Skip to main content

Our parallel universes

Swapping classroom for campus after 25 years, Tom Pow ponders the changes needed in schools and among teachers

"Teaching goes on in spite of the administrators." - Theodore Roethke.

LAST SUMMER I left secondary school teaching to take up a lecturing post in creative and cultural studies at Glasgow University's new Crichton Campus in Dumfries. I scooped a long-service award at the same time. Twenty-five years - a real achievement, I told myself, one which surely gives me the right to get up on my hind legs and pontificate about Scottish education.

But then, who does not enjoy much the same right? "Teaching is dominated by self-interested, self-pitying sentimentalists who think learning is too hard for the ones they teach, if not the ones they rear," a leading article in The Scotsman brayed last year.

Even a commentator sympathetic to teachers - a rare find in The Scotsman this - described our job recently as a "living hell". And yet, sitting in my splendidly- equipped university office, waiting for the students to arrive this month, I miss it. I miss the community of it, the narratives within it - even, Lord help me, the pace of it. Twenty-five years is, after all, a long time.

When I started teaching, ROSLA was the acronym on everyone's lips. The raising of the school-leaving age had sent teachers delving deep into cupboards and out into the realia of the world for suitable materials, complaining of underfunding and of decisions taken for political, not educational, ends.

In those days, a principal teacher in English had to be a clever bloke (generally a bloke), whose job, in essence, was to issue you with your timetable and to show you where the book store was located.

Armed with a copy of the exams in your hands, you were ready to begin. Few questions were asked or invited. English was a broader affair then, not yet reduced to the four modes. We each had our enthusiasms and were known for them - whether these were for drama in general, Shakespeare in particular, the novel, 19th-century fiction or poetry. I gained a reputation in my first post for being able to "get good compositions" out of the pupils.

Of course by 1973, the traditionalists will tell you, education was already crippled by a sapping liberal ideology. An ill-disciplined creativity had spread like a virus through the school system, ensuring that teachers valued only spontaneity and self-expression, at the expense of hierarchies of knowledge and precision.

The frequent design decision to omit the apostrophe, the froth of daytime television shows, the falling awa of team sports, the lack of politeness and parental control, the failure to know the times tables or how to make Queen of Puddings - what is to blame but the airy-fairyness of Sixties philosophy, the false enlightenment?

This parallel world - of Bash Street schools somehow kept afloat on a dodgy raft of irresponsible, laissez-faire attitudes - has travelled with me throughout my career; in part perhaps because, rather than being "self-interested", teachers have been remarkably open in terms of trying new methods.

But generally, such methods have had to fight to prove their worth alongside ones that are time-tested. The teaching profession has never been uncritical and is justifiably sceptical of developments which it feels have been foisted upon it for political aggrandisement. Very justifiably sceptical.

Among all those who should stand in the dock regarding the Higher Still fiasco are those journalists and their paymasters who created and stoked the parallel world I have described. For they spoke most loudly to a culture whose family life was fragmenting and whose authoritarian voice was weakened by a whole new range of media.

Moreover, and crucially, by speaking most simply about relationships and processes that are complex, they played their part in enabling Sam Galbraith and his ministers to turn a deaf ear to the "whinging" teachers. The net result is that the end point of our education service has been shamed, as has Scotland's political standing.

Last year, to give myself more writing time, I went part-time. This year I begin a new career. I have changed. Self-evidently we all change in 25 years, yet we prefer to focus on how the job has changed rather than our own enthusiasm and energy.

And yet, this new session, the challenges are there as fresh as ever: to involve pupils in their own learning, to hold pupils in the place that offers them most possibilities, to interest them in the joys of writing and reading, to hold on to our tempers.

This summer, in Canada, I spent some time chewing the fat with two 16-year olds about their school. Oh, they knew the teachers who cared and those who didn't, the ones who effectively took away from them a whole course of possible action. Such stories are often told for laughs, yet they bring you hard up against the responsibility each teacher bears.

If one thing is to come from this sorry mess, it is that outside bodies will finally recognise teachers take such responsibilities very seriously indeed.

Tom Pow taught at Dumfries Academy before becoming a university lecturer.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you