Why the real-life Kes teacher was actually heaven sent
You won't have known my PE teacher, Brian "Billy" Buck. You might be aware of one version of him, though. You see Barry Hines, author of A Kestrel for a Knave, filmed by director Ken Loach as Kes, was a couple of years behind me at school, and it is said that he modelled the PE teacher Mr Sugden (wonderfully played by Brian Glover in the film) on the Mr Buck who taught us both.
In real life, though, Mr Buck had many more dimensions to his teaching than the Glover character did. In fact, Barry Hines paid generous tribute to him some years ago in The TES.
Even Barry, though, didn't know the full extent of Mr Buck's teaching skills. Hines was a football star and Billy Buck did great things for him. But what Hines maybe still doesn't realise is that Mr Buck was also good with people like me - useless in the gym and at games.
At the same time as nurturing Hines's soccer skills, he was bringing me on, too - coaching, coaxing, pushing - until I could do galumphing, "go for it" versions of a headspring off the end of the vaulting box. And because I hated football, he sent me off running, and I eventually made the school cross-country team. Imagine the effects of all that on my self-esteem. You might call it the personalisation of learning, and surely it is the measure of a good teacher.
Good PE teaching is like that, predicated on helping boys and girls to have a try, then giving them just that bit of coaching that will take them a step further. So often, though, we don't learn the obvious lessons from it. I've worked with many student primary teachers. I've seen the ones who have disastrous lessons in the classroom, droning on at the front, while the children amuse themselves in other ways. I've even heard them say - I kid you not - "I've spent hours on this, and I want you to LISTEN".
And then off they go with their classes to have fun, active, PE sessions in the hall or the playground, always failing to make the obvious connection.
I've written time and again something like this in their notes: "Your PE lesson was excellent. The children were active and engaged from the word go. I saw the smiles when they came away. I'd like you to think about that and see if you can't transfer that approach to other subjects in the classroom."
It's the same with so many areas of learning. I go to a piano teacher. She doesn't play much in our lessons. She doesn't say a lot. Mostly, I play, while we both listen.
Then I have a friend who is a gifted swimming teacher, sought after by keen parents and adult learners. He doesn't get in the water. He doesn't do much shouting from the side. But his students work hard for him.
It's that Chinese proverb, isn't it?
I hear ... I forget.
I see ... and I remember.
I do ... and I understand.
You know it well. For years, it has been bandied around in teacher education and continuing professional development. And why not? It seems so, well, wise somehow, and well imbued with the ring of truth. Part of it is to do with it being both ancient and Chinese, a combination that can be relied on to add authority to anything at all, from pills to the orientation of your bedroom furniture.
That imprimatur of wisdom was undoubtedly in the minds of the group of curriculum developers who, I was once told by someone in a position to know, invented the saying in the pub one night in the mid-1960s.
"What this project needs," said one of the more creative thinkers in the group, "- to give it legs - is an ancient Chinese proverb that states the bleedin' obvious."
There was a great unison shout of: "Yes! A Chinese proverb!" And within minutes, there it was, scribbled on a beermat, give or take a few crossings out and rewrites, well on its way to becoming the iconic slogan of experiential learning.
OK, maybe in this age of learning styles, the saying is a bit passe, an oversimplification. Clearly, though, in its day, that faux-Chinese proverb was a necessary affirmation of the need to look beyond the teacher and pay attention to what the children are learning. We hear that linguistic shift a lot now, and it's necessary and fine, just so long as there is no danger of jumping to the conclusion that the teacher has, in the process, become less important. That part bothers me a bit.
I want the teacher to be a person of stature, essential to the development of an educated person. We need our Mr Chips, our Arnold of Rugby, our David Powlett-Jones in To Serve Them All My Days. Their equivalents - men and women of presence and lasting influence - certainly existed for me, and today's children deserve to have that same feeling for their teachers. They need the fond memories, the deep respect, a lifelong growing consciousness of something taken for granted at the time.
Let's remember, then, that when we hasten to replace "teaching" with "learning" in our documents and job titles, that although it's the children who do the learning, they do it so much better when there are good teachers around. And by "good", I mean the ones who'll be remembered not for the speeches they made and the jokes they told, but for what, like Billy Buck, they helped their students to do.
A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) is still available in numerous editions including Penguin Modern Classics. Barry Hines's latest book, This Artistic Life, (2009), is a collection of previously unpublished writings. It is published by Pomona.