Magic Moments

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Sean McPartlin on those rare times when we take delivery of something new. It was, I believe, the United States ambassador, Walter Annenburg, who introduced the phrase into common English usage, during the BBC's Royal Family film in the late Seventies. I am therefore able to announce that our school is "currently undergoing certain elements of refurbishment".

When it is complete, we will be the proud possessors of a Whole School Resource Centre. As you might imagine, this is causing great excitement among the staff, even those who are not entirely clear what exactly a Whole School Resource Centre actually is. But then, this reflects the fact that the definition of "resources" is really pretty much a movable feast, depending on the individual's particular educational enthusiasms. It can range from the expensive and complex right through to the simple but effective; the cutting edge of technology to the walk by the canal.

A certain rarity value has not helped clarification either. Indeed, much as the young Billy Connolly grew up imagining that his local football team were properly entitled "Partick Thistle Nil", so teachers who have come to the profession in the past 15 years or so are likely to assume that the word "resources" is only correctly written when prefixed by "insufficient" or "lack of".

There are, however, several Big Resource Moments in every teacher's working life: sublime moments of interface with extended possibilities for effective teaching and learning, and it is in these Moments that the true import of "Resources" can be fully understood.

My first Big Moment came in the early days of my career. I can still remember the frisson of excitement that shot around the staff room when the rumours started: they had invented dust-free chalk! One Principal Teacher was so excited that he ordered a gross of boxes, failing to realise that, in requisition speak, a "box" referred to a carton containing 60 classroom-sized packets of chalk. This gave rise to the enduring myth of The Big Cupboard That Is Always Locked in his departmental storeroom.

Clearer still in my mind is The Day The First Computer Arrived. It was a mainframe monster, donated around 1981, by a local department store, under a modernisation programme fetchingly entitled Local Business into Schools Initiative. They had evidently seen an opportunity to get rid of outmoded equipment under the guise of good neighbourliness.

Obviously designed by the man who brought you storage heaters, and with a similar number of bricks inside it, it took the combined efforts of the elite equal of "piano-heaving jannies" to get it into place up in the attic suite that we had thoughtfully decided was to be its home.

And there it sat.

We have no way of knowing if it was in working order, because we didn't even have the technical skill to plug it in, let alone operate it. It remained there for years, its big round discs staring out at us balefully, like reproachful eyes, as we attempted to interview parents and pupils, hoping it lent us an aura of high tech sophistication, but painfully aware that, in reality, it looked more like a reject from an early Doctor Who set.

It was an timely reminder that we exist to make use of resources, and not the other way round. A colleague in a school north of Edinburgh recalls his former assistant head returning after retirement to view the brand new guidance suite with its computers and E-mail facilities. He was almost dumbstruck by the rapid advancement of technology in his previous bailiwick. It was all he could manage to mutter "It's Fife, Jim but not as we know it".

More recently, I was informed by a headteacher that I would be unable to meet with his depute because he was "permanently attached to a computer". I fled, seeking to banish the images conjured up of some horrendous Siamese twinning arrangement comprising senior management staff and advanced technology.

Therein lies the answer to our definition of resources: they are those additional aids to teaching that enhance the learning experience of our pupils, preferably without becoming the raison d'etre of the lesson. They need not be complex - an anecdote will often bring a lesson to life, but they should have a positive relevance.

In all areas of life, we know that "more expensive" or "more state of the art" does not necessarily equate with "most appropriate". The most successful lessons are those where teacher and pupils interact with each other, singly, in groups or as a class.

Additional resources will sometimes aid that interaction, but we would do well to remember that they can also hinder it. May we never reach the classroom situation where we hide behind the hardware. It only takes a cursory examination of "Great In-Service Disasters" to remind ourselves of how much damage can be done to the learning process by the rogue use of an overhead projector, for example.

However many elements of refurbishment we may indulge ourselves in, in the end there is no substitute for our premier resource: our teachers, our pupils and the energy created in our classrooms.

Now, anyone want a packet of dust-free chalk?

* Sean McPartlin is principal teacher of guidance, St Kentigern's Academy, Blackburn

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