2. Mar, 2017


Dear Derek,
So at the ripe old age of 18 you have decided you want to teach, and of all subjects, History!
My advice?
Don’t do it unless,
1. You believe it to be the most important job in the world.
2. You can accept that it is a rough old trade and that your students are under no obligation to learn from you.
3. You have clear aims and know exactly why you want to do it.
You are there to help children grow up by speaking to them on their present level of development before extending their experience to the next through the use of historical material.
Remember that “History” consists of “Product” (that which we think we know, which is provisional and comes to us incrementally) and “Process” (how we find out that which we think we know).
Never forget that you are not there to teach your students what to think but HOW to think. Introducing them to the concepts of change, cause and effect, empathy, how to compare and evaluate the different conclusions of experts in the same field and above all how to detect bias in evidence will encourage them to question everything, not least their own minds. These are skills transferable to the worlds of work and everyday life. In short you will be turning them into that which all governments fear… Critically Literate.
No student has the right to leave school ignorant of that, whether they want to or not!
Crucial to all your work are the Army’s six “Ps”…”Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” Always plan long term. Amateurs think tactically, professionals, strategically. Always aim for a high level of competence and not the platonic perfect lesson There will come the time when the most meticulously planned lesson will go down like a lead balloon. Do not blame the kids, (even if it is their fault). Doing so will teach you nothing. (A high level of competence? When you finish a lesson having told the class nothing, yet by the quality of your questions, they will have told you everything.
This inevitably brings me to the subject of discipline. Victoria’s army, hardly the most liberal of institutions abolished corporal punishment on the grounds that it made a good man bad and a bad man worse. The only real discipline comes with captured interest.
You will find that your first school will almost certainly be streamed A to E. The A and E streams will get the best teaching, albeit for totally different reasons. The B and C streams will provide few problems, being judges capable of following watered down A stream courses.
This brings me to the D streams, as in society as a whole perceived to be unloved and unlovable. Therein will almost certainly lay your main problem- the 3% seemingly impervious to all blandishments and who if allowed to expand to 5% will turn a good school into a bad one. As a young and inexperienced teacher, I promise that you will see more than your fair share of them. Very little has been written about teaching these students, not considered bright enough to follow an A stream syllabus but too bright for the E stream equivalent.
Yes you can give up on them but remember that you will be turning your back on the kids with whom we grew up- our people. Learn how to motivate them and you will have few other problems in classroom teaching.
Mention of “Classroom” brings me to your place in the educational hierarchy. Never forget that everyone from a Secretary of State down to the humblest assistant school caretaker exists for one sole purpose…to enable you to teach your students as effectively as possible and for them to learn as effectively as possible.
If the hierarchy doesn’t so perform, then remembering Peter Ustinov’s line “those who rise to the top do so because they lack the ability that would otherwise sustain them at the bottom,” confront them not so much by frontal assault as boring from within.
You will soon learn that academic standards could be radically improved overnight by good teachers being paid enough to stay in the classroom rather than leaving it for promotion in admin jobs in their own little offices away from the kids.
Finally, what will you have to look forward to after a lifetime at the chalk face? Certainly not riches! Your only real touchstone for success will be when you meet ex-students who do not at first recognise you but who in subsequent conversation unselfconsciously reveal the critical literacy you encouraged them to develop. You will then know that you have rendered the everlasting “good service unto the state” that over several generations will improve and enrich it.
There are few things worse than ignorant people with a legitimate grievance. As teachers we must remove the former and as political activists, the latter.
Your old self,