Saturday, April 25, 2009


As an inspector of secondary schools I observed, advised, graded, assisted hundreds of teachers. I saw lessons that humbled me - teachers performing magnificently against the odds, or with that brilliant flair that left one speechless with admiration. I saw students exploring excitedly as self-directed learners. Sometimes the learning charge in the atmosphere was so substantial I felt it could be cut into blocks and packaged - the elation was obvious. Sadly, there were also times when I saw kids getting short-changed.

Once as I watched a student pocketknife his name onto his desk, the teacher in me wanted to intervene, but the observer noted the depressing lesson, unclear instructions, chilly room, bored class, and the fact his knees could hardly fit under the table. His eyes met mine. He folded the knife away and sat sullenly still for the remainder of the lesson.

Furniture arrangements proved fascinating. Old schools tended to have big thick heavy desks but the newer ones had lighter furniture, which meant rooms could be quickly rearranged for different activities. A well-drilled class could do this very quickly. Indeed it was a yardstick for measuring the teacher’s control. Increasingly at that time, a U-shaped model was used, all desks facing the centre of the room. Some teachers had their desk behind the students, others at the front. Some taught standing behind their desk, others walked around the room. My admiration for Phys Ed, metalwork, woodwork, home economics and clothing teachers grew as I watched them cope with children in groups and often with different projects.

The boy who was chiseling on the desk I saw later in a workshop. He was leader of his group. The master asked him to show me his work. Proudly he did. This time his eyes met mine openly, conspiratorially almost. "Good work. How long did it take you?" "Not long. I am a quick worker, especially with the girls." - a cheery grin accompanied his boast. "You can say that again", a mate said, hilarity lurking close to the surface. I left the group, not too quickly, dignity must be maintained, but the circumstances were nearing compromise.

"Rough diamonds that bunch" said the teacher after they left. "That boy has a widowed Mum and three younger brothers. He delivers papers in the morning and works after school to earn extra money for the family. Most of this class have some form of work. I'm not sure we need work experience. Some of them, especially the sharemilkers’ kids, are too tired to do their schoolwork properly." As inspector with responsibility for work experience I could only nod at the complications of it all. Memo to oneself - beware of charm when least expected. No, chalk it up to the irrepressibility of the human spirit.

During one early visit I reported to the principal that a certain teacher was doing damage to the kids. He sighed and said "when you walk away I've still got the problem. He should go. I have told him but he doesn't hear what I am saying."
One of my colleagues muttered about disciplinary proceedings.
“That rips your staffroom apart. And it takes so long.”
"I'll go and tell him," I brightly said. So I did. When I asked him if he liked the job replied, "To tell you the truth I hate it". I had earlier observed his pain at the contempt of his classes.
"Why don't you leave then?"
"I haven't got the guts. Besides my old man's a teacher and he would see me as a failure. Where would I go?" It all poured out. "I'd have to give notice and I couldn't face the staffroom or the kids."
"We could help you go almost immediately and quietly."

The look of relief on the chap's face was touching. So it was arranged that afternoon. In the car on the way back to Hamilton the debate raged. I had broken one of the rules. "You could end up in a court case. They get the message with their grading." I knew I was safe - the teacher's thanks had been profuse. He had just needed that final push. Other times it was not so easy. "I loathe the job but a mortgage and three young kids, I'm trapped."

Thinking now about that action I realise that a few years later I would probably have been more cautious.[It’s a pity to have to admit that particular truth]. As someone fresh out of the classroom I saw the world differently from my more experienced colleagues. Down the years as I learnt the tricks of the bureaucratic world compromise and necessity blunted that youthful enthusiasm. When I moved to Wellington this pressure increased.

One day soon I’ll write a blog about teacher assessment. It’s going to be a hot potato under this government. If you have ideas about it let me have your comments.

Harvey McQueen

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