Good Teachers/Bad Teachers

The discussion concerning last week’s post about my days back at primary school seems to have affected my brain, as I had another dream about them the other night.

I was back in year six, and working – in class – on an essay about some book. The problem was that I wasn’t myself from year six, I was myself from the modern day thrown back in time, and hence my knowledge of the book in question was very vague, it being over twenty years since I’d actually read it.

On the plus side, I’d managed to bring a copy of my finished essay – which, I’m pleased to report, had got an A – back with me, so all I had to do was copy it out. The teacher however, who was not my actual year 6 teacher Mr Murphy (arguably the best teacher I ever had) but my year 7 teacher Mrs M (arguably the worst teacher I’ve ever had) was patrolling around the classroom and would have spotted me. So I was stuck in the position of shooting furtive glances at the finished document while racking my brain for anything I could remember of the text to write about.

But that wasn’t all. I really didn’t want to be writing the essay at all, because there was a big storm due to hit that night. The Weather Bureau had classed it as a category one cyclone, but with the benefit of hindsight I knew that it was actually going to be a category three, and that the inadequate warning would lead to widespread destruction (including ripping the roof off the school) and over 100 deaths across the city. I was itching to get out and warn people, but instead was stuck trying to write this damned essay, and not get in even more trouble with Mrs M than I habitually was.

It was really rather stressful.

Eventually I got out of class and managed to warn (of all people)  Dr Christopher Green who promised to take care of it.

In the words of Peter Venkman “Hairless pets….. weird”.

I’ve often wondered about why I had such a problem with Mrs M (I’m referring to her pseudonymously both because she might still be teaching and while I can remember how to pronounce her name, I’m damned if I can spell it). There were, I believe, a number of factors, one of the most important of which being that, even at the age of 12, I was much smarter than her.

That sounds unbelievably arrogant, I know, but bear with me.

In all honesty, in terms of just raw processing power, I believe that my brain was a good smack faster than hers. Hell, my brain is a good smack faster than most people’s, but that’s not anything to be particularly proud about – it’s just natural genetic variation. More importantly I was much more knowledgeable about a much wider range of subjects that she was – her general knowledge about the world appeared pretty limited which I feel is a major flaw in any teacher, let alone a primary school one who is the only instructor a bunch of young minds will have for an entire year.

Now, a good teacher, faced with a student who can out-think them and displays a wealth of knowledge, will see an opportunity. This was the case with all the teachers I’d had up to year 7 – especially with Mr Murphy in year 6. I was encouraged to speak up in class, and if I contradicted what the teacher was saying, they’d hear me out. Mrs M on the other hand seemed to view this kind of behavior as a threat to her authority, and a student who kept doing it as a troublemaker.

For example – in year 6 we were set a humerous poem to read about ptarmigans, in which every initial letter ‘t’ was replaced with ‘pt’. Mr Murphy read the poem out to the class, and mentioned that the author had obviously ‘made up’ an animal called a ptarmigan in order to write the poem. I put my hand up and pointed out that this was wrong, and that the ptarmigan was a kind of arctic bird. Mr Murphy asked me how I knew this, and I gave my standard answer that I’d read it in a book we had at home.

Rather than take this correction at face value, he re-stated that he was sure the ptarmigan was fictional, but told me that I had permission to go to the school library and bring him back a book proving the existence of such a creature. So, I left the class, ducked across to the library, grabbed the relevant volume of the encyclopedia, located the entry for ‘ptarmigan’ and brought it back to him.

Rather than be annoyed, Mr Murphy told the class that he was wrong, and that you should never be ashamed to admit such when presented with proof. I took the book back to the library and we got on with analysing the poem.

This kind of thing was pretty standard for my education up until year 7 – in retrospect I was probably rather spoiled by it. With Mrs M however any attempt to contradict  her was met with barely concealed hostility. Her attitude appeared to be one of “I am the teacher, you are the student, I know all, you know nothing”, and thus any student who tried to correct her was being willfully disruptive and should be punished.

It also didn’t help that she was very religious. I was also very religious – I remained so well into my teenaged years – but I followed a very free-wheeling, easy-going, inclusive version of Catholicism, whereas Mrs M seemed to advocate a straight down the line, exactly what the Pope says version. A student from the year above us for instance was praised often and effusively for not only shaking hands with the Pope during his visit in 1986, but for throwing a tantrum in the local video shop when they stocked The Last Temptation of Christ. She was also a believer in the most unlikely of signs and miracles – the year before I had her she’d gone on a pilgrimage to Međugorje and repeatedly claimed that a photo she’d taken of the hill where the BVM allegedly appeared showed a mysterious glow (she kept promising to bring the photo in to show us, but never did). When a TV current affairs show filled in a slow news day with a piece about peoples’ cheap rosary bead sets turning to gold, she came in the next day claiming that her set had undergone the same transformation – but insisted we not tell anyone lest they think she was crazy. I wasn’t shy about sharing my religious opinions, and the difference between our views appeared to make her regard me as not just a troublemaker, but as a potential victim of diabolical obsession.

So, this combination of a smart, previously-indulged, autistic kid and an authoritative, not-quite-as-smart-as-she-ideally-should-have-been teacher resulted in a rather unpleasant and traumatic year of schooling. The stress of the situation led to my developing migraine headaches, which I still occasionally suffer from. My previously spotless academic and behavioral record started to show blemishes – although the fact that the rest of the staff regarded me as a fantastic student (and, I suspect, Mrs M as a bit of a nut) prevented any consequences of this outside of her classroom. I still managed to graduate as second in the year and happily moved on to high school, where a whole new round of traumatic experiences awaited…

3 thoughts on “Good Teachers/Bad Teachers”

  1. Ahhh, i love the rich variety of teachers/mentors/nutters we all had to work through..Happy memories of Mr B. who ironically became an Apiarist. The floggers..UGH…the art teacher we gave a nervous breakdown to and Mr W. The accountacy master…”WHY IS THE THIRD BUTTON ON YOUR BLAZER UNDONE !!!!.? How can you ever become chartered accountants if you dont keep your coat buttoned?….

  2. Had a Mr M. at my high school who stalked the grounds with a cardboard sign taped to a ruler. One side read “PULL UP YOUR SOCKS”, the other “TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT”. He liked to jump out from the shadows, yelling the appropriate phrase and shoving the sign in your face.

    In retrospect he probably shouldn’t have been let anywhere near children.

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