Teacher's Dilemma

MISTER P. teaches in a London secondary modern school.

MY HEADMASTER LOOKED UP FROM THE BOOK HE WAS READING, and although I had been teaching on his staff for ten years I still retained that sense of guilt whenever I disturbed him. A quiet, gentlemanly type the head is—modest, undemanding, kindly—a face wrinkled with fifty odd years of experience. Rather like an amiable bloodhound—the sort you want to pat on the head. Some of the boys say he’s too much of a gentleman to be headmaster of a Secondary Modern School. His voice is one of undertones, a whisper almost. He is rarely roused. His equable nature seems incapable of deep emotion.

When a boy was caught looking at pornographic photos we all thought it would break the trend but it didn’t.
“Where did you get them?” the head asked in a dull monotone.
He could even have been thinking of the weeding still to be done in his back garden. The boy said he found them on the floor of a public lavatory.
“Which one?”
“… The one by the Green, sir.”
The head turned in that direction before he replied.
“I doubt the story. Go away and think it over. Then come and tell me the truth.”
The incident was never referred to again. I admired his attitude, but soon realised it was right not because of deliberate motive but because of a dreadful indifference. Thirty years of State School teaching had tainted the head’s enthusiasm with cynicism. He was in that vacuum when the curve of success flattens and when there is nothing ahead but retirement. But in all sincerity—a good man, seeing the follies of politics, of systems, of ideals. Turned in on himself. The fight given up. Just jog along. Read quietly behind the closed door and let the school run like a well tuned machine. Enthusiasm is there on his staff—but they’ll learn with the years. Disappointment will seep in. Repeated failures with disgruntled, aggressive pupils see to that. The staff will perhaps join the pupils and rebel—give up. An unlikely event, since their livelihoods depend on it. Or they’ll stifle their dedication and save their nerves.

…So the headmaster looked up from the book he was reading and I felt guilty.
“This boy David,” I began. The book closed. Sad, tired eyes raised themselves up enquiringly. His face reflected an assumed interest.

“Yes, Mr. P. ?”
“He just doesn’t like Science—that’s all there is to it,” I said. “Can I put him in the library during these periods? He won’t learn. He hasn’t a capacity for Science.”
“We can’t help that.” A few papers were pointlessly shuffled. “Don’t accept so many explanations from these boys—they only make your job more difficult. Tell the boy you expect the work done. If he doesn’t do it, keep him in after school—and keep him in until it IS done.”
It was hopeless, of course, but I persisted.
“The boy is unhappy. His mother has no affection for him and there is tension between his parents.”
A little more useless paper shuffling, then:
“Don’t look for excuses. These boys must do what is asked. You always seem to get emotionally involved. Don’t. It doesn’t help your discipline. Just do the teaching and take it for granted they’ll follow. They will if you insist. Don’t get side-tracked on these sort of issues.”

Problem solved. The book was carefully reopened at the page to intimate the interview was over. I was left wondering how any teacher could inspire without being emotionally involved. Surely it means just that—an emotional involvement with one or more pupils. Of course, the system of packing thirty boys into a room with one teacher who is expected to be a light and inspiration to them all is absurd. The Ancient Greeks knew the answer, but unfortunately their method was not extended to the masses. No Government can afford to experiment along those lines because in our too complex society the individual doesn’t count any more. The Greeks gave the warning long ago—the individual must be more important than the society.

“The greatest training (not education) for the greatest number”—this is the adage of our school system. The Government, that far remote body with its hierarchy of serving officers, is well out of touch with those who are expected to apply their rules, and even further removed from those who are forced to obey them. Of course, amenities are available for the recalcitrant in the form of Child Guidance Clinics, but I have never yet succeeded in getting a boy into the hands of a person who has done more than the merest superficial remedial work. The surprisingly high number of stammerers in our schools shows this: little, usually absolutely nothing—is done to help them.

I have 32 boys in my form. They are in their third year—average age about 14. It is a typical “B” stream of a Secondary Modern School. Here are some details concerning a few of them.

