The teacher I most remember from school is my French teacher. He was absolutely terrifying. His curriculum domain was right at the top of the school…a realm occupied by a triumvirate of the oldest most fearsome teachers we had. We would never go there unless it was for a lesson or a dare…we were never invited.
Mr Harris stood at the top of the stairs at the start of each lesson and enforced silence – not with shouting, cajoling or insisting…just by looking…right at you…right in the eyes until your chatter froze in your mouth and his will was imposed. We knew this and expected this – I don’t think he ever took a day off.
I had French on Friday afternoons – a double. The dreaded climactic part of the week. On Friday lunchtimes Mr Harris and his teacher-friends left in a Ford Sierra to go to the pub…for lunch. Imagine (this was the 80s though!). We would watch him drive past willing him to forget about Period 5 & 6 and stay in the pub all day – but he always came back.
Like many of my friends I endured two torturous years of train-track braces starting when I was 14 and while the orthodontic appointments were painful and long, they were made sweeter if I could get my Mum to book them on Friday afternoons!
Mr Harris’ classroom was oppressively small and quite dark made all the more claustrophobic by the haunting piles of books from students-past stacked against every wall and weighing heavily on every shelf. There was always a pungent stench of coffee because he swigged from an array of filthy coffee mugs littered on his desk. We sat at single desks and did not speak to each other at all. I sat in the same seat in that classroom for 4 years.
The learning started immediately and he never spoke in English – it was an adrenaline-fueled experience during which no one dared to lose concentration. An incorrect response was poorly received and he used nicknames that he had invented for us…never our names.
On the day I collected my GCSE results I saw Mr Harris first as I edged in to the school hall and even with the passing of time and the relative freedom of leaving school the impact on seeing him again was the same, but he smiled right at me. That GCSE grade is still 1. The most surprising of the bunch and 2.the one I am proudest of.
I don’t think that fear should be a factor in any classroom and we were scared of Mr Harris but no one knew why. There were rumours that he’d dangled someone’s brother by the ankles out of his classroom window which was on the fourth floor and rumours that he’d made a notorious boy actually cry in front of the class…but we never saw any of this. Looking back, I remember the times he afforded us some praise and it was always a glorious moment in time – addictive, really. It was something we all wanted and when we got it it could sustain you for the whole day!
I’ve been teaching secondary school students for a long time now and as I’ve developed in this profession my students will often comment that I can be ‘scary’. I tell them ‘that’s just my face’ and I suspect it is! After all, when my amazing Mentor taught me the old adage ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ I’m afraid I definitely ignored her believing (at 23 years old) that I could control teenagers in my classroom with humour and chat! Latterly I realise that an aging face helps convince some students that you mean business even though you may only be looking in their direction! I don’t want students in my class to feel fear and it amuses me that what they believe to be a fierce teacher now is nothing compared to school in the 1980s!
I’ve recently been looking at the feedback I give my students – easy to do at the moment as we area all working remotely and on-line. It struck me that my comments in feedback are littered with the pronoun ‘we’. I hadn’t really considered this before but it seems I consistently use this pronoun to demonstrate my support and to let each of them know that we are in this together and that they can rely on me and it’s a small thing but, every comment contains a name so that they know that I know them and that I am encouraging them.
Should teachers be scary – no. But it’s hard graft to develop an ethos in your classroom where the students know you have high expectations and it’s harder still to prove to them that you work hard for them so they should do the same and that ultimately we know best!
So, to all you baby teachers out there: until your face gets old you may need to develop a laser-eye-look-of-steel and stand your ground!