Goodbye Shuggie Valentine

7th August 1998 at 01:00
I GOT a late holiday deal to Corfu. Hot and sunny every day. Ten years ago I taught English there in a small private school. It was a dream job. My working day started at 4pm and ended at 9pm, Monday to Friday, leaving plenty of time to go swimming or sunbathing (professional development).

Greeks have a deserved reputation for being laid-back but they value education. Homer is not Bart's dad. The state sector is chronically underfunded and so most children attend private schools (frontistirios) in the afternoon. Fees are inexpensive but the pupils have to provide their own textbooks and jotters. Oddly enough, unlike their Scottish counterparts, Greeks don't lose books or rip pages out of jotters to provide bedding for their hamster.

Teaching in the Stella Andriotti Frontistirio was a joy for several reasons. Stella didn't manage, she led. Eighty per cent of her time was spent teaching classes of all ages and abilities. Administration work was done by a clerk. No departmental handbook, no policies, no mission statements, just a very successful school.

Structured differentiation was frowned on. Whole-class lessons were the norm. Individual attention was possible because the size of the rooms limited class sizes to 18. Assessment was straightforward. Every piece of work had to be boiled down to a mark out of 20. Eureka! A system of assessment understood by pupils, parents and teachers. No grade-related criteria, concepts, elements and strands to confuse all concerned.

Last, attendance was excellent. I like to think this was due to my imaginative lessons (using pop song lyrics) but I know that paying for education concentrates the mind.

Experienced British teachers are a rare breed in frontistirios. Most "teachers" are recent graduates who want a year's work cum holiday in Greece before deciding on a real job. It was easy for me to shine in this environment. Pay, by Greek standards, was reasonable (plus free spartan accommodation) but after three months I asked for a rise. Feedback from pupils and parents let me know that my efforts were appreciated: simple things like regularly setting and marking homework, keeping good order, using a variety of teaching methods. Stella upped my salary but insisted on a gagging order lest the others would seek parity.

It was not all plain sailing. Regional accents, especially from the west of Scotland, are frowned on. Like a transsexual Eliza Doolittle I had to change my speech to accommodate others. I chose a transatlantic drawl so beloved of the advisory service. Another hitch was my slight stammer. If you encounter a Corfiot who talks of a c-c-c-computer, the chances are he is a former pupil of yours truly.

After a year my wife became homesick. She gave me an ultimatum: "It's either me or Greece." It was a difficult decision. I loved teaching motivated children. Working for a management who will listen to your ideas and constantly praise your efforts was a new concept (and alien to Scotland). With great reluctance I agreed to resign. Shuggie Valentine was coming home.

I returned to Scotland and joined the supply circuit but I couldn't settle. Two years later I returned to Corfu for a holiday . . . on my own. It proved to be a catharsis. During the first week I looked up former students and had lunches with Stella and her husband. By the second week I was missing my wife and two young children. When Stella offered me a post it was easy to refuse. Happiness isn't where you are, it's who you're with.

I continued to correspond but like all holiday romances we lost touch. This year I visited her house and the school but was unable to contact her.

My Corfu experience taught me that in Scotland we over-complicate the learning process. Why we continue to implement fads, import American management speak and create barriers to effective learning is all Greek to me.

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