Decades on parade

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
What's changed in half a century of teaching? Virginia Matthews listens to six veterans

Eric Stevens: NQT in 1957

Training: Certificate in Education, Bristol University

First school: Heanor Grammar School, Derbyshire (French and English)

"I wasn't surprised that we all wore our gowns for teaching, but I do remember being surprised that even in the staffroom, we addressed each other by our surnames. Only one teacher, mathematics I think, attempted to buck the system and it was only so he could call the head teacher `That Man'.

One of my first memories is of form 2L: rows and rows of desks with lots of attentive children. There was only one boy with behavioural difficulties - an attention-seeker who had an unhappy home life. The good conduct possibly came down to the fact that some colleagues armed themselves with what you might call `weapons' - rulers and the like, which they secreted up their gown sleeves and brought out as and when required.

Language tapes were unheard of, as were study trips abroad and, being in the centre of the country, there was no contact with foreigners in Derbyshire either. With no native French speakers available, the children relied solely on me and my accent to guide them, and although I don't recall any fantastic linguists in my class, we muddled through OK. I don't know what Regina Blagg and Muriel Muir - two of the more exotically-named children in my English class - thought of having to learn nine different subordinate adverbial clauses, but the head insisted and I was keen to comply, even though I didn't really understand the point of it all.

In retrospect, my training was rather inadequate. Although we spent a lot of time theorising about something called roles and relationships, there was little practical advice on how to teach real children; neither in general nor specifically in languages. By the time I retired in 1989, after teaching at another selective school, then a secondary modern and a voluntary aided school, teaching was becoming tied up with meetings, forms and petty regulations, and I decided to jump ship.

They gave me one premium bond when I left Heanor and to this day, I'm still waiting for that big win."

Derek Gillard: NQT in 1966

Training: Certificate in Education at Westminster College

First School: St John's C of E Primary School in Guildford, Surrey

"The 1960s were a time of great innovation in education as most local authorities were getting rid of the 11-plus and introducing comprehensives, and far from being frightened before my first day, there was a real feeling of being involved in something new and exciting.

On the second day, a wasp flew into my classroom and settled on a window. I got a sheet of paper, put it over the wasp and hit it with the back of my hand; which broke the glass and cut all my fingers. The children thought it was wonderful sport, but it meant that most of my second day in teaching was spent in casualty.

I was next door to Mrs Coker, a middle-aged teacher who appeared full of experience and wisdom. When I told her I found it difficult to get pupils to stop talking to each other and listen to me, she offered me the following advice.

`My dear,' she said, `you must always remember that anything they have to say to each other is infinitely more important than anything you have to say to them'. It was an important lesson which I hope I never forgot. We were sent out on our first teaching practice after just a week or so of training, and received invaluable advice such as: `Don't sit in the most comfortable-looking armchair in the staffroom until you've worked out whose it is'.

My training also included the chief areas of the curriculum and was invaluable. I remember the end of September 1966 because I received my first salary cheque of about Pounds 40. It seemed a lot to me and I went out and put a deposit on a Triumph Tiger Cub 200cc motorbike.

A few weeks later came the disaster in Aberfan, when 116 children in a Welsh mining village were killed by a landslide. That dreadful day made an impact on all of us. After two headships, I retired early in 1997, having become fed up with having to implement policies such as the national curriculum, Sats and league tables with which I disagreed."

Max Hyde: NQT in 1977

Training: PGCE at the University of Warwick

First School: Trinity School, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire (Science)

"It was an unorthodox Roman Catholic school where the children didn't wear uniforms and where maxi skirts and trailing scarves were the order of the day for us young women. The head was a fan of Summerhill (the progressive school founded by A S Neill in 1921), and although it was an exciting place to be, I fell foul of my head of department over sickness absence and discovered that behind my back, he'd told the head that I lacked commitment.

Once it was sorted out, I stayed at the school very happily for 25 years and gradually learned what I could and couldn't say to colleagues in the staffroom.

We followed the Nuffield Year 7 and 8 science syllabus in those days, which was a lot more exploratory and creative than science teaching now, and I learned through my mixed ability classes that everyone was good in at least one aspect of the subject. Looking back on my training, I don't think it was a great preparation.

I came from an all-white, girls' grammar school and was keen to study multicultural education, but this was covered in a single session and like special needs was seen as an add-on, rather than part of our mainstream training.

What my first school did show me was that I loved teaching and was right to choose it as my career. My parents didn't have an educational qualification between them and just as education transformed my life for the better, I learned that I could help transform the lives of others. I have never regretted becoming a teacher."

Michael Evans: NQT in 1982

Training: PGCE, University of Cardiff

First school: Queen Mary's Grammar School for Boys, Walsall, West Midlands (English and PE)

"The day before term started, I was called in to do rugby coaching and was astonished to find that some 50 strapping lads had turned up for the session, even though they were still technically on holiday. It was an academic school with some very bright boys and I remember feeling terrified, over-awed and unprepared for the first few days.

Early on, the head teacher caught me taking my form's register one day without wearing my suit jacket. He literally grabbed the register from me and proceeded to take it himself.

The pace at the school was relentless and no allowances were made for the fact that this was my first full-time job.

I remember a discussion over whether a boy with `only' eight good O-levels was sufficiently able to be allowed to join the sixth form and I also recall that the school productions were inevitably something like Moliere, rather than a good old-fashioned panto.

Most of the staff were Oxbridge and fairly distant, which was hard for someone who'd been to a comprehensive, but a couple of kind teachers took me under their wing and invited me home for tea.

My training was great at the theory side of things, but gave me very little understanding of what it meant to manage a class of boys. All I remember was being told: `Don't smile until Christmas'. Luckily, my form was largely well-behaved and determined to do well.

In those pre-national curriculum days, I was allowed to choose pretty much any set texts I liked; Sons and Lovers and To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. The boys in my English class loved the fact that I had such a strong Welsh accent and found it all great fun.

I have very fond memories of my first school; where I stayed for two years until homesickness brought me home to Wales, but I definitely prefer co- educational and non-selective schooling."

Stephen Viner: NQT in 1997

Training: PGCE, University of Keele

First School: St David's and St Katherine's C of E School in Hornsey, London (IT and Business)

"The school had been built for 500 boys, but this time catered for 1,200 boys and girls. Although I was 22 and terrified, I am an East Londoner by birth and was delighted to be back home.

The first day was chaos and was made worse by the discovery that there was an Ofsted inspection coming up. One of my worst lessons that week was my Friday afternoon session with 8DB, which took place in the smallest room in the department and had 22 machines for 32 kids. They quickly got niggled with each other and I was in despair.

It wasn't a high-achieving school and that tended to make the teachers fairly easy-going. I was one of six NQTs that year and although we must have seemed very raw, the more experienced teachers not only listened to any problems we had, but offered advice.

My colleague Linda Prince told me: `In the first few weeks, the teaching isn't important. What you need to do is keep on top of the children and show them who's in control and the teaching will come naturally.' I took her advice and it worked, even among the Year 11s.

There's far more pressure on NQTs nowadays. Although there was observation and guidance, I didn't feel I had to prove myself. My training was, looking back on it, pretty thorough and spot-on.

There were problems in my first year - not least discovering that me and a new senior teacher were teaching the wrong syllabus to our GCSE business studies class. But they did all right in the end.

I'm now deputy head at St Bonaventure's RC School in Forest Gate, London, and I'm still very much enjoying teaching. My two key pieces of advice to young teachers are - show the children who's boss and check every syllabus thoroughly."

Kari Anson: NQT in 2006

Training: Graduate Registered Teaching Programme, University of Wolverhampton.

First School: Ladygrove Primary School in Telford, Shropshire

"I'd done on-the-job training at Ladygrove, so I knew some of the children and the etiquette of the staffroom. Finding the photocopier wasn't an issue either. But my first memorable lesson - numeracy - will stick in my mind forever. My objectives on multiplying and dividing by 10, 100 and 1,000 were taken straight from the National Numeracy Strategy and were age-appropriate for my class of Year 5 and 6. But from the startled looks on their faces as the lesson went on, I realised that not only was the teaching pitched too high, but that I'd managed to destroy whatever confidence they'd had before I started.

The deputy head taught in the classroom next door to me and after discussing the problem with her, I realised you must always assess where the children in a class actually are, not assume they're are at the stage you're told they should be.

My training didn't prepare me for individual education plans, which came as quite a shock, particularly when it came to special needs, nor did my two sessions on teaching PE do much to help that side of the job. Although my degree in psychology was a bonus in terms of PHSE and my relationships with the children, the training was inadequate in terms of subject knowledge.

But I did love the fact that it was on-the-job and `live,' rather than classroom-focused; as a mother of two, whole reams on child development would really have turned me off.

My career expectations have been well met and I think my early responsibility - PHSE and then healthy school co ordinator - has been a real bonus. Nobody has ever pulled rank on me and the fact that we have such a small staff - nine including me - allowed me to carve out a niche fairly easily.

While I see myself staying in the education system, I don't expect to be teaching in a school for years and years. I love it, but I want to do other things too."

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