Anarchy 43/Teacher's dilemma

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Teacher’s dilemma


My head­master looked up from the book he was reading, and al­though I had been teach­ing on his staff for ten years I still re­tained that sense of guilt when­ever I dis­turbed him. A quiet, gentle­manly type the head is—modest, un­de­mand­ing, kindly—a face wrinkled with fifty odd years of ex­peri­ence. Rather like an ami­able blood­hound—the sort you want to pat on the head. Some of the boys say he’s too much of a gentle­man to be head­master of a Second­ary Modern School. His voice is one of under­tones, a whisper almost. He is rarely roused. His equable nature seems in­cap­able of deep emotion.

  When a boy was caught looking at porno­graphic photos we all thought it would break the trend but it didn’t.

  “Where did you get them?” the head asked in a dull mono­tone. He could even have been think­ing of the weed­ing still to be done in his back garden. The boy said he found them on the floor of a public lav­at­ory.

  “Which one?”

  “. . . The one by the Green, sir.”

  The head turned in that direc­tion before he re­plied.

  “I doubt the story. Go away and think it over. Then come and tell me the truth.”

  The incid­ent was never re­ferred to again. I ad­mired his at­ti­tude, but soon real­ised it was right not because of de­liber­ate motive but because of a dread­ful in­dif­fer­ence. Thirty years of State School teach­ing had tainted the head’s en­thu­si­asm with cyn­icism. He was in that vacuum when the curve of suc­cess flat­tens and when there is nothing ahead but re­tire­ment. But in all sincer­ity—a good man, seeing the follies of polit­ics, of systems, of ideals. Turned in on himself. The fight given up. Just jog along. Read quietly behind the closed door and let the school run like a well tuned machine. En­thu­si­asm is there on his staff—but they’ll learn with the years. Dis­ap­point­ment will seep in. Re­peated fail­ures with dis­gruntled, ag­gres­sive pupils see to that. The staff will per­haps join the pupils and rebel—give up. An un­likely event, since their liveli­hoods de­pend on it. Or they’ll stifle their dedi­ca­tion and save their nerves.

  . . . So the head­master looked up from the book he was read­ing and I felt guilty.

  “This boy David,” I began. The book closed. Sad, tired eyes raised them­selves up en­quir­ingly. His face re­flec­ted an as­sumed inter­est.

  “Yes, Mr. P.?”

  “He just doesn’t like Science—that’s all there is to it,” I said. “Can I put him in the library during these periods? He won’t learn. He hasn’t a cap­acity for Science.”

  “We can’t help that.” A few papers were point­less­ly shuf­fled. “Don’t accept so many ex­plana­tions from these boys—they only make your job more dif­ficult. Tell the boy you ex­pect the work done. If he doesn’t do it, keep him in after school—and keep him in until it IS done.”

  It was hope­less, of course, but I per­sisted.

  “The boy is un­happy. His mother has no af­fec­tion for him and there is ten­sion between his parents.”

  A little more useless paper shuf­fling, then:

  “Don’t look for ex­cuses. These boys must do what is asked. You always seem to get emo­tion­ally in­volved. Don’t. It doesn’t help your dis­cip­line. Just do the teach­ing and take it for granted they’ll follow. They will if you insist. Don’t get side-tracked on these sort of issues.”

  Problem solved. The book was care­fully re­opened at the page to in­timate the inter­view was over. I was left won­der­ing how any teacher could in­spire with­out being emo­tion­ally in­volved. Surely it means just that—an emo­tional in­volve­ment with one or more pupils. Of course, the system of pack­ing thirty boys into a room with one teacher who is ex­pected to be a light and in­spir­ation to them all is absurd. The Ancient Greeks knew the answer, but un­fortun­ately their method was not ex­tended to the masses. No Govern­ment can af­ford to ex­peri­ment along those lines because in our too com­plex so­ciety the in­di­vidual doesn’t count any more. The Greeks gave the warn­ing long ago—the in­di­vidual must be more im­port­ant than the so­ciety.

