This is a rather unusual post from me, but it follows on the back of a nagging feeling that, too frequently, it is implied that if you advocate a traditional education for all children, then you are not sufficiently ‘child-centred’, or caring, or compassionate for the needs of children. Traditionalism is too frequently associated with elitism, when in fact the former is the best means we have of challenging the latter. So what follows is an apology for traditional teaching: as traditionalists, we do what we do because we care about children.
To my former students,
What do I remember from teaching you?
There were times I just told you a story.
It’s one of the privileges of being a history teacher. It’s like the stories you read in English, but the events actually happened. I remember teaching your class when I was a newly qualified teacher: I pulled out every trick in my ‘100 Fun Activities’ book, but none of them seemed to work. Then, one Thursday afternoon, I hadn’t got round to planning you a lesson. So when you all came in I just sat on my desk and I told you the story of the English Civil War, of Charles’ relationship with Parliament and how it all fell to pieces. You all sat bolt upright and listened for about half an hour. I then wrote a simple question on the board (something like ‘why did the English Civil War break out in 1642?’) and you all just got your heads down and wrote. I never underestimated the power of story again.
I made you read a lot.
Actually, I made you read an awful lot. Do you remember that lesson at the end of the summer term? You were all already on holiday in your heads and I was pretty close too, and I was tempted to whack on the DVD that you requested. But I didn’t. I gave you that chapter on Napoleon to read. Why? Quite simply, because someone who leaves school having never heard of the man who fundamentally reshaped Europe as we know it has not yet had a good enough education in modern history. That year I just had one hour a week with you and there was simply no way that I was going to waste a moment of your time.
I could be boring.
And sometimes you let me know it. But I don’t think I was always boring and the times when you left my lesson with a smile and a quiet nod told me that you were in this for the long haul. Sometimes I thought I was being boring but you were listening hard: my rather dry run through the family tree of the Angevin monarchs inspired you to go home and research the ins and outs of the family politics of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I was very pleased when you surprised me with your project. Not every lesson was all-singing and all-dancing, but when I did put on something unusual it felt special.
I punished you when you needed to be punished.
There were times when we didn’t get on at all, and I bet you thought I hated you. But I didn’t. I knew that everyone’s success depended on every single person in the class following the rules. We had some pretty simple rules and there was a time when I kept picking you up for shouting out. I must have given you three detentions that week. I phoned your mum as well and when you came back you sulked. But you got over it. You started working hard and, though there were times when I had to remind you, you fell into line well enough. At the end of a lesson a week later you smiled at me on the way out, and I knew things were on the mend.
Sometimes I let you fail.
I didn’t do it because I was nasty, and I’m pretty sure you knew that. That look on your face when you had put all that effort into your essay and I marked it harshly said it all, and it would have been easier in the short term for us both if I had just given prizes for all. But I put a brave face on it and gave you lots of words of encouragement for how you could do better next time. I hope you knew like I did that sometimes I had to let you stand on your own two feet, and that sometimes this meant that you would fail.
We had some fun for the sake of fun.
Do you remember that hot July afternoon at the end of term? I was setting up to teach you about the Richard III but you all looked like you were about to collapse. So I just printed out some pages of Shakespeare’s Richard III and we went out onto the lawn and we performed it as a class. Your line “I wish the bastards dead” still rings in my ears. Did you learn something? Perhaps. But I didn’t feel the need to dress everything single thing we did in school in the language of objectives and learning outcomes: I thought it was a bit cool, most of you lot did too, and so we went and did it.
There was the time you said “Sir, I think you just love history a bit too much”. You were probably right. Someone else said “If history looked liked a person, it would probably look like you sir”. I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not, but I took it as one. We covered a lot of history and that is what I was there for. I love my subject and I wanted you to know as much about it as possible. I wasn’t going to patronise you because you got free school meals: if it was important for the boy who was sat next to you, the son of a barrister, then it was good for you as well.
And this was the thing. I wasn’t there to be your parent, though there were times when I needed to be that for a few children in your class. I wasn’t there to be your counsellor, or your social worker or your babysitter. I wasn’t there to be your friend.
I was there to be your teacher.