Teaching (the art of)

When I left further education, my successor asked me if I had any advice, to which I replied that I had, and that it was simplistic in the extreme: make sure that, at the start of every class, there is a room available for the group, and a teacher in front of it, preferably a good one. In FE, this is not always as easy to accomplish as you might think, since there are no bells, there is nearly always a room famine, and because the contractual obligation on a teacher to cover a class – this might have changed – is a matter of murky uncertainty. The students themselves, all of them liberated from their schools after years of compliance, unless they had put some hard work into truanting, a skill which South-West children will never perfect, because down here, everything that requires an effort is avoided, by and large, were also good at acquiring rumours about attendance, and turning them into gospel – so that, it was always alleged, although I never saw this written down anywhere in 28 years, that ‘if the teacher has not turned up after 15 minutes, the students are free to go’.

It wasn’t true. But in a department which rambled over four sites, and in which there were strange, hidden classrooms which any inspector would have been hard-pushed to find, it wasn’t as easy to keep control of events as it would have been in a panopticon (the circular prison devised by the eighteenth-century/ nineteenth-century  utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, in which prisoners can be seen, but cannot see that they are being seen – one idea being that this meant the warders could have a bit of a wander-off now and then, because the prisoners had the sense of being watched – a bit like Bush’s America, and the paranoid CCTV-obsessed Britain. Bentham, who was actually a very forward thinker, shouldn’t be judged by this prison-obsession, one which would also have made gaols much lighter places – he was one of the earliest to propose universal suffrage, and to suggest that homosexuality was not a crime. His body was preserved, at his suggestion, and was and is displayed at University College, London, with a wax head: the original didn’t do so well in the preservation process, and was placed by his feet – I saw all this in about 1972, not long before the head was the victim of one too many student pranks, and packed off to a vault somewhere. There, that was a long digression, even for me.)

Jeremy Bentham (and head)

Jeremy Bentham (and head)

So, anyway, I always aimed to make sure that teachers were on time. Nothing is worse for students than a tardy teacher, just as nothing is worse for a teacher than a tardy student. A certain politeness afflicts a young teacher, who doesn’t like to start until everyone is present (knowing that, if a student is going to miss fifteen minutes, it’s best if they are the last fifteen minutes. Everything really important in teaching happens in the first quarter of an hour – setting up expectations, creating the mood, putting things into context).

Of course, at a boarding school, you didn’t have the luxury of saying your train or bus was late (as they often were in the sleepy Devonian backwaters). You had to be there. You had to stand up when the teacher, who was wearing a gown, usually off one shoulder, made his entrance, and you only sat when so instructed. It was awful. Nor was the teaching peculiarly good – there were the odd inspirationalists, but there were also some terrible ones, whose idea of education was to sit, on a dais, speaking, or reading from a book. Actually, this may be why – to my bardophilic wife’s horror – I have a mild grudge against Shakespeare. The man charged with teaching me Shakespeare read out a succession of critical works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. ‘Bradley said…’ ‘Mrs. Campbell said…’ It was so boring that I sat at the back and read a succession of novels. His particular habit was to go into reveries about Shakespearean characters, with whom he was clearly on personal terms. On one occasion (this is verbatim, because I put my novel down and wrote what he said), when we were studying, simultaneously, it would seem, The Merchant Of Venice and Measure For Measure, he paused and said ‘I tell you what, boys, I’m inclined to think that Isabella would have been damn dull in bed. But Portia – now there’s a possibility for you…’

And off he went into another reverie.


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