It was a sad fact that, in the seven years I attended grammar school, I had never met another Mr. Jones. I never had another shared precious amber moment. I know now I should have raised my hand more often, I should have asked more questions, and I should have concentrated more and been a better student.

However, I had done enough, it appeared, to be on my way to becoming a teacher.

In September, 1960, I began my three-year-long college career in Leicester, an industrial city way up in the Midlands, far, far away from Penzance.

I looked forward to this new phase of my life, now stepping out on my own, with my amber and wishing rock in an OXO tin in my pocket, ready to live for the first time away from the family.

Of course, I had no idea then how fortunate I was, not knowing that Leicester was becoming the focal point of progressive education and that I was lucky enough to be going there at the beginning of my teaching career.

 

The education classes were really interesting, far more so, to my surprise, than the physics and the biology classes that were based on reading from textbooks, group discussion, then regurgitating the notes in a science journal.

 

Talking objectively about education, a process I had been a subjective part of for years, was fascinating. I learned, for example, that significant education reform was underway in some parts of England. Some education authorities, led by Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, and the West Riding, had, at last, abolished the insidious testing system, the ‘scholarship,’ which, as I well knew, all pupils (except those in private schools) in England took at the age of eleven, as they completed their primary school education. A small percentage (including me and Charles) went to a grammar school that prepared them for higher education (colleges of education, universities) and the vast majority (including Jimmie) went to a secondary modern school that, it was said, prepared them for nothing.

 

Some British educators were now agreeing that the 11 plus was not an appropriate prediction of a young child’s future, and thus a dreadful waste of talent.

 

School authorities, such as Leicestershire, created comprehensive high schools, a move supported by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, for all children when they left primary schools, whatever their academic ability.

 

Miss Whitworth, the Vice Principal and my college education instructor, described what was taking place in some Leicestershire schools that college used as bases for student teaching. 

“ ‘The Leicestershire Method’,’ The Integrated Day’, and ‘Vertical Grouping’, were phrases, she said, that “referred to an innovative approach to junior school teaching”

 

“The restructuring of the curriculum and the teaching-learning setting was first worked out by a number of infant schools.” “Many teachers,” said Miss Whitworth, “are attracted to the ideas of educational thinkers like Montessori, Isaacs, Dewey, and Piaget. Jean Piaget’s work was proving particular practical in the area of school mathematics, and was shaping the direction of educational innovation. Some of Piaget’s assumptions included the notion that primary school children can’t just be told things, that they learn basic concepts in mathematics slowly. They learn mathematics best through a variety of rich practical activity.”

 

Mmmm……that made sense to me, I thought.

 

Miss Whitworth told us that changing the classroom teaching model appealed to Head Teachers, [1] she said. Pupils appeared to be more motivated about learning and appeared to learn more. Parents, Miss Whitworth said, with a twinkle in her eye, liked that very much.

 

On Thursdays, we visited a variety of schools. I enjoyed the opportunities to see what was going on in real classrooms, and then coming back to college for class discussion. When I could match experience with texts and discussions, I could make better sense of it all.