A chance encounter last week with one of the teachers who taught me when I was a teenager set me on one of my regular reminiscences about my own experiences of schooling in the 1980s. I am prone to do this on occasion and when I do it is the same dozen or so encounters that spring to mind.
I sometimes feel that it is only I and John Tomsett who hold the view that schools today are in far better shape than those of generations past. I went to a secondary school that would, in today’s climate, undoubtedly have been in special measures (indeed, it has been at least once since Ofsted’s inception). Despite that I enjoyed being taught by some exceptional teachers, but this was countered by ultra-marathons of mediocrity (including my own) that would have tested the superhuman endurance of Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
What strikes me about my memories (and I’m aware that time embellishes them) is that each of the teachers involved will not have given the encounter a second thought since. Yet, they have stayed with me as distinct, sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful memories that have undoubtedly influenced the kind of person, and teacher, I subsequently became. The memories that spring to mind are not the best experiences I ever had at school, nor are they the worst. The fact that these may be considered inconsequential to many highlights just how influential we are as teachers whether we like it or not.
GCSE results day – My PE teacher, Peter Rayman, gives me a firm handshake, a big smile, a manhug and a “Bloody well done,” as he tells me that I got an A (nestled in amongst an otherwise decidedly average set of results). As soon as he tells me I recall that my Head of House had tried to talk me out of choosing PE during my options interview. Peter was an exceptional teacher and still works locally with responsibility for inclusion. Coincidence? I think not.
A-Level physics – Gavin Jennings goes out of his way to get me his old textbooks from his time studying physics at university. Gavin is now Head of Physics at Auckland Grammar School in New Zealand and I give him considerable credit for my success in reading physics at university.
Year 8, English – Chris England invites me and two other class members to be part of the school magazine. I am elated and carried along by his encouragement, so much so that I develop a love of writing that I had, until that point, never had and that I still have to this day.
Year 8, maths – Martin Rudland asks me to solve a maths problem that seems intractable to him. The inter-house x-country results don’t make sense to him. How is it possible to win by scoring the least number of points? He asks me to have a go and I explain to him that you score the number of points equivalent to your position – the winner scoring one point, the runner-up two, etc. The team with the lowest score wins. He is mightily impressed. It is obvious to me now that Mr Rudland, the stereotypical eccentric maths teacher, knew perfectly well how the scoring system worked – he handed out the place discs as we crossed the line – but the tactic worked beautifully at the time.
Sixth Form – I am developing a keen interest in Irish history and am going through a phase of reading a lot about various aspects of Irish political history. A tutor (not mine, he was superb) sees me reading The IRA by Tim Pat Coogan, the definitive work on the history of that terrorist group, as I sit with some friends and my brother. She says to me that “anyone reading that kind of rubbish is also a terrorist“.
Year 6, English – My English teacher ridicules me in front of the whole class for wearing a tracksuit. “You look like you’re ready to play a game of football,” the teacher shouts. [It’s worth pointing out that our primary school did not have a uniform and we were free to wear what we liked, apparently.]
Year 6, English – I make many attempts to get off the purple level of the SRA reading scheme and one day I stop trying. I am required to work out the plural of knife, roof and hoof. [Even thinking about doing that now makes me a little nervous.] I fail with alarming regularity, each attempt being treated with disdain by my teacher. So, I simply stop going up to the teacher’s desk (from which she never seemed to move) to show my work.
Year 6, maths – I am tasked with identifying the tenths, hundredths and thousandths of a decimal number in front of the rest of the class. I fail. “Try again.” I fail. “Try again.” I fail. Either out of boredom or pity my teacher puts me out of my misery and gets Elaine, my neighbour, to do it with, it seems to me, perfect ease.
Year 7, art – My teacher calls the register and when they get to my name something tickles them about it. “Jarrrrlath,” the teacher growls. It gets repeated, the growling sound becoming more elongated each time and the laughter of my classmates and my own blushes grow in proportion to the length of the growl.
Year 11, English – My teacher has been very encouraging over the course of my GCSE, fostering my interests in Twain and Asimov. She asks a group of us to be videoed in the summer holidays for some project. I politely decline as my shyness makes me reluctant to be videoed. She sends me out of the lesson where she unleashes an anger I’ve never seen before. Despite being 16 and a foot taller than her I am so upset that I lose control of my bladder for a short time. My plan to do A-Level English evaporates in an instant.
PGCE – I know I’m not strictly at school any more, but this memory always pops up. I return for my second placement at a school where I spent the first half-term of my PGCE. I am greeted in the Science Department faculty room with “Oh, we’re surprised you’re back. We didn’t think you would make it,” from my subject tutor.
Leverkusen, Germany (1987) – The reel of positive and negative memories that run through my mind are always punctuated by one bizarre incident. I spent a couple of weeks in a German gesamtschule, existing in a state of blissful ignorance as to what was happening around me, but enjoying it immensely. Mario, my host, Stefan (who spiked his hair up with beer, THE definition of cool to a 12 year old) and I were in English and I asked the teacher if I could go to the toilet. “Sure, but if you like you can p*** out of ze vindow.”
We attach great importance to the set piece interactions that we have with students, but if my experiences are anything to go by, it may be, to continue the sporting analogy, the broken play interactions that are the most formative.
What formative memories will endure long after your formal relationships with your students are over?