Keeping an eye on pupils was class act

2nd January 2009 at 00:00

A quarter of a century ago, in a school serving one of Edinburgh's poorest areas, there was a dedicated, engaging, talented teacher, held in esteem, awe even, by his pupils. They believed, I promise you, that he could see what they were doing in his classroom even when he had left the room.

This teacher had drawn on his black-board a large, beautifully-executed eye. He informed each new class that when he left the room - to see the headmaster, to make a phone call, to collect books from the department bookstore - the eye on the board allowed him to see their every action.

He seldom visited the headmaster or made a phone call, but he did regularly go to the department bookstore. He had a good reason to do so. He had a habit - a nicotine habit. The bookstore was in fact next door to his classroom. Twice or three times a day, he would leave his class for a surreptitious puff in the bookstore. The wall between the bookstore and his classroom had a small hole bored in it. Through this tiny aperture, our addicted teacher could observe his class while he fulfilled his craving.

He would see big Tam give two fingers to wee Shug. Fag finished, he would return to his class and summon big Tam to the front. When he asked big Tam why he had given the viccies to wee Shug, big Tam and the class were astonished at the power of the eye and of the teacher. He had them in the palm of his hand.

Now, I'd never tell young people such blatant lies (today's generation wouldn't anyway be quite so gullible, although the reality was likely that few of his pupils in the 70s and 80s bought the eye-myth as literal truth.)

I would have to take drastic action against a teacher who smoked in the building and who interrupted his classes to do so. If I put on my health and safety hat, I'd upbraid him for smoking in an unventilated cupboard full of combustible materials. If any of my staff abused the council's property by drilling holes in walls, they could well face a disciplinary.

Perhaps his use of the Masonic symbol of the eye, representing spiritual sight, inner vision and higher knowledge was genuine, perhaps it was ironic parody of the brotherhood or even of teachers' pretentiousness: if it was any of these, it likely went well over the heads of his classes.

For all that, I couldn't help but admire him. He was an inspiring teacher who held the undivided attention of classes which made many lesser mortals quake. He was a character, remembered by those he taught after others were long forgotten.

But how would he be judged by today's school evaluators? Where would he fit into the HGIOS3 orthodoxy? How well would he fulfil the competences in his job description: indeed, would he have reached a long leet? Would he have even passed his probation?

Alex Wood is seconded head of Tynecastle High in Edinburgh.

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