Cameron Wyllie: Teachers now are better than the past’s ‘real characters’

The unconventional teaching methods of Jean Brodie, seen played by Maggie Smith, wouldn't cut the mustard today
The unconventional teaching methods of Jean Brodie, seen played by Maggie Smith, wouldn't cut the mustard today
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Modern teachers are, for the most part, much better than their counterparts 50 years ago despite the rose-tinted memories of many in middle age about their school days.

According to our age, and thus our distance from the reality, our school days are viewed through lenses both distorted and coloured, often of a rosy tint. In particular, we memorialise our teachers, and we can end up eulogising people who we didn’t actually like very much at the time. Or, indeed, learn much from – the eccentric; the easily diverted; the overly strict; the ‘real character’.

Time and time again, we hear people in middle age talking about how great their teachers were. I do it too – I became an English teacher because I was taught by a great English teacher, James Caw, now sadly gone – a clever, humane and

witty man, who indisputably changed the whole direction of my life and led me to a career that I loved (that was teaching English, incidentally, not being a headteacher – that was a different ballgame).

The truth of the matter, though, is that for all this sentiment, those of us who haven’t been schoolchildren for a while have to face the fact – teachers are a great deal better today than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago. There are exceptions on both sides, but today’s teaching profession is just that – professional: better trained, better scrutinised and better organised. It’s much more difficult to get into teaching these days. In 1979 when I graduated, I just walked into Moray House College to train – one application form did the trick. These days it’s a tough day’s interviewing, group work, assessments and you have to be better qualified to start with.

In the later stages of my career, I watched lots of young teachers teach, just turning up in their classrooms unannounced to save them from buying fireworks. Almost without exception their lessons were painstakingly prepared, varied and thought through, and entirely relevant.

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I remember telling one young maths teacher that if she had taught me, I would have been a maths teacher (somewhere the ghost of my actual maths teacher laughed hollowly). Someone like me – dependent on telling lots of jokes, slapdash with my diary and not exactly up to speed with IT – wouldn’t cut the mustard these days, for all my passion and confidence. Nowhere is this truer than in the area now called the ‘expressive arts’. When, years ago, the powers that be decided that there were too many heads of department in schools, they invented a faculty system to save money which absolutely nobody liked. So the scientists, for example, were all lumped together, which to the layman might seem fine, but try telling a physicist that a biologist is now in charge! So art, music and drama were pushed into a boat and again that might seem sensible enough, but they had to put PE somewhere and so the PE teachers all climbed aboard (good sea legs, PE teachers in the main, and a good influence on the drama teachers if the boat ever looked like sinking. PE teachers are generally very happy people, bless them!)

So please think about the people who taught you these subjects years back. In my case, I was in a boys’ school, so while we got to do plays, there was no professional drama teaching, presumably on the grounds that drama was considered, in essence, an effeminate pursuit (I couldn’t possibly comment on the reasonableness of that view).

However, in art, in music and in PE, there was, at least as I understand the word, not really any ‘teaching’ at all. In the art class of my youth we tried to draw things, and, to misquote Macbeth, “if we failed, we failed’. My art teacher in S2 was a young guy and he, sensing my hopelessness, used to sit and talk to me about pop music; indeed he sold me some albums cheap. It might have been better, all things considered, if he had explained why the people in my pictures all looked like balloons.

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I could sing, so music was better, where the kindly but ancient teacher went round the class of 10-year-olds saying “you can sing”, and “please stop singing” until he had the choir picked – those who couldn’t sing just sat and read.

And, most parlous of all was PE (or ‘gym’ as we knew it) where great kindness was shown towards me in my capacity as a skinny wee uncoordinated ... oh I don’t know what the word is. I remember once Mr Hastie, a very fine man, becoming exasperated during a game of rounders and shouting, “Wyllie, you don’t throw a ball like that!”, marching over and showing me how to hold the bloody thing which I then, of course, could throw from that point on. It was a rare moment

of ... teaching.

How times have changed. A few years ago in my capacity as a senior manager I was selected to “quality assure” the work of the PE department. I have no idea why. Anyway I found myself one brisk November day watching a group of

girls being taught in the school playground. I was, I’m sure, unobserved in my observation, while they started off on a run, and then watched while the teacher, rather than standing smoking a fag like the teachers of my youth, ran beside the slowest girl, and encouraged her along, stopping with her to take a break, then took them inside and started coaching them in volleyball skills. What different days it could have been for those of us, as Janis Ian puts it, “whose names were never called, when choosing sides for basketball”.

The same is true in art and in music, where the warm kindness of the teachers flows through the room while they teach the necessary skills to write a mazurka, or make a pot or design a dress or play a xylophone; where talent is recognised and appreciated, but where the talentless at least learn something. And everyone does drama too! So today I take my hat off (I may have mentioned my hat before) to teachers of the “expressive arts” – thank you for letting the children of Scotland express themselves. I wish you were teaching me half a century past.

Cameron Wyllie publishes a blog called A House in Joppa