Confessions of a failed teacher

THERE are a number of people that the teaching profession gets on extremely well without. Among that happy and non-potential band, I confidently list myself. Actually, for two years about a quarter of a century ago, ``teacher'' was the correct designation on my passport - and then, fortunately, an involvement with the world of journalism came along to bail me out. Teaching lost one of its less impressive disciplinarians.

To give an idea of my skills in this area, all that's needed, perhaps, is to mention the time my class placed me affectionately in the wastepaper bin. I have since been told that the basis of my incompetence as a disciplinarian was that I found the children funny. They are, of course, but to let them know you find them so, is, I understand, fatal.

But discipline was some way from being my only weak spot as a teacher. Another problem was marking. I vividly recall the height-above-sea-level pile of exercise books to be lugged back to the digs, and how I would still be plowing through them, red pen poised, at 2:30 a.m. English was my subject, and some of those kids could outdistance Dickens when it came to following the dictates of their imagination. Page after page would disclose adventurous happenings in outer galaxies or intrepid escapes from POW camps. I began to wish I could have given them uninspiring topics for their writing homework; if only they found it a struggle to write just one page! Conscientiousness can sometimes be terribly cumbersome.

I don't, however, think that any length of service would have solved my other difficulty. And that was the writing of reports. I understand from teachers today that they are required to write much more than in my day on these end-of-term assessments of the children's progress. Nevertheless it was hard enough. One didn't want to discourage. The available clutch of clich'es always struck me as inadequate. Things like ``could try harder'' or ``fairly unsatisfactory.'' But I'm sure brutal honesty would have been frowned upon, however tempting it was to say things like ``This child persists in being a renegade'' or ``Your son is a dodo; would he were no less extinct.'' At the other end of the scale it was surely just as hard to come up with adequate praise that might leave room for improvement. Old chestnuts like ``excellent work and progress'' did not seem exactly stimulating. But ``Matthew is a second Shakespeare'' might have been overdoing it.

This question of reports - of assessments - came up recently when I was looking through some papers kept by my mother since we were children. One particular bundle included three end-of-term reports on my own progress at school. They belonged to my 15th, 16th, and 17th years. The tenuous link between the vicissitudes of the past and the development of the future, between the promise of childhood and the actuality of adulthood, is what strikes one looking over these now.

Take my progress in French, for instance. At 15 I was first out of 27 boys and earned the teacher's comment: ``Very good work and progress.'' The headmaster, who didn't know me from Adam, latched onto this success and observed in his final summing-up: ``He appears to have the makings of a real linguist.'' At 16, the French teacher commented: ``The standard of his work has improved this term and if he continues to improve he should be successful in the summer.'' And then at 17 the same master observed: ``He still makes so many elementary mistakes that I think his chances are remote.'' The headmaster followed with ``It is not too late to get down to French grammar seriously.'' What had happened to the budding ``linguist'']

Indeed, what had happened to any earlier signs of academic prowess? In the same report the headmaster also wrote: ``A first-rate performance in the play - obviously his talents are more artistic than academic.'' Ah.

There's a little bit of truth in most of these remarks, of course. But basically they suggest puzzlement. What is this child about? Moreover, their usefulness in deciding the direction of one's prospects can certainly be questioned. The notion of my turning out to be a ``linguist'' now seems very funny. I am quite aware that my French is a disaster area.

On the other hand, the English reports (such things as ``his work is always adequate, but...'') hardly suggest that even an adequate career in writing was about to happen. And the ``instrumental music'' reports might almost seem to the uninitiated to hint impressive potential accomplishment.

I think both of these teachers were, in their own way, quite right. The first set standards for me. The second knew that setting standards was pointless. I have, it turns out, done a lot of writing. I have played no music. But that music teacher did not discourage a scarcely formed love of listening to music. This I find wonderfully, and increasingly, rewarding. His lack of condemnation may have been what finally conveyed the idea that while some are players, others are fortunate enough to be listeners.

Which is why I think it takes a kind of genius to be a good schoolteacher.

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