A Teacher's Story
I began my teaching career in an inner London faith school in 1980. The traditional Ordinary Level and Certificate of Secondary Education examinations for sixteen-year-olds were in their last phase and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was in power. I was fresh out of university at a time of high unemployment and was prepared to take on any challenge that was put in front of me to begin my working life. It was a difficult initiation because I was given the classes that no one wanted to teach, of rowdy children whose priorities, more often than not, swayed away from the classroom. I knew that I couldn't possibly survive in the profession unless I learnt how to instil the value of education in these children. Rather naively, I began to talk about what they could achieve if they concentrated on their lessons, hoping that making them aware about what was possible would make them think, arouse their conscience and encourage them to work hard in their lessons.
I was a product of a primary school education in Kenya and Uganda, where learning and education were made the highest priority for children. Schools were a place where one respected the teachers and trusted them, because these values were instilled in us by parents from a very young age. The teachers knew that and left you in doubt that they were the masters and you were the pupils. I remember once I forgot to tuck my shirt in after a morning break; a little indiscretion that would normally have been met with a gentle rebuke in most schools ended up with my bottom receiving nine lashes of the cane. It left me bruised and unable to comfortably sit on a chair for almost two weeks but I never mentioned the incident to my parents and learnt a lesson that I was never to forget. I was only nine years old at the time.
When we arrived in England in 1972 my father decided that we should settle in Edinburgh. A village boy himself, he saw the value of education and wanted all his children to have the chance of a university education, a dream that he fulfilled with three of his five children. There, I discovered that teachers did not receive the same respect as their counterparts in Africa. Children mocked weak and ineffective teachers, deliberately instigated situations that annoyed them, and created confrontations that stifled all learning. I soon learnt that some children in the west who had everything did not have the need or the same inner desire to move ahead in life.
My own efforts to arouse the conscience of the children in my first teaching post fell on deaf ears and met with derisory huffs, apart from the few isolated cases of children coming to me at the end of a lesson for help. I discovered the reason: 'What's the point,’ they would say, 'there are no jobs out there!' These children came from deprived backgrounds and had seen their parents try hard, but fail - the economic climate had not given them the opportunity to find a good job, robbed them of their self-respect and crushed all hope; and without a good role model, their children had spiralled into a similar malaise. Yet the children seemed to have sparked something in me because after a six-month spell at the school I duly enlisted on a PGCE course at the Institute of Education; being a graduate in a shortage subject like physics, there was no lack of institutions willing to take me.
While the memory of the lectures is very hazy, what I remember most are the two teaching practices, both in deprived areas of north-west London, located close to council estates. I seemed to attract schools and classes that no one wanted to teach. While my lessons with the younger children were well received and orderly, I encountered the same indiscipline with older children and I struggled to maintain their interest in the subject that I had spent years studying, despite making sure that each double lesson was broken up with experiments, discussions and written work. My mentors and tutors sympathised with me but offered little guidance. I guess they knew that my efforts would be futile because they had tried to teach these same children and not succeeded; to my surprise I was allowed to pass both my teaching practices and duly awarded my PGCE. If anything, I had learnt that discipline in the classroom would be my most important tool if I was to survive as a teacher; and that discipline had to be inspired with variety in the lesson and nurtured by my willingness to help and support rather than something that the pupils gave obediently. It was a fair trade-off, I felt, because they were the clients and I was the salesman for my subject, and I had to do everything in my ability to make them 'buy' what I was teaching them.
Armed with that resolve, I set out to get my first teaching job. I soon realised that there was no shortage of schools willing to take me and I could pick and choose my first job. If I was going to be an effective teacher, I needed the support structures in a school that were well established, where the Head of Department and the Senior Management team cared for their probationers, helped them through what was normally regarded as the most difficult year for a newly qualified teacher. After weighing my choices I chose a little known school in Harrow because the Head Teacher assured me that there would be regular weekly meetings between all the probationers with the Deputy Head at the helm. I wanted one further reassurance because I had learnt from my job in the inner London school that I would not be burdened with a timetable of classes that no other teacher wanted to teach. He grinned and reassured me and I duly signed.
