Some Ideas about Teaching
Memories are Made of This...
An alarming corollary of getting older, I find, is that one spends time looking back, and so it was, the other day, that I found myself thinking about Mr Jackson.
‘Junky’ Jackson, as we called him, was my Latin teacher – not that he ever taught me any Latin. The only way he could keep order was to tell stories, and we would bang on the desks until he capitulated. He was very soft. Most teachers could be waylaid into some reminiscence or irrelevance, but Junky could be negotiated down to about 10 minutes Latin in return for 50 minutes of stories – and we were as merciless as children can be.
He may have been a lousy Latin teacher, Junky Jackson, but he was a story-teller of genius. My overwhelming memory of his lessons is one of roaring with laughter, work forgotten, in a class entranced by the comic talents of this gentle raconteur. And I can still remember the details from his stories.
My school-life would have been greatly poorer if the guy had actually made us sit down and learn Latin (and, indeed, my life in general: I can truthfully say that there has not been a single occasion in the last 40 years when I have found that I needed to know what a gerund was...)
The only other teacher I remember with clarity is Mr Thompson, who taught me Geography.
What made Mr Thompson memorable was his enthusiasm. My abiding impression of him is leaping frequently out of his coach seat when the Cross-Country team was travelling somewhere, and rushing back up the aisle pointing out some landscape feature. Mr Thompson was my inspiration. In a world where teachers and pupils routinely treated you with derision, he genuinely seemed to like me, and believed I would come to something.
As for the rest, they’re distant memories. I remember ‘Feet’, who taught RE and PE (a curious mixture of purity and purgatory, don’t you think), who had a kind, jolly face and strangely misshapen shoes. . . And a Latin teacher who was always trying to get us to look at the sentence as a whole, and not plough from word to word ‘like a dog from lamppost to lamppost’ – a phrase I still use when teaching poor readers. A few other names, some with faces, but little more.
And as for WHAT they taught me – almost nothing. The standard of teaching, generally, was far below that in the average comprehensive classroom of today. I can remember few individual lessons. There was one wonderful time when the teacher knocked over the jar of mercury – we scooped it up in handfuls into our pencil cases, and played with it for weeks afterwards. One Chemistry lesson tasting acids (can you believe it!) finished with a glass of pop. A lesson on refraction started with an anecdote about ‘your grandfather’s watch’. All in all, precious little to take away from a decade of education at one of the north’s premier direct grant schools
Being fair, I suspect that the pervasive academic and competitive ethos of the school had a lasting creative effect on my personality, but – thirty years later – I can remember little from my education which the Gradgrinds who lobby our National Curriculum today would acknowledge as pertinent facts.
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All that education, and there we have it. My two memorable teachers. One told me stories. The other encouraged me. It accords closely with a research article I read recently which found that the ‘best’ teachers (in the retrospective opinion of a group of dyslexic adults) were those who hadn’t shouted, and who hadn’t treated them as though they were ‘thick’.
So much is expected of teachers today. Schools are high-pressure institutions. Pupils must succeed in a barrage of successive SATs and external examinations. We’re assessed by the amount of time we keep them ‘on task’. Exam results are published, and compared.
Where would Junky Jackson be today? Where, indeed, Mr Thompson? I wonder if we have, amidst all the tests and the time on task, lost something of the really memorable classroom activities – entertaining pupils, and liking them. In teaching, the medium really is the message and the simple (and perhaps alarming) truth is that, far into the future, they won’t remember many of the facts you taught them – though they may remember you, and how you treated them.
I wonder if my pupils will remember me in 30 years time – and what will they remember?
To cite this page, use: CLARE, JOHN D. (2006), 'Memories are made of this', at Greenfield History Site (http://www.johndclare.net/Teaching/Teaching_Memories.htm).