Throwing away the yardstick

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
A friend who was once a successful primary head and is now a senior inspector said to me: "I have to guard against the temptation of using my own previous school as a yardstick - of assuming, even subconsciously, that I have to make every school I go into be like mine."

You can see how that would be a problem. Indeed, you may be even now frustrated by an inspector or adviser who hasn't thought this through in the way that my friend has. (Someone recently told me of an inspector who, after a classroom visit, said to the head, "She's not my kind of teacher."

Scary or what?) I thought of this recently when I watched an archive interview with pianist Arthur Rubinstein, the towering genius who died in 1982 at the age of 95.

Rubinstein crowned his performing career by becoming dedicated to nurturing young musicians, both financially and as a teacher. He was asked about his teaching, and replied (I paraphrase, but this is the gist) "There is too much talk of 'method'. My aim is to enable the musician to find out who he is."

I thought, as I watched, of the dozens of teachers I've mentored as a senior teacher and as a head. I recalled their huge individual differences - this one urbane and confident, that one fussy and diffident, another effortlessly inspirational in a way I could never be. What a privilege it is to have led them. How foolish it would have been to line them up against some measuring stick - to make any of them "my kind of teacher". And how insulting to pupils who are fully capable of responding to the different styles offered to them. What children demand and deserve is not by-the-book uniformity, but respect, sincerity, imagination, humour and genuine affection, so that they can begin, in Rubenstein's terms, to find out who they are.

I read, in an anonymous website note on Rubinstein,that he "taught young players that there is more to music than merely playing the notes correctly, but that they can make music with a big mind and a big conception that not only reproduces the notes but also transcends them."

Were I to take you to see the dozen or so heads in the town where I live, you would see the greatest possible variety of approach and personality.

But I bet they all know that there's more to music than merely playing the notes correctly.

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