Gemma Warren gets the knowledge

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Strangely enough, I have never thought of myself as very skilled. I read so many things about teachers not making the grade, that I think I've begun to believe it. The general consensus among most education writers seems to be that just about anyone can walk in off the street and do a much better job than teachers. I've never considered myself to have talents in the same way that a doctor has. My mum always wanted me to be optician. "Now they can really do something useful," she used to say. Unlike me, I presume. My dad is an accountant. People are always asking him for advice, whereas they just tend to tell me how to do my job. It's an interesting distinction.

So imagine my surprise when I took a group of Year 8 boys to a famous museum in London. We'd gone round all the exhibits, and after a can of Coke, I took them into the gift shop. They were running around and doing generally what Year 8 boys do when they have been cooped up all day. They were playing with the toys, they were calling to each other, they might have been running around, but you've got to realise that Year 8 boys haven't learned to walk yet. They can do things only at great speed. Suddenly, a security guard came up and asked me to remove the children from the shop. I asked him why. "Just look at them," he said.

I looked. I looked again. As far as I was concerned, they weren't being even remotely disruptive; they were just being boys. "They're shouting," he said. I thought of the playground at break. "They're not," I told him. He told me to get them out anyway. I rounded them up and we left.

I was thinking about the incident on the coach on the way home, and realised that this guy was uncomfortable in the presence of eight very well-meaning, but high-spirited boys. He felt threatened by them, so he wanted them out. They came as soon as I asked them to. And this, I thought, had shown my skill. I could handle these children, and I handle three times that number every day in the classroom.

I had asked a speaker from an environmental organisation to speak to my form. "It's funny," he was telling me over coffee. "when you rang, I asked all of my colleagues if thre was anyone who would like to come and speak to your Year 7s. Remember, these people speak to university students, and businesses the whole time. Not one of them would come. They're frightened of what the children will do in the classroom." I was amazed. My Year 7s are well meaning and engaging. They don't exactly suffer fools, but neither does anyone. It struck me again. Maybe as a teacher, I do have a skill that other people don't. I can teach children. I can keep them interested, I can teach them difficult things and I can make them feel that they have achieved.

Last week, a speaker came to talk to my Year 9s. She talked solidly for an hour-and-a-half. She used language that would be at home in a university textbook. She gave a handout that she gives to adults and when the class broke down because they couldn't understand it, she rolled her eyes as if to say, "what do you expect?" She used overheads as visual aids. They were all blue, with the same bullet-pointed facts, and by the time we got to the 15th overhead, we were all falling asleep. She then put on a video. It was 25 minutes of home-shot footage with the same dreary narration over the background.

This woman is an expert in her field, but she's not a teacher. I thanked her for giving up her time (because I did appreciate it) and went back to salvage the lesson.

My colleague was laughing in disbelief as he retold the story in the staffroom after school. I realised smugly that I wouldn't have done it like that. I may not be a brilliant teacher, but I can get the attention of a Year 9 class, and I know how to keep it.

Teachers have so many vital, specialised skills, and it's taken me two years to realise that I have them. My friend was looking at my copy of Silas Marner on my desk the other day. "But how do you get the knowledge out?" she asked me in disbelief. I am a teacher, my dear, I have ways of making this book talk, and children listen. I suppose it only leaves one question. If we've got all these skills, why doesn't anyone seem to value them?

Gemma Warren is a teacher at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London.E-mail:

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