This ‘Merchant’ mesmerised me
Although I don’t see anyone hanging out the bunting or composing a special fanfare, it was thirty years ago this month that I started my career as a teacher. Frankly, I was as surprised as anyone, since I had vowed from the depths of my adolescence that teaching was the one career path I wouldn’t be following.
There were a few other jobs I had flirted with – radio DJ, actor and, perhaps most obscurely, ventriloquist. None of them were to happen.
Instead I managed to scrape a handful of mediocre O-levels and drift into the sixth form thanks to a kindly senior teacher who bent the entry requirements to let me in.
There for the first time I realised that I enjoyed and was reasonably good at one subject: English. I read a lot. I wrote a lot. And – no surprises here – I talked a lot.
The result was a decent enough clutch of A-levels to get me to a university that initially intimidated me (everyone there seemed to know so much more than I did) and then inspire me. It was at this point that I decided to become a teacher.
In truth, it didn’t start brilliantly. In my first year, I got a reprimand from the headmaster. I had decided to teach Shakespeare to my first Year 9 class, back in the days when Shakespeare wasn’t in the English curriculum and a generation of students could leave school without having seen or read any of his plays.
I had recently seen a production of ‘Merchant of Venice’ that mesmerised me. It contained a festival scene in which the actors danced hypnotically whilst wearing grotesque masks of bright colours and beakish noses. It made Venice seem dangerous and alluring.
It was this mood that I tried to receate with those Year 9 students and it was this decision that got me my first telling-off from the head. The problem was that I didn’t have any masks and I certainly didn’t have the time to make them. So I improvised by bringing in lots of plastic bags from ASDA.
At the start of each lesson, around 25 students would stand in the English foyer swaying in time to Italian music in my feeble attempt to recreate the magic of that production I had seen in Stratford.
I should point out that I had made holes in all the plastic bags, but I still got summoned to the head’s office and told I was perhaps being slightly reckless. He was right, of course: it’s precisely what I’d be saying to a teacher today.
And so, thirty years on, I’m still around, still teaching English, still running the debating society and - however madcap the politics and the policies beyond the school gates - finding that there can be few careers as full of optimism and fun as working with young people at the start of their lives, plus teachers and other staff who want to make a difference.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Regular readers will have heard me rant about the Whitehall policy machine, turning out far too many wacky wheezes that end up distracting us rather than enhancing what we do in class.
But the reality of teaching is that, on a good day, in a good lesson, when it all clicks, there’s a real sense of being engaged in a kind of magic that Google and social media are unlikely ever to replace – the sheer, undiluted joy of teaching a subject you love and seeing young people begin to love it too.
All these years on, I still get a kick from that, as well as from seeing all the new teachers come into the profession ready to share their love of their subject, teach their hearts out, and inspire the next generation of students.
And thankfully none of them these days turns up clutching 25 plastic bags.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.