Helping them to stay on the rails

31st August 2001 at 01:00
WALKING in Edinburgh recently, I was reflecting on the death of Jimmy Knapp, the railworkers' union leader. His obituaries evoked integrity and commitment and his own quote, that he was happy to be seen, in union terms, as a dinosaur, suggested that his passing marked the end of an era, at least in the style of trade unionism.

Looking up, I noticed coming towards me a well kent denizen of Edinburgh's New Town, and the owner of a fairly exclusive business in the city. A lifetime ago, his father had been a union firebrand much in the style of Jimmy Knapp, and I wondered how the old man would have viewed his son's lifestyle and place in society. The words birling in his grave came to mind, but then, in a rare flash of maturity, I reconsidered.

Without doubt, the best of the mid-20th century union leaders sought to improve the lot of their members, giving them better opportunities and promoting equality and respect, as reflected in the thrust of organisations such as the Workers' Education Association. It made sense, then, that this prosperous businessman's father would no doubt have been proud of his son's standing in the community and the success of his career.

Clearly his approach to life, and, for all I know, many of his values, will be different to his father's, but a wise parent seeks to support his children in developing into their own person, rather than trying to clone them.

Reading TESS advice to probationer teachers, it struck me that there was a parallel lesson for us to reflect on as teachers. All of us should bear in mind that it is not our job to mould our pupils into predetermined shapes. At best the teacher guides his pupils towards the door and provides them with, hopefully, useful information on what direction to take once they are across the threshold.

Boosting confidence, providing a safe learning environment for the pupil, emotionally and physically, and encouraging the curiosity that leads to purposeful personal development is at the root of our mission. If the pupil's eventual destination is not necessarily the one we would have chosen for them, we need to be strong enough in our self-belief to celebrate their independence rather than mourn their lack of conformity.

I'm always aware that probationers have a mountain of information to climb even before they enter the classroom. Part of the responsibility of more experienced staff is to ensure they can see the wood for the trees. While procedures are important, they need a philosophical base.

As Jimmy would no doubt have agreed, once the whistle is blown and the green flag waved, safe arrival at the destination is in the hands of the driver. We should be able to rest easy that we have trained them well to make the most of their opportunities.

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