Reflections on forty years at the chalkface (1967- 2007)

Location : Nottingham; Norfolk

Bob started teaching on leaving university in 1966 as a temporary measure but made it his lifelong career. After teaching in a rough area of Nottingham he moved to Norfolk as a very young Head of English at Stalham Secondary Modern. He enjoyed interacting with the pupils and enriching their school experience, but gradually conditions changed and he retired. He continues directing his pantomimes and loves working with like-minded people.

I was at university from 1963 to’66 and came out intending to go into business management. Unfortunately after a couple of weeks with a company who had offered me a course, they decided that they had been badly hit financially by government measures and they had to change their minds, so I had to find something else to do. In those days it was quite possible to become a teacher simply by using your degree. You didn’t need to go for any teacher training. Obviously in need of money, I decided I had better use my degree to fill in for a while doing teaching, which is how I started in the profession.

First teaching job at a primary school

My first job was at a little primary school up the road and I had absolutely no classroom training of any kind, no experience of any kind other than having been to school myself, so it was a bit scary the first day.

It was an area just outside Nottingham called Sherwood – which is known for its Forest, which is nowhere near Sherwood! he school I went to was in Mapperley, which is only about a mile up the hill.

Anyway, I went to this primary school and knowing absolutely nothing, they put me in with a class of very young reception kids. I was there to assist the first day with a teacher to take responsibility. But unfortunately in the afternoon the teacher who was in charge of the class had to go to the dentist and they said, well, can you just look after them for an hour while she’s out. And not knowing at all what to do, I went back to some advice I’d been given from my uncle who was the head teacher of a secondary boys’ school in London. Who incidentally had once told me if I ever became a teacher he’d chase me round the kitchen table, it was such a dreadful job. His advice was, make sure that they listen to you. There’s no point in talking if they’re talking so you have to get their attention. If all else fails clap your hands – just to make sure everybody’s heard and they know you want to talk.

So as soon as the noise built up – which I suppose was a few seconds after the teacher left the room – I felt that I needed to regain control so I clapped my hands. To my horror, they all clapped back. There was complete uproar. These little tiny kids were just racing around the room, climbing over desks, shouting, screaming. How they knew that I was so easy to make a fool of I really don’t know. They must have sensed it. Of course eventually the noise was so great that the head teacher came into the room and they all immediately fell silent. She needed to do nothing except appear. And I thought, there’s obviously some technique to be learnt. And to be honest, in all my years teaching, I never had that wonderful commanding personality that when you walk into the room everybody falls silent and knows you mean what you’re talking about. Some people are born with it, and others aren’t …

After that things got better, because you do pick things up. I think I was there one term during which time they moved me round from one class to the other and occasionally gave me little groups to work on.

Enjoying working with children

I only worked with primary age children that first time, and after that I applied for an actual job. The County had put me there in that first school as an experience-gathering exercise. So after that I applied for a job. It was the other side of Nottingham, a town called Clifton at a school called White Gates. I was in charge of class for the first time and I actually loved it. I think the first age-group I taught would have been seven and eight year olds. And then later I moved up to nine/ten year olds and it was a very happy time because I discovered that children were in fact quite nice. They would come and tell me what happened at home, and if they had problems they would come and tell you about that. And we did exciting things together. There was no such thing as health and safety measures in those days. People didn’t worry too much about child supervision. If you were a teacher you were responsible. So we used to do exciting things like go to the park on Saturday mornings and play on the swings and roundabouts and so on. I would meet them and we’d just have fun.

The teaching techniques came along by trial and error. I suppose I thought to myself, well these are only eight or nine year old children, so they don’t know much. I must know more than them. When I first started, I was given some books, and told, ‘this is what we’re working on’. It was all very casual. Nobody asked me to justify what I was doing. I am actually still in touch with one of the pupils I taught at White Gates and she came over to visit a couple of years ago. It was amazing what she remembered … I think I was there with that class for just one year. She said, ‘Oh, do you remember how we used to do this, and we used to do that ..? And you said – so-and-so, and you said something else …’ . And I thought, goodness, do people actually remember all their lives something that a school teacher says. It’s quite scary really. The one thing I did discover in teaching is that if you make a mistake they’ll remember that! That’s the one thing that always comes back to you. Perhaps you haven’t researched your facts very well and you get an inaccurate piece of information. That’s the thing that is regurgitated in all the feedback and all the essays. You find they’ve learned that one thing that was wrong. It’s something a teacher doesn’t realise actually, how much the kids are hanging on every word. They treat you, particularly at that age I think, as the person who knows absolutely everything. They remember your personality forever, too.

