My brother’s Classics teacher Mr Maynard had a pet rock called Lithos (Greek for stone); his teaching methods included ‘subliminal learning’ sessions, during which he’d walk around the room conjugating verbs in a soft voice while everyone else suppressed giggles. He was also fond of a physical demonstration, hurling himself across the room with no warning when describing how Aegeus had thrown himself into the sea. As a result, most of his class at school chose Latin or Greek for A-level.
Another of my brothers is surprisingly knowledgeable about plant virology because he was taught by a man who threw pot plants at people when they weren’t listening and who made his students chew diseased tobacco to demonstrate the point that viruses cannot be transmitted from plants to humans.
I learned maths from Mr Harrison, whose motto was ‘tell ’em a story, teach ’em maths’. I don’t remember him doing anything but regaling us with tales of his very short professional football career, but somehow, by stealth, he turned us into pretty competent mathematicians.
Teaching ought to be a profession filled with mavericks and optimists, with people who adore their subject and are bored by the trivial, people who can deploy wit, cunning and showmanship to lure children into learning maths or Latin.
Independent schools have two advantages: they can take a risk when appointing a new teacher, and they can give their teachers more freedom to cover subjects that aren’t strictly on the syllabus. Anthony Little, headmaster of Eton, is happy to take on people with no teaching experience at all. ‘In recent years I’ve employed a barrister, a city trader and an army officer,’ he says. ‘None of them has a teaching qualification and they are all first-rate teachers.’ The master of Dulwich College, Joe Spence, says he persuades a head of department to take on someone untrained about once a year. ‘Eight times out of 10 it’s the right call when you’ve found someone with real enthusiasm for their subject.’
The problem for a lot of teachers is that they’re hidebound by the syllabus, and the syllabus can be deadly. The GCSE reading list for English literature, for example, includes a token bit of Shakespeare and an awful lot of terrible poetry. A desire to make literature relevant and accessible (as if it wasn’t) has resulted in a patronising mishmash of ‘poems from other cultures’ and clunking modern poetry. We studied a poem called ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy. It begins like this: ‘Not a red rose or a satin heart./I give you an onion./It is a moon wrapped in brown paper./It promises light/like the careful undressing of love.’ How we wished that someone would wrap Ms Duffy in brown paper and send her to the moon. It’s enough to put some people off English literature for life, but at least the prescribed reading list is relatively short. If you’re lucky, you’ll get it over with quickly and move on to something better. ‘The real learning is what happens beyond the curriculum – that’s where we make the lifelong learners,’ says Dr Spence. ‘With great teachers you may not understand every word, but years later you remember what they’ve said — they’re filling the vessel, not just showing people how to get full marks in next week’s test.’
I escaped relatively unscathed from the onslaught of right-on propaganda, because I was already a convert. When we were 11, Mr Butt, our English teacher at Farleigh School, had introduced us to the books he loved, and we loved them too. For a term, we sat solemnly listening to a tape of The Mayor of Casterbridge; he encouraged us to learn poetry off by heart and to keep a reading log — something some of us became furiously competitive about. In turns we read out loud the whole of The Go-Between, complete with illicit love affair, suicide and the loss of childhood innocence. He was right to show us the grown-up stuff. My mother has always sworn by Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, with its disturbing child deaths and apparent castration, as a surefire way to get 13-year-olds reading. Teenagers are drawn to the sinister in the same way as children are drawn to the dark mischief of Roald Dahl. Mr Butt chose the books well, but the key thing was that he chose them; it sticks in the mind when you’re taught from the heart. It wasn’t just the adult themes that got our attention, but also the sense that Mr Butt thought we could handle a serious book, and that made us want to.
It’s a rare talent to be able to treat a class of children like adults while acting like a child yourself, but when a teacher leaps on to a desk and declares that Plato is his personal friend, or builds a trench in his classroom, or lets you hand over a fresh fish instead of your homework, you’ll joyfully remember whatever he tells you.
From the Spectator’s Independent Schools supplement September 2013