  “The great­est train­ing (not edu­ca­tion) for the great­est number”—this is the adage of our school system. The Govern­ment, that far remote body with its hier­archy of serving of­ficers, is well out of touch with those who are ex­pected to apply their rules, and even further re­moved from those who are forced to obey them. Of course, amen­it­ies are avail­able for the re­cal­cit­rant in the form of Child Guidance Clinics, but I have never yet suc­ceeded in getting a boy into the hands of a person who has done more than the merest super­fi­cial re­medial work. The sur­pris­ingly high number of stam­mer­ers in our schools shows this: little, usually ab­so­lutely nothing—is done to help them.

  I have 32 boys in my form. They are in their third year—average age about 14. It is a typical “B” stream of a Second­ary Modern School. Here are some de­tails con­cern­ing a few of them.

  1.  Father and Mother separ­ated. Mother re­gards son as a hus­band sub­sti­tute and ap­pears amazed to find boy is un­con­trolled. He has been unruly but has re­sponded to a very per­sonal ap­proach, and wel­comes op­por­tun­ities to be a child and not an adult.

  2.  Re­peated migraine keeps this boy away from school. No action or treat­ment from his doctor. Parents are quite in­dif­fer­ent and lack common sense, though they are kindly.

  3.  Noisy, bois­ter­ous child, who has been in the courts for petty
steal­ing three times in the last year. No serious work done to re­solve his prob­lems. He has no parents and lives with his grand­mother who is too old to cope.

  4.  A dif­fi­cult child who gets temper tan­trums and has tried to injure him­self by bang­ing his head against the play­ground wall. Father a domin­ant ex-army sergeant who be­lieves in “the iron fist” up­bring­ing. “It did me no harm—made a man out of me,” he says. Father di­vorced and boy hates his step-mother. Boy recom­mended for Child Guidance. After three short talks with “a nice lady” he was dis­charged, and the tan­trums con­tinue.

  5.  A long history of tru­ancy, dis­honesty, migraine and asthma. Mother is baffled by his dis­orders and says she can’t under­stand the child. After suc­ces­sive inter­view­ing her con­fid­ence was won and she ad­mit­ted the boy is il­le­gitim­ate, but he has been led to be­lieve that the man he regards as his father is his father. Mother says his real father was a cruel man who “used the belt on me often.” The boy feels a ten­sion at home, es­pe­cially with his “father”. There is lately an added burden—the ar­rival of a baby which “was an ac­cid­ent” and “is an awful nuis­ance to us all”. The quotes are the mother’s.

  6.  An in­ac­ces­sible, quiet, intro­vert with no per­son­ality. Parents show no inter­est in his edu­ca­tion and have not ap­peared at the school. Boy now open­ing up a little and has become emo­tion­ally upset because of the fre­quent quar­rels between his parents. There are re­peated threats that they will part and the boy doesn’t know which side to take.

  7.  This boy has no inter­est in any­one or any­thing. He seems spoiled by well-to-do parents (hair­dres­sers) who have guar­an­teed him a “cushy job” in the family firm. Has had fre­quent inter­course with 13 and 14 year old girls and has also homo­sexual tend­en­cies. He regards all these activ­ities with pride, feel­ing it is a flout at auth­or­ity.

  8.  A pleasant lad who is ex­peri­encing dif­fic­ulty with certain teach­ers who use an auth­or­it­ative ap­proach. This makes him react ag­gres­sively. His father uses this method and the boy resents it, but is unable to de­mon­strate his re­sent­ment. His father lost one arm during the war and is envi­ous of the boy being able to be “the man of the house” by doing all the jobs he cannot do. He says the boy is trying to usurp his auth­or­ity and tries to make him feel in­fer­ior in the home.