This particular pupil remembered when my birthday was. Just last year I got a card from her. I thought, how on earth did she know when my birthday was?! This is something she must have twigged onto at the age of eight or nine and remembered it forever.

Transfer to secondary school – it was us and them

I was at that school for two years and then I felt that because I had a really keen interest in drama I would like to work with slightly older pupils. I applied to Nottingham education committee to transfer to a secondary school. I didn’t actually apply for a particular job. So I ended up at the school I would never ever have chosen to go to. It was described as a ‘bilateral or secondary boys’ school’. It was right in the City of Nottingham.

Bilateral meant that it was a grammar school stream on the top, and a secondary modern stream on the bottom. I suppose in a way it as an early form of comprehensive, but they described it then as ‘bilateral’.

I never heard the term before or since. But that was the name of the school, and it was an eye-opener. I remember I went to see the Head the first morning and he told me all the little rules of the school. All the things that we had to remember. And he said, ‘Of course, you will have to supply your own punishment cane …’ I just couldn’t believe it. this was in the mid sixties. Obviously I knew corporal punishment was permitted because it had always been so in school. But I don’t think in all my time as a pupil I had ever known a member of staff use a cane. I know the headmaster used to use a cane in my grammar school that I went to. He had an extraordinarily long study – at least it seemed very long to us, I suppose if I saw it now it wouldn’t seem that big. But he had a desk at the end of his long study and the rumour was he would bend a pupil over the desk and then walk to the far end and do a run-up so that when he delivered the blow it would have a lot more force behind it. But I can’t swear that that ever happened!.

I was scared of using the cane really. I felt ‘I can’t do this‘. I don’t think at the time it occurred to me ‘this is wrong’ – this is morally wrong. Because I knew that pupils who misbehaved often received corporal punishment. This was a boys’ school. Obviously it had a lot of tough kids from the centre of Nottingham, so I wasn’t necessarily morally offended by the thought of it. But I was scared at the thought of having to do it, because I didn’t know that I would have the moral fibre to stand in front of a lad and ask him to bend over a desk.

Before I could, I had to actually get the cane. They weren’t supplied by the school. There was an educational supply shop in Nottingham called Sisson and Parker. I thought that must be the place where you go. So I went along – it was a huge stationer’s near the River Trent. I went into the educational department and said ‘Do you have any punishment canes?‘ And the guy said, ‘It’s in the craft department.’ So I went upstairs to the craft department and there they were. These traditional, quite thin whippy canes with a curved end – for presumably the member of staff to grasp.

They had slightly different thicknesses and so on but you could choose the one you wanted with a nice whippy sound. So I had to learn to administer strokes of the cane. Looking back, I cannot remember what it was like to do so. You’d think it would leave a lasting impression. But I do remember that I had to use it. I also remember that the canes didn’t last very long. They tended to split at the end, which was extremely unpleasant. We used to put sellotape round the split end and then turn the cane round. So actually it administered two blows instead of one. ’Cause you had the hook – and obviously a two-pronged attack! But I got through a lot of canes. Once because during a wet playtime, or breaktime or lunchtime, the boys set fire to my cane and when I came back there was only a little stump hanging on the hook with a blackened end.

It was us and them in this school in Nottingham.The boys always won, always. Because there were a lot of them. If you did have to administer the cane there would be a quiet period afterwards when obviously they thought ‘I don’t want that happening to me’. But it was no way of keeping control and I absolutely hated the job.

Starting up with drama

I was assistant teacher of English in that school. I did get to start up with drama. And that was the big pleasure of the job that there were some very keen youngsters. We did some really good drama. Because they were all boys, it made it difficult to select plays … there was an occasion when we worked with a nearby girls’ school and got together after school at a club and I was able to do more adventurous stuff then.

We could have done Shakespeare, but I wasn’t very interested in that sort of drama. I have never been what you would call an intellectual. I don’t call myself in any way a student of literature, even though I’ve taught it all my life. I am more of a populist entertainer. I’ve always been in entertainment – I’ve directed, I’ve acted, I’ve written over twenty stage plays and taken a lot of my plays up to the Edinburgh Festival. So I mean drama has been very important to me through my life. And I think that has been the one reward from teaching. Looking back, I’ve had most pleasure from awakening other youngsters’ feelings of excitement in what drama can give them.

