Mixing the methods #lessonswecanlearnfromteachers

14 March 2016
Long Game Articles

This article is an extract from a forthcoming book, The Long Game: The Lessons We Can Learn From Long-Serving Teachers. The aim was to interview long-serving teachers, listen to their stories and see if I could draw out any lessons from their experiences. Constructive comments are welcome; they will help me make it a better book.

Barry Wellington grew up in rural Cornwall in a situation very different from the other participants in the book. I met him a year after he had retired at his home in east London. As he spoke about his childhood, I noticed the Cornish burr in his accent. I felt he had “softened” since retiring. While always very friendly, he had been a formidable, domineering presence in school; retirement had enabled this posture to fall away. For me, as he spoke, he evoked a lost world hidden in the depths of the Cornish countryside. He said:

I was born in 1952. I was born in a farm in which the family still live. It was a family farm where the family had moved to in 1900. My father was a farmer, and we had a big extended family around us, grandparents and great-grandparents. It was a very comfortable upbringing. It was situated in a village called Sweetshouse which is a hamlet really, a farm and a few cottages. It was a very, very tight knit community, a very sociable one. I’ve got one sister who is a teaching assistant and still at work in Cornwall in a primary school down there.

I went to a local primary school, Livery County Primary, which was idyllic in one way because you got lots of attention; there were only 45 pupils in total, and nine children in one class. It was a school reform school, it was built in 1857. Lovely building. The headteacher was a wonderful lady, her first cousin was the infants’ teacher, and the two dinner ladies were her first cousins as well. They were a real family concern.

It was really good; you were looked after, it was fun, pleasant, caring environment. They hadn’t been trained but they were really good at the basics; the 3Rs, but, of course, they used to encourage you if you had a hobby, a subject which interested you, they would let you get on with it. Lots of drama, lots of puppeteering, all sorts of things which were really quite good. Fun really. The discipline was “there”, you never tested it. In 1960, we got a £50 grant from Cornwall County Council to get a proper library; it was the first time when we had the chance to choose our own books. Because before you that you had to read Victorian stuff, which you’d put on a bonfire now. It was good.

The headmistress, who only died a couple of years ago at the age of 104, she’d taught my father in the 1930s, when she was quite a young woman, she was a pupil teacher. So I had no properly trained teachers until I went to the grammar school, and that was highly disputable if they were trained as well.

Barry’s account shows that what often works best with children is a mixture of traditional instruction, giving them autonomy and encouraging creativity. The school enabled the students to do well because it did cover the basics – the 3Rs – but it also fostered things like drama and puppeteering. Furthermore, it let the pupils pursue their own interests if they wanted. It’s a formula that appears to work.

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