It's a great life

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Ted Wragg will be deeply missed throughout the education world. His advice - which he gave as generously to cabinet ministers as to young trainees - was always intelligent, often hilarious. Three and a half years ago, we asked him to write a weekly advice column for teachers, and so Dear Ted was born. Here we present some of the highlights

Your first teaching placement

No one expects you to be an ace teacher at the very beginning of your career; we all had to start off wearing the L-plates. But you should come armed with some viable ideas discussed with your tutors and teachers in the school, and be reliable and well organised, rather than slipshod. You should know about the curriculum you will be teaching and be a friendly, sensible and safe person to have in a classroom.

In the staffroom, you need to be respectful, but not a crawler, and you should interact socially with other teachers, but without taking them over.

If you wash your own cup and buy a box of biscuits, you will have won friends for life.

Becoming a teacher

The best advice to anyone entering teaching is to concentrate on doing the whole job as well as you possibly can. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, or having a possible career pathway in mind, but newcomers who focus too much on future promotion may be seen as picking and choosing what they do to further their own ends, rather than trying to serve the needs of the children and the school.

On strictly following QCA schemes of work

Teaching strategies are advisory, not statutory. The more secure Ofsted inspectors and heads are relaxed about letting teachers exercise professional judgment. It is the weedy ones who are so scared they insist on compliance to the letter. You and your colleagues should assert your professional rights, stand up for what you believe in, and make your points in a civilised discussion.

Let's start a revolution against the compliance culture that has throttled initiative and tried to turn teachers into Daleks. The nationwide clank of thousands of teachers finally shaking off their fetters should be deafening.

Best advice Ted ever received

That's easy, because it has influenced me almost every day of my life. It came from a wise old Welshman who was one of the best teachers I have ever met. As a young lecturer I watched him expound a topic he must have taught many times. The class was enthralled. Full of admiration, I asked him how he managed to maintain such enthusiasm and freshness for a subject he might easily have found tedious after so many years. "There's nothing mysterious about it," he replied. "I just tell myself: it might be the 50th time for you, but it's the first time for them."

What to wear on your first day

As someone who usually grabs the nearest lump of cloth out of the wardrobe, hoping it isn't a curtain, I am not the style guru you may be seeking, so others will have to advise you whether the little pink tulle number is right for the occasion. But there is a great deal of hypocrisy about dress.

I remember an MP once saying that if all teachers wore suits, pupil behaviour would improve substantially. Yet MPs wear suits in the House of Commons and the behaviour there is like a badly run zoo.

Banning whistles in PE and at the end of break time

The thought police have obviously been busy again, and the mind boggles at the sort of alternatives a witty anarchist might dream up (trumpet, drum, klaxon, football rattle, rocket, recording of "Colonel Bogey"). I hope the whistle ban doesn't catch on in sport as well. Can you imagine the poor old referee bleating "Offside" in front of 60,000 screaming fans at Old Trafford?

The most obvious replacement is the human voice, but teachers' vocal chords already take a hammering, and women find it especially difficult to shout above noise without doing themselves a mischief. Clapping hands can be a bit weedy, and doesn't really work if you're wearing gloves on a winter's day, while visual signals are not always seen when children have their backs to the teacher. In any case, you would look silly waving a flag.

You could try "pass it on", whereby you tell the nearest children to be quiet and they then pass it along the crowd. You might even get all the staff to spread themselves around the playground at the end of playtime, carrying baseball bats, if necessary, to look menacing. But all this seems rather elaborate. It would be much better to, er, use a whistle. Why not do a deal with whoever banned the whistle? I'll promise to use a police whistle (no pea in it, therefore not so rasping) if you promise to stop being a prat.

On supply teachers

I am full of admiration for them. They need all the usual professional skills, plus the extra ones of being able to step into any location, subject or age group, often at short notice and without insider knowledge of the pupils. I would like to see a charter for supply teachers, to put their work on a proper footing. They should be entitled to training (they often miss out), free key documents (many have to buy their own), and standard salary progression (some had difficulty getting their threshold bonus because they did not "belong" anywhere). They are a precious asset, used on a daily basis in many schools, covering absence and staff shortages. It is scandalous when they are not treated as such.

On the wisdom of a 26-year-old female primary teacher getting a tattoo on her arm

Some people will see it as the mark of a trendy, permissive hippy, for whom anything goes, which is a pity if you are otherwise a sad trad, happiest in white blouse and flat brogues. It also depends what the tattoo depicts or says. A drawing of Sir Cliff Richard will have a different impact on your class from a slogan proclaiming "Hello sailor" or "I am evil".

