If those who can do and those who can’t teach, then that must make me a totally useless git for I’ve just had a go at being a schoolmaster and I loved it more than any job I’ve ever done.
I did it at my alma mater Malvern College, where I spent most of last week being a ‘writer in residence’, taking everything from a geography class on (what else?) climate change to an English class at the Downs prep school on ‘How to write the next Harry -Potter’ to a history class in which we tripped merrily from the Cuban missile crisis to the battle of Salamis to the crapness of the service in former East German restaurants in the years following reunification.
Obviously, had I been a full-time teacher I wouldn’t have been able to range so freely. But I don’t think my experience was entirely inauthentic. I got to feel, for example, how utterly absorbing, compelling and demanding it is trying to hold a class’s attention for 50 minutes; and just how incredibly drained it leaves you afterwards. Suddenly I understand why coffee and biscuits in the sanctuary of the staffroom plays such a vital part in teachers’ lives: it’s like the whisky and the Pearl Fishers duet on the gramophone in the dugout where you recover just enough strength to be able to launch yourself over the top once more in periods three and four.
One evening, I tried grabbing a pint with one of the masters (though they’re not called that anymore) who’d been at the school since my day. First it was supposed to be at 8 p.m. — after my lecture entitled Sustainability is Unsustainable. Then it had to be moved till 9.20 because he had to referee one of the inter-house basketball matches. But it didn’t actually happen till closer to ten because one of the boys had his arm ripped out of his socket and we had to wait for the ambulance. This is life as a teacher: full-on, all day, most days, including — if it’s a public school — some weekends, from before morning chapel to beyond lights out. You don’t do it for the long holidays and you certainly don’t do it for the money. You do it because it’s more fulfilling than perhaps any job there is.
What I enjoyed most was the collaborative nature of the enterprise. Journalism is mostly just you and your lonely screen. Teaching, on the other hand, is you and perhaps 20 kids bouncing ideas off one another. At its best, it’s like being the conductor of an orchestra: you’re in charge, you decide the direction of travel, but the music that emerges is only as good as the weakest member of your ensemble.
Which is to say one or two bad players can ruin it for everyone. God knows how teachers cope in sink comprehensives, where I imagine you’re so busy with crowd management there’s no time for anything else. Even in a disciplined, structured environment like Malvern College, it’s hard enough: the challenge being not so much the brighter kids, who are likely to pay attention regardless of how dull you are, but the jokers and the slackers who, if you let them, can destroy the whole class.
I wouldn’t let them — and this was a side of my character I’d never noticed before. As a parent, I’m perfectly useless at discipline: my kids get away with murder. But in a classroom, I’m a man possessed, like I’m on some kind of holy mission: no one is allowed to daydream or whisper conspiratorially or make jokes which aren’t germane to the subject under discussion. We’re in this one together and we’re here to learn.
You don’t necessarily have to achieve this by being a martinet, though. What I found — much to my delight — is that the slackers and jokers can be more a help than a hindrance. You need the jokers to keep the energy levels high and to keep everybody entertained; you use the slackers to bounce off, as for example when one of the swots (there are usually two or three and they’ve always got their hands up) says something especially insightful and it’s gone right over half the class’s head.
‘That was a really good point,’ you say to the swot. Then you turn to the slacker girl at the back who’s giggling with her mates. ‘Maybe you’d like to repeat it for us.’ She can’t, of course, because she wasn’t listening. So having good-naturedly chided her for her inattention — you want to win over the slacker kids, not alienate them — you then return to the swot and invite him to repeat his brilliant point. And you don’t move on from that brilliant point till you’re satisfied that everybody, clever clogs and thicko alike, has got it.
What worries me about our current education system is that such methods are a luxury only teachers in the private system, the grammar schools, and in one or two free schools like Toby Young’s can afford. They’re only possible with a) a strong academic ethos, b) a firm disciplinary structure and c) commitment from pupils and parents. The first two any school ought, with good leadership, be able to manage whether inside or outside the private sector. But I don’t believe the last will ever be fully possible without a radical shift in the way our schools are financed. With education, as with the NHS, our system of having the service free at point of use means that consumers take it too much for granted. I’m a huge admirer of Michael Gove — by far the cleverest and most capable minister in this government — but if he’s ever truly to reform education in this country, it will only be achieved once all parents, in however small a way, are forced to contribute financially to their children’s schooling.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 March 2013