I didn’t discover any special talent amongst the boys. At Stalham one or two youngsters have done well. I can think of a couple of professional actors. One girl is a National Theatre player now. one lad who actually joined us to go to Edinburgh once became a playwright himself and had moderate success. No great names.

I didn’t stay in Nottingham very long. As soon as I could get out I did. I suppose I was there a year and a half.

We’re still in the very late sixties now. There were lighter moments. There was a member of staff there who looked very like Jimmy Edwards. He was quite portly and had a wonderful handlebar moustache which he used to wax. He was the school character, and he would do things like go and have his hair cut during the day. The headmaster knew about it and once tackled him on the subject. He said, ‘Well, the bloody thing grows during the school day, so I’ll go and have it cut during the school day.’ Characters like that I think have all left education by now.

We had a fire practice on one occasion and he decided he was going to test the system. And so he lay down under his desk and said he was overcome by fumes. And when we were doing the roll call in the yard, there was this one teacher missing, and several of the sixth form boys. Eventually he came down the steps carried by four boys, an arm and a leg each, saying ‘Mr (I won’t give you his name) was overcome by the fumes, sir.’ It was one of the lighter moments of a rather unpleasant time.

I think he would have done very well in the drama department. [Laughter]

Moving to Norfolk and married life

After I moved on I didn’t really know that I wanted to stay in education. I suppose I was a bit lazy. I would have liked to have been an actor or something to do with the theatre, but it is drummed into you when you are younger that that kind of job isn’t a proper job so you don’t apply for jobs like that. Looking back, I think I would have done quite well if I had just stuck to my guns that this is what I want to do. But I didn’t, so at least I had a job which paid money, anyway.

So I looked through the Times Educational Supplement and found a job in Norfolk, which was advertised as Head of English at what was then a secondary modern school, Stalham secondary modern. I applied and was interviewed by a new young head teacher who had only been in the job himself for one term and he was keen to replace an aging staff with younger people. And I was at the time the youngest head of department in the county.

It was a rapid promotion. I’d only done a year and a half at the school in Nottingham. It came as a bit of a shock. I remember going to the interview on a very snowy day. Drove all the way to Norfolk. We weren’t told at the end of the day who was successful, so I had convinced myself that I wasn’t. and got back home and a couple of days later a letter came through saying, you’ve been appointed and please make your arrangements. I had a few months I suppose, to get myself sorted. I’d never left home before, apart from the three years at university. I lived with my widowed mother. My father died when I was three months old. I’d never known a father. I was a bit concerned about going so far away and leaving her on her own. But she insisted that I went and I had to go and find a house, so I rented somewhere. I proposed to my girlfriend at the time because it was either do something serious about the relationship or stop, because she was being left in Nottingham. We agreed to get married the following summer. So I found myself not just starting a new job but looking forward to starting married life, and also for the first time owning a house, because I rented for three months and then bought a house.

The difference between a city boys’ school to a countryside mixed school was incredible. I felt as if I was on holiday! It was absolutely wonderful. The kids were friendly. At first I thought they were being cheeky – they’d come up to you in the corridor and say ‘Hello Sir!’ I thought, oh, what’s his angle? But they were just friendly, they were lovely kids. And I absolutely adored it. I loved teaching at Stalham, certainly for twenty-odd years. It was a wonderful job.

It’s not any more. So much has changed. Where do you start? … Government interference was unheard ,. You were a secondary modern school. The government didn’t seem to care what happened to secondary modern kids. So they just let the school get on with it which was probably the best thing they could have done, because the school then played to its strengths. I was keen on drama so if they wanted to develop drama at the school I could take kids out of class to rehearse whenever I wanted to because nobody ever thought that it was that important that exams were coming. These were not kids that were going to be academically considered to be successful.

This was long before the introduction of the national curriculum.

I started work at Stalham in 1970. As Head of Department I was left to make up my own syllabus. I didn’t even have to hand a copy of the syllabus in to the Head, it was that lax, really. I just took my department where I wanted it to go and where I had a member of staff in my department who had a particular strength, I allowed her or him to get on with it. it was a very happy time.

