Lessons for a lifetime down memory lane

21st January 2005 at 00:00
To say that Ken Cunningham, fellow headteacher from Hillhead High, and I were smug would be an understatement. We had passed the test. Or so we thought.

Along with other headteachers from all sectors we were being trained as school fire wardens. Ken and I had been set the test of extinguishing a fire. In a wire cage the size of a large school bin, densely packed cardboard boxes were set alight by our instructors. We used the extinguishers as instructed, doused the flames and accepted the plaudits of our fellow heads.

The instructor praised our exemplary teamwork. Working together, problem-solving, these were core skills in action. Then came the question that wiped the smiles from our faces. Had we really fought the blaze as successfully as we thought?

No. The instructor prodded the sodden cardboard with a stick and smoke began to billow from the centre. We were informed that the blaze would shortly re-ignite. We had failed to eliminate all the factors that contribute to fire.

It was a clever use of failure to drive home a point, one that had been stressed from the start. Fire is awesomely dangerous and ignorance and complacency contribute to many human tragedies.

I witnessed fire in my early teaching career and can testify to its speed and ferocity. In Govan in the early 1970s, my classroom was in a row of huts, known as "the bungalows". Lunchtime was interrupted by a pupil who alerted us to fire in the bungalows. By the time staff reached the scene the wooden structures were spectacularly ablaze.

The pace of fire in a large, highly combustible building remains a vivid memory. I saw it spread from class to class, raging along the roof, and moving with such intensity that the roof of the first classroom to catch fire had already collapsed by the time firefighters arrived.

No one was injured. All else is recoverable. That was the critical message our excellent instructors passed on to us. The only issue in the event of a fire is safe evacuation. Leave the firefighting to the experts.

Prior to the training, I had drafted new fire procedures for our school and we have since put them to the test. Under false circumstances all went well, but I retain the certainty from our instructors that in the case of a real fire the first element to disappear is normality, quickly replaced by the onset of panic.

I also experienced mild panic during our first fire-fighting lecture.

Sitting in the classroom as a pupil, I was aware that the second instructor, who surveyed the lesson as his colleague took us through the programme, was taking an unusual interest in yours truly. Eye contact was too frequent for it to be coincidental. Surely I was portraying the model pupil - listening attentively, interacting successfully, nodding and smiling at the desired times. The content was essentially interesting. I wasn't distracted.

But I was being scrutinised. Had I nodded off, been fidgeting or been spotted as the potential class troublemaker? As the session ended and coffee break beckoned, I appreciated how some pupils must feel in similar classroom situations. But worse was to come.

Filing out to the canteen - by now my conduct was angelic - I was asked to stand aside and remain behind. The instructor got straight to the point.

Was my name O'Donnell, and did I teach in St Gerard's Secondary in Govan in the early 1970s? He already knew the answer to both questions. He was a pupil from a bygone age and for the next 10 minutes we shared some fond memories of those times.

Training of another kind was presented to me at the annual Headteachers'

Association of Scotland conference. Advice and reflection were offered from many quality inputs. But I was struck by one insight in particular. The speaker was highlighting the impact teachers have on young people and how it can last a lifetime. Even pupils whose schooling may have been hugely negative are usually able to identify one teacher who is remembered fondly for the best of reasons. The influence we have on our pupils, for good or ill, is profound, the speaker claimed. It will shape them for the rest of their lives.

What a pleasure it was to be taught by a former pupil whose expertise, shaped by a career of service and courage, is truly lifesaving. As he stood looking down at me, how grateful I was that his memories of those days appeared to be richer rather than poorer.

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's High, GlasgowIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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