1. Father and Mother separated. Mother regards son as a husband substitute and appears amazed to find boy is uncontrolled. He has been unruly but has responded to a very personal approach, and welcomes opportunities to be a child and not an adult.
2. Repeated migraine keeps this boy away from school. No action or treatment from his doctor. Parents are quite indifferent and lack common sense, though they are kindly.
3. Noisy, boisterous child, who has been in the courts for petty stealing three times in the last year. No serious work done to resolve his problems. He has no parents and lives with his grandmother who is too old to cope.
4. A difficult child who gets temper tantrums and has tried to injure himself by banging his head against the playground wall. Father a dominant ex-army sergeant who believes in “the iron fist” upbringing. “It did me no harm—made a man of me,” he says. Father divorced and boy hates his step-mother. Boy recommended for Child Guidance. After three short talks with “a nice lady” he was discharged, and the tantrums continue.
5. A long history of truancy, dishonesty, migraine and asthma. Mother is baffled by his disorders and says she can’t understand the child. After successive interviewing her confidence was won and she admitted the boy is illegitimate, but he has been led to believe that the man he regards as his father is his father. Mother says his real father was a cruel man who “used the belt on me often.” The boy feels a tension at home, especially with his “father”. There is lately an added burden—the arrival of a baby which “was an accident” and “is an awful nuisance to us all”. The quotes are the mother’s.
6. An inaccessible, quiet, introvert with no personality. Parents show no interest in his education and have not appeared at the school. Boy now opening up a little and has become emotionally upset because of the frequent quarrels between his parents. There are repeated threats that they will part and the boy doesn’t know which side to take.
7. This boy has no interest in anyone or anything. He seems spoiled by well-to-do parents (hairdressers) who have guaranteed him a “cushy job” in the family firm. Has had frequent intercourse with 13 and 14 year old girls and has also homosexual tendencies. He regards all these activities with pride, feeling it is a flout at authority.
8. A pleasant lad who is experiencing difficulty with certain teachers who use an authoritative approach. This makes him react aggressively. His father uses this method and the boy resents it, but is unable to demonstrate his resentment. His father lost one arm during the war and is envious of the boy being able to be “the man of the house” by doing all the jobs he cannot do. He says the boy is trying to usurp his authority and tries to make him feel inferior in the home.
9. An extremely pleasant boy who is very emotional, craving affection. He shines academically only when shown affection and when a special interest is taken in him. His father and mother live together but decided three years ago to go their own ways. He is rarely at home—“preferring the company of the chaps in the local” she says. The mother has an affair with a man residing in the room upstairs whom the boy has come to know as his Uncle Peter. This man spoils him and encourages his extravagant ways. The boy has definite homosexual tendencies.
10. A stammerer. Father and mother are keen Salvation Army workers who have little understanding of the problems their child is experiencing. Mother says, “He’ll grow out of it. We have faith, both of us. We know.” I hope, for the boy’s sake, they do.

11. Rather inattentive and dreamy. Lives within himself. Not surprising. His father is in prison serving a long sentence for robbery.

In my form there is also an Indian, a boy from Hong Kong, another from Morocco and two from Ghana. I had one from Cyprus but he was removed to a remand school because he was discovered by a police constable masturbating a boy of twelve behind a bush on a common.

How is it possible with such diversity, to make them fit into a scheme? It is to be expected that any teacher, however conscientious must by the sheer force of the burden, break under the strain and adopt a less serious attitude if his sanity is to be kept. How can he gain the confidence of every pupil? A man cannot turn himself into 32 personalities. And how can he cope with the boy who is resentful because he has been made to feel a failure by finding himself damned to a “lower stream”, no matter how hard he works? The Grammar Schools are streamed into A, B, and C forms in just the same manner. Naturally the reputation of the school rests with examination results, so the A’s are favoured—the élite. A “good” school is the one with “good” results. Exams are the currency of education and the rot spreads to the staff rooms. The A stream teachers pride themselves as being the chosen, while the C stream teachers are regarded with a certain disdain.

As well as this, the scramble after “special allowances” for supposed responsibilities can only be compared with what goes on in the worst type of business concerns. These privileged members are naturally envied, and the jealousies ferment. It is the fault of the system which does not recognise that all teachers, no matter whom or what they teach, are valuable contributors of equal importance.

Of course, this system exalts only the few academically minded pupils who, with their crushed individuality, succeed in knuckling down under the pressures. All incentives go to create schools which fit these and tolerate the rest. If the majority of pupils leaving our schools leave them free of bitterness, it is more luck than planning, for there is only boredom for those who do not shine at examinations. This is the age of Science and Technology and the Government intends to glorify only those things. No politician sincerely believes that the mind of a child is sacred—that it should be respected and encouraged to develop naturally—surely the real task of the teacher is to guide each child individually, not to force a group along one channel laid down by politicians. It is quite astonishing how few people realise the dangers arising from a system of education based on government policies—a government which holds the purse and calls the tune, whilst the teachers are the vassals who merely dance to it.

I see no way in which the position can be improved—at any rate, not so long as we have a State education. Of course, there are many dedicated teachers who are struggling against impossible odds in our State Schools. They are trying to create some sort of reform. Without them the position would be even worse.

The tragedy of it all is that schools can make a child into anything—a patriot or a traitor; a Fascist or a Rocker; a saint or a scourge; and almost, it seems, in spite of himself.