I would say it was the nineties the real changes started. Oddly enough the first steps downhill in terms of classroom discipline, school behaviour and everything else came more or less when corporal punishment was officially banned. Not because you could no longer bend them over a desk and beat them, because we had long ago stopped doing that, but because you could no longer grab them by the shoulders, shake them, turn them to face you – you know, all the various ways that you had of getting a youngster to see this is serious. ‘Hey, you, I’m talking to you!’ Grab them by the shoulders and give them a little shake. That was enough to quell the whole class; they knew you meant what you were talking about. The moment they knew that they couldn’t be touched, you started to get youngsters coming up and saying ‘You can’t touch me.’ Once they realised that they had actual power, I think that’s really when the behaviour became a huge huge problem.

It continued to get worse right up till I left. And I left with stress. I wasn’t actually at retirement age. I reached the point where I could no longer walk back into school. There was one day I just couldn’t get up and go to school. I went to see a doctor. He said, ‘Oh, you’ve got stress. I’m writing you off for three weeks.’ Oh what a wonderful feeling that was. Three weeks not having to go to school! But of course when the three weeks ended I couldn’t again bring myself to go back. And the longer you are away the harder it is to go back across the threshold. I was fifty-six or fifty-seven and I was granted early retirement. An unfortunate end to what had been for many years an extremely happy appointment.

Thoughts on changes in school life

That’s a problem for a lot of teachers. A lot of them don’t get beyond the first two or three terms. If you’re really not cut out for it the kids will find that out quickly. A lot of them don’t persevere with the job. but I wouldn’t want to be a new teacher starting out now. I do take my hat off to those youngsters who are prepared to go into teaching with all the frustrations that it now has. Just things like the health and safety rules have completely ruined the school trip. At one time we took trips everywhere. I remember on one occasion I took a trip to Alton Towers at the end of term as a sort of nice thing to do. And we had five coach loads of children. Just about the whole school turned out. But these days you have to do risk assessments and you have to supply so many safety assurances that no teacher’s prepared to do it anymore. Or very few are. So school trips have dwindled considerably. And the experience of children has dwindled with it.

I think they have a much more restricted school environment. I don’t say we got it all right in the early days, and obviously there were lots of ways in which things could go badly wrong because you were not being asked to justify what you were doing all the time. But certainly at Stalham we had an absolutely fantastic school atmosphere and there was so much going on. You could be in the sailing club, you could be in the drama club; we made films. There was something happening all the time. Not just at school time, but after school, in the evening, the weekends. Staff would give up their time to be with the youngsters. And nobody ever said, ‘Why are you taking kids out on a camping trip? What is it? Do you like little boys?’ Or something like that. Teachers were trusted.

Children did remain interested in Drama. In any school environment there will be a proportion of youngsters who are very keen on drama and if the opportunity is there they’ll seize it. That’s not changed. I could go back into a school now and very happily take the drama class or a drama group. Because if people had opted to do it, they would enjoy it and want to make it succeed. It’s the kids who don’t want to do it that.

The National Curriculum had a limiting effect, obviously, because everybody has to do the same thing. We used to try and gear our activities and our lessons to what was appropriate to the classes that we had. In the early days it was secondary modern, so we didn’t have any of the really talented youngsters. They were creamed off. But after about four or five years it became a comprehensive school, so then we had the brighter youngsters as well. We then obviously had to change our curriculum to suit that. So curriculum change has gone from being very pupil-centred when I started work to being nationally chosen and very rigid as I came to the end.

I’ve been out of the job ten years now. So things no doubt have changed again.

Socially, people would be horrified at the social relationship that existed when I started teaching. I remember going to parties with – we were then a very young staff, all in our twenties – and we would have parties and quite often members of the fifth form would be at the party. These days it would be more than just eyebrows raised. One member of staff turned up to the party with one of the fifth-year girls on the back of his motor bike. We didn’t really think anything of it. We were just people together. I can’t believe it went on really. There was a very friendly atmosphere between staff and pupils. I never remember anything inappropriate taking place – although it is quite possible it might have done.

The highlights for me it would have been my drama productions, which I think reached an extremely high standard. We would do one a year, which meant that the whole school would be involved. It was one of my policies that staff could take part in a production as well. Right up to the time when I left. If there was an adult role that I felt needed an adult to play it, then I would ask the member of staff to play it. and so we would work together as a school and it was possible to do extremely high quality productions.

I loved modern plays, mainly comedy. I made a lifetime study of it. I’ve been a farceur, I’ve written a lot of farces. I like to go to the theatre and laugh, because I think there is nothing quite as uplifting as coming out at the end of a show and feeling better than when you walked in.

So when there wasn’t an appropriate play around I would write one. I did a lot of plays for the youngsters that I wrote specifically for them. They got so much out of it. I could choose the characters from my pupils. I knew them.

