One hell of a cast

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Phil Taylor has seen them all: the icons, the bullies, the inspirational, the eccentric and the downright dull. Not to mention the dreaded Miss Hillman. Here he remembers the saints and sinners of the staffroom

I got off on the wrong foot with teachers right from the start. At the age of three and a half I was so stupidly eager to join my brother at school that my mum somehow persuaded herself and the school that I was old enough.

Within weeks I was back home again. The teacher, Miss Hynd, had rumbled me.

She told my mum I lacked co-ordination and my real age was soon established.

I don't remember any details, but for a long time I had a clear memory of not being able to do things properly and how this annoyed Miss Hynd. I remembered, too, how this felt.

I suppose many children go right through the education system feeling like this. Fortunately, when I started again I had Miss Klein. She was a goddess. My parents soon got heartily sick of my constant references to her. What I was most impressed by was her omniscience. I would come home and present my parents with some half-understood concept. They would try to correct me but I would brook no contradiction: "Miss Klein said!" Oh, the potential power of teachers.

The teachers who taught me at secondary school were a pretty rum lot. I don't think many of them would last long now. Differentiation, assessment for learning, this strategy, that initiative: they wouldn't know what had hit them.

Jack Wimborne, as well as teaching science, taught us swimming. I quite liked swimming, but wasn't much good. One of Wimborne's pet hates was the fact that some of us did breaststroke. We moved our arms continuously. He called us "pudding-stirrers"; I can hear his raucous sarcastic tones to this day. Years later I was watching some swimming on TV and noted with some surprise that "pudding-stirrers" were winning gold medals.

I remember finding Chick Fraser's maths lessons as reasonably interesting and enjoyable, nothing earth-shattering. But then, at the end of the year, he wrote on my report something I've always remembered. You were lucky then if you got more than a couple of words - "quite satisfactory", "must improve" - alongside your percentage and your position in class. Chick wrote: "Has a creative approach to mathematics." My view of maths, and of myself, subtly, and permanently, changed.

I don't think schools really had departments in those days. By the time I got my first headship in 1988, things had moved on. We had departments and the departments had heads, but some of them failed to acknowledge that the post carried any responsibilities at all. I remember sitting in on the verbal feedback that an Ofsted inspector gave to an utterly idle head of department. After forensically but oh so politely demolishing the whole department, the inspector concluded: "The role of the head of department is completely undeveloped." You or I would probably have handed in our board duster on the spot. Simon simply shrugged and said "Fair enough!" Would performance management have galvanised him into feverish activity? Possibly not.

The very best teachers leave something of themselves in a school, a legacy that continues to enrich the institution long after their departure. Mario did that. He was an excellent young art teacher who came to lead a small department which was already considered one of the strongest in the school, although he only made the shortlist as a reserve. Some reserve! Not only did he take art to amazing new levels of achievement but, when he moved on, the long-serving and not very confident teacher he had inherited took on the department and maintained and then improved exam results still further.

They were eventually about twice as good as the results she and the school had been pleased with before Mario's arrival.

How did he do it? That's the mystery of educational leadership which we may one day unravel, once we've learned how prime numbers are distributed and how to make the perpetual motion machine.

Stan left a physical legacy. He and his gang of disaffected kids built a farm on a central quadrangle so that lessons were regularly interrupted by peacocks, geese and pigs, all keen to let us know how they were feeling. A sow gave birth to 14 piglets one Friday afternoon, though she blotted her copybook a few days later when a duck got too close to one of the offspring and was promptly despatched in a flurry of feathers. Since the national curriculum, how many schools still have farms, despite all the guff about encouraging us all to develop a distinctive ethos?

We got Kerry via email, our first internet teacher. We could hardly believe it. There among the illiterate and unqualified ("I have been in the teaching field for quiet sometime now teaching on both full and part-time") was a genuine, lively-sounding, intelligent drama teacher who was looking for a post in our area. A quick call to her current employer confirmed that we had struck gold. Then we had to clinch the deal, as lots of other schools were interested. Somehow we managed it.

Kerry lived up to her billing. She knew instinctively when to inject relaxing humour and when to challenge sternly. She was a character and, as ever, kids responded, whether to her mimicry, her wide range of slightly bizarre clothes, her boundless enthusiasm. Drama teachers, in my experience, are either excellent or abysmal. I remember one hopelessly unrealistic and inconsistent NQT with very little idea of class control and a fatal honesty ("You're giving me a nervous breakdown," I once heard him squawk at a rather noisy class). It's always a good idea to set targets, they say.

I've been fortunate enough to know Kerry and another brilliant drama teacher in my career. Both could find something good, or at least something, to work on in the most unlikeable and unfortunate kids. Laura, particularly, inspired a kind of worship which enabled her to work kids incredibly hard and to achieve standards lesser teachers would have deemed unreachable. I can picture her now in rehearsals, with groups of (mostly) girls running up to her, eager faces upturned, arms pointing down but slightly apart and backwards, for all the world like young penguins, full to the brim with enthusiasm and commitment. There was no doubt they were doing it all for love - of the teacher and the subject. Drama, properly taught, can be the most liberating of subjects. What a tragedy that successive governments have almost succeeded in squeezing it out of the curriculum.

As a young teacher I encountered Miss Hillman. She was a rock. To be more precise, she was a boulder. That she was unmoveable was the eventual conclusion of a succession of heads of departments and senior managers. (No one had heard of leadership back then but, in any case, leadership requires people to be willing to follow - and she wasn't.) Everyone simply had to find ways round her.

A pear-shaped middle-aged woman with a perm and Dame Edna glasses, she had been teaching in exactly the same way throughout her career; mechanically, predictably, deadeningly. In a large school, her timetable consisted mostly of lower sets. The not-quite-remedial, as they were then known, seemed not unhappy about the endless exercises and copied notes. They obediently droned through the same class readers every year, dated and predictable "adventure" stories or castrated classics. No question of oral work or drama, though I seem to recall some embarrassing choral speaking when every English class was required to contribute to a drama workshop. It was possible, come timetabling, to move them on to some other member of the large department.

Miss Hillman had a sister, a more grotesque version of herself, more pear-shaped, more unimaginative and with a set of false teeth which she bounced up and down in her mouth whenever the fancy took her. She would sit, legs wide apart, in the middle of the staffroom, cartoon-like, with a fag dangling from the corner of her mouth. On one famous occasion, a young colleague caught her on camera in just such a pose, with the added attraction of a glimpse of her voluminous drawers. She took the - fortunately small - sets made up of those who really found learning difficult, and it was said that pupils sometimes made unexpectedly huge progress in their efforts to escape the false teeth.

Many years after I had moved on, I heard a conference speaker, who had once been her head of department and had gone on to national renown, lament the fact that she (he didn't name her, but I knew) was probably still in post, as impermeable as ever.

Though I have come across Miss Hillman lookalikes in most of the schools I have worked in, I am sometimes almost persuaded that they are a dying breed. And then I read a QCA document and think that maybe they are on their way to becoming the Masters of the Universe.

Phil Taylor has been head of four schools, all of them in challenging circumstances. He is now secondary headteacher adviser for Tameside LEA

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