Monday, 25 February 2008

Not Forgetting and Not Forgiving 2: Teachers

While I was ill last week I was haunted by memories of those teachers who humiliated me in my youth. I am sure everyone has teachers who made their young lives a misery. I realised that this blog was the ideal environment to purge myself of those ghosts that for more than thirty years have angered me for what they inflicted on me in my youth. I know what they did will probably seem very minor to many people, especially those who suffered harsh abuse, but I think it is important for me to get them out there and away from my psyche.

I thought about whether I should use my former teachers' real names. I do not know the first names of any of them anyway.  I realised that so much time has passed that the bulk will have retired; some I know, are dead.  Those still at work will be in high positions, close to the ends of their careers, so more than strong enough to weather the negative comments of one small boy they taught in the 1980s.  If they continued behaving in the way they behaved to me, I am sure they will feature in the curses of a thousand adults. I now detail those teachers I can neither forget or forgive, in rough chronological order of when I encountered them:

Mrs. Simmons - art teacher
Now, in the UK, most primary school teachers stick with a single class of pupils each year and have to teach them all the subjects. This can be pretty challenging for them, though to some extent it is leavened by the fact that handling pre-11 year olds (in my county we stayed in primary school until 12, out of step with the rest of the UK) they do not have to go into a great depth on any subject. Some, however, do not seem to even work at the level of reading the text book a couple of pages ahead of the children. I met a German researcher at a party in Oxford once and she was investigating how many British primary school teachers believed dinosaurs and humans had co-existed.  She had been stunned at how many had held this view, despite the fact that even basic books on dinosaurs make the 64 million year gap between them apparent. 

Anyway, that is the contextualisation on the type of primary school teachers of which Mrs. Simmons was one.  She taught a class I remember very well about British kings and queens and got most of those of the 20th century in the wrong order. She might be excused as she was employed by the school to teach art to different classes as well as holding down her own class, so it may have stretched her abilities far further than she anticipated. To lessen the burden on herself she forbid us from using certain English grammar in our writing, such as direct speech, we were only allowed to use reported speech which she found easier to mark and correct. (Thinking back on such deficiencies I remember clearly a trainee teacher we had had the year before, while our main teacher was off ill, and when doing addition she would 'carry' the number as you are supposed to do and then 'give it back', so making, for example, the units column have one extra than it should have. She had to be corrected in her ways when our teacher returned, but how this trainee could function in everyday life, let alone as a teacher working with such a fundamental error in her mathematics, I have no idea).

There is another common issue which I realised as I began writing this posting, that applies to teachers working at all levels and that is how self-righteous so many of them are. It is a trait I kept on encountering during my school life. On reflection, I guess you have to believe in your views on things and feel that you have to impart them to others to have the motivation to actually be a teacher, but many of the worse go far too far. I remember one religious education teacher we had who promised to show us so many horrific videos that she felt every girl in the class would never consider having an abortion. It was her first post and I was glad calmer heads stepped in and stopped her distorting things so greatly. Such an attitude also inflicted Mrs. Simmons. Foolishly she told all the parents coming to the parents evening that she saw one of the greatest problems of (her 10-year old) pupils was their immorality around sexual issues and felt that this had to be stamped out. We were oblivious to this crusade of hers but it was going to cause problems. Superficially she appeared the 'cool', trendy teacher but had an approach to schooling more suited to an old fashioned 'school ma'am'. 

In the UK you are supposed to receive your first sex education at the age of 8. It is basic stuff which is mainly about what all the sexual bits of your body do. This is built upon when you do biology at 12. However, I was at school during a period of great industrial unrest so the teachers were often on strike and so somehow we had reached 10-11 years old before anyone realised we had not had our sex education. It became apparent as my year (of three classes) were clearly less well informed about such matters (and the associated emotional issues) than the years below us, let alone children of our age from other schools. Mrs. Simmons, of course, was not happy to have to do this, but she bit her lip and did so, but in such a desultory way that my class was now out-of-step with the other two classes in my year.

Another theme, aside from self-righteousness, that I will return to in this posting as a failing of teachers, is their use of humiliation. I will do anything to avoid humiliation and will intervene or leave a room rather than watch others humiliated. I accept that that is a phobia of mine, but using humiliation on children as so many teachers do, is a terrible tool that can cause problems for years to come. Following the sex education lessons, two girls in my class, one rainy break time, sat and wrote a fake letter (something girls often did, usually on a romantic theme) and in fact an activity Mrs. Simmons encouraged. This time, however, they used their newly found knowledge and wrote as if it was to a boyfriend they had had and saying that they had got pregnant as a result. Now, this may seem a bit mature for girls of 11, but given that now in the UK some are getting pregnant at 14 or younger, probably not too early to discuss the issue. Did Mrs. Simmons use this in a positive learning way when she uncovered this letter? No, of course not. It gave her the opportunity to lay down her strong views on sexuality and not only humiliate the two girls in front of the whole class, but also made us all feel that what was discussed was evil. I discussed this incident a couple of decades later and the two women who had written the letter as girls remembered it vividly. I blame Mrs. Simmons handling of the issue for making it very hard for my class to get on with the opposite sex.  This was something which became very apparent when we all moved up to the secondary school and mixed with children who had not had such warped teachers or delay in the education they needed to mature at a proper pace. Given that the UK outstrips every other country in Europe in terms of the number of teenage pregnancies, people like Mrs. Simmons need to be kept out of the teaching profession.

