Wednesday, August 19, 2009

At Melville

When Melville High School, a new state school in Hamilton, reached the stage of having a Sixth Form I was given new responsibilities. I was made Dean for that form. And the principal asked me to run a sixth form programme called Liberal Studies – unexplored curriculum terrain.

Being Dean meant many pastoral and guidance responsibilities. Personal problems I handed over to the guidance counsellor as soon as possible but career and curriculum took quite a bit of time. And tact. Kids would try to change classes in order to get the better teachers. They believed they knew where they would get the best deal whereas I had to look at it from the school's end. It was no good having one very large class and one small class on at the same time. Sometimes they got it wrong - popularity was not necessary the sign of the best teacher.

This pastoral dimension is interesting. Our State funded system is secular. In 1877 when it was founded the issue was hotly debated. Since then, however, as in America and Britain, the teaching profession has taken on a priestly role, not in terms of dogma, but in terms of values and care. Some argue that it is not a function of the school - the job is to educate. Others claim it is and actively promote the role - the ending of ignorance will bring in the blessed state.

The vast majority of teachers see it more simply. If they see a vacuum, (or is it a niche), they fill it. "The hungry mouths look up and are not fed". Any teacher worth her or his salt recognises demand and attempts to deal with it. A hungry, sleepy, distressed student will not learn unless these basic needs are met.

For Liberal Studies a double period was allocated, every Wednesday afternoon. I formed a student committee to help me organise the series of guest speakers. The venue was the library filled with beanbags as well as chairs. We ran the sessions fairly informally. Policemen on drugs, clergymen on faith, lawyers on rights, farmers on production, old soldiers defending war and pacifists attacking it, Ruakura scientists on research, university lecturers out to sell their subjects and politicians - Mike Minogue then the local mayor or Sir Leslie Munro, the local MP on the United Nations.

The Russian cultural attache came - the security service checked out that my invitation was genuine, "what are you doing letting him brainwash them. Why are you teachers so leftish?" "You're probably on some list in Wellington now, sir." His attacks upon Pasternak saw the students counter-attacking. There was little chance of him gaining any sympathisers. Someone came from the South African embassy. Again, my attempts at being even-handed got lost as the students got stuck in to him over apartheid. The students themselves ran sessions on issues. It developed more and more as an idea think-tank. The only rules I strove for were courtesy and a fair hearing. Passion (which includes intolerance) was permissible provided it was expressed with civility.

Other schools followed suit. We organised a seventh form student political seminar for all the Hamilton schools - Sir John Marshall and Arnold Nordmeyer. Sir John made a mistake when he began ‘boys and girls’. Nordie didn’t, ‘ladies and gentlemen. I didn’t hear much of Sir John’s speech, I was outside the lecture hall physically preventing a group of university students from entering and delivering a verbal message to the Deputy Prime Minister. I bluffed them down, "Tory bastard" one shouted at me as they left.

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