(13) Be A Teacher (Part One)
Updated: Apr 10
Life Lesson number 6. Be a teacher. 'Please? Please be a teacher. Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. You don’t have to do it forever, but if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher. Just for your twenties. Be a primary school teacher. Especially if you’re a bloke – we need male primary school teachers. Even if you’re not a Teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn, and spray it.'
Mr Minchin, I am a teacher.
There are many reasons why I became a teacher. Here is the first. When I was in primary school, there was a daily routine of mental maths first thing in the morning. On your feet at the end and sit down if you got twenty. Sit down nineteens, eighteens. Any seventeen out of twenties? Fifteens sit down. Fourteens. (Hmm) Thirteens sit down. (A raised wry eyebrow). Twelves? Elevens? It was excruciating. All the way down to 4 out of 20, every single fucking day. And R was always there at the end. Sometimes she would get 6 and Mrs C would give a sarcastic well done. Sometimes a 3 and Mrs C would further shame her? I know that many I went to school with thought she was great - she was indeed a great teacher, but that persecution and humiliation for R, day in and day out, is not great, not admirable.
I did not get into trouble in primary school very often. The first time, in primary one, in Helensburgh, I was actually pulled up in front of the school assembly. I had been late because I had worked out that you got into trouble if you didn't have your reading book and so after being dropped off, I refused to go through the school gates, cried a bit, started walking away from school and accepted a lift from a stranger to go home to get my book. I was spoken to about it in front of 300 other children. I obviously didn't learn well enough because I did exactly the same thing two years later, in Rosyth. I obviously thought that reading book trouble was less scary than stranger danger. The next BIG time was also in Rosyth, for putting my name down for a gerbil baby without parental consent. I put my name into the hat, yes my parents know.....and won a baby and THEN in the cage raffle I won a home for her too. I remember Robert Smith walking me a mile and a half home with it. Of course I was in trouble, both at home and, consequently, at school, but I got to keep Ginnie. There must have been more in between, but the next BIG one was in primary seven.
I felt it, every time we reached 8 out of 20, that it was horrendous for R. She shuffled, she looked at the floor. She cried once. And so I thought, when I was sitting next to her that I might rescue her. I pushed my answers towards her and made sure she saw them. All of them. R got nineteen out of twenty. I was clever, but not clever enough...... As well as being hugely told off for it, I had to write a letter of apology including a paragraph about why it is never right to cheat. I wasn't brave enough to write what I actually wanted to write.....
In primary seven I thought I will become a teacher and I will not do that .... and I did not feel sad to hear that she had died not long after we had left primary school. I forgot all about being a teacher in secondary school. I kissed some boys and thought about being a musician for a while. My first four songs, on guitar, at 15/ 16 were not well received, although my lovely friend Elaine remembers part of the one whose first line is Standing upside-down at a party. It is about drink and sex and my mum didn't like it. I did study a year of music at Glasgow university. I liked the piano playing but not so much the history. I liked saying I was doing music but not actually doing music. I would like to say I was once in a band, but you would need to question the full facts of that. It was after I had wandered somewhat out of university mid-degree, a bit lost at that time, really, that I met Ian, who had also dropped out of his degree. Having fallen madly in love with him and moved in together two months later, we were having a grown-up conversation about what we wanted to do, what we should do in life. Ian genuinely hoped for something outside of society because he didn't feel society was heading in a good way, its goals were flawed. Make money, buy things, make more money, buy bigger things. He joked about becoming a superhero and living in a tree. I say joked, but he remembers that conversation and those thoughts differently. In fact they were philosophically good thoughts. The superhero wasn't a pants over trousers one, it was rather more about building on his intuition for what might go wrong for people, spotting accidents almost before they happen - a side of the brain that isn't normally well exercised. Alongside that he would have to train physically as well to be at his top possible ability/agility for possible saving. As for the tree, well, more off the grid, off the books and in some woods, not necessarily up a tree. But heroes and tree people must have means. They're living on nuts and berries, said Talking Heads, but not to us. I made a list of all things I wanted in my ideal job and what I did not want. I didn't want every day to be the same as the day before; I didn't want to be stuck in an office; I didn't want a power dress or a uniform. I did want to do something with books, maybe work in a library; I wanted to be creative; I wanted to write. I liked the logic of problem solving; I also wanted a bit of drama. I wanted to do some good; and I wanted to work with children. Ian suggested that a primary teacher could involve all of this. I thought about Mrs C, thought about my brother and I decided this was a good idea. Bizarrely (and thankfully) holidays was not the key thing ... and I finished my degree. The best thing about my Post Graduate year was having The Old Blind Dogs play in the barn next to the farmhouse we were staying at (the oldest OBD even winked at me). The worst thing was a Bartolyn's cyst emergency operation at midnight and then a burst stitch and a blood trail all the way from a primary seven classroom to the toilets. A thick, heavy blood trail. Actually, the cyst, the horrendous hours and the Bitch Teacher on my final placement were all equally worst. There were three great teachers and one bitch. A bruiser, who asked me, on my first visit to her primary 1/2 classroom how I would teach reading. I said I would tend to follow what the school had decided. I said I would teach phonics, sight reading, and also begin with wordless books. She scoffed at the mention of a wordless book and said they were nonsense (There has been much evidence that she was wrong....) and then she said I had just backed up her belief that you cannot become a teacher in one year. And that was probably the most positive bit of that placement.
But most teachers are not like that. And I have only met two teachers like Mrs C in 20 years. You are right, Mr Minchin, to say we need more males in primary schools. There are nowhere near enough. You generally have to teach boys in a different way to girls, and you do it without quite realising it sometimes. Girls are more likely to work to please you. You have to get boys on board. Girls are more likely to be able sit and concentrate. Boys are more likely to respond better to challenge. Boys surely have the best insight into boys' heads, and also they provide a balance for the inside of girls' heads.
I complain about it sometimes and over the years there have been many sleepless nights, but it was the right choice. I currently work in a very large school in West Lothian, teaching three subjects I feel passionate about - art, music and French. I have never knowingly shamed a child. Every now and then in the 20 years, I recognise my brother. Once in a while, I think it is the best possible job in the world.