You may also need to think ahead to when your upper arm has slid downwards and joined your lower arm. I remember an ex-marine whose tattoo of Hercules had a fine appearance when he was rippling with muscles, but in later life looked more like an emaciated Donald Duck.

If you eventually apply for a job elsewhere, the interviewing committee will probably be too polite to raise the matter publicly, but may mutter when you have left the room. If you are applying for a job as an art specialist, some candidates might sit through the interview with a bacon sandwich strapped to their head, so you would appear quite muted by comparison.

As a completely untrendy dresser, I would advise against it unless you are convinced you need to make such a personal statement and are willing to live with any consequences. Alternatively, you can be a secret anarchist and have it tattooed on your bum.

On being the lone male teacher in a primary school

The two most common problems are (a) fear of being regarded as a potential paedophile, and (b) being accused of wanting easy promotion to a headship.

Both are scandalously unfair slanders, but that is no consolation to anyone on the receiving end of such innuendoes.

Make sure that everything you do is professional and blameless. That way you will be able to withstand close scrutiny and come out at the other side of it with your reputation intact and indeed enhanced. Male teachers who do an excellent job will rarely be challenged by their colleagues or by parents, and why should they be?

There are many men who find themselves the only male teacher in their primary school. Some make fun of the situation ("They only employed me to scrub out the boys' toilets after school"), others simply get on with their job. Successful male teachers can be valuable role models, both for the boys generally and also for any young men who might one day consider primary teaching.

On egomaniac heads

Leaders whose first concern is their own image and status do not last long.

Headship is about inspiring others, not pirouetting on an imaginary stage, or preening before a mirror. Try to see the comical side of pomposity and egomania. Such figures have been satirised since the beginning of theatre.

More positively, work out what you can do to improve the situation.

Laughter may relieve symptoms, but it doesn't cure ailments. The deputy head is in the best position to raise such delicate matters privately with your head. In technical terms, the deputy can talk about "distributed leadership" as a potentially more effective style of management, whereby staff are deliberately and positively engaged in decision-making.

Whether to come out as gay

There is no reason why you should feel obliged to talk to your classes about personal matters. After all, if you had been with a girlfriend, you would not be expected to announce to pupils the following day that the woman was 27 and her name was Penelope. There is no single right answer to your question, because it all depends on your own personality and on the environment in which you work. In the end you must make your own decision.

How to maintain enthusiasm after three decades in the classroom

There is nothing wrong with teaching as a lifelong career. It is the dross that goes with it that blights the profession. Teaching is for stayers, not for sprinters, so you can always get better at it. People who put on a flashy show when observed, but cannot sustain it, will impress only the gullible.

No matter how much you know about children, the subjects you teach, the craft of the classroom, there are always surprises - unexpected answers, events that need fresh ingenuity, new ideas. To stay enthusiastic, concentrate on developing your teaching, such as asking questions, explaining difficult concepts, handling group work, dealing with children who have some kind of difficulty, or dreaming up interesting challenges for the very able.

You could sign up for a higher degree and research your own classroom or school, or simply write and talk about what you do, so others can share it.

Teachers are often overly modest, reluctant to share successful practice, whereas medical practitioners are obliged to evaluate new treatments rigorously and then spread the word.

Remember also that teaching is a social gene. In the second half of your career, as in the first, you will spread knowledge and skills that have taken the human race thousands of years to acquire. There is no higher calling; without you - and others - society would slide back into primitive squalor.

Helping distressed pupils to cope when a teacher dies

A bereavement is a terrible event for anyone, let alone young children. It is not just the loss of someone close, it is the reminder of our own inescapable mortality. Children need various kinds of help, depending on their age and personality. Some may conceal their fear or grief and suffer inside themselves, while others may cry openly, or look distressed. Letting them talk about the teacher in a way that expresses and eases their emotions, rather than heightens them, can be positive. If children are old enough, talking about death can help: emphasise that today's children will probably live to be 100, that many people believe death is not the end.

Hoodies in school There's something I have to confess. I am a hoodie. There, I've said it. I knew it would come out one day, but we daily joggers have been going round in sweatshirts with hoods for years, simply because they have a pouch for your keys and Mint Imperials and a hood to keep off the rain. It's hard to resist mugging people and shoplifting as I pound the streets, because the evil vapours in the hoodie go straight into the bloodstream, but I grit my teeth, keeping my crimes to a minimum...

The truth is that hoods are fine, but bad behaviour isn't. Discuss hoods with the wearers. Most will be sensible about the matter. Ban hoods for those who hide under them and behave badly, leave the righteous in peace.

Read tributes to Ted Wragg at

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