending to go with "tu" were generally met with bemused stares at their jotters or the board, or worse still, some cutting remark about my failure to wear properly colour-coordinated clothes.
Something had to be done. Having failed to appeal to the better side of their natures, I decided I had to stamp my authority on this class. They had to know that this inexperienced young geek was, in fact, in charge!
I prepared even more thoroughly than usual for my final class of the week. Texts were previewed to the last word, explanations were written up in meticulous detail, and differentiated exercises to suit the spectrum of ability levels were produced. On top of this, I tried to project confidence and determination in my dealings with the class.
All was going reasonably well, with my extra preparation apparently paying dividends as the little darlings were generally more focused and remained "on task"! Until, that is, they were asked to work independently and complete or produce their own sentences. Clearly this level of expectation proved a little too much for them as their attention began to deteriorate and the noise level began to rise. Determined to build on my earlier success, for the first time I raised my voice!
I shouted, and it actually worked!
They went quiet and they listened to me!
Of course, it didn’t last long and what seemed like just a few moments later a ripple of inattention ran through the class. Bolstered by my earlier (albeit minor) success, I was not going to let the disruptive element gain the upper hand again, so I raised my voice a second time, and once more the noise of inattention subsided!
It was then that I made my mistake.
In my determination to reinforce this positive and quiet working atmosphere and my newfound authority, I went over to the board to raise it so that the class could see the continuation of their exercise. Wishing to maintain and emphasise my authority, I seized the metal bar which allowed movement of the board, and angrily hauled at it, intending to raise the board sharply, thus emphasising both my displeasure at their lack of attention, and my control over my pupils. Unfortunately, in grandstanding for the benefit of the class, I failed to grip the bar properly and while raising it (with considerable force), my fingers slipped from the bar, catapulting my hand into my face and launching my glasses halfway across the room in the process!
Naturally there were shrieks of laughter as I scrambled around trying to recover my glasses. My attempts at discipline lay in tatters, but I recognised that this was, in fact, a pivotal moment in my relationship with this class (and indeed in my whole approach to teaching). Should I regain my composure and try to reassert my authority, or should I laugh at my own folly and misfortune?
Most fortunately I chose the latter.
Why? Because the kids were right to laugh. It was funny. Posturing to regain a false and artificial "dignity" was only going to alienate the class.
The effect on the class? I can’t say they worked on in attentive silence, but they did get on with the exercise more positively than before "the event".
I can’t say that all my problems disappeared overnight, but I would say that my slip and my reaction to it helped to "break the ice". I was able to develop a greater rapport with even some of my least interested pupils, and it taught me an invaluable lesson – the importance of being human with a class. Authority and discipline are undoubtedly essential, but achieving them through mutual respect and trust (where this is possible) is more effective than simply trying to impose one’s authority.
And so, I developed a more natural (to me) and open approach with classes. I got more involved with discussion and banter, and generally felt I got to know pupils better, developed a better understanding of their background, attitudes and comprehension, and began to develop more of a rapport with them. That said, each teacher must find his/her own way forward and what works for one will not necessarily work for another.
Of course, there will always be those who seek to test teachers, their patience and their character …….
While working with a fourth-year class one November (bear in mind S4 classes sit national exams at the end of their fourth year), I was asked about the upcoming prelim exams (mock or preparatory exams usually sat late November or early December to give pupils and teachers an idea of progress being made), and I assured the class everything was in hand and their exam was awaiting them in the cupboard (in the corner of the room by the entrance), though actually it was in my locked desk drawer.
This piece of news had quite an effect on one pupil whom we’ll call Peter (a likeable rogue who enjoyed trying to entertain the class, which led to some lively and amusing exchanges) who decided it would be funny to try to sneak across the classroom floor to the cupboard (a distance of about six metres), enter the cupboard without me noticing, and secure the prelim exam papers (which would, of course, merely have had the effect of rendering them invalid).
Clearly possessed of a desire to entertain rather than actually achieve anything by this adventure, Peter embarked on his plan to cross the room.
Quite how he thought I was going to remain unaware of his movements I am unsure, but he slid sneakily from his chair onto the floor and proceeded to take refuge behind various fellow pupils in short bursts of movement vaguely reminiscent of a hedgehog scuttling for cover.
I was just as amused as Peter’s classmates and wanted to see where this would lead so I played along, turning to speak to a pupil or going over to another to correct their work, allowing Peter to take advantage of my diverted attention and get ever closer to the prize cupboard.
Finally, he made it, and as I rather stupidly attended to some minor mistakes made by a classmate, Peter managed to open the cupboard door silently and slip inside.