Mrs. Webb - music teacher
There must be something about music and language teachers as they fill up the bulk of this posting. In those days, long before the National Curriculum, all pupils had to do music. Those who were talented took proper lessons with an instrument, but the rest of us has to do an hour of music per week. We generally listened to classical pieces and heard about the history of composers and played a few percussion instruments. Mrs. Webb resembled Rosa Klebb in the movie 'From Russia With Love' the kind of woman to terrify any eleven year old (the age I was when I last met her). I lack any musical ability and, in particular, rhythm which makes it had to play percussion instruments.  Consequently I was in line for attack from her. In those days teachers could insult you in a way they would not be permitted these days. She felt I was constantly playing out of tune deliberately and would level invective against being 'an individual'. Of course, flushing with embarrassment I was even worse at playing again, triggering the vicious cycle. I was also clumsy and being terrified in her room would knock over things (we had to balance the wooden chairs upright on the tables at the end of class again something else that would be banned these days and I always struggled to achieve it). I do not think I was alone in her attacks as one day when the school hall was being re-decorated we had to eat our packed lunches in classrooms and I was assigned to her room with about 30 other pupils. I hid in the corner and stared at a poster about wind instruments. The room was silent as everyone ate; clearly everyone was in terror of her picking on one of us. She found this strange and told us we had permission to speak, but no-one said anything still and I wondered if she realised how much she terrified us.

Mr. Atherton - language teacher
The language teachers at my school, despite all being British, eerily seemed to match the stereotypes for their respective countries. The French teachers were often relaxed, urbane, with young wives and stylish clothes, the German teachers were very austere almost rude at times and the Spanish teachers, unsurprisingly had similarities with the French but dressed more casually and could be really flirtatious or, if female, looking like the matriarch of an extended Spanish family. 

Mr. Atherton fitted his language with casual, bright clothes and a moustache that would have suited Errol Flynn. He came from northern England and I made the mistake of encountering him in his early days in southern England when he seemed to be on some crusade to hammer southern English children as soft and deserving of harsh treatment. He was very tricky and I fell into one of his traps about when you could and could not speak and got a detention, the only detention I ever received in my whole school career, something I was so ashamed of that I never mentioned it to my family. He was one of those teachers who pretend to be your friend but in reality hold you in contempt. Thinking about his smug attitude really riles me even now. Fortunately his career was brought to an end a few years later when I had left the school as, despite having a young wife, he was caught having an affair with a sixth form girl (sixth formers were 17-19 years old, so it was legal, but obviously disapproved of).

Mr. Marks - language teacher
Mr. Marks was upfront nasty. He would give you small scraps of paper to put your answers to tests on and when you found it difficult to fit the answers on one line you would lose marks as he would say the answer, though correct, was written wrongly. Such behaviour is soul destroying, because you think: what is the point of even trying to get it right? So many of these teachers do not realise how by such behaviour they turn you away from their subjects, let alone making it hard to truly know how you are progressing. He seemed to want to humiliate me all the time (I doubt I was alone in being picked on, but, of course, I can only talk from my personal experience).  At the time of a general election he made me stand up and outline my political views so that he could spend the rest of the lesson explaining why I was so wrong: he was a grown man, I was thirteen, but, of course, he thought it was impertinent that I felt that I had political views at that age. 

The worse case was the following year when I was sent to his class by mistake due to an administrative error and he ordered me out of the classroom (blaming me for the error).  I had to wander the school trying to find someone to tell me where I was supposed to be. He had very dodgy Social Darwinist ideas and would question children waiting to buy crisps and drinks at break time about what ability level of class they were in, assuming less intelligent children would eat more.

Mr. Shoveller - deputy head
My school had loads of deputy heads for different functions. The worst was Mr. Shoveller who looked like a textile mill owner from the 1840s. His attitudes to any physical interaction between boys and girls was much the same and he would prowl around the school disco moving the hands of miscreants dancing during the slow dances (the hands were not permitted to rest on anyone's buttocks) and on school trips arms were not permitted to be put around anyone in photos taken.

