Learning to Teach

I found a post at one of the new comprehensive schools. My first degree was in Hispanic Studies. The school already had a Spanish teacher but a maths teacher was badly needed. I had gained a distinction in maths in my school certificate. This was more than good enough to teach the pupils. I was accepted and taught the subject for five years, three at the comprehensive and two, part-time in a girls’ grammar school when we moved into our first bought house in the delightful village of Little Hallingbury. Didn’t the boys like that? We lived on one side of the village green. The boys loved the week-end and the holidays because they could ride their bikes freely and safely, exploring the beautiful countryside there.

What did I learn from my first teaching post? That I was a natural-born teacher. I knew instantly, after one lesson, who were the children who were not happy and what I could do to give them extra help. This was easy in a subject like maths because most of the time was taken up by teaching a new method on the blackboard and then giving the children examples to solve. As I wandered round the room to see how they were getting out, I soon recognised those who were in difficulties and I developed my own techniques to help them to work things out for themselves. I asked them to tell me about every step of the way, so that they soon realised where they went wrong.

If we respond quickly to a certain subject, it is because we have picked something up so fast that we are not aware of the small steps we take to get there. At school I was a good mathematician but not a brilliant one. I had to spend more time on my work than the best pupils. Unlike many other subjects, if we miss out a step in solving a maths problem, it will hold us back until we have found the missing part.

I think it is likely that most of us have found ourselves in a position that we find difficult and someone else says “It’s easy!” It doesn’t do much for our ego does it? However we must remember that the cleverest of us soon have to struggle when we find ourselves in new ground. It happens to me many times when I am using my computer. We older ones who are faced with new procedures, entirely different from anything we have ever seen before, get into this position. No-one has ever written a simple enough manual. Too much is left out. If we ask a question, what usually happens is the “helper” goes through each step so fast that we have to keep saying, “Slow down, slow down”, or “What button did you press then?”

My colleagues in the department were far ahead of me with degrees in maths but that didn’t matter because I had enough knowledge to teach them what they needed to know. But I managed to help a larger number of pupils who were convinced that they were stupid. I happen to know the answer to the secret of being able to find a way into most other people’s minds when it is necessary. No-one is ever taught how to do this, it is a gift which you are either born with or without. This applies also to all the REAL painters, writers, and discoverers of all sorts of things but without it, we are stuck with merely copying other people. Don’t waste your time on learning how to write a good book, for instance. You will only learn techniques and grammar. The source of all the best comes from our inner self and life experience. Real writers tell stories as soon as they can talk. They find new material every day by noticing and wondering about everything that they see. We all have our own way of noticing (or not noticing!) the world around us. The character of the writer, artist and all kinds of creative people is reflected in their work. That is why it is so easy to recognise who writes or paints what. We like those things that reflect back to us our own choices of what is beautiful and what is not.

Teaching in two very different kinds of schools taught me many of the main characteristics of both teachers and pupils. I also learned that the new ideas were going in the wrong direction. There has always been a lot of bad education, as some of our best writers, such as Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and the Swiss psychotherapist, Alice Miller, with her ideas about the damage done to children by poisonous pedagogy, have told us because the aim of those in power have concentrated mostly on fitting people into the cultures into which we are born and teaching them to do monotonous and dangerous jobs for the benefit of a small number of greedy people who want to make money. Real education is helping children to find out what they do best and to encourage them. If people are treated as individuals from the moment they are born, instead of slaves, society is likely to provide all of us with what we really need. Karl Marx had the same idea but he was misunderstood. Those who want to dominate us and turn us into slaves will always misinterpret good writers. Nietzsche is one of my favourite philosophers who really cared about the freedom of men and the damage that is caused by many kinds of organised religion. People often quote his well-known phrase: God is Dead. Everyone has their own ideas of what the word “god” means. It is not a rejection of spirituality: another word which tries to give a name to something we all recognise but cannot know. Hitler turned his ideas into their opposite to suit his purpose.