That'll teach him

My school career was patchy to say the least. My father was a Warrant Officer in the Royal Air Force, and I spent most of my formative years switching schools on a regular basis, which played havoc with my education. I went to 10 schools in total, starting in Gibraltar at St George's Primary School and finishing in Holland at the AFCENT International School. My school years were difficult for one important reason. There was no National Curriculum, which meant that every school taught essentially what they considered to be most important. Because I switched schools every year or so, I learnt some content 2 or 3 times, and I missed some content completely. Turns out that I learnt more about process than product during those turbulent years.

On reflection, I can now see exactly how teachers can either make or break a child's education. The old maxim 'Doctors save lives, teachers make lives' is true. I recall one teacher in particular who took me on and inspired me to learn new things. Mr Handel was one of the two primary teachers at Cherhill Primary School in Wiltshire, who stand out in my memory. He spent time with me helping me in the areas I was struggling with, and he really went the extra mile, to make sure I achieved to my full potential. The other teacher in the same school was a polar opposite. I once asked her a question about English grammar. She looked at me with contempt, told me I had asked a 'stupid question' and then made a big joke out of it. The whole class laughed at me, and I went bright red with embarrassment. I was only 8 years old, but I can still recall how it felt. It taught me a lesson. I never asked another question in class throughout the whole of my school life. I will refrain from naming that teacher.

Many teachers are excellent at what they do, and really care about the children in their care. I try to do the same, aspiring to be like Mr Handel, taking time to give my students individual attention if they are struggling in some difficult area. I try to instill some of these values in my student teachers too. But there are a very few teachers who can stifle creativity and discourage individualism - exactly the traits we need to draw out from our learners so that they can develop the skills to transfer into lifelong learning. Teachers can make all the difference, but sometimes it is time and pressure that militate against this. I look at my own children now as they negotiate their way through school and into work, and I sometimes cringe at some of the things they come home and tell me about their school experiences. It's as tough for them as it was for me. But school isn't the be all and end all and nothing is graven in stone.

My travelling took it's toll on my formative years, and I left school with few qualifications. I made a lot of friends, and had to keep making new ones, so I became very adept at interpersonal skills, but weak on content. All of my academic achievements have been made off my own bat, and all of them after the age of 30. The week I left school for the last time, my form tutor met with my parents. 'Steve is a great lad, and is very sociable' he told them, 'but I'm afraid he will never be an academic'.

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mushypeas said…
Reminded me of my education experience, though not as harsh I ended up playing truant, only attending on Fridays and unsurprisingly scraped through with GCSEs and A-Levels.

For years I assumed I was stupid and thick, as I'd been told in school. It was only through meeting adults later in life who, on reflection, played the role of 'teacher' for me and gave responsibility, treated me as an equal and motivated me to succeed that I discovered the desire to learn.
robletcher said…
I think many - including myself - had similar experiences wherein a teacher attacked our self-esteem with a well-placed jibe or insult. I recall a math/science teacher in 4th grade calling me stupid. I became a Science teacher in spite of that comment. One of the many challenges in education is that teachers really are (in many settings) left to their own devices. Kings/Queens of their domains as soon as the hallway door closes. I believe it's important that student be given an opportunity to weigh in on the review of teacher performance. At K12 ( we allow students the ability to comment, anonymously, about teacher performance. Amazingly, students (for the most part) do not use this forum to assassinate teachers' characters, but provide valuable insight into the ability of teachers to communicate with and relate to their students.
Steve Wheeler said…
It's amazing the impact teachers can have on children's perceptions. I think the idea you mention Rob, is a really neat one. Perhaps more schools could adopt it? What would be the barriers to this?
Simon said…
Very similar experience, although never moved schools. As a child was always v interested in history and supported by primary teachers. At secondary, teacher ridiculed my first ever history homework in front of class, I never engaged with history again and dropped it at earliest opportunity. Still catching up now.

I like the idea of the 'teacher review' comment forum, but in my case (and things may well now have changed) any teacher's perspective or opinion trumped any student's comment or feedback, even en masse. So even when they resorted to humiliation and bullying it was your word against theirs and therefore they were always in the right (a frightening proportion of teachers in the 80s were nasty bullies presumably because people with those character flaws went into teaching because couldn't get away with that kind of behaviour in any profession working with people who could fight back).

I think the use of social media potentially has the power to level the playing field somewhat - and it is doing so. The 'comment forum' already described, informal discussions of teacher performance between friends on Facebook, PTA members trawling the web for comments about the school - all information that has the power to inform and improve. Hopefully if there are any schools still in those dark ages they won't be there for long.
Steve Wheeler said…
Your comment about social media having the potential to level the playing field is an interesting one, Simon. I wonder how many other people within the teaching profession have seen both sides of this story? Any comments?
Anonymous said…
I shared similar experience as you did when I was young, and realised how fragile I could be in my early ages of learning. There were great teachers in my formation year, especially a few English language teachers who inspired me. So, you are not alone with those "tough" learning experience when young, though I studied one school throughout my primary and secondary education, in which I still greatly valued.
Tom said…
I didn't know you move schools 10 times growing up, Steve. So did I! My father was a foreign service officer for the US government, so between the age of 2 and 14 I lived in Germany, Brazil, the Azores, Portugal, Belgium, and the US. For me the language changed almost as often as the schools (although most were English-speaking schools).

Your comment about being adept at interpersonal skills but weak on content is true for my situation as well, but I had never thought of it that way. I was fortunate to have very good teachers most of the time, although there were definitely learning gaps. One year I was told, "Next year we will learn all about grammar and diagramming sentences." Then I moved to a different country and I remember the teacher telling the class, "I hope you all remember what you learned last year, when your teacher taught you about grammar and diagramming sentences..." So much for curriculum alignment! Anyway, thanks for sharing!
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks big fella - it's noce to know I'm not the only one who got pushed around from school to school. Nice to hear from you Tom, and I hope we meet up again somewhere soon ;-)

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