Braun Wild, contrary to what her surname might suggest, was a kind middle-aged lady with an easy nature and a champion for probationers. She held the promised meetings at lunchtime or after school. Even though some of them were short, simply to brief her on how we thought things were going, they kept the endless line of paperwork that all probationers are required to complete on track and ready for the borough inspector for probationers. She advised us to observe teachers different from our subject specialism so that we would have a variety of techniques to use in our lessons. I learnt from these lesson observations that the best teachers had one common quality - they cared for the children they taught and made it so obvious through their actions; they used a variety of techniques to maintain the children's interest: told stories, never dismissed a question, showed patience and were sympathetic, and made children laugh. They made the lessons fun and in return the children respected them. I began to embrace some of these techniques in my lessons. For my Physics 0 level class (it was the last year of the old examination before the GCSEs were introduced in the 1984 Education Reform Act), I spent hours handwriting a 20-page summary of the entire Physics 0 level syllabus and gave it out to them. 'Learn this and an A grade will be yours; I said to them confidently. It was not an empty promise; I re- ally did believe that quite a large number in the class were capable. They scanned through the notes and quickly realised the many hours I had spent preparing the summary and at the end of the lesson they all gave me a standing ovation. One spoke for the class. 'Sir, we just wanted to show you how grateful we are for preparing this summary for us. You must have spent hours writing it: I looked at all of them, my eyes blurring with tears, 'lt was a pleasure; I mumbled, the children bursting out in laughter as I did. That class achieved some of the best results the physics department has ever had according to the Head of Department. I learnt that children are generally very sincere. In this high-speed world, all they are looking for is love, kindness, someone to make time for them, and someone to talk to them and treat them with respect, and they will return the same ten-fold.
In between, Braun Wild observed our lessons, gave us feedback in her gentle and supportive manner, and in time fine-tuned our classroom practices. I remember once I called on her help when I had some trouble with a 'remedial class' full of children with learning difficulties. She appeared within minutes at my classroom door and calmly made her presence felt; at the end all I wanted to show the children was that my threats were not empty and I would, if they disrupted the lesson unnecessarily, do what I had promised for the sake of the other children in the class who wanted to learn. Although it was an action to force discipline on them, it was for the sake of those who wanted to learn and they understood that and appreciated my effort. In time my relationship with the class became so good that when a special meeting was summoned to discuss the class because so many teachers were having difficulty with them, I was one of the few who ended up praising them. There was only one reason for it; I was doing what the more experienced teachers had forgotten to do: make the lessons interesting; never make empty threats; mean what you say and say what you mean. It was a lesson that I had learnt the hard way from my experience in the inner London school and was never going to forget it.
When I have forgotten all the other classes, the memory of the strong positive relationships with these classes still makes my heart fill with joy. One of the pupils from the remedial class works at the local Tesco store, a gentle and hard-working member of their work-force; we greet each other every time we meet and exchange a few words, and sometimes when he is not so busy we talk a little about those days and he reminds me of our lessons and still speaks so fondly of them. I am grateful to him and to the class because they alerted me, if perchance I had forgotten that a teacher's job is not just to teach those who want to learn but also to pass something onto those who may not be the most gifted or academic and are still prepared to try. At the end they had pure hearts and were only looking for someone to understand them, help them and make them feel good about themselves.
Ten years on and three more schools later I was fortunate to be appointed the Head of a newly founded senior school in Brent. It was an opportunity I had always relished but only expected that if it did happen it would only be for an already well-established school. I had a clean slate with nothing written on paper except the guidance of governors that our school should be founded on good positive values. It was a dream and I set about the task with an enthusiasm of a young teacher who is eager to make his mark, working eighty hours a week, seven days a week, setting up the procedures, writing policies and getting the staff handbook ready. I was thirty-one years old; nothing was impossible for me. With the League Tables firmly in place, I knew no matter how well we did all the other things that happen in a good school, we would ultimately be judged on the quality of the results we achieved.
I had learnt by then that examination success was a result of a motivated group of children supported by a caring team of teachers; I set out to impress this on the children and make them understand that there is a world out there ready to embrace them if they managed to achieve good results. I wanted the teachers to understand as well that there was a better way to instil discipline, inspire the children than to raise your voice and tell them off every time they did something wrong ... after all no one grew up without making mistakes. We had to unite, become one, and bridge the culture of 'them and us'. We had to gain their trust, make them feel that we are there to support them and prepared to do anything in our capacity to help them to succeed.
I am now in my twenty-fifth year in teaching and though the journey has overwhelmed me at times, given me more sleepless nights than I care to remember, shed more tears than I have for my own family, I have learnt a lot and I would not have forsaken this roller-coaster ride with the children of the world for what they have taught me. Knowledge should be shared to help people, children and parents, and I feel it would be selfish of me if I did not share that experience with you. You see, I believe in the inherent goodness of children and their ability to rise to any challenge if motivated in the right manner; I believe in the inherent honesty, integrity and desire of most teachers to do the very best for the children in their charge. What little you learn from my experience, I hope you will embrace it in your own school, with the children you teach and enjoy the magical ride that awaits you.
Children’s Books (1707)
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