Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The last word

Last word

By popular demand, Leader has brought back The Last Word - the observations of school leaders on things that have made you groan, laugh, or want to crawl under the desk this month.

Now that I'm semi-retired, I spend time reminiscing, often about schools and teachers. How sad is that?

The teachers who taught me were a pretty stubborn lot. I don't think many of them would last very long in the present system - differentiation, assessment for learning, this strategy, that initiative - they wouldn't know what had hit them.

Jack Wimborne, as well as teaching science, taught us swimming. I quite liked swimming, but wasn't much good. One of Wimbornes's pet hates was the way in which some of us, like me, did the breaststroke, moving our arms continuously. He called us 'pudding-stirrers'.

I can hear his raucous sarcastic tones to this day. It was a fact, he stated, that the most efficient way of doing the breaststroke was to glide with arms straight forward between each stroke. Years later I was watching some swimming on TV and noted with surprise that 'pudding-stirrers' were winning gold medals.

Our knowledge about the most efficient way of swimming the breaststroke had changed. Jim Wimbourne would have said, like some of the wooden tops who have wielded and still wield power over teachers, that facts were facts. But he, and they, were wrong. And that's a fact.

I remember finding Chick Fraser's maths lessons reasonably interesting and enjoyable, nothing earth-shattering. But then, at the end of the year, he wrote on my report something I've always remembered.

You were lucky then if you got more than a couple of words - 'quite satisfactory', 'must improve' - alongside your percentage and your position in class. Chick wrote: "Has a creative approach to mathematics." My view of maths, and of myself, subtly, yet permanently, changed.

While I recall working with some superb teachers, it tends to be the monsters that stand out. As a young teacher I encountered Miss Hillman. She was a rock. To be more precise, she was a boulder.

That she was unmoveable was the eventual conclusion of a succession of heads of departments and senior managers. No one had heard of leadership back then but, in any case, leadership requires people willing to follow - and she wasn't.

Everyone simply had to find ways round her. A pear-shaped middle-aged woman with a perm and Dame Edna glasses, she had also been teaching in exactly the same way throughout her career - mechanically, predictably, deadeningly.

She would sit, legs wide apart, in the middle of the staffroom, cartoon-like, with a fag dangling from the corner of her mouth. On one famous occasion, a young colleague caught her on camera in just such a pose, with the added attraction of a glimpse of her voluminous drawers.

In a large school, her timetable consisted mostly of lower sets. The not-quite-remedial, as they were then known, seemed not unhappy about the endless exercises and copied notes.

They obediently droned through the same class readers every year, dated and predictable 'adventure' stories or castrated classics.

There was no question of oral work or drama, though I seem to recall some embarrassing choral speaking when every English class was required to contribute to a drama workshop. It was possible, come timetabling, to move them on to some other member of the large department.

Many years after I had moved on, I heard a SHA conference speaker who had once been her head of department, and had gone on to national renown, lament the fact that she was probably still in post, as impermeable as ever.

Though I have come across Miss Hillman look-alikes in most of the schools I have worked in, I am sometimes almost persuaded that they are a dying breed.

And then I read some government document (well, I doubt whether any sentient being actually reads them but you get the gist) and think that maybe they have all ended up in the civil service.

If you are unfortunate enough to have a Miss Hillman in your school, an unprecedented opportunity awaits your leadership team in the staffing structure review.

Now that, officially, 'every child matters', can you afford not to find a way of dealing with her once and for all?

Phil Taylor is a retired headteacher now working part-time as an adviser for Tameside LEA.

We are looking for additional contributors to The Last Word. If you would like to share your humorous, ironic, or even cynical observations about school life with other SHA members, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@sha.org.uk We do offer a modest honorarium for Leader contributions.

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