The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, June 10, 2004

My Best Teacher: 1 Phil

Phil was my English teacher from age fourteen to sixteen. He was a bit of a hippy, but a smartened up, yuppie version. He made us read, read a lot. We covered twice the number of texts we were set - read double Shakespeare for fun (although I couldn't understand a word, at the time, and struggle, now, to remember this feeling of a text that's a locked code, a secret that excludes me utterly, to better understand how to guide my own students through it).

What Phil did that placed him far and away the best teacher I ever had, was to talk to me as an individual. At fourteen, it was four years since I'd last spoken to a boy, half the school were bullying me, and I was the strange new girl in the class, in a new school. I was an excruciatingly shy and quiet child at the time, and any attempt by a teacher to spark a conversation was doomed to failure.

But Phil was clever. The first approach was through marking. If I did work that showed good insight (and only if), Phil would leave casual comments in the margin. Not formative assessments - an in formal observation, or a question. If, the next time I handed in my book, I had added a reply, he would notice, and he'd add a further reply. It became a conversation.
Gradually, I became braver, and able to question his authority through the comments in my work (as children always always do). He responded generously. "You're right. That was a harsh grade. Sorry."

I had never, ever seen an adult admit they were wrong before. I had never seen an adult accede that I could be more right than they.
For a teenager, it was a stunningly generous thing to read.

From that point on, I became one of the kids who hung around after class, waiting to ask questions, to chat, to ask what Phil thought about all sorts of issues.
"Which is the hardest Shakespeare play in the whole world?" is a particularly embarrassing example. (Phil's answer, after his characteristic mock pause to consider, then delivered cool as ice: King Lear)
It was the beginning of a trust in Literature that took over my life, and led me right here, now, today.

As a teacher, Phil had the confidence to give over a little of his power to the powerless.

The effect was so electric that I can still recall many of his comments, even visualise them on the page, today.
Another point I remember well is him stopping by my desk to ask about an author I'd reviewed. He'd never read anything by Diana Wynne Jones, could I give him a list of recommendations? (Shamefully, as I write this, I realise that my response today would be to ask the student why they were reading material that is not challenging enough, and to give them a list of three 'harder' books to try.) This, too, became a dialogue - I returned to the school years later to ask Phil's opinion on a paper I'd written about Vonnegut, knowing that he had met him.
Once, he replied "You like Cormier? You fell for all that exaggerated violence and crap? I'm disappointed in you, Lectrice" - and I still remember the sinking feeling.

What remembering Phil can teach me: to treat kids as if they are already adults whose opinions are interesting. We forget, as adults ourselves, how little power we need to transfer, how symbolic that power is, to gain an extraordinary response.