Monday, August 17, 2009

Melville High School

As I’d shot through the grades, after six years secondary teaching I was eligible for promotion. With the baby boomers reaching the secondary stage existing schools were bursting at the seams and new schools were being opened in the new suburbs. Such a school in Hamilton, Melville, was in its second year of existence. It advertised a position of Head of Department, English.

I applied and went across for an interview. B.T.Smith, the principal, said, "if we appoint you I want you to do English 111 extra-murally." I agreed. A few evenings later he rang to offer me the position. It never occurred to me to stay on at Thames High School. Any secondary teacher worth their salt those day assumed upward mobility and promotion. I was nowhere near running on empty but the grades gained it was time to shift the caravan. (Unfair, my first wife was just getting established too).

The English Department at Melville had up till then been run by the Deputy-Principal. BT appointed me in time to select the fifth form set books - Cry The Beloved Country, The Time Machine, Animal Farm, Macbeth and Pygmalion. A new library was being built. "Except for basic stock we have left ordering until the new HOD was appointed." Heaven, to begin a library from scratch. A new school means lots of new staff - usually good people, the principal has a wide selection from whom to choose. Eagerly I wrote a new scheme.

BT, a devout Baptist, one of nature's gentleman and an excellent principal, appointed good people and let them get on with their job. At the same time he held deep pastoral concern for his students. The school already housed a deaf unit and a special work experience class for students experiencing great learning difficulties. His leadership was the good shepherd model. Self-critical, he was quick to praise and slow to blame others. The brightest kids in Hamilton tended to go the single-sex schools but he quickly established a reputation for Melville.

The third form English class I got, (still streamed), first year up was the sharpest class I ever taught. The School Cert class was also very keen. Indeed, a student in that class passed School Certificate English with 97%. My reputation was made. In terms of value addition I had done much more with some of her peers. A few of these had worked their hearts out. But they still failed. A brilliant student, she had a high IQ and came from a home where books and conversation were valued. The co-relation between the IQ and School Certificate English was 89%. She had the ability to pass the examination long before she entered my classroom.

It was no good arguing that correlation to parents or students. Indeed, carried to its logical conclusion it suggests the teacher is redundant. But 97% meant parents and students assumed my capacity to get people good exam marks, an assumption I did not confidently share. What her mark did, however, was give me an authority in the classroom and the ability to demand assignments be handed in and be well done.

BT's pastoral concern meant, however, that students suspended from other schools tended to be picked up by Melville. Many of these were tough nuts. Despite pleas from the staff BT kept them on - they were souls to be saved. Reaching these people in class was a test of teaching skills.

However, then, 1966, I was young, confident, indeed cocksure, creative, and in a dynamic situation. Growth breeds success. Further, I was in charge of my Department. Although my staff and I met regularly, I set the curriculum objectives in English. BT insisted I take the top classes, he knew the importance of exam successes for the school's reputation. At the same time he wanted me, an objective with which I concurred, to take the bottom fourth form with its collection of misfits and slow learners. From my second year on I did the school timetable. The first block I put on the chart was my bottom fourth form English last period on Friday. That never shifted. As the rest of fourth form English coincided, most English teachers always taught last period of the week at Melville. They did not appreciate that.

Doing the timetable proved an invaluable professional experience. One saw the relationship between subjects and how the curriculum worked. Choices had to be made that affected learning and lives. There was a need to balance morning and afternoon periods. Certain subject teachers wanted double periods, others detested them. Woodwork liked doubles, French and German in the same column wanted a period every day of the week. When the senior exam classes left in mid-November I started on this task but always came back to finish it in the last fortnight of January. My aim was a draft model in place when school started, and as soon as possible – the final roll number was crucial - a definitive version. Staff movement during the year could cause another reshuffle.

Hamilton was grounded in its surrounding, prosperous, dairy countryside. The last time I made a winter visit to Waikato University the acrid smell of ensilage reminded me of the agricultural origins of the city. When I lived there they had just planted the trees that now make it such a lovely campus. Melville was part of this growth. Its kids were suburban kids with a few bussed in from the farms south of the city.

My first TV was bought in Hamilton. There was only one channel. .

Soon it was time to choose the texts for the seventh form - a mixture of old and new, Arden, Auden, Emily Bronte, Hardy, George Herbert, Keats and Orwell. The Shakespeare choice was laid down in the exam prescription. I never questioned the need to teach his drama - indeed, it was the highlight of the year. I took the students out to the tennis courts or the hall-stage to walk through the scenes from their plays - bike pumps for rapiers.

I advocated English teaching based around literature. Entering a text in the company of students is slipping into unknown territory. Like a guide leading a big game hunting party one anticipates adventure but there is often the unexpected as suddenly beneath the hackneyed response appears a hurtful truth, a genuine insight, a burning desire as words and student collide and strike sparks.

Ever restless, once an activity was mastered, I took on new tasks, producing the school play, Sixth Form Dean, membership of the Parent-Teacher Committee. I became the branch PPTA (Post-Primary Teachers Association) chair and then was elected to the Waikato region executive. This meant attending annual conference in Wellington.

It was a time of teacher shortage. Graduates were recruited from Britain. Some of them were given pressure cooker training at Melville. I was in charge. In one term we turned them into teachers. Later, when I inspected these people the pitfalls of such training were obvious. They had learnt my style but had little to compare it with. It suited my personality, often not theirs. The lesson - teacher educators need to and indeed do separate professional skills from personality traits. Some good teachers use humour a lot, others very rarely. Some are extroverts, some introverts. But all have a range of skills which enables them to engage attention and promote learning.

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