Becoming a Teacher -- Peter Leyland

 Becoming a Teacher * 


My first teaching job was at a school in Guildford named Clark’s College. It had at one time been a Pitman’s shorthand and typing establishment which now charged fees to those who wanted their children to be educated privately. I don’t think it exists anymore. Mind you I’m not surprised considering that in the 70s they took on people like me – untrained, untried, untested.


I was fresh out of university with that great badge of my time: an Honours Degree in English. Wow! – 600 lines of Chaucer, most of Beowulf, something odd known as the Ancrene Wisse, and a smattering of truly modern work like Dickens and Keats. And yet I was appointed to teach children.


How? I asked myself at the beginning of the first week. I was ok on English, although believe it or not I spelled Grammar incorrectly on the front of my planning book, a fact that did not escape the eagle eye of Mrs Sherwood-King who pointed this out to me with delight. She was an old hand. As for History I had only an A’ level understanding. 


I remember vividly my very first lesson. I had to stand on wooden floorboards at the front of an ancient classroom and teach the Magna Carta to a mixed class of what would now be known as Yr7, who sat at fixed desks with hinged seats. To prepare for this I had read exhaustively through G.M.Trevelyan’s, A Shortened History of England, thinking that I would be quizzed blind about the historic importance of the said document -- but no, they took it all from me – notes, words and more words, and then more notes.


And the next day, would you believe it? A boy known as Rintoul (all boys were addressed by their surnames) brought in to show me a facsimile copy of the entire Magna Carta given away by the Sunday Times. I was stunned and amazed and almost dropped my guard, but I just as soon realised that no criticism was intended by Rintoul. He was just doing as many pupils do, being helpful and showing me what he knew.


In order to help myself to cope with this new role as a teacher I had ordered a booklet, produced by the DES as it was then known, giving advice to those starting out in the classroom and saying in effect, Don’t try to make every lesson a brilliant one because you’ll wear yourself out. I received this information gratefully because I was trying to do just that. I had got the buzz, you see -- when it goes well it sings, but when it doesn’t…


When it didn’t go well, which was soon to happen, I was despondent. With one particular class of Lower Fourths (Yr9) to whom I was teaching R.E. it became a nightmare. I had to deliver a dry as dust text known as The Children’s Bible, which made even the Ancrene Wisse look interesting, and the class gave me hell. The girls made eyes at me and didn’t do any work and the boys, well they just didn’t do any work. Two in particular, Baird and McCrum, ran rings round me time after time, lesson after lesson. And I didn’t know what to do.


Thankfully, the torment came to an end when at the beginning of the summer term the Lower Fourths had to prepare for the ‘Interim Exams’, a hangover from Prep School days and parts of which were set on The Children’s Bible. It was then that I learned of the power of exams to focus children’s minds. The three weeks of preparation with this class were bliss as they actually got down to studying their texts. The exams were then taken and, much to my astonishment they all passed, even the rebellious Jeannie whose knowledge of The Children's Bible, I thought, might have just about fitted on a postage stamp.


The next problem of course was how I was going to get through to the end of the term without the aid of that fair-weather ally, and it was here as I am sure many teachers have found when suddenly thrust upon their own resources, that it was make-or-break time.                                                                                

During the 70s there was much movement towards a fairer, less racist society, encouraged by newspapers like the Observer which had campaigned against the apartheid state in South Africa that had grown violently oppressive. Also, in 1965 UDI had been declared by Ian Smith in Rhodesia. People were looking to leave the country and at Clark’s College in the summer of 1972 an ex-policeman from Rhodesia was appointed to teach P.E., although the paucity of equipment made his lessons largely consist of exercises on a bare bank of earth above the school. At the time I was reading Doris Lessing’s novel, The Grass is Singing, and my then wife and I had some wonderful discussions with him and his wife about life in Rhodesia over shared suppers. I remember how they loved Caravanserai by Santana because the singing of the crickets reminded them of home.


In order to fill one of the spaces with the nightmare class before the end of term, I copied out the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and took them with my Dansette Record Player into the school. There I played the song to them: It is the tale of how a black servant is casually murdered by one of the guests at a ball at a Baltimore hotel because she is too slow to serve his drinks. The perpetrator, William Zantzinger, is tried and is given a six months sentence for his crime.


