In 1981 I started teaching and was that new shiny teacher. At the end of my first year, my head of department who was an amazing teacher I was so glad to learn from, asked me to attend a faculty meeting on his behalf. It was a significant meeting because “set lists” were to be handed out.
Hard to imagine a time before a national curriculum when children still chose the majority of their subjects. You might think they could have chosen any 10 or so in any combination but schools were not stupid, so they had little rules like, one subject from option A, one subject from option B plus maths plus English etc. Remember there was no Ofsted but even then we knew what to do to help children.
However, this meeting was to give out the lists of those children who had decided to do your subject in fourth and fifth year or year 10 and 11 in new money. So I went to collect the list of pupils who had chosen O-level or CSE chemistry . It was a scary meeting for me, this was a comprehensive school that not so long ago had been a secondary modern, the pastoral system was a vertical one with heads of house who were frankly formidable characters and I was privileged to learn so much from them including my own head of house Marian Davis. So the lists were passed around the table, hand written and I looked down the list of names recognising some of those whom I had taught. There were of course pupils you were very pleased to see had chosen your subject, in fact these were probably names that everybody would have been delighted to see on their list. Then there was a moment where you looked down to check certain names were missing and yes there were those pupils who I had struggled with and my wisdom at their parents evening to suggest subject X or Y might be better, well that had worked I was quite pleased they decided not to carry on with chemistry (such naivety and inexperience).
Silence dropped over the meeting as people viewed the lists handed down from the deputy head. Then there was a muttering which came from the head of PE, with a bit of sighing, a bit of umming a bit of ‘somebody not very happy’. As that continued one of those heads of house spoke and we all looked at him:
“What is the matter Tony?” said the head of house, a man who maintained outstanding discipline and who we all knew a majority of children absolutely adored.
“Well”, said Tony “I’m just looking at this list. The first time we’ve tried to get PE as a qualification in this school you all know how hard I’ve worked to get this off the ground and I am so disappointed by the names of people you have allowed to choose PE.”
The head of house looked directly at Tony and said “give me an example”
“Well down here is Richard James … he can’t even swim how am I expected to get him any sort of qualification in PE?” I sat there and thought to myself: that’s a fair comment I wouldn’t really like to have anybody doing a serious chemistry qualification with me, who did not know how to handle basic equipment or understand the basic rules in a laboratory or who had done Ok in those first three years at secondary.
However the room dropped to silence …”Tony” said the head of house “ you’re a bloody teacher, teach him to swim”
This was a phrase which rang so true it lasted with me the remaining 40 years of my teaching career.
I was so glad that somebody nailed it, that day.
Whatever we think about the way young people behave or young people take to our subject, do or don’t conform, we are teachers and it’s our job to find a way to teach them.
There’s a kind of question I and many others are asked at first introduction to a stranger in company…..“Oh what do you teach?” to which the answer is …. geography chemistry English etc though the clever answer is “I teach children”. I think that day seared into my mind was that I teach children wherever they come from, whatever their experience, and my job was to do my best to inspire them and …. teach them, to help them learn my subject it was a deeply profound lesson. Thank you Tony and that extraordinary pithy Head of House.