Why Old Bill will always be the face of good teaching

20th November 2009 at 00:00

I received a call last week from a nice lady at the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services. She wanted me to run a seminar on the leadership of teaching and learning at a national conference for new heads. I think the college does an important job well, and leaving the Devon cows for a trip up to the Bright Lights is a treat, so I checked my passport was valid and said yes.

Fool! Now I'm having to work out something witty and erudite to say. If I was a regular conference junkie it would be easy: I could dig out the PowerPoint file I used in the last six presentations, throw in a couple of topical jokes and job done.

But it's set me thinking about what good teaching looks like. On the basis that the submerged iceberg of our own experiences affects how we approach the same thing ourselves, I want to start by getting people to share memories of their own best teacher.

Mine was an English teacher we knew as Bill Lucas. His actual name was Derek and I have no idea why we called him Bill. Such is schoolboy humour. He would arrive with a pile of books under his arm. "Today we're going to read King Lear," he would enthuse. "I'll be the king. Off we go." When we had finished reading the play around the class, he would bring in something different - and love reading the lead character himself. It was such good fun. I have no recollection of what else we did in class, nor do I remember what was on the O-level exam paper. But he inspired me to become an English teacher.

In sixth form, he ran a general studies course called appreciating opera. My experience of music at that point extended to Sing Something Simple and Forces Favourites, which my mother insisted on having on the radio at Sunday meal times. Thanks to Bill, my favourite playlist is now headed by Puccini.

This all now seems so far from modern practice that it is like watching a silent movie of men climbing Mont Blanc in tweed jackets and breeches. It hovers between the heroic and the absurd. Teachers like Bill broadcast a particular civilising, liberal culture. It was inspirational for those able to tune into that wavelength, and useless for those who could not even hear that frequency, let alone respond.

Modern teachers are technocrats in comparison. They are Stalinist planners for the long, medium and any term; they analyse data as easily as they animate a PowerPoint presentation; they understand the difference between the hypothalamus and the limbic system, and chunk their lessons accordingly.

The effectiveness of this approach is that the teacher is aware of all the learners in the class, can target the needs of each and so give real meaning to the phrase "every child matters". The problem is when accountability-driven schools harness all this consummate professionalism towards improving exam statistics and not towards education in its broadest sense. Inspiration lies flattened under the weight of teaching that is not just technocratic but mechanistic.

Teachers like Bill wanted to induct future generations into the best of the culture they had received. They were educators in the root sense of the word, wanting to lead and bring out the latent qualities already in their students. There was a beauty in the approach, yet it was terrible in the waste of those who were bored by the irrelevancy of it all.

I found Old Bill's spirit the other day. I opened a cupboard in a redundant office and there it was: neatly stacked volumes of hardback Everyman's classics, presented to all schools by the Millennium Commission in 2000, and never read. What a wonderful idea to make sure that every child had access to these ingots of culture, and how naive to think that children would queue to borrow Von Clausewitz's On War, or The Analects of Confucius. Yet I cannot quite bring myself to throw them away.

Every person who works in a school is a leader of learning in some way, whether academic, social, moral, emotional or spiritual. But what and how we decide to teach is tied up with our values and so, in the end, is political. As we run up to the election, that is why decisions such as whether to keep or ditch Diplomas are a key battle. Is success for all or just a few?

The last time I saw Bill was some years after I had become a teacher. I had taken a party of kids to see La Traviata at the Bristol Hippodrome, and he was sitting at the back of the stalls. I went to talk to him and pointed to the students. They would not be here if it had not been for you, I said.

Schools might measure your success as a teacher by the exam results, but your impact as an educator? You just never know.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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