For some reason he treated me reasonably well, but I do not forgive him as I witnessed his real side. Every day at the school one pupil was taken out of class to serve as an errand boy/girl to the secretary of the school. This meant that you were positioned for the day in the administrative heart of the school and hence near Mr. Shoveller's office as he was the most junior of the deputy heads. That afternoon, a sunny one when all the windows were open, a boy was brought to him who had been trying to spend a £10 note (worth a lot more in the early 1980s than now) in snack shop. 

The boy, (I knew him reasonably well but we were not friends) was questioned at length about where he got the money from. Shoveller did not believe his explanation that his mother had given it to him to get drinks and snacks for a party (I knew this to be the truth as he had earlier spoken about the party). His mother worked and could not be raised during the day (this was the age before mobile phones and at a time when employers often did not permit outside contact during working hours, again a sharp contrast to today). So, having heard the evidence as he could gather it at the time, Shoveller acted as judge and jury and beat the boy for theft (in those days corporal punishment was still permitted in schools by senior staff). The number of beats seemed excessive to me and the boy was howling for all to hear, no doubt the pain worsened by the fact that actually he had done nothing wrong. I was sat outside the window and realised how arrogant and callous Shoveller was, self-righteous too in that he felt he could beat the wrongdoing out of the boy. It still sickens me to think of how terrorised children were in those days by bullying teachers.

Mr. Salmon - science teacher
This man retired while I was at school meaning he would in his late eighties by now, though he told us he would be dead three years after retirement anyway. With him there was no single incident to point to, just how harsh he was in every lesson. I used to leave with a stomach ache caused by his snide, acid comments about people and their failures. You were terrified of doing anything wrong in his lesson but knew that you could not avoid it. Again he was one of these who liked to be tricksy with his challenges. He always said he only bet on certainties but would cajole us to take the losing side just so that he could subsequently ridicule us. Even for a school that seemed to employ misfits he seemed to have stepped from the 1950s or even 1930s in his behaviour and attitudes. He was very proud that he did not own a television without being aware of how out-of-step that made him with all of us. 

I am beginning to see common themes arising here as, like many of the others, he was self-righteous and clearly loved the extent of his own knowledge and parading it before us, portraying us as poor specimens (in a district where all the most intelligent went to private school, maybe that was his true perception of us state school children). He believed that radioactivity did no harm to the human body which seems a very dangerous belief for a science teacher.

Humiliation and stress began to impact on me medically while at secondary school. There was another teacher who when he realised how I was suffering stopped slapping me around the head (I was not alone in experiencing that, he did it to many of the boys) and ridiculing me, realising that he had probably gone too far. He spoke to me one-to-one about the issue, and it is that realisation on his part that lifts him out of my condemnation today. Mr. Salmon, who literally made me ill with worry, (I can so clearly remember the stomach aches after his lessons) had no iota of an idea of how much discomfort he inflicted, it probably would not have penetrated his thinking even if he had been told directly.

Mrs. Williams - music teacher
You can understand how pleased I was when I reached the age of 14 and music stopped being a compulsory subject. This woman was rather odd and there were many rumours about why that was, maybe it was simply she was a musician. She had performed in alternative music groups in the 1960s, at one stage just making peculiar sounds with her voice. It was said she had had a miscarriage after having been struck by lightning but that sounds like the kind of story that schoolboys make up. She certainly stuck out in what she wore, predominantly leather clothes - jackets, skirts, trousers, tops, boots in a whole variety of shades, of course black but also maroon, olive, red, various shades of brown. I know it was the 1980s and leather clothes were popular but did seem rather outre for a teacher at work. She fostered a clique of admiring pupils around her. Obviously, many of the keen musicians were in this clique, though not all, and pupils with other interests were permitted to enter her ranks of acolytes as long as they did nothing to displease her on the basis of one of her cryptic rules. This 'in' and 'out' division with her obviously caused tension in an average class where he clique members would be favoured over the rest of us. 

The key problem, though, was her general set of quirky rules that you learned through error. She would not accept the word 'hey' to be said in her class and if anyone used it they had to undergo a humiliating ritual. Humiliating rituals were favoured by her for many errors against her rules. For boys she would have you stand on your chair and rotate like a ballerina whilst she played tinkly jewellery box music. In contrast to Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Williams seemed to accept that I had no musical ability in me and left me pretty much alone. However, humiliation to one's friends and classmates can be painful to yourself too and I cringe as I remember pupils being treated that way. She had no realisation that to use such methods signals to children that humiliation is a permissible tool and they need discouragement on that basis, rather than a green light.

Miss. Brook - English teacher
I have now reached the aged of 16 in my school career. This woman I know retired a few years later, probably something like 22 years ago now, so again, she is probably at least 82 if not 87. I know that if she was in education today she would have been charged with some some. Again, like Salmon, she belonged in a previous age. Like Marks she was self-centred and arrogant and like Shoveller, Williams and the rest, self-righteous. The fact that she had less physical and mental impact on me probably reflects that have experienced 6-7 years under all these nasty people I had developed a much harder shell and could see her for the sickening individual she was. She was not even very good at her subject with views that dated back thirty years and she made no attempt to catch up with current thinking. 

