Things were different in my day. Teachers were seriously scary creatures. They shouted, turned purple, threw chalk, whacked rulers over your knuckles. It was a common occurrence for disruptive students to be sent to the headmaster for the cane or the slipper. Corporal punishment was a perfectly acceptable way to maintain discipline. (Of course, they weren’t all like that, but it’s the shouty violent ones I remember most clearly.)
When I was in what’s now called Year 6 I had a truly terrifying teacher. She had a vast, jutting bosom, a towering beehive that tapered into a point and Catwoman style spiky glasses (think Mrs.Ribble in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series). Her wardrobe consisted of nylon blouses and crimplene tunics so she crackled with static when she walked. She exuded hostility to children. I remember one occasion when she literally washed a boy’s mouth out with soap and water because she’d heard him swearing. The sight of this tough, streetwise lad reduced to tears, foaming at the mouth and retching was something I’ll never forget.
I was petrified of her – so petrified that one day I ran away, out of the classroom, out of the school all the way home where I had to climb in through an open window because no one was at home.
Things have changed. My own children have lovely teachers: caring, nurturing, creative professionals who want their pupils to achieve their full potential and who go to enormous lengths to see it happen, but who also want the students in their care to be happy.
Yet when my youngest child started at the local secondary I realised with something of a jolt that both my boys had passed through the whole of primary school without ever once reading a whole book in class. The focus of reading was on extracts and comprehension exercises. They rarely – if ever - wrote a story or a poem. If they did any ‘creative’ writing it was all recounts of things they’d done or seen. I had two bright, articulate children who loved stories and yet Literacy was their least favourite subject.
And it wasn’t just them. I recently did a talk at a primary school and mentioned Charlotte’s Web (as I often do). To my delight, the children knew it. But when I asked if the teacher had been able to read THAT bit aloud without choking or crying they cheerfully said, ‘Oh, we didn’t finish it.’ They’d just had an extract read to them. And then had to answer a list of comprehension questions.
Now it’s not the teachers’ fault of course – I’m well aware of that. Yet I’m sad that this state of affairs exists because when I was a child every teacher I ever had read to us. It was part of the school routine that – at the end of the day - for ten or twenty minutes a teacher would read aloud. And, surprisingly, that seriously scary teacher read very well. It was the one time of day when you could guarantee that the whole class was engaged and focussed. Through her I first encountered Emil and the Detectives, Elidor, Tom’s Midnight Garden and other wonderful classics. The real world dissolved and the class was carried away to another time and place.
It was magical, and what’s more it made me realise that no one is all bad – that even the scariest of grown-ups could have redeeming features. I still can’t forgive her for the soap and water incident, but I will always be grateful for those stories.