Alife less ordinary

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Advice for seasonedpractitioners

High on every headteacher's list of nightmares is the one where a veteran teacher responds to an Ofsted inspector's question by tapping his forehead and saying, "Planning? After 30 years, it's all up here, my son."

Something like this acts as a complete antidote to the assumption that there's no substitute for experience. An inspector reported a similar incident to me: "She claimed to have 20 years' experience, but it was one year repeated 20 times."

Even so, there are some qualities that do take time to mature. Management gurus call it the pregnancy principle: it takes nine months to make a baby and you can't hurry the process by engaging nine women for one month.

All that was on my mind when a primary head told me he was looking for a literacy co-ordinator. I asked him what sort of person he had in mind. I thought he'd mention the literacy strategy and hour and all the related management and leadership skills. I should have known better. "I want somebody who reads a lot and goes to the theatre," he said.

Obvious, isn't it? Yet, to my shame, I was taken aback. Then I met the person who's doing the job already, near to retirement and a little tired.

I realised that here is someone whose lifelong love of books and literature and understanding of the theatre shine through everything she does in class and in her dealings with colleagues. This is a teacher with a real feel for words and rhythm, sensitive to what children are trying to say and write, always encouraging, unerringly focused on what works well, ready to be delighted by a turn of phrase, able to suggest what the next step might be and where models of good writing are to be found.

The head, obviously, wants to replace her with someone who has the same priorities. It could be a young, relatively inexperienced person; it's unfair to assume otherwise. Think of those young poets and writers we bring into school to meet our children. I reckon, though, that here's a welcome opportunity for someone who's managed, over time, to preserve and develop a rich cultural life beyond the demands of policies, initiatives and strategies -to keep alive what Edna Healey memorably called (describing her husband Denis's many interests outside politics) "a hinterland".

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