Mr White* was legendary in my primary school; he was the teacher everybody wanted to have. He was young, dynamic and funny, and his lessons were quirky and exciting. Pupils did not earn house-points – they played a continual ‘game of life’ in which they could build ‘houses’, have ‘jobs’ (even get ‘married’!) and earn money. My brother was taught by him 4 years ahead of me and raved about him so that I couldn’t wait to be taught by him myself. He was particularly well-known for setting a long list of weird and challenging activities for the pupils to do for holiday homework. Of course there were lessons, too, though I struggle to remember them. Despite the ‘progressive’ sound of all this, our core education was decidedly traditional. I finally got to have Mr White in standard 4 (aged 10) and was duly delighted. He left us in the middle of the year, to take up a job as a deputy head in another school and we never did get to earn our dollars for ‘taking a swim before sunrise’, or ‘making a cheese toasty with the iron’.
Mr Smith was different. He was the deputy head in our school and had been since the dawn of time as far as we knew. We once had a lesson in which we were to identify what had happened on certain dates. He threw in one date that nobody could guess, until someone mentioned it was the year their grandmother had been born. That’s when we realised how old he was. We had him in standard 5, the year after Mr White. I mainly remember him sitting at his desk. He taught us from his age-old knowledge and from printed materials of all sorts, and he tested us often on everything. For example, alongside a rigorous maths and English curriculum, we studied to a fine degree, the life-cycles of several tropical parasites, knowing in great detail the scientific descriptions of the characteristics of each stage and their implications for health. He made no attempt to make the materials ‘child-friendly’ and he required that we did our own research projects to a high standard. I learned an incredible amount of a wide range of topics that year and I still remember much of it. As a teacher, I now can’t believe how much we crammed in, never seeming to be rushed or stressed for time. Nobody in our school would have called Mr Smith ‘fun’ or ‘funny’. He was a crusty old cove who gave up chain-smoking and tried to take up snuff instead – which he used in front of us in class.
I’m not sure, but I can guess, which teacher would have won the popularity contest, had we been asked as children. Fortunately for us, it was not our choice. The more I reflect on it through the years, the more I realise that Mr Smith was the outstanding teacher of my junior school, possibly my school years as a whole.
Teachers now seem to worry a lot about how they can be the ‘best’. There’s a huge amount of rhetoric about relationships, teaching styles, progressive and traditional practices, accountability for results and the problem is that most of it is either wrong, unfounded or measured in short-term, limited ways. Mr Smith didn’t have to worry about any of those things.
*Names changed, of course.