What else was rewarding? Obviously when you get people who suddenly come to an understanding that they haven’t had in the past and you see the light turn on. I think that would never change. It must have been the same in Socrates’ time and it is the same now. for a member of staff suddenly to realise that something you have said or done has caused someone to appreciate something they never appreciated before. Sometimes their life seems to take a little leap upwards. ‘Alright! Ah. I’ve got it!’ and from there on off they go. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it is a very rewarding experience.

Not that many pupils come back to thank me. It’s a very common experience to any teacher to be walking through a shop or in the street and have someone come up and say, ‘You used to teach me!’ they remember you, of course, but because you had thousands of youngsters go through, you might remember their name but you probably wouldn’t have recognised them in the street.

I did have a couple of mothers come and say, ‘Thank you very much. You helped my son – or my daughter – to get good exam results …’ or something like that. It didn’t happen that often, though.

There were three heads of departments, heads of science, maths and English, who were all appointed at much the same time, all much the same age, and we tended to do most of the social organising within the school. When ‘It’s a Knockout’ was popular on television we used to do that at school every year. I look back very fondly to the days when we had people walking along planks carrying buckets on their head and sliding down slippery slopes into swimming pools and trying to recover balls on a string. We had fantastic times.

Do I remember much from the classroom? I just remember it getting worse, in terms of discipline. I was never one of those teachers that youngsters feared. There are some teachers who only have to make an appearance in the classroom and they realise that they are up against a stronger will than their own and you can see it in their reaction. I would have liked to have had that commanding presence but it is not my way. I was the sort of person who had, dare I say, to make friends with the class. I had to behave as if we were almost equals in a sense, that we were doing this together. Not that I am telling you this, but we would be exploring something. So I got on best when was teaching bright youngsters who had an interest in what I was trying to teach. Then we would absolutely race away. I suppose anybody would say the same. I was at my worst when I was with a class of probably low ability. I did have some low ability classes with fantastic kids who were rewarding to teach, so it is a bit of a generalisation. But if you have to generalise, it was the ones who were there because they were forced to be, the timetable sent them there. they weren’t interested, they couldn’t see any relevance of what I was talking about to their lives, and their only interest was making my life a misery by finding ways to mess about and cause trouble. There were some days when you had several classes like that one after another and you would end up just losing all self-worth. And you would think, ‘I can’t do this job. I am not a teacher. I can’t teach these youngsters.’

I don’t think I was brilliant at people management, as Head of Department, because I didn’t like hurting anyone’s feelings. I didn’t like stopping someone doing something, or telling them they were doing it incorrectly. So I didn’t interfere very much with what was going on in classrooms. Luckily, I had a lot of very competent members of staff. There were others who were not so competent and that was a very challenging thing to have to deal with that, the man-management side, not easy, but necessary obviously as head of department.

I can’t imagine life having gone any other way. I think if I were starting again I wouldn’t go into teaching. I don’t know that I would meet any great success in the career that I first chose, business management. I probably would have been a fish out of water there. The only place I know I would have felt at ease and extremely competent would have been something to do with the theatre world. That was where I had a certainty that I knew what I was talking about and therefore the competence that comes with that absolute certainty. You know where you are going.

Directing pantomime and enjoying it

I still very much enjoy directing. Last year I had to direct one of my pantomimes in Beccles to a group I hadn’t worked with before and I loved it. it suddenly made you feel, ‘Ah, this is what life’s about.’ I’d got an end point to reach and I’d got a group of people to do it with. I loved it.

They all wanted to do it. That’s the key, to have to want to do it. they do hate the fact that we have to do … history … because it says so. If you’re not interested in history, why would you have to do it? Lots of things that we think in school are indispensable probably aren’t really. I’m not sure that the standard subjects which are studied, history, geography and so on, are necessarily relevant to everybody’s lives to the extent to which the teachers think they are.

If they’re interested, they can catch up later. And they do. The best students are those who need to find something out. I’m still a student. At the moment I’ve joined a ukulele orchestra! So I’m having to learn and I am very keen to do it. I’ll search the internet to find what I am looking for – ‘is C+ the same as C augmented?’ Nobody seemed to know that I asked so I go to the internet to find out.

The best students are those who need to know it and want to know it and then the teacher’s job is easy. You are a guider rather than a forcer.

Bob Bishop (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive in North Walsham on 14th June 2012.

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