Bestworst lesson

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
BEST - My first primary job was in a tiny one-teacher school in the Western Isles. The children were in the middle of a project about "Our School", trawling through more than a century of log books and registers. Three siblings had a great-grandfather who was a former pupil and was in his late nineties. We invited him to speak to us about his school days. The pupils prepared questions to ask him and finally the big day arrived.

Our guest was a spry and highly articulate man who was clearly moved to be back in his little school sharing memories with us. We learned that each child had to bring a peat for the stove every day and that the nearest neighbour would stand armed guard over his pile of peats in the morning in case of pilferers. He told us about the sometimes harsh discipline and described to the saucer-eyed class the ordeal of the tawse, a leather strap used for punishment.

The children were astonished to learn of the privations and poverty their great-grandparents had endured. We heard about games children played in simpler times. Question followed question and before we knew it, an hour had gone by and our guest had to leave.

We filmed his visit and, years later, the children still asked to see the video as an end-of-term treat. I took this as testimony to the pull of the past. It is humbling that my best lesson was one where all I did was sit and listen.

WORST - I had been teaching for just under a year in a language school in Palermo, Sicily. Like many new teachers, I spent hours preparing lessons, analysing the results and adapting my teaching approaches in an unending quest for improvement. I was idealistic, an aspiring new broom: my head was in a spin and, for quite a lot of the time, I didn't know if I was coming or going.

I had six adult classes every week and saw each one twice a week for one-and-a-half hours. As a new teacher, I was given mainly intermediate classes by the management of the school.

One fine spring day I bounded into my first class, greeted my students warmly (setting the tone, see) and plunged into the lesson. My flash cards were gleaming, my acetates were shipshape and my lesson plan was foolproof. Nothing could go wrong.

And nothing did go wrong for the first half of the lesson. The students responded confidently and accurately. They performed a range of tasks with amazing success. Then, after three quarters of an hour, my most charming and co-operative student raised her hand. "Deirdre," she told me, "This is a very nice lesson, but we did it last week."

Deirdre Carney is headteacher at Brora Primary School in Sutherland.

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