Wild West wisdom can still teach y'all a thing or two

19th April 2013 at 01:00
Stories about shysters and honest folks' struggles, plus the odd cautionary tale, could serve us well in school

At the beginning of my teaching career, one particular depute headteacher was a source of useful advice. "Always sit with your back to the wall," he said on my first day in the staffroom. "They got Jesse James, remember, from behind."

It was curious, but ultimately useful, advice that I continue to adhere to in the classroom and staffroom.

For 10 years my mentor provided me with useful wisdom from the Wild West. There were many cautionary tales and lessons on how teachers can confront wrongdoing, maintain order and do good.

A fine example is the conduct of James McKay in The Big Country, who uses clever thinking, rather than threats or a John Wayne swagger, to outmanoeuvre an intimidating mob of unruly cowboys.

A Fistful of Dollars provides an interesting example of how two warring factions can be played off against each other to create something better.

The true story of John Wesley Hardin provides evidence of how people can use learning to change and improve their ways. Hardin was the gunfighter who studied, while in prison, to become a lawyer.

There are useful lessons for practitioners in True Grit, The Wild Bunch and even, quite possibly, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Screenings of these classic films would not be out of place in a school's in-service schedule and offer more sound sense than some activities that are presently organised for teachers.

Young teachers dispatched from college to schools out in the "Badlands" could do worse than learn from the great law enforcers of the American frontier.

A teacher of English, mentored by the same hombre who kept me right, makes good use of Wild West literature in his classroom. Reluctant readers (OK, boys), he says, are quite keen to read stories involving lively characters such as Deadwood Dick and Poker Alice in compelling settings such as Stinking Springs.

These are worthwhile stories involving courage, self-sufficiency, struggles against the odds, moral compasses, codes of honour and knowing your limits. Rowdies, swindlers, shysters, cheats, skalawags and rogues, students learn, always get their comeuppance.

Many students also benefited more directly from my mentor's use of Wild West wisdom. "The more ignorant you are, the quicker you fight" and "never miss a good chance to shut up" are two pieces of advice I remember being offered to miscreants.

There was also solid advice for faculty heads and headteachers: "Always give your opponent a chance," he would counsel and, for these times of major change: "If you're riding ahead of the herd, take a look back now and then to make sure it's still there with you."

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