Perhaps we are all a little bit 'bonkers'

21st July 2006 at 01:00
I always enjoy reading the Jotter column in The TES Scotland, particularly if I do not feature in it myself. It is so much more agreeable to find out about other people's indiscretions than to be reminded of one's own.

A recent item caught my eye. Children south of the border were consulted about the qualities they valued in teachers when new appointments were being made. Some of their comments referred to the physical appearance of staff: they wanted them to be stylish and smart.

However, one pupil, whose preference did not meet with official approval, ventured the opinion: "I'd like a new headteacher to be bonkers."

From the perspective of children, a headteacher who behaved irrationally and unpredictably would certainly be much more fun than one who possessed all the usual worthy, but dull, characteristics recommended in the literature on leadership.

It occurs to me at this point that some readers may claim they know of heads already in post who meet the "bonkers" criteria. However, I do not think it would be wise of me to go down that particular road - for fear of litigation.

Instead, let me retreat to the safer territory of fiction. I have been reading the latest novel by Christopher Brookmyre, A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil. One of the characters is a primary headteacher, Mr Monahan, not so affectionately known as Momo, who inspires fear in the younger children and contempt in the older. He is variously described as "a strange old man", "mental" and "an eejit".

There are some marvellously comic scenes in which Momo's towering rages are punctured by the capacity of the children to deflate adult pomposity through perfectly timed rudeness. Momo has a strange way of walking and one of the pupils, who has moved on to secondary school, reflects that the only thing he taught them was "Advanced Pensioner Carriageway Perambulation".

Few of the teachers in the book are presented in an attractive light and one interpretation is that there is something about schools and teaching that pushes us all in the direction of mild, moderate or extreme derangement. We become obsessed with order and routine, to the point where we can get minor episodes entirely out of proportion, making a Hollywood production out of things that do not merit much attention.

Then there is the power dimension. We are used to exercising authority and the dividing line between legitimate control, oppressive authoritarianism and sheer megalomania can be fine.

Again, teachers generally talk a great deal and those of us in the profession run the risking of coming to like the sound of our own voices rather too much. Linked to this is the perception that some teachers are inclined to develop a bossy "know-all" personality which makes us poor listeners.

One of the youngsters in Brookmyre's book says of teachers: "When you're trying to tell them something, they don't listen, they don't pay attention; either that or they only hear what suits them. And that's why they don't have a clue what really goes on at school."

The portrayal of pupil subcultures, which the teachers do not understand and cannot penetrate, is one of the most interesting features of the novel, enhanced by Brookmyre's wonderful ear for west of Scotland street language.

A former colleague of mine actually taught Christopher Brookmyre when he was at primary school. She tells me he was a quiet and diligent lad. I hold her personally responsible for turning him into a creative subversive of the kind we need more of in Scotland. Keep up the good work, Anne.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University.

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