The lesson, during which I detailed the racism behind the crime, passed surprisingly well. After it had finished and when the others had left the room, a Persian boy, Hadi - his first name - waited behind and said to me, “That is one of the best lessons I’ve ever had Mr Leyland.” I didn’t think too much about this at the time. I was worried that I might be criticised by colleagues at the school. Mr Croft, who wore a black gown and who taught French, had already commented with raised eyebrows about my Observer poster on the classroom wall of ‘a policeman, judge and executioner’. It was, however, a time when teachers had virtual autonomy in the classroom, and I was able to continue my anti-racism lessons unhindered. 


Much later I wrote a ghazal for Hadi, because the teaching buzz never left me. I went on to teach   a variety of subjects to students of many age ranges and many different cultures, finishing  with Literature courses for adults.


                                 A Ghazal for Hadi


Hadi comes and talks to me across the desk at which I sit

His olive skin is smooth above the collar of his washed white shirt


He tells me of his dreams this boy who has great beauty in his voice

His dreams that all the world’s sad suffering will one day be not a choice


I listen to the words of this young lad who was born fourteen years ago

Who wishes that the song I played of ‘Hattie Carroll’ were not so


Who has absorbed my tale which told of cruelty in lands not far away

Of people who chained others up in hard, cruel bonds to sail on seas of grey


And whipped and sold those fastened men and women into thrall

Now Hadi weeps that such a thing should ever be at all


And I said, "Hadi go outside and contemplate the flowers

And then step back, look up and gaze upon the silent stars


And go play songs to people of the world that now are sad 

And work with others well to make this world we know less bad."


                                                                             Poem - 31/05/2017


*Names have been changed




Mimi Khalvati (2007), Ghazal After Hafe


Evelyn Waugh (1928), Decline and Fall


G.M.Trevelyan (1942), A Shortened History of England


Bob Dylan (2016), The Lyrics


Doris Lessing (1950), The Grass is Singing

Ancrene Wisse (C13), Guide for Anchoresses


Sandra Horn said…
What a great post - and a beautiful ghazal. It's good to know that with the fire of youth you carried on with your radical ideas and inspired the kids (well, some of them at leaat, we can't have everything!). Thank you.
Bill Kirton said…
A beautiful post, Peter, and one which took me, too, back to those days when it was such a pleasure to be introducing youngsters to (in my case) the works of Flaubert, Balzac and (later, when they’d grown enough to experience the truth of Beckett’s ‘Christ, what a planet!’), Sartre et al.
I, however, had a short intermediary stage between graduate and teacher. Back then, I thought earning money was important so I applied for and got a managerial post in industry. The ‘training’ involved working my way through every job and process in the manufacture, promoting and selling of the product, and my decision to leave and teach was, in part at least, encouraged by a man with whom I worked. He was an operator of one of the many machines that delivered the product.
‘The difference between you and me, Bill,’ he said, ‘is that I’m an operative and you’re an executive. I came here, decided I wanted to work at this machine so learned more and more about it, but not much about anything else, so I know a lot about a little. But, as an executive, you’ve worked through all the jobs in the factory and offices learning a little about each of them and you’ll end up knowing eff*-all about everything.’

*Except that he didn’t say ‘eff’.
Jan Needle said…
Excellent reading for a gloomy Saturday – thank you. My own experiences of education still bemuse me, but my proudest achievement (talking of Pitman's) is a certificate for hundred words a minute at their shorthand . Made out, in a fine illuminated hand, to Miss Jan Needle. To be fair, was the only male who took the course and test…
Umberto Tosi said…
Applause for your lovely, candid, moving post. I have a daughter who has taught English literature to children worldwide, and who speaks similarly about her calling. Like so many teachers, she often underestimates the profound good she has done along with way. I will pass this on to her.
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks so much for all your comments. I have been somewhat under the weather this week - not covid thank goodness - but I have today come up for air.

'The fire of youth' indeed. I am just reading Abdulrazak Gurnah's After Life (2020) and he is using a quotation from Schiller's 'The Secret' to describe the relationship between his characters. His fire is clearly still burning and he is about my age - there is still hope!!
Peter Leyland said…
*Correction 'After Lives' - Carried away as usual!

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