In common with many of these teachers she liked to exercise an acid humour on pupils (maybe that is all that a career in teaching leaves you with). However, she also exhibited her prejudices very actively in class. She questioned us about our religion and seemed to particularly dislike Roman Catholics (who made up a sixth of our class) and seemed it incomprehensible that any of us were not Christians (she felt you had to know the Bible intimately to be able to study English literature). Such things are private, not to be dragged out into the open in class. 
Brook had nothing good to say about contemporary culture as if all us teenagers should listen to nothing bar Beethoven at the most modern. She openly criticised how we dressed as if out of school we would dress the way she did as a 60+ year old woman. She also felt that the concerns of no-one else in the school were marginally as important as her concerns (for example if you had to go on a history trip). The fact that the English teachers had their own separate staff room, I think simply illustrated the difficulties they caused for the rest of the school. Her greatest problem was how lowly she perceived her pupils. Owing to the fact that none of us subscribed to the culture she liked and because we often espoused new ideas she was convinced that we were going to fail, especially if we were Catholic or Scottish or thought about going to university. She gave the lowest predicted grades of anyone I have encountered and clearly signalled that we were an embarrassment to her and the best we could hope for was to train as a manager for a supermarket.  Again I think much of this stemmed from the area where we lived with its high level of private schools, though at 16+ many of the private school children had come back into the state sector, something she did not seem to comprehend despite her regular cross-examining of us in class.

A teacher has to have faith in his/her pupils, especially when they become teenagers, otherwise they are going to abandon all hope. Maybe that was what she wanted so that we achieved nothing more than she did. Clearly she felt we were contemptible and deserved nothing better, a bad attitude for a teacher who is supposed to raise, rather than douse expectations.

Recent reports say that there are 17,000 incompetent teachers working in the UK at present teaching 100,000 pupils at some time or another during every school week. I do not know whether the teachers I discussed above were incompetent but they were bad teachers in other ways. Teachers should not be self-righteous, they should not bully and especially not humiliate pupils. They should give constructive criticism not patronise people. They should expect the best of all pupils not dismiss them and push them away from opportunities. They should not make arbitrary decisions but base choices on sufficient evidence. They should also be aware of how much they screw up people's lives for decades to come, when they behave in nasty ways. They are in a position of immense power and should use it responsibility or should be kicked out of the profession as soon as possible. 

Now, I estimate around 100 teachers taught me in 14 years I spent at school and college and only a fraction of them remain in my memory for what they inflicted on me. No-one pretends teaching is an easy job, but it is clear that no-one who enters the profession should be allowed to treat pupils in a way which causes mental and emotional difficulties as all of the teachers highlighted here, did for me. Some of them may be dead and gone but their impact lives on in the way my life turned out and I am sure there must be thousands of people they have screwed up in similar or worse ways. I remember the nasty teachers not the good ones and I imagine I will continue to condemn them for as long as I remain alive.

P.P. Andrew White - university tutor
Recently I saw an old Volvo car and it brought back to mind a tutor I had at university who caused me so much problem by his incompetence that it was clear that I had blotted him from my memory. The man is Andrew White and I imagine that he is now about 45/46 so probably in a similar sort of position as to when I met him. I see he has gone from where I encountered him, though one of his colleagues who was not much better, is not only still there, but has been promoted. I never met such a patronising woman who seemed to hold her students in contempt and loved playing mind games with us. However, she did not have as direct input into the problems I experienced as White did.

White was simply incompetent, completely out of his depth and we students suffered as a consequence. I failed the course that I had saved thousands of pounds for. He had given minimal feedback and then turned up at last stage, at my house with a feedback form jammed with criticisms that he insisted I sign. It said if the university authorities wanted more information of how poor I was at my course they should contact him. This damning document was only produced in the final month of the course.  If I had truly been that bad the suggestions should have come much sooner. I did not roll over in the way he and his colleagues expected. I scrawled over his feedback form saying I totally disagreed with it (never be compelled to sign anything and if they insist make sure you spoil their document with your comments written over it, very visibly) and took his improper behaviour to a formal university complaint. I never found the outcome but I trust that they booted him out of the university.

White drove around in an old Volvo in which the seatbelts did not work and I wished that I had shopped him to the police. I saw the car again a couple of years later outside a restaurant in London and it was only because I was with a girlfriend that I did not attack it or storm into the restaurant and seek to humiliate him for what his incompetence did to my life and his arrogance in seeking to cover-up his blunders. If I ever see him again when I am alone I will probably end up in prison for assault. My hatred runs that deep.

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