Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The class of '68 part 5 teachers and possibilities

Now most of us can look back on teachers who were very special. 

They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the larger than life and eccentric ones who sweep you along to the quiet and thoughtful who radiate calm confidence and bring that out in you. 

And then there are all the variations in between.  True as the critics of state education delight in shouting there are a few who were unsuitable, some who had no idea how to communicate and one I met who was a downright bully.  But they were the real exceptions.  In thirty-five years of teaching in inner city schools and of course those years when I was on the receiving end all but a handful of the people who chose to stand in front of a class were all that you could want from a teacher.

I remember Norman Parry, who left elementary school, spent years in the Direct Works Department of Manchester Corporation before becoming a metal worker teacher at Oldwood Secondary School.  He was much loved by generations of students and by us younger teachers who marvelled at the way he drove his motorbike up and down the corridors of the school with little regard for authority.

Many of his generation who made such an impact on me as I began teaching were men and women who had seen active service in the last world war and were determined that they were going make a difference in the post world war. Men like Austen who had flown fighter bombers off aircraft carriers, ran a very successful part time optician’s business but made his main job that of teaching maths in Wythenshawe.

And a generation later we the class of ’68 were fortunate in having so many at Crown Woods.  My  three history teachers, all of my English ones and many others who came my way were excellent communicators, and caring individuals who unlocked the doors to new worlds and above all gave me a love of learning that I have never lost.

I remained in awe of Mrs Hussein whose rapid delivery of events of the 18th and early 19th century left us tired and desperate fearing not to look out of a window lest we lose fifty years of European history.  All of which was in direct contrast the slow delivery of Mr Levine who would sit and throw out the “big idea” about Gladstone or Disraeli and then seek to weave subtle arguments which while they were entertaining were also powerful examples of how to develop A level history essays. And in amongst all this was the equally powerful presence of Mr Naismith who managed to mix style and delivery with a deep knowledge which always ended with a flourish as he tore up his teaching notes at the end, as if to say “here another original and fresh lecture” which would not be brought out for another trip next year.

And then there was Michael Marland Head of English and later Director of Studies. His was a dominant presence in my years at the school.  His quiet manner was as effective in one of those last classes with a bottom set Year 9 group on a Friday afternoon as when exploring the comic side of Shakespeare’s Henry IV with his lower sixth on a Tuesday before lunch.

Looking back what I treasure most was his sense that all of us were important and that however ungainly we expressed ourselves and “got it wrong” there was merit in what we said and his job was to take us forward and bring out our talents.

It was a quality which on more than one occasion led him to persuade me in to doing something “dramatic” that at best I was uneasy with and at worst just didn’t want to do.  Like the performance of Pinter’s “The Last to Go” which he and I did at one the evenings of prose and poetry hosted by the English Department.  Now being asked to do the five minute conversation between a barman and newspaper seller in front of an audience was daunting enough, but to actually have to do it with Mr Marland made you feel very special.

And when you had been chosen to be part of one these events there was a real sense that there was no way of getting out of it.  I well remember another such evening, which was to be a collection of 18th century readings and music performed at Ranger’s House on Blackheath to  invited audiences.

There was the causal enquiry about  becoming involved, followed by an invitation to his office high up in the school.  The part was outlined to me which I politely declined using a variety of excuses all more desperate than the one before. These were listened to and quietly but carefully put aside with a mixture of humour and a little flattery, before I realised that this was truly what I wanted to do, and I left with script in hand, only to see that there on page one already printed out along with the rest of the cast was my name beside the piece Clever Tom Clinch by Jonathan Swift.

It was something I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I will always be grateful that he pushed that raw 17 year old to do.

But the degree of his standing in my profession only became apparent once I began teaching.  His book “The Craft of the Classroom: a survival guide to classroom management in the secondary school” published in 1975, offered me and many other young teachers the practical side to the job.  I was arrogant enough to think that I had as he said that mix of "a spirit compounded of the salesman, the music-hall performer, the parent, the clown, the intellectual, the lover” but it was the “organiser" that I was lacking.  Simple things like keeping a register and how to start and end a lesson were taken as read by my older colleagues but never imparted to me when I started in the September of 1973.

It is a reputation that went deep and so during a meeting with English teachers in the late ‘80s the fact that he taught me was met with a mix of envy and a series of questions about him.  I have to say I was less than modest and let slip he had once told me I featured in the preface to one of his books. 

Now for me that still ranks as something.

Pictures; from the collection of Andrew Simpson and  Anne Davey.  The photograph of Michael Marland courtesy of CATHERINE SHAKESPEARE LANE   PHOTOGRAPHER,

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