It was at that moment that the bell rang, announcing the end of the period and the start of morning interval. I dismissed the class, inviting them to complete their exercise for the next time I saw them. The pupils tidied away very hesitantly and gave me perplexed looks. I reminded them it was break time and suggested they leave sharply, adding that since the prelim papers were in the cupboard I should ensure their security by locking the door, whereupon I turned the key in the lock and left the room rather abruptly, accompanied by several giggling, chatty and thoroughly entertained pupils.
A few seconds later I returned to my room, accompanied by a couple of pupils, to find a rather red-faced and upset Peter sitting on one of the shelves.
Feigning surprise, my mouth open and looking around the cupboard in disbelief, I asked Peter how on Earth he had got into the cupboard and suggested he leave immediately as he would miss his break.
The look on his face of indignant and enraged defeat, yet with a slight smile indicating he recognised the funny side of his situation, was something to behold and remains a treasured memory!
April Fool’s Day is a day to be avoided in a school. Fortunately, the Easter holiday period frequently falls at that time, but one year, early in my career, this was not the case and I fell victim to a prank I still recall with considerable amusement but which I found most perplexing at the time.
I had a third-year class of about twelve pupils who were not very taken with French. By and large we got on fine and they didn’t give me too hard a time, but I was warned by colleagues and superiors to be on my toes as there was the potential for disruption if pupils were not interested.
So, on April Fool’s Day I was especially vigilant and well-prepared – everything was thought through and organised, and I stepped outside my room into the corridor to meet and greet them as they arrived. As usual, they didn’t arrive as a group but rather in dribs and drabs, all displaying their normal level of enthusiasm but politely acknowledging my presence as they entered my room.
I waited a few seconds to ensure there were no stragglers before re-entering my room myself.
As soon as I got inside, I got something of a shock. The room was empty. There was no-one present. No pupils.
I was thrown completely. I had just seen my charges enter the room, but now – no-one.
From the vantage point of the teacher’s table you can see clearly under all the pupils’ desks and there was nothing to be seen, yet I still went forward and bent down to check under the desks, confirming once again (obviously) there was no-one there.
In desperation, I even checked under my own table where there might have been space for a couple of people – nothing.
I found myself walking around the empty room, knowing perfectly well there was no-one present, but looking for them anyway!
I then realised they had to be in the small cupboard in the back left corner of the room, but as I looked through the shoulder-height window in the door from the middle of the rear of the room, I knew I would certainly have a clear view of twelve people standing, crushed together, if they were in such an enclosed space.
I was confused, dismayed, and I was starting to panic – I had lost an entire class, in my own room!
I stepped outside to look for them, knowing how ridiculous this was, but not knowing what else to do.
I re-entered the room and once again looked under all the desks and my table and I was just thinking of how on Earth to word my report to the office to the effect that I’d lost my class when I heard a sound. It was a muffled giggle, and it came from the cupboard.
I still remember the sheer sense of relief at hearing evidence of the continued existence of my class, yet mixed with total confusion concerning their presence in a small cupboard whose window I had already checked.
I approached the window and heard more giggles and whispers. This time I opened the door to find my class – all twelve of them lying horizontal, one on top of the other in three rows of four! Stretched out as they were, they only reached a height of a little over a metre, well below the level of the window in the door, and I had failed to spot them with my cursory glance through the window at a distance!
There was much laughter and I have to say a lot of bonhomie was created as a result of their very successful prank.
I do not have strong teeth and as a result I had lots of work done on them when I was young, which left me with not so much a fear of dentists, but a desire never to see one again if I could possibly avoid it, and when I left home for university I got just that opportunity.
During my five years in tertiary education (four at Edinburgh University and one at Moray House), I did not visit a dentist. To be fair, I didn’t have any problems, but I have to admit my principal objective was simply to avoid potentially painful visits to the dentist.
The moral of the following story is very simple – go to see your dentist regularly in order to avoid the build-up of what could develop into major problems.
During the Easter break of my first year in teaching I became aware of a nagging toothache in the upper left side of my jaw, toward the rear. The pain developed somewhat alarmingly, but I followed my well-established pattern of behaviour toward my teeth and ignored it, hoping it would somehow go away. It didn’t. It developed to such an extent that I couldn’t sleep and eventually could barely function at all as the pain progressively pervaded every aspect of my life. Yet I still would not go to a dentist.
Fortunately, my wife (sensible person that she is) made the call (without me knowing) and arranged an emergency appointment for the following day. I was instantly relieved – I knew it was necessary and recognised how foolish I had been to let things reach this stage, and I resolutely decided I would never let this happen again.
