Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 3 Early experiences

Chapter 3

Early experiences

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.

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