It's what you do with what you have that counts

29th August 2008 at 01:00

During the holidays, I bumped into a contemporary of mine at school. We had not been close friends, but he recalled my juvenile efforts at the debating society and I recalled his prowess on the football field. A very pleasant half-hour was spent reminiscing about our former classmates and teachers.

As our school had been a selective senior secondary in the period shortly before the switch to comprehensives in 1965, it was not surprising that many of our fellow pupils had gone on to achieve success. At least three qualified as doctors. One of the girls became a well-known journalist. Two of the boys built up successful businesses, one in the motor trade, the other in property. Another two became research scientists, one working in advanced physics at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

However, it was not all good news. We wondered what had become of the head boy who seemed to be destined for a political career and then vanished. And the brightest pupil of all, who invariably was top of his year, also disappeared without trace after he left school. In retrospect, I think he may have encountered psychological difficulties, as he exhibited signs of emotional fragility.

We then turned our attention to the teachers, and shared many perceptions. There was the very able maths teacher whom we both confessed to being rather afraid of. It was not that he was aggressively authoritarian; he rarely raised his voice, but there was an air of quiet menace about him. Another teacher would have got into trouble today because of his fondness for physical contact with some of the boys. A very scholarly, but rather precious, history teacher felt that comprehensivisation marked the end of civilisation and later moved to the independent sector.

I remembered an episode in which a teacher with the initials F.E.G. had an encounter with one of the "bad" boys. The pupil had entered the class without a jacket and the teacher asked: "Where's your blazer, Fraser?" Quick as a flash, he replied: "On a peg, Feg". He got the belt for his quip, but it did his street credibility no harm.

Despite the personal quirks of some of the teachers, my classmate and I agreed that we had been fortunate in our schooling. Although he had not pursued an academic career, he recalled with pleasure the poetry we had studied in the upper school - works by Milton, Pope and Goldsmith to which, I imagine, few pupils are now introduced.

Most adults remember at least some of their teachers, whether with affection or dislike. I wonder how teachers would like to be remembered - as strict disciplinarians, as game for a laugh, as focused on exam passes, as personally encouraging, as enthusiasts for learning? We all hope we will have a positive effect on at least some of those we encounter in the course of our careers, but we can never be certain of the effects we have. And there is an important sense in which what we teach owes as much to our individual idiosyncrasies as to the specific knowledge or expertise which we bring to the situation.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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