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Steve Lamb - Teacher training

(March 01, 2015)

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.

 

Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)

Teacher Training

At the start of the seventies there was no national curriculum and because of wholesale staff changes there was no agreed scheme of work being followed by the school's English department. We were free to teach according to what we believed was appropriate until the pupils began their GCE courses. I had been appointed to teach in the grammar school although I had not followed a teacher training course. In those days, a graduate was qualified to teach in a grammar school but not in a primary or secondary modern. No curriculum and no training: what was I to do? I did the simplest thing; I copied the pattern of English teaching that I had received in my education in Birmingham. I taught five 35 minute lessons to each class each week. Monday was comprehension; Tuesday was composition and grammar; Wednesday – poetry; Thursday – the set novel; Friday - play reading, not drama, pupils were not expected to get up from behind their all in one, sit up and beg, combined seats and desks. Good order was very important and I soon learned that the headmaster would enter any classroom where quiet, concentrated effort was not evident. That was the routine I established with my classes and it made planning simple. Written homework had to be set, collected and marked each week and there were exams at Christmas and in the summer term.

Once pupils got used to my Birmingham accent and I learned to modify my pronunciation of some words then things progressed well. I remember the word ‘pup’ was a stumbling block. I had to avoid any comprehension passages about dogs because every time I read the word pup, boys and girls came close to spontaneous combustion. They could not laugh out loud and suppressing hysteria nearly brought on apoplexy. I didn't have a first aid qualification either. Just try saying ‘pup’ with a nasal Midlands twang while thrusting your lower jaw forward and hardly opening your mouth. That's the best way to imitate an inexperienced Brummy teacher trying his best in a valleys classroom. It sounds the same as the south Wales term for poo. That's just the sort of humour that kids love and teachers hate.

The routine of school life was established without hiccups but when I woke up in my digs some mornings I felt guilty. My teaching seemed like just a poor imitation of what I had received. What could I do to make my practice better? Many of my university friends were still in Aberystwyth following post-graduate teaching courses. I decided to join them at half term and sneak in to lectures to see if I could discover a magic ingredient or at least pick up some tips on how to improve my skills.

At that time the Aberystwyth education department was in a barn of a building opposite the town railway station. Anybody could have walked in if they were eccentric enough to want an hour in a crowded lecture room listening to an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of rival educational philosophies. That lecture told me a lot about the tutor's research skills but nothing about the classrooms I was getting to love.

Luckily there was a visiting lecturer who was an actual secondary school teacher on a sabbatical. He had been on a Churchill Scholarship visit to Australia where he had taught creative writing in a large urban comprehensive school. He talked with passion about his successes and his failures in engaging young people's minds. He was concerned that for too many learners their school time was an entirely passive experience. Education was something being done to them. He argued the case for putting more onus on children and young people to take the initiative in their work. Concentrating on creative writing, he urged his listeners to set more open tasks for their pupils. He mocked the traditional ‘My First Week in School’ or ‘My Favourite Holiday’. He argued that if you caught your pupils early enough then you could ensure they would react imaginatively to single word titles or to pictures or pieces of music. They would respond in contrasting and interesting ways. For the teacher, marking and correcting would be far less tedious.

He described his last lesson in the north Sydney school where he had spent most of his time, he had simply drawn a spiral on the board with his chalk held along its length. Boys and girls just got on with their writing and no two pupils interpreted the task in the same way. He instructed the trainee teachers sitting before him, and one actual teacher trespassing, to keep their eyes and ears open at all times for possible stimuli to take into the classroom.

In response to a question from a student worried that he was focusing so much on creative skills he went on to talk about spelling, grammar and punctuation. What he said remained with me for my thirty years in the classroom. Marking and correcting had to be done for a purpose. Praise achievement; make clear one or two ways that work could be improved. Never mark or correct more errors than will help a pupil to improve. Begin lessons with one or two examples of effective work but look to motivate a whole class not just polish the egos of the most able. Go on to illustrate between three and five common errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation from that week’s homework in order to show how to avoid those mistakes. Just before the end of the lesson or even at the door as pupils are leaving for their next classes, quiz them randomly about these learning points. Make it good humoured but give it purpose. He excited me and I tried to use his advice throughout my career.

The next week, safely back in school after a taste of teacher training, I tried the chalk swirl idea with my eleven year olds. I still have a copy of the poem one girl wrote:

Angry, I throw the brick into dirty water
The waves in rings move across the pond
quick at first and then more slowly
Until at last the water's calm again
Like my temper

I was astonished at the difference in the kind of work that was produced. The exercise must have been so off the wall that she could not play guess what teacher wants and just went for it in a self-reflective way. November 1972 and I can still feel the thrill of seeing children using imagination, experience and facility with language together effectively.

Soon afterwards I saw an eye-catching photo in the Sunday Times Colour Supplement. It was a simple image of a child's bare feet resting one on top of the other. When a boy arrived at class the next week with his right arm, his writing arm, in a sling, I got him to pose sitting on my desk with his bare feet arranged similarly. I asked the class to write in response to what they saw. I can't remember what the finished work was like generally but I know the youngsters worked with enthusiasm and one short poem that reads like something influenced by Japanese poetry remains with me until today:

Poor toes - like sausages
Baking all day
in an oven of leather

My visit to Aberystwyth gave me a morning of teacher training but its impact lasted my whole career.

Steve Lamb, March 2015

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:
          "... the best thing that happened to me in school", December 2014
          The punishment, September 2014
          The interview, June 2014

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