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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 27-Jul-12


Friday 27-July-12

A teacher's end

Last week, my wife retired from teaching English (to 11-18 year olds).

I taught myself for a couple of years a long time ago and it was enough to know that teaching is a difficult job. I've also seen it get more difficult over the years as successive governments tinker with it in ways that usually end up with more work for teachers. Paperwork has increased and computers have only added to the workload. Real teaching has been replaced with training as exam grades have become an end in themselves, at the expense of developing the person and creating a valuable citizen. The result has been a qualified population who struggle in university and cannot cope with real-world jobs.

Education has been touted as a dynamic career and, in tough business times, career-oriented people have flocked to the the profession. One of these was Eleri's young head of department, who tried to regulate all teaching, requiring blind compliance to basic methods that suit only a few. She did not like challenge, and Eleri's questions led to confrontations where the head of department abused her position in personal attacks, including trying to manipulate performance assessments to oust Eleri. Fortunately, the head teacher had seen Eleri teach on many occasions and knew many of her other contributions, and so supported her in this.

Eleri has always stood out as a child-centric teacher who never sought promotion, preferring to teach at the coal-face for nearly 40 years. She was never complacent and developed new and challenging lessons right up to the end. Her lessons were loud and engaging, and students loved being in her class (and many went on to study English because of this). She has a drawer-full of thank-you letters, many of which declare her the best teacher ever, and was frequently assessed as an outstanding teacher.

She taught not only English, but religion, history, philosophy and psychology. Not as disciplines in themselves, but because to understand much literature a good background in these subjects is important. And in some ways she didn't really teach English. What she really taught was curiosity, analysis, communication, argument, persuasive writing and other such important thinking abilities and social skills. Her approach was very Socratic, asking questions and challenging assertions. She held frequent debates where the central rules were to contribute and to justify all arguments.

When teaching a poem, she typically would start by reading it out without mentioning the author and just asking the class to respond with how it made them feel. Then there would be background about the day when it was written and discussion of political and social contexts, followed by discussions about possible meanings of the poem and perhaps how these were still relevant. The author's life would be explored. Metaphors would be investigated. Contrasting poems would be brought in. The children might write their own poems on the same or related subjects. Only later would the 'how to pass the exam' question would come up, and by then they were more than capable.

One of her central rules was respect. First, she respected them, treating them as important individuals, not as annoying vessels to be systematically filled. If a child misbehaved one lesson, in the next lesson she did not start by expecting them to be naughty again. She also expected and demanded respect. If they misbehaved, she would request (and get) an apology. If they did not put due effort into their work, she would challenge them rather than let the sleeping child lie. And she expected them to respect one another. If there was any hint of bullying or unkindness within the classroom, she would stop and sort things out immediately. And on that bedrock of respect she could build passion and make her classroom a place of intelligent fun.

Eleri was a true educator, developing the person and not just training pupils to pass exams, which is where much of the profession seems to be heading. She never gave up on anyone and would always give as much time as she could, often staying late after school to help individuals. She also spent ages in marking essays, looking for corners to help each child progress. She was a natural counsellor and children (and other teachers) would seek her out to talk about their woes.

In short, she was a consummate expert in changing minds.

At the end of the term, she gave cards, wine and fridge magnets to colleagues in the department. The biggest challenge was for her head of department. The magnet said 'to get love you must give love', which was both a marked point and gentle nudge. Her card was forgiving, saying it was time to let go and move on. The head of department looked relieved and perhaps a bit ashamed. Oscar Wilde said 'You should forgive your enemies, as nothing annoys them quiet as much.' For Eleri it was far more forgiveness than revenge and helped her to let go too. It would be foolish to drag her just anger on into the future.

In a final assembly she got to make a speech to the school, which she characteristically kept short and eloquent. It was about her teachers who showed her what good teaching looked like, thanking colleagues and a few entertaining stories of interesting lessons. She got a long standing ovation from the whole school with much stamping and many tears.

Last Sunday, we marked her retirement with a garden tea party. Fortunately, the weather was fine and colleagues, friends and former students turned out to thank her and celebrate. A student wrote a blog about her, which eloquently says much. Others wrote cards with similar sentiments.

I'm actually writing this blog a bit early as we're off on a short cruise to celebrate the transition. She's been a wonderful wife as well as a great teacher, and it'll be great to spend more time together. She won't stop and is thinking of a career now in writing, something she's always wanted to do, with possibly a bit of teaching on the side.

Your comments

A lovely tribute, David. Enjoy the cruise.

-- Graham J

Dave replies: Thanks Graham. The cruise (around North Sea ports) was brilliant and we were very lucky with the weather: it's been a very wet summer here in the UK.

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