While hardly looking forward to my treatment, I was actually reasonably happy to sit down in the dentist’s chair with the prospect of the now constant and throbbing pain coming to an end.
The dentist was plainly unhappy with what he saw in my mouth and said he was sorry, but the tooth would have to come out. I clung to some hope and asked if he couldn’t just fill it. Definitely not – it had to come out, and immediately.
I explained I was a coward and asked for gas, but he suggested that wasn’t a good idea in case something went wrong, so I requested a strong dose of anaesthetic as I had experienced considerable discomfort during previous extractions.
The dentist was most accommodating and reassuring. He injected me at numerous points around the offending tooth and within a few minutes the pain started to subside for the first time in days. The wave of relief was such that I felt foolish for having put off this visit for so long and I was entirely confident I would feel no pain during the treatment.
The dentist put in place a framework which would hold open my mouth (remember the offending tooth was at the rear of my upper jaw), and he started the procedure.
He went about his work with great care and consideration and I was delighted both that there was no pain and that the whole incident would soon be over. He pulled hard on the tooth, but it didn’t come away. He tried two or three times more, but still without success. He placed his left hand on my forehead and pulled hard with his right hand – still no give. “It doesn’t want to come”, he said.
When I saw him put his right foot on the end of the arm of the chair to gain some purchase, I suspected things were not going as smoothly as they might, but that did it – all of a sudden I felt the tooth give, but entirely painlessly. I was actually happy!
However, when I heard the dentist utter “Oh God” as he pulled the tooth, I knew everything was not as it should be ……
I shall spare you the grisly details of the procedure, but suffice it to say the poor man was traumatised because the roots of my tooth had wrapped themselves around my jawbone (unknown, of course, to the dentist), thus explaining the substantial resistance to the tooth’s extraction. As he forced the tooth out, a broken piece of my jawbone came with it and he was obliged to cut it free from the gum, tearing muscle in the process and having to stitch me up afterward.
By the end of the process the poor dentist was quite done in, while I was entirely happy that the tooth was now gone and I had experienced no pain.
He gave me a prescription for painkillers and penicillin. I suggested I wouldn’t need the painkillers as the tooth was now gone, but he replied “You’re going to need them”, and he was right.
Two hours later I was in bed because of the pain, yet happy in the knowledge that this condition was only temporary.
However, I soon discovered a couple of complications. Blood had seeped into the torn muscle and clamped shut the left side of my mouth. This was somewhat unpleasant and disconcerting, but was aggravated by a more pressing discovery – I have a strong reaction to penicillin and it makes me vomit.
Anyone who has tried to express water through a relatively small aperture will understand the effect …….
The connection to teaching of this story?
Well, I am happy to report that the swelling did eventually subside (and I ceased taking the penicillin immediately), but it took some three weeks to do so and in the meantime, I had once again taken up my duties at the school.
This was an absolute gift from Heaven for some pupils who delighted in the fact that I could only speak through the right side of my mouth. I was subjected to a fair amount of light-hearted mockery as various pupils gently teased me and mimicked my inability to fully open my mouth and say words with any great clarity.
The small third-year class mentioned previously thoroughly enjoyed my temporary handicap and took great pleasure in repeating words and phrases just as I pronounced them, but about three weeks later they got their comeuppance ……...
By this time the swelling was all but gone and I was more or less back to normal. I was sitting on a desk in front of the class, reading a text and translating it with them when I sneezed. Nothing to write home about, you might think, but I was suddenly aware of something “foreign” in my mouth, so I couldn’t continue reading.
Now, whatever I think or feel tends to show on my face and it was clear to the class that something was amiss, both because of my silence and the expression on my face.
I realised the stitches had come loose and were floating about in my mouth, but I really didn’t want to share this with my unsuspecting class.
“What’s wrong?” they asked, genuinely concerned.
I tried to say “nothing”, but without opening my mouth, thereby only increasing their suspicion and anxiety.
I removed myself from the desk and wandered nonchalantly over to the sink in a corner of my room, bent over and spat the offending object into the sink, then washing it away while trying not to draw attention to it.
“What’s that?” they asked in some alarm and with considerable trepidation.
“Just my stitches” I said, thinking I had avoided a scene and had spared the finer sensibilities of my class.
Well, I suspect you could have heard the screams at the far end of the corridor outside my room. The boys just looked disgusted, but the girls? They couldn’t control their revulsion and let it all out with cries and facial expressions last used when they tasted something vile.
Although taken aback by their reaction, I have to confess to a degree of satisfaction and a sense of retribution for the mirth they had enjoyed at my expense for the previous few weeks ……
I did, of course, use this story frequently to promote regular visits to the dentist.