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Bending the Twigs

Published: May 11, 2010 at 11:00 am
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I’ve been helping to interview prospective history teachers, and as ever the process is both exhilarating and difficult. The candidates were mostly young men and women who had just finished their degree. One or two made me want to misquote Edith Cavell and say, ‘Enthusiasm is not enough’. It was reasonably certain that they were never going to make it.


Managing a class of teenagers is a difficult business. Everyone finds it so at first, and most of us continue to find some groups or some individuals very tricky. In general, however, the art of managing classes can be learned: it isn’t the prerogative of a charismatic few.

That said, it’s clear that some are likely to be eaten alive long before they reach any degree of comfort in the classroom. To reject these was a kindness, both to them and their putative pupils. One put me in mind of Mr X, a young trainee attached to my department many years ago. He greeted one Year 10 class with the immortal phrase: ‘I’m Derek, and I want to be your friend’. Sadly, but rather predictably, the pupils decided they had friends of their own, and didn’t see Derek as one of them. He didn’t last long.

A few others induced a slack-jawed sense of wonder that people who had just graduated, and who claimed to be fired with the passion to communicate their subject to the next generation, could appear to know so little. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Some knew quite a lot about Nazi Germany [though not as much as they would have done had they bothered to learn German]. But even when invited to speak on any historical subject that was dear to them, they had little or nothing to say.

Most of the candidates, however, were hugely impressive. Unlike my own PGCE [Postgraduate Certificate of Education] interview, these ones took place in a school, a refinement I’m mightily glad wasn’t thought of in 1977. So the candidates had not only to go through the normal interview process with university lecturers and old lags like me; they also had to teach a lesson to a class they’d never seen before. On the whole they managed it vastly better than I think I would have done.

What exactly were we looking for ? We wanted people who had a genuine passion for the subject and needed to communicate it. They had to show us that they knew quite a lot: that, in the end, is where a teacher’s authority comes from. They also had to show that they were fast learners. There is so much to absorb in modern pedagogy that any who imagined that they had essentially finished their own education with their degree would be struggling very quickly. We wanted to see if they were comfortable around children, even in these highly artificial circumstances. In the end it was – as all judges say at the end of all competitions – genuinely hard to choose who had been successful.


I kept thinking that if some of those we selected stayed in teaching as long as I have, they would still be doing it in 2042. This was quite a dizzying thought. But I was cheered by the reflection that I should be dead by then.


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