  9.  An ex­tremely pleas­ant boy who is very emo­tional, craving af­fec­tion. He shines aca­demic­ally only when shown af­fec­tion and when a special inter­est is taken in him. His father and mother live together but de­cided three years ago to go their own ways. He is rarely at home—“prefer­ring the com­pany of the chaps in the local” she says. The mother has an affair with a man re­sid­ing in the room up­stairs whom the boy has come to know as his Uncle Peter. This man spoils him and en­cour­ages his ex­tra­vag­ant ways. The boy has de­fin­ite homo­sexual tend­en­cies.

  10.  A stam­mer­er. Father and mother are keen Sal­va­tion Army workers who have little under­stand­ing of the prob­lems their child is ex­peri­encing. Mother says, “He’ll grow out of it. We have faith, both of us. We know.” I hope, for the boy’s sake, they do.

  11.  Rather in­at­tent­ive and dreamy. Lives within himself. Not sur­pris­ing. His father is in prison serving a long sen­tence for rob­bery.

  In my form there is also an Indian, a boy from Hong Kong, another from Morocco and two from Ghana. I had one from Cyprus but he was re­moved to a remand school because he was dis­covered by a police con­stable mastur­bat­ing a boy of twelve behind a bush on a common.

  How is it pos­sible with such di­versity, to make them fit into a scheme? It is to be ex­pected that any teacher, however con­scien­tious must by the sheer force of the burden, break under the strain and adopt a less seri­ous at­ti­tude if his sanity is to be kept. How can he gain the con­fid­ence of every pupil? A man cannot turn himself into 32 per­son­ali­ties. And how can he cope withy the boy who is re­sent­ful because he has been made to feel a failure by finding himself damned to a “lower stream”, no matter how hard he works? The Grammar Schools are streamed into A, B, and C forms in just the same manner. Natur­ally the re­pu­ta­tion of the school rests with ex­am­ina­tion results, so the A’s are fa­voured—the élite. A “good” school is the one with “good” results. Exams are the cur­rency of edu­ca­tion and the rot spreads to the staff rooms. The A stream teachers pride them­selves as being the chosen, while the C stream teachers are re­garded with a certain dis­dain.

  As well as this, the scramble after “special allow­ances” for sup­posed re­spon­sibil­ities can only be com­pared with what goes on in the worst type of busi­ness con­cerns. These priv­ileged members are natur­ally envied, and the jeal­ousies fer­ment. It is the fault of the system which does not re­cog­nise that all teach­ers, no matter whom or what they teach, are valu­able con­trib­ut­ors of equal im­port­ance.

  Of course, this system exalts only the few aca­dem­ically minded pupils who, with their crushed in­dividu­ality, suc­ceed in knuck­ling down under the pres­sures. All in­cent­ives go to create schools which fit these and toler­ate the rest. If the major­ity of pupils leaving our schools leave them free of bit­ter­ness, it is more luck than plan­ning, for there is only bore­dom for those who do not shine at ex­am­in­ations. This is the age of Science and Tech­no­logy and the Govern­ment in­tends to glor­ify only those things. No politi­cian sin­cerely be­lieves that the mind of a child is sacred—that it should be re­spected and en­cour­aged to de­velop natur­ally—surely the real task of the teacher is to guide each child in­di­vidu­ally, not to force a group along one chan­nel laid down by politi­cians. It is quite aston­ishing how few people realise the dangers arising from a system of edu­ca­tion based on govern­ment poli­cies—a govern­ment which holds the purse and calls the tune, whilst the teach­ers are the vassals who merely dance to it.

  I see no way in which the posi­tion can be im­proved—at any rate, not so long as we have a State edu­ca­tion. Of course, there are many dedi­cated teach­ers who are strug­gling against im­pos­sible odds in our State Schools. They are trying to create some sort of reform. Without them the posi­tion would be even worse.

  The tragedy of it all is that schools can make a child into any­thing—a patriot or a traitor; a Fascist or a Rocker; a saint or a scourge; and almost, it seems, in spite of himself.