Engaging a different kind of audience

1st August 2008 at 01:00
This week, our series on teaching dynasties focuses on a father, mother and son. Forbes McFall was a television broadcaster for 32 years before deciding to become a teacher at the age of 57. He was following a path trodden earlier by his wife, Delia, principal teacher of pupil support at Glasgow's All Saints Secondary, and Forbes Jnr, 28, a maths teacher at Charleston Academy in Inverness

Forbes McFall Snr.

I was at the BBC for 24 years and was very happy there, but I really fancied a change of scenery. I've just finished my probationary year and I think I'll go down the supply route. I'm 59 and I'd like to get as much experience as possible.

Delia was aghast when I floated the idea but changed her mind when I convinced her I was serious and we wouldn't lose out financially. I think both Forbes and Delia wondered if I could cope, because they felt I didn't realise what I was letting myself in for - and I didn't.

That's part of the enjoyment - working in an unfamiliar environment. I also knew I liked working with young people and having their company, and the idea of a return to academic life. Initially I applied to Strathclyde University to do modern studies, but I also ended up doing history on the PGDE, which I enjoyed more. Modern studies was possibly too close to my work as a journalist.

The school week rushes in. I find it has almost taken over my existence. In my old job, you'd be broadcasting at certain times of day, so there were peaks. With school, you're standing outside the classroom seeing one set of pupils leave, then another comes in.

There's an element of performance to both broadcasting and teaching. I remember watching one teacher in action. She said afterwards, "I'm not really like this." She'd been very firm and I wondered if I could be like that.

On television, you have to capture people's attention quickly, and I hope I've taken that into the classroom. I didn't have any qualms about speaking in a classroom. The difference is that your audience is in front of you. You can see their reactions and they can see you.

I suppose having experience of something different is an advantage. I think teachers wondered when I first came on the scene whether there was some alternative agenda - some kind of undercover broadcasting research. There was lots of encouragement and support, but I'm not sure I fully convinced everybody. People found it strange that somebody of my age and background would want to do this.

Forbes Jnr emphasised the importance of clarity in what you expect of pupils. Just because you've written something on the board and repeated it doesn't mean everyone has understood. Even the words you use - I'll say things that 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds will not be familiar with. "Iconic" would come instinctively to me, and I'd explain it to the class - but what I should really do is find another word.

I remember saying to Delia that I wouldn't engage in teacher talk at home. But the opposite happened - she couldn't stop me talking about teaching in the evening. But she's patient. She was like a mentor.

I'd be taking these piles of jotters home, sitting late at night dwelling over the minutiae of what I was going to write. And, of course, you give pupils these jotters the next day and they say, "Well, what mark did we get?" I think Delia's attitude was "You'll learn," and I did. I became more sparing in my comments and realised I just couldn't devote the amount of time I was giving to marking.

Delia and Forbes Jnr are very confident. I'd like to think I'm becoming more so. I've learnt a lot from them, although I've never seen them teach. Delia's natural and engaging - very much on the pupils' side. She works in a deprived area where children come from harrowing circumstances, and she wants to make the classroom a place where they enjoy being.

Forbes Jnr probably places more emphasis than I would on the controlled environment in the classroom. He would be a lot firmer on low-level indiscipline than Delia or I, but he relates well to struggling pupils and gets great satisfaction as they discover their potential. That's something we all share.

It is Forbes's misfortune that he was given the same name as me. He thought he could go up to the Highlands, teach mathematics and get away from "Forbes McFall", then discovered his father was following him into teaching. In fairness, he was very supportive, although he thought my naive liberalism was going to come unstuck quite soon.

Forbes McFall Jnr

I had mixed feelings about Dad going into teaching, but I was delighted for him that he was taking the last few years of his working life to do something completely different. He was full of enthusiasm about going back into academia and doing a wee bit of educational research.

In his student year he spent an awful lot of time researching. He had a huge commitment to the course, almost to the point of being obsessive. I didn't have that - few students do. I think it's reflected in his classroom practice. He's had very good feedback.

When the three of us meet, Dad'll want to discuss teaching. We're happy to hear him and have been supportive, but I'd be lying if I didn't say we have ganged up on him and been slightly dismissive at times, in an affectionate way.

We wound him up, saying he wouldn't have a handle on dealing with teenagers because his sons had grown up. We gave him scare stories just to keep him on his toes. The level of things he's had to deal with probably took him by surprise. I think he expected one or two isolated incidents, but that most pupils would want to learn. I think that's what's hardest for him - you can't really legislate for a lack of interest.

Dad presumably sees me as this dictatorial figure at the front, issuing instructions. I don't have to be quite as tough now, because I've had a few years in the job. I doubt my height - 6ft 8in - makes much of a difference. Your vocal projection and confidence in what you're saying is more important - there are lots of tiny teachers I'm quite scared of. The key is to establish a good relationship with your pupils.

Dad once asked, "Do you think it's a good thing if kids are giving you high fives as you leave the classroom?" I was in fits of laughter. I had worries about his discipline at that stage. Some kids made him a rosette with his picture that said "World's Best Teacher". I've no idea whether it was sarcastic. I would say, "That's shocking," but he maybe just has a good relationship.

Mum's got the kids' best interests at heart - she's very much a caring figure, maternal even. I helped out on a school trip, and saw what a great relationship she has. In her role, she knows the pupils very well - it's a different sort of relationship, and having spent a long time in one school, she knows the families and how different people are linked.

Dad has gone into school on Saturdays and Sundays, but I'd be interested to see if he's still doing that in a couple of years. I'm not saying you can do the job in 35 hours, but for me, going in at weekends is a non- starter. You've just got to make a compromise on some things and set realistic goals - you've got to make sure classroom practice isn't hampered by other things.

Delia McFall

I've been a teacher for 17 years and have had 15 very good years at All Saints. I'm a French teacher, but I've thrown myself into pupil support.

Forbes saw me spending all this time with pupils and going on study trips. I wondered whether he thought, "What is it she's getting so much satisfaction from?" I'm not sure he knew what he was letting himself in for.

He's always been a great teacher. He was a fantastic father to our three boys and was very good with new people at the BBC. He's getting on brilliantly - he's a natural.

He wasn't always the most punctual, but he's in school very early in the mornings. It's a complete change. And for somebody who said he would never, ever come home and say a word about teaching, he talks about nothing else. We have a laugh at his expense - I know young Forbes winds him up. He's just a voice of inexperience speaking to a boy of 28 and me.

I'm very pupil-centred. We're teaching children, not a subject. I find being in pupil support, seeing the whole pupil, a wonderful experience. I think Forbes will be the same, and young Forbes has already been on a few school trips - he has the same desire to get involved outwith the classroom.

I think it is an advantage being older. He doesn't have to gain that respect - it's already there. Children are always going to play up with a younger teacher, but with someone of Forbes's demeanour they're not going to mess around. He's had no problems with discipline.

When he got the rosette from the third-year class, it was from the heart. I think they responded to his enthusiasm. He'd gone to incredible lengths to pick little bits of video to emphasise certain points. Every lesson was planned with military precision. At the BBC, everything had to be just right and it's the same with the teaching job.

I'm very proud, even though it can be irritating. Sunday mornings he's been known to leave at 11am and return at 5pm, and work on video clips in the evenings. He's a perfectionist.

I don't feel we've lost two years of our lives during his training, even though I did the cooking, shopping and cleaning every weekend. It was hard going, but it's been worth it - he's got a lot to offer.

As told to Henry Hepburn.

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