Tag Archives: teaching

Respect

15 Sep

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I had an interesting conversation with a fellow guest at a friend’s 50th birthday party/20th anniversary celebration this weekend. We were making polite small talk when I noticed a rather spare, yet beautiful silver ring on her finger. As she talked about it she revealed that this was one of the few jewels she had left following a recent burglary. She threw her chin up jauntily and remarked “It is funny what one values, it was only stuff after all”. I liked the cut of her jib.

I responded by saying that the most valuable things I possessed were the memories of surprising things people had said to me.

To explain, I relayed a memory of my first teaching practise  in a school in a rather deprived area of Gateshead in 1990.

I had been tasked with teaching ‘the skeleton’ to a class of 12 year olds. A keen student, I brought my first wife’s real human skeleton to school to show my class, allowing them to assemble it respectfully from it’s box on a laboratory bench. The school technician had also brought out a 1/5th scale mounted model of a human skeleton for us to compare. I and the pupils loved the experience, they were attentive, respectful and full of curiosity.

A few weeks later, just before I was due to leave, a lad from this class came up to me at the beginning of the lesson and said:

“Sir, can we see the Ethiopian again?”

I was a bit nonplussed, but soon realised that he meant, the 5th size model skeleton.

Undernourished.

The boy himself was underweight, and under sized for his age as many of his class mates were. His mum could not afford a uniform shirt AND a pullover, so she had sewn a shirt collar into a pullover. To my mind, the thinking of this boy showed true compassion, and deep thinking. It wasn’t long since the disastrous famine of Ethiopia 1983 – 1985 with shocking scenes of human suffering filling our television screens.

I still remember his Geordie lilt, his serious face, and the blinding realisation that teaching was a two way educational transaction. He had changed me from a student of teaching to a student of education.

Soon afterwards, in my first teaching job in the Tyne Valley, I was gifted another treasure.

There was a boy in a particular class, who, at 15, was a complete pain in the arse. My established colleagues told me he was unteachable. This coupled with the fact that he was in my class with his non-identical twin sister – a bottom science set – meant that they were able to torpedo all of my lessons. He was disruptive to the point of anarchy and, in the end, in desperation I asked him to stay behind at the end of the lesson. I decided to sanction him with a homework essay entitled “The Symmetry of Nature”.

He looked at me askance, picked up the paper and next morning returned this pearl:

‘The Symmetry of Nature is where pets go when they are dead’

Straight faced, I congratulated him on a fine essay and said no more. When he had left me alone in my lab I burst out laughing. From then on we got along fine, and the class became cooperative.

His poetic gift to me – not to take myself, or my role to seriously, and just because I was standing at the front of the class did not make me the top dog.

Courage, insight and humour. Priceless treasures all, are not innate, they are gifts bestowed by those who have experience, but only to those who show respect to their teachers.

The picture shows me aged 4 at my first school in Takoradi, Ghana 1962 (I am second from left, back row). My first teacher (centre front) told me I should be an artist. Respect.

Solo

25 Aug

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There are a crucial moments in life when we have to move from safety into danger in order that we may learn and grow. It was a brave mother (Helen Roach) who not only let her son, Adam, learn how to use a carving knife safely, but also, most generously, she sent me these photographs of the moment I let him take the tool and carve on his own. The intense look of concentration on his face and the way he folds himself around the work when he is flying solo is worth all the trepidation of tutor and parent.

Many years ago I re-trained to teach science at secondary level. It was clear to me that I could no longer rely on temporary contracts as a postdoctoral research fellow in Zoology to pay the mortgage and support my small family. I studied for a year at Durham University to gain a professional teaching qualification and thoroughly enjoyed the transition from laboratory research to classroom. What I loved the most was the way in which my teaching was reflected back to me by my students. In my final dissertation I invented the principle of the “Law of Convergence of Purpose” after a particularly stressful teaching practise field trip with a bunch of 14 year olds.

Their teacher had agreed to my taking them out to a woodland to get some hands on ecology experience: food chains, food webs, habitats – that sort of thing. Unfortunately the school only had a mini-bus capable of transporting 15 students and the class size was 28. This meant that the teacher had to drive me to the site, drop me off with half the class, and whizz back to school for the rest of them. These were the days before risk assessments.

He duly dropped me off with my share of expectant teenagers and drove off. With all the sampling equipment still in the van.

As the dust cloud settled, and realising I had better extemporise, I said the fateful words “Let’s be off then!”

They were. To all points of the compass, at high speed, yelling and whooping with the joy of liberation.

I was left with one student, a girl who looked up at me with one eyebrow raised and said “Will you get the sack then?”

A few seconds later I heard a commotion in the depths of the wood and with a sinking heart approached a group staring down into a deep muddy ditch. At the bottom was a boy stuck up to his knees in mud. “I don’t want to know what happened here” I said fatuously, and hauled the young man out of his predicament. He was missing a trainer, so I took my lunch out of its snappy bag and gave him a cheese flavoured overshoe as I waded in and retrieved his mud caked shoe. I had to write a letter of apology to his mother and reimburse the family for the damaged trainer. Needless to say the field trip was not a success.

Lesson one: language is the key

A few days later whilst on dinner duty in the school yard I witnessed a violent scuffle between two big fifteen year old lads. As I stepped in to separate me I was hauled back by a big meaty hand clamped on my jacket shoulder:

“Leave them to it lad” said the Head of Design Technology with a fag clamped between his teeth

“But fighting is against school policy!” I said indignantly

“They are not fighting lad, they are cuddling. They get very little physical affection in these parts, its their way of expressing affection”

Lesson two: things are rarely as they seem.

A friend of mine said “Ah yes, Anfield Plain – it is twinned with Sodom isn’t it?” Referring to the close proximity of the (by now defunct) steel mills which used to light up the sky above Consett. Anfield Plain school was originally set up for the Bevan Boys, conscripted to work down the local pit – that too defunct since Margaret Thatcher’s intervention in the early 80’s.

Bevin Boys

It struck me that all my science training and the success I had enjoyed as a researcher would be of little use if I did not learn to use language more effectively and, more importantly learn to listen to my students and their worries.

A couple of years later I was teaching science in my first job at Prudhoe High School. I had been given yet another bottom science set – a typical tactic of hardened heads of science; “Let’s see what the bastard can handle, I’m teaching the top set, fuck you” – policy. My lab (a shit hole) was open on both sides and used as the access corridor for the top floor of the school – so every Tom Dick or Cheryl could wander through. The class were watching me draw a big chalk diagram on the black board explaining the menstrual cycle (timely as one of them had ‘fallen pregnant’ – presumably by tripping over a sperm). As I was labelling it the Head of Physics wandered in:

“That is not how you spell Oestrus, Mr. Littlewood”

“Well Mr.Hanson, there is no penalty in the science curriculum for using the American spelling of the word as Estrus, which is easier to remember, and that is Dr. Littlewood to you”

Cheers from the class, scuttling away of intruder. We were not interrupted as much after that as word got round of my poisonous tongue.

I chose a single science curriculum for my class and they all passed – some with B’s – much to their great delight.

The Law of Convergence of Purpose states: Purpose will only converge when ideas and understanding become convergent – in other words use the right lingo buster.

Ask yourself this what right have you to teach? What gives you the right to take a child from a position of safety to a position of danger? Answer – the parents.

Never mind the curriculum, the poxy exam board, the idiot vote-catching politicians or your own expensive education, listen to the students and their guardians- they will give you the key.