Patrick Eavis

14th April 1995 at 01:00
Tells Elaine Williams how he teaches.

Teacher: Patrick Eavis

Age: 57

School: Queen Elizabeth High School, Hexham

Post: Headteacher and teacher of history

Apart from being head of a highly successful school of more than 1,200 pupils, Patrick Eavis dedicates one quarter of his timetable to teaching. He is well-known in the North-east as a charismatic teacher of history, a passionate historian who believes that his love for the subject provides the key to his teaching style.

"A teacher should know his or her subject intimately," he says. "When I am teaching I want to get children on the inside of my enthusiasm, to share the value I see in my subject. What they need is good explanations. They need people who can simplify and open the subject out, so they can get on the inside and eventually unravel the complexities for themselves."

He knows he is capable of an entertaining and imaginative performance to captivate children. "I can talk to a class and they will listen. It's like story-telling. The more you know about the detail of Cromwell's private life the more you can make him into a real person."

But good teaching is not only about the teacher's personal performance. He believes the most important thing is "to concentrate on what the children are going to do in the class". So many teachers, he says, do the opposite, thinking only about what they are going to do, not how the children might respond.

One aim should be to engage pupils in challenging discussion. His sixth-formers are expected to have done the necessary reading before the lesson "so they can discuss problems that arise from the work". These lessons, he says, are not about "conveying information". If students have not done the reading, "I tell them to push off". That, he says, only has to happen once. Students do not like being exposed in that way.

Less academic children should be guided to make their own history book that they can use as a resource for their lessons. These children need to be well-organised so they feel valued and, above all, feel they are learning something. Constant encouragement is also necessary.

"Children have to know that they are not going to be put down if they volunteer things that may be wrong. And you have to give a great deal of attention to what they actually do. So much of what children do sinks without trace.

"Some teachers get them to write endlessly in their books, punctuated only by the occasional test. For children of modest ability that is a demoralising business. What happens to all this stuff? I like to get them producing things that they can actually use and be proud of.

"If we are learning about Lenin I would get them loads of pictures of different aspects of life in 19th century Russia, of families, of important people of the time. I would give them photomontage sheets that they could cut out and use in the composition of their book. I don't have any intellectual hang-ups about children cutting out. They love to think they are doing something really nicely.

"If a child fails to hand in work, I might stop him or her in the lunch queue and ask what happened to their book. Children of modest ability are often astounded that you even care so much."

One recent change to his teaching style is to use little "stickies" with encouraging written criticisms and tips, which he places at strategic points in exercise books when marking work. One parent has told him that her son, who is not an academic child and unused to attention, has been so flattered by this that he has framed all the stickers he has received.

"That," says Patrick Eavis, "was very touching. I spend a lot of time looking at the way children do things, to see how they can be extended or improved. I work very hard. Good teaching requires a lot of hard work."

He gained a degree in law from the London School of Economics before joining the Middle Temple to become a barrister. But he gave it up in preference for post-graduate teacher training at London University's Institute of Education.

He admits there are days in teaching when things go badly wrong, when a child is causing difficulties and has to be taken out of class. On those times he blames himself. Most of the time he is "able to make clear who is in charge, without being confrontational" and believes he achieves this by engaging children's interest.

He well remembers one ex-pupil who contributed to a development leap in his teaching approach. Having moved from a grammar school to be head of humanities in a comprehensive on a south Bristol estate, it was his turn to teach history to a bottom stream of girls. "I was told that they were not up to history, that they were taught civics - about Parliament, how people vote, that sort of thing.

"So in I went. I am an interesting speaker, and I began an impassioned talk about Parliament that would have had my grammar school boys spellbound. After 10 minutes, this girl, Linda Fleming, put her feet up on her desk and said: 'Boring, sir, bloody boring'. At first I was astounded that anybody could say such a thing, and then I began to laugh.

"The next time we had a class together I started all over again. I put the tables together in a big square, I brought in some coffee and I got them to talk about themselves. I started from where they were. We got round to Parliament in the end. In fact I took them to Parliament. Most of those girls had never even been out of Bristol."

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