After they are published in SecEd, I normally post my columns on the LinkedIn social network. It provides colleagues who perhaps do not see SecEd with a chance to read them.
In June, one of my columns was headed Three types of poor teachers. It evaluated a proposal to introduce five year, fixed-term contracts to weed out poor teachers. I posted it on LinkedIn and almost immediately had a response from a former pupil.
“And you are deffinatly (sic) 1 of the good teachers. How are you, Alex? It must be, oh, about 32 years since I sat in your classroom falling asleep. You’re looking well!”
I was flabbergasted. Despite the 32 years, I remembered him, a delightful wee lad who always looked in need of a good meal and some human warmth and who was in his element on a three-day residential trip which I and a colleague organised.
I replied: “Good to hear from you and thank you for the kind message. I couldn’t have been that good a teacher if you fell asleep in my class.” I didn’t mention that my failure to teach him to spell accurately might bring into question the quality of my teaching.
His further reply reminded me of the reality which faced so many of the youngsters I taught over the years. “It was a long time ago. I can remember, other than falling asleep in class, a lesson we did about the man in a bog, found in Ireland I think (in fact it was Denmark). It did fascinate me and it wasn’t the reason for me falling asleep. I was getting up at 5 in the morning to do my milk round.”
Let me add here that I’ve ironed out a few further spelling errors, but what did spelling matter to a 12-year old for whom harsh economic necessity made a milk round essential?
He then told me how he was doing, about his job – “tubular engineer – that’s a scaffolder. lol.” – kids, and partner. He told me other facts which I may have known but cannot now recall: that both his mum and his brother had had serious drug problems while he was at school and, although it had been hard, they had been well supported in their local community. Many of his peers, in desperation, took the road his mother and brother travelled and are now dead.
Then I recalled more. We had set classes and he was in the bottom set. As well as teaching him maths and English, I team-taught with his history teacher. First year history started with Tolund Man, the preserved Iron Age body in the bog.
History was about evidence and examining it. He may not have retained these basic historical skills but he enthusiastically recalled the lesson after 32 years.
I doubt if he obtained many formal qualifications from school, although he would have gained some. We were that kind of school. His formal literacy skills remain weak.
Nonetheless, though now in his mid-40s, he recalls school warmly, communicates confidently and positively, has a job and responsibility for his children, all despite the appalling social handicaps which he faced.
I trust that I and my colleagues, including the inspiring history teacher who led on Tolund Man, gave him some of that confidence and articulacy. I have to believe that the warmth with which he now writes to me is to some extent at least a reflection of the warmth we gave him when he needed it. I am certain that sound teaching rests on these warm relationships, that without them teaching would be a barren task but that, with them, teaching can save lives.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his retirement he was head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.