Reading Kate Clanchy’s excellent and moving book about teaching, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, got me thinking again about my own early years as a teacher.
In the late 1950s, in London at least, the shortage of teachers was such that it was possible to apply for a teaching post with fairly meagre academic qualifications – in my case, one A level and a handful of O levels (as they used to be called) and some experience of the world of work. Having evaded National Service via a dodgy medical examination and kept myself gainfully employed for a couple of undemanding years, I’d come to the conclusion that I should be doing something more worthwhile than packing parcels or writing up the efficiencies of various information recording systems. I applied for a place on a Teacher Training course at Goldsmiths, only to realise, after I’d been accepted, that in order to qualify for a full grant, I needed not only to have paid two years of National Insurance contributions but to be over 21, which was still almost a year away … so what better use of the time than to experience what it would be like as a classroom teacher at first hand?
The school I was assigned to was a small mixed secondary modern in Harlesden, a mainly working class area of North West London; two single storey prefabricated buildings – Upper School and Lower – with a playground in between. It was, as I discovered, a highly regulated set-up. Not only did the staff from the two parts of the school rarely mix, socially or otherwise, each half had clearly segregated staff rooms, one for male teachers, one female. And the kettle (of course!) was in the male staff room, which meant that when any woman teacher wanted to make a cup of tea, she had to knock on the door and ask permission to enter. Amazing, but true.
It was a three-form entry school, in which the first two streams were taught in mixed groups, whereas those in the bottom stream, for reasons that were never adequately explained, were segregated into girls and boys. In my charge were to be the first year, third stream boys, never less than thirty in number and on some days, I swear, closer to forty. Or maybe that was just how it seemed.
In addition to an extended form time which began each day, I was responsible for teaching my class English – for which extra lessons were timetabled – Geography and, heaven help me – and, more so, them – Maths. No wonder they never progressed beyond the most simple of simple equations. I was also to teach Geography to several other classes in the Lower School, and, in the absence of any other volunteers among the staff – the PE teacher certainly wasn’t going to give up his evenings and Saturday mornings – I took over ‘managing’ the Under 14 soccer team. The first time out we shipped ten goals, scoring none in return, and I had the devil’s own job persuading the few genuinely talented players we had to turn out again. Soon after that I found myself coaching the small but eager athletics team ahead of the local inter-school sports competition, and, on mornings when it always seemed to be cold and raining, accompanying the cross-country team to muddy destinations within the borough and beyond. For all this, I received a sum slightly above 50% of a qualified teacher’s starting salary. Just as well I was still living at home.
But switch back for a moment to the morning of my first day, when, having arrived early, anxious and more than a little bewildered, I was summoned to the headmaster’s office. The head was in his late fifties, possibly older, with neatly brushed silver-grey hair, a dark pinstripe suit, carefully knotted tie and highly polished shoes. He welcomed me with a firm handshake and a few well-honed words about the ethos of the school. Hard work, discipline and respect. In relation to which, he directed my attention to a large, leather-bound book on a table near the door. The Punishment Book. Only two members of staff were allowed to administer corporal punishment, he informed me solemnly, the Deputy Head and himself. And every instance had to be recorded in that book, which was inspected by the local authority. Was that understood? Yes, I said. Good. And as I was leaving the room, he handed me a cane.
Caning. It was how the school functioned, survived. Any pupil late for morning school, whoever had drawn playground duty administered a single stroke of the cane; more than five minutes late, two strokes, one on each hand. So it was with talking out of turn in class, flicking ink pellets, persistently turning round – out here now and hold out your hand. Some of the staff, a few, all men, seemed to relish the opportunity; the teacher in the classroom next to mine, who permanently wore a red tie and sold copies of the ‘Daily Worker’ in the High Street on Saturdays, had been known to resort to the wooden blackboard compass as an alternative to the cane.
Not knowing any better, I fell into line. The cane, after all, was all too familiar from my recent years in a boys’ grammar school, where, being a bit of cheeky Herbert with a liking for the sound of his own voice, a week in which I didn’t receive a caning was rare. You learned to keep the knuckle of your thumb tucked as far off target as possible and winked at your mates on your way back to your desk. And, in similar fashion, the thirty or so eleven and twelve year olds I met every morning and in whose company I spent a good proportion of the day, rarely seemed to mind. It was just school.
But perhaps because we spent so much time together, something strange happened – strange, in that it wasn’t something I’d really anticipated – I got to like them. Even – or especially – I’ll call him Derek – who lived with his father in a broken-down travellers’ caravan and came to school regularly smelling of urine; Derek, who, one day when I had pushed him too far, threw a chair in my direction then hurled himself against the wall alongside the blackboard and sobbed for a full half hour. At heart, they were nice kids, labouring, a good many of them, under a more than average set of disadvantages, and when it came down to it, they wanted to do well; they wanted to please.
Somewhere around the end of the first term, it dawned on me that, with them at least, I no longer needed to resort to the cane; I pushed it into the back of the drawer and there it stayed.