A Passion For Education – Chapter 4 – Relationship, Ethos and Philosophy
If you want to be a Head you have to have balls – balls to stand up for what you believe in – balls to do what is right. The vultures of reactionary establishment will pick your bones clean unless you are prepared to take them on and outmanoeuvre them. Failing that you can simply opt in, follow the rules and regulations to the letter, and settle for mediocrity.
Following the rules is no way to create excellence.
In 1978, at the suggestion of my wife Liz, I applied for and was accepted on a teacher exchange programme to the good old USA. In 1979, having been teaching for four years, we set off, three young children in tow, to teach in Norwalk Los Angeles.
My introduction to the school was a prolonged staff meeting discussing gang activity, guns, knives and what to do when petrol was poured over both exit doors from your classroom and set alight. It made me wonder what I had let myself into. Norwalk had the highest gang related killings in the whole USA. In my first week there an innocent boy was executed in the park opposite the school in broad daylight. He was chased, caught, bent over the bonnet of a car and shot through the head because he was wearing the wrong colour sweatshirt. He was new to the area. It was a case of mistaken identity. He did not even know about the gangs let alone what colours they wore.
During my second week I was taking roll-call. Every lesson started with a roll-call. The school was paid by the number of bums on seats per day. If you could get a student in school for just a few minutes the funding was secured. The first task was to ring in for the office to chase up absentees. They had twenty five secretaries poised to do this.
I called out the names and checked off the register.
‘Heeey’ a girl called out. I looked up. A slim blond girl was standing in the aisle, legs splayed and two hands held out in front of her pointing a handgun directly at me.
It is quite amazing how quickly your mind works when faced with a life-threatening situation.
I had only been there a few days. I could not possibly have annoyed anyone that much. I was the new Englishman. She was after scaring the shit out of me. I was expected to panic.
The whole classroom was watching.
‘Put it away and sit down,’ I instructed, looking her straight in the eyes. Inside my heart was doing thundering impersonations of Ginger Baker’s drum solo in Toad but I knew it was imperative to keep calm.
I continued with the list before me, never raising my eyes from the page. When I had finished I looked up. The girl had sat down and the gun was no longer visible. I organised the class and strolled over, in as nonchalant a manner as I could muster to the girl who was now getting on with her work as if nothing had happened.
I stood over her but she did not look up.
‘That was remarkably silly,’ I told her in a quiet voice. ‘If I had pressed the button you would have been arrested and out of here.’ There was a panic button on my desk. If pressed trained security guards would have rushed in and dealt with things.
‘It wasn’t loaded,’ she replied in a surly off-hand voice.
‘I might have had a gun in my drawer. I didn’t know yours wasn’t loaded. I could have blown you away.’
She looked up at me with a look of amusement. The very idea was completely comical.
‘Don’t ever do anything like that again,’ I said and walked off.
It made my year. If I had followed procedure her life would have been different and I would have had a shitty year. Teaching is about relationship and choices of action