Saturday, November 09, 2013

Reflections on a life-long process

A discussion this afternoon as we walked down the Bishop's Glen under a miraculously cleared sky had me thinking. Not, on this occasion, of how cold my head had become - it was, we discovered, only 1ÂșC - nor of how lucky we were to have hiked for over an hour without getting wet, but about education. Again.

Thing is, when you spend 17 years of your first quarter-century in formal education, and the best part of your adult life involved in imparting the fruits of your learning to others, it's hard to retire the bit of your brain that thinks about such matters. And I keep reading blog posts that make me remember and reflect, and then I find I have to discharge these reflections to make room for more development. This particular outpouring, actually, also has its genesis in the English grammar test that was doing the rounds on Facebook last week; I was amused to see that among my circles I and one other judged the test by our 100% scores rather than the other way round.

So I can write correct English by the standards of the past century. I know my subjects and my objects, I recognise errant apostrophes and misrelated participles (all wildly common these days), I tend not to split my infinitives despite the mootness of the imperative that dictates such niceness. And yes, I know how to use "nice" correctly. But why? And how did this come to be?

Of course, it's a process. A lifelong process that began when I learned to read before I started Primary School, continued through the reading before I was 10 of books like "Treasure Island", Whymper's "Scrambles amongst the Alps" and the historical novels of Conan Doyle, was underlined by regular lessons and exercises in analysis and parsing all through primary school and into S1 and S2 and culminated - I suppose - in the mastery of Latin grammar at secondary school and university. I was taught from first Infants by teachers who were graduates - as far as I can remember, they all turned up in Glasgow MA hoods at special occasions - and who seemed possessed of infinite knowledge. (Here I have to single out the unfortunate BSc who took over my class in P7 - he struggled dreadfully with the English homework he set us, and had to seek help from my father, an old acquaintance from University.)

When I think about it, I can't remember ever not knowing how to write correctly - given, of course, that I was of an age to be literate. I couldn't always spell, and still have words that I like to check - but they're few and far between. I used to use "like" as a conjunction in careless speech, and may sometimes still do so, but I can hear my father's voice telling me not to. At dinner, God help me. Did such knowledge make me a good English teacher? Of course it didn't. But it made me a confident one. I didn't worry about the things I didn't know, because I could underpin everything I considered with a solid foundation. I never minded having to check something, or ask the class what they took from a text, because I enjoyed the stimulus of doing new stuff - there was no fear of being outgunned. I never needed to use half of the things I knew, but they were there, in the background, like a full tank of petrol, ready to emerge as a matter of interest, or to help in the delving. And when an earnest child assured me that it was wrong to start a sentence with "and" I was able to assure them that it was perfectly fine as long as you knew what you were doing. That kind of thing.

Now for an admission. Every time I read something, I'm judging it by the standards that have their roots in this past. When someone who is supposed to be educated doesn't know their comma-splice from their dangling participle, I notice. When someone writes about English teaching and does so in a less than literate fashion, it pains me. But I wonder about the future - about whether all this stuff that lies behind my thinking about the language and what we do with it will come to be seen as irrelevant, and if it does, whether that will be because no-one will have been educated in the way that we were.

Was it boring? Did we switch off? Sometimes. But in the end, I acquired what I needed because I attended a selective school, and most of us accepted that we had to learn. Even my distractions tended to be academic, like reading a book under the desk. I didn't meet non-academic children until I started teaching. But here's a thing. A boring teacher will make anything boring. Everything they touch will be tarnished by tedium. Pupils seem to me to be less likely to accept boredom than in the past. They are used to professionally packaged entertainment, all the time, on tap. They know when someone hasn't got what it takes, and they react predictably. Gone the days - happily gone - when a class of forty would sit in silence while the teacher droned through a bowdlerised "Hamlet" without ever giving one of them a shot at the lead role. As for parsing ten sentences in their jotters before the bell rang ...

Happily,  the selection and training of teachers is quite another story.


  1. I am eternally grateful to Mrs Duncanson who taught me English for five years at my comprehensive. There was one year I was relegated to Class 2 so that she could continue to teach/deride me consistently. She mocked my reading of Dennis Wheatley, took a red pen to Agatha Christie, but taught me to parse and become quite expert at interpretation. She mocked the fact that I was always in school musicals because it often meant I was hauled out of class for rehearsals. She pushed me, and I hated her with a vengeance. My mother made me go to her and thank her for my A in my English Higher, before I left school, and I left that meeting feeling belittled. However, in my later years, I thank her for the grounding she gave me, even if I now cringe at what passes for English in Facebook and elsewhere!

  2. You never forget a good teacher! Thank you Miss Blair - funny how often I think of her with respect and gratitude.

  3. Would you kindly bounce out of retirement and take up a lecturing post at a teacher training college? I have colleagues arguing with me about apostrophes and I know I'm right, dammit! Something has to be done or we'll be 'riting lk ths' forever more...

  4. Trouble is, I think holding a lecturing post could be the kiss of death to a teacher - my ideal would be to drop in, do something, and fly back to the classroom!

  5. I totally agree. I was fortunate to be sent to a private school (in England) from the age of 4½. I transferred to the state sector when I was 9 and two years away from sitting my 11+.
    Nobody taught me anything new in English grammar after the age of 9. I knew it all. Parsing was a daily piece of cake. My mother told me, years later, that one day, when I was 14, I came home from the Grammar School and told her that I had been the only one in the class who knew what an adjectival clause was.
    Literature was a problem, though, and I don't think I had very inspirational teachers with the exception of one year. That one guy even got me to like POETRY and I can still quote bits of "The Brook" and the "Presumptuous maid! with looks intent" saga.

  6. I bet I could have got you into poetry - I loved teaching boys poetry! :)

  7. I'm sure you could have done. But I'm still glad that it was the grammar that was successfully drummed into me at a very early stage. What really rocked me, in the sixties, was witnessing girls in my peer group who didn't have enough academic qualifications to get into uni to do a degree (and who couldn't write English well or understand parsing to save their lives) proceed happily to "Training College" to be turned into Primary School Teachers !
    In tutorials during my "Cert.Ed" year at Manchester University I used to argue that Primary teachers should be paid more than Secondary but I was always in a minority of one.