giving thanks to the best teachers I ever had.
Over Christmas I have done some thinking. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the best approach to take, to get my quiet pupils talking. I need to coax them out of their shells and into the loveliness of warm and open discussion. Typically, in any group, there are half a dozen pupils who hold court. I use the ‘no hands up’ approach. I use ‘pose, pause, pounce, bounce’. I don’t allow anyone to be invisible. But still, I’m not convinced that those quiet ones in the room are really on board. So, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking about what worked for me when I was the quiet girl in the class.
I see myself in so many of the girls I teach. Those buttoned up ones who avoid eye contact and find the very thought of raising their hand simply horrifying. I was that girl — the one who behaves perfectly, listens attentively and tries her hardest, but who would never have the confidence to share her thoughts or ideas. For me it would have been like offering raw meat to a pride of lions. No thank you. I was the shy girl from the council estate. My grandfather had been a coal miner all his life until Margaret Thatcher ruined his livelihood. My mother was one of several children. She had married young and divorced young. She married again and divorced again. At primary school age I was one of four siblings in a single parent family. It was common to be poor in Barnsley in the early 80s but it was uncommon to have divorced parents. We had no phone, no car and no money. I received free school meals. I felt insignificant.
My family had no aspirations or expectations. Nobody in my family had ever made it to the end of high school. There was no pressure there.
But I thrived on the quiet praise I was given. And this is key. This is what I have been thinking about. I’ve been lucky enough to have some great teachers. But who were the ones who coaxed me out of my shell and into the loveliness of warm and open discussion? They were the ones who showed they believed in me. The ones who praised me genuinely for the few great pieces of work I produced and encouraged me gently towards producing more. The ones who looked me in the eye when they said well done. I remember two such teachers in particular.
The first was Brian Poucher, my third year teacher in junior school. My mum had never turned up to a parents’ evening and wouldn’t have turned up to that one, if Mr Poucher hadn’t written to her personally to ask that she attend, whenever she wanted, on her terms. (Clever move, Mr P — back them into a corner — don’t give then any excuse to say no). Mum came home beaming. His only criticism had been that I was surviving on a diet of Enid Blyton, and whilst this was making my own story writing excellent in form and structure, it was also making my work annoyingly predictable. I was also painfully thin. But the other thing he said to my mum was that I had a ‘seventh heaven smile’. He even showed her evidence of it by pointing out a photo of me on a roundabout at a theme park we had visited on a recent school trip. Today, this sounds creepy. But at the time it lifted my heart. I was the poorest kid in the class but Mr Poucher had singled me out and made me feel ten feet tall. When mum reported his words back to me, I decided there and then that I was going to university. And I was going to need to read more books.
The second was in fourth year juniors. Mr Ivan Shaw was my teacher and he was an inspiration. He built a bird hide in the corner of the room. He covered the window in one way glass, sectioned off the area with a black curtain and built a shelf for the birds to perch on the other side of the window. Inside the hide there was Big Book of Birds and two milk crates for standing on. Every day after lunch, the cook would dollop a spoonful of leftovers on the shelf outside and we would spend 10 minutes in the bird hide on a rota. We’d spend time every day, in our pairs, observing, drawing, describing and measuring the huge variety of winged visitors to our classroom. One day I drew a sparrow. Mr Shaw said it was excellent. He said it was typical that I should choose the most unassuming of birds. He said it to the whole class then he did the pose, pause, pounce, bounce thing to elicit a discussion on the matter. (It was 1983 — it wasn’t called that then, but still — wow!) My classmates said some lovely things that day. Of course the usual people wanted to give their interpretation of the metaphor, which embarrassed me a little but the glow has stayed with me ever since. They said that I was kind and sweet and shy and apparently ordinary but with distinctive qualities and a gentle soul. Who woudn’t want to hear that? But more than that…he coaxed my quiet little friends out of their shells too because they were sparrows also and they wanted to talk about it.
When the bird topic was over he chose to teach us about aviation. One sunny morning in June he herded us all out onto the front lawn and asked us to sit and listen to a story about the Wright brothers and their aeroplane. Ten minutes later he flew his own light aircraft down onto the grass next to us. He had built it himself. He then allowed us all to have a turn sitting inside at the controls. In all the excitement he picked me up and swung me round an said, ‘Emma. Ten years from now you will be at university. I will be flying aeroplanes.’ He was right on both counts.
So, back to my point about how to be awesome in the classroom. It’s simple. Make every child you teach believe in themselves. Make that your most important mission. Make praise genuine. Make it specific. Make it personal. Make it to every child you teach. Make a difference.