Lessons from a distinguished career

11th August 2006 at 01:00
One of my closest friends from university days will not be returning to school at the start of the new session. Earlier this year, following a period of ill health, Jim decided to retire at the age of 62 after nearly 30 years' service in the same school. He did so with some reluctance because he had not lost his enthusiasm for teaching.

At his farewell, Jim was moved by the tributes and good wishes he received.

There were many cards and gifts from colleagues and pupils, past and present. He will not need to replenish his drinks cabinet for some time to come.

One parent, whose children had studied for their Higher English under Jim's tutelage, described his teaching as "inspirational".

Jim might be described as a "character" - someone with a strong personality, a way with words and a great sense of fun. It is sometimes said that "characters" are disappearing from teaching, under pressure to avoid the attentions of the growing army of quality assurance "experts".

Jim was never impressed or intimidated by such people.

Over the years, he contributed to the life of the school in many ways, helping to produce school shows and magazines. But the core of his contribution was in the classroom. His strength of personality meant that he encountered few discipline problems. Pupils were keen to be assigned to his class, even though they knew they would have to work hard.

During an inspection, the HMI who visited his classroom was amazed by the range and quality of the written work produced by his pupils.

What is perhaps surprising, therefore, is that Jim was never promoted beyond the rank of assistant principal teacher. The chartered teacher programme came too late for him. He served as acting PT on several occasions but was never offered a substantive post. Why should this have been so?

He would accept some responsibility himself. His teaching style could be described as traditionalist. Early in his career he had devised a method that worked well for him and his pupils and saw little reason to change. He continued to teach Chaucer and Shakespeare long after many schools had abandoned them in favour of more "accessible" texts. His pupils were expected to observe the rules of grammar and to pay attention to technical conventions. In other words, he set high standards.

At interviews, Jim was not prepared to parrot a litany of trendy ideas in which he did not believe. He gradually lost respect for many of those occupying senior positions in Scottish education as they jumped on various bandwagons and expected others to follow.

When he felt that the exam board had lost its way, he ceased to be a marker for the Highers. He looked on as colleagues, who perhaps had less to offer, moved up the ladder of promotion.

It would have been understandable if he had become bitter and cynical. To his immense credit, he did not. His love of teaching continued to shine through in the accounts he gave of his work.

As an academic, I did not escape Jim's strictures, but I hope he would permit me to pose some questions on his behalf. Just what is it about the world of Scottish education that finds it hard to tolerate difference, that cannot see the value of variety in teaching?

Why is it that someone who has a well-developed set of professional principles, which happen to be unfashionable, is regarded as an irritant, a person to be sidelined?

What are the consequences for the system as a whole if it fails to make the best use of its most talented and committed teachers?

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University.

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