Thursday, May 03, 2007

That Overwhelming Aroma of Aftershave

Some jobs or occupations you really have to question their worth to society – traffic wardens, estate agents and second-hand car salesmen would be high on my list. If a strange kind of neutron bomb or weird selective plague finished them all off somehow the wheels of industry would still turn, their loss would not be mourned. As a teacher I’d also have to add to the list those Stasi of the Literacy Strategy – the “consultants”, ‘our informants are everywhere’.

For years our school was deemed to be in need of “intensive support” our poor results were obviously the result of inadequate planning and crap teaching, therefore teams of “consultants” went through our planning with a fine toothcomb and observed our lessons.

Enthusing children? Inspiring teachers? This was some kind of incomprehensible foreign language to them. Naturally they never taught any lessons themselves. They did produce a literacy magazine that was posted out to every school. There weren’t any book reviews, in fact books weren’t mentioned at all, nor were there any examples of children’s work. Just those scary, ‘how I got my children to Level 4 by using connectives, punctuation and adverbs’, articles. As a result of popular indifference the magazine only had a short life span.

There was an award winning children’s author in a nearby school, who could have inspired other teachers, but as he was a loud and prominent critic of the Literacy Strategy he was kept strictly under quarantine in his own school, lest he infect other teachers with his dangerous ideas.

One day I was working away in the ICT suite on our community newspaper when I was introduced to the new writing consultant. I shook hands with Billy and immediately noticed something different. Most consultants keep their distance as though ‘fraternising with the enemy’ is a punishable offence. Billy maintained eye contact, asked questions about me, my family and interests, he listened intently to the replies. There was also that million-dollar smile when we parted company.

Next week we had a quick chat and he’d remembered my name, what my children were called, where I’d been on holiday and what football team I supported. These days I keep a low profile in school, one of the governors mistook me for the caretaker recently, so it’s nice to get recognised.

Billy didn’t exude charisma it positively flowed out of him. Now when it comes to male primary teachers, you’d have to say that some of us look a little care-worn – the shiny trousers, frayed cuffs and stained tie. Not Billy, he was as crisp as a newly printed £5 note, he looked as though he’d just concluded a business deal at the local golf club – the gold cuff links, that overwhelming aroma of aftershave, the keys to his sports car dangled around his fingers. The Year 6 girls instantly fell in love with him, there were chocolates for the staff and a frisson of excitement not seen since the secondary PE teacher taught a lesson in shorts. Young maaaaaan!

However… not all members of staff were won over, there was the way he gave all the children nicknames and that habit of calling the girls, ‘darlin’ or ‘sweetheart’. Maybe there was a tinge of jealousy that someone relatively new to the teaching profession had landed this high-powered well-paid job.

For me Billy was a blast of fresh air, too often the school-to-teacher training college-to-school circuit produces dullards without experience of real life. People from other careers, disc jockey, the SAS, all in wrestling, lion tamer, all bring with them transferable skills.

A few weeks after Billy had been teaching I saw our Year 6 teacher who is normally a good judge of character. There had been rumours about the class being out of control, inappropriate remarks and questionable language. I enquired how Billy was getting on, no reply, her eyes just averted towards the heavens. She showed me the children’s work that was meant for the community newspaper, even the more able students hadn’t produced anything of worth.

I showed it to Jean the teaching assistant who takes the Year 6 SEN group. She rifled around in a folder and produced some of their work on ‘Our Town’. They weren’t literary master pieces, Jean had helped them with spelling and punctuation, they’d slaved away on the computer, editing and checking spellings, but it was infinitely better than anything Billy had fashioned (there was also the knowledge that Jean’s salary was an eighth or a tenth of Billy’s).

Later on in the term I was on a course and got talking with other teachers, they’d had the same experience with Billy – he’d charmed them all to death but the children’s work had been terrible. One of them had discovered Billy’s previous occupation – second-hand car salesman.

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