“Some teachers pick on you, sir,” complained one of the students.
“Do you ever think about the teachers?” I asked. “Do you ever think that they might be having a bad day? I had a bad time in March when my Dad was dying and you were all very kind to me. Do you ever think that teachers might be going through bad times?”
It was an avoidance of the question, an evasion of the fact that there are some children who get a hard time from some teachers.
I remembered my days in my first primary school. Never gifted in anything visual, whether it was painting, or handicraft, or drawing or even handwriting, I had an awareness in the infant class of never having work displayed.
One particular moment remains vivid, a Christmas, probably 1966, the class had made Christmas decorations: candles manufactured from toilet roll tubes wrapped in crepe paper, with paper cut in the shape of a flame tucked into the top and a ruff of green paper wrapped around the bottom. It had taken great effort with scissors and glue, and because no great artistic skill was required, my candle seemed as good as that produced by anyone else in the class.
“Let’s put the best ones along the big window sill”, said the infant teacher. Of course, my effort had not been successful, it was not chosen so it might be seen by the rest of the class and by those who passed the window on the outside. (It was an early lesson that the world was divided between those who were “chosen,” and the rest of us who were not).
Perhaps the candle moment would not have remained so clearly etched in the mind if it had not seemed to reflect an attitude that some of us were ugly ducklings who would never become beautiful swans, that we would never be any different.
In England of the 1960s, there could have been no suffering under an illusion that school was anything other than a preparation for what we might expect from life and that to call things that were not as though they were would have been regarded as a disservice to those who were taught. (Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall, which included the track “We don’t need no education,” found a deep resonance with many of us who had failed at crepe paper candle making).
But perhaps it might have been different, perhaps there might have been more of a mindfulness of human differences, a realisation that even those who are talentless had feelings, an awareness that destroying people’s self esteem neither assisted them, nor the teacher’s standing within the school, nor the educational standards of the school.
Our teachers now understand that affirmation, that building confidence, that creating a sense of self worth, aren’t just indulgences of a soft liberal educational system, that they make a difference to those being taught and they make a difference to what can be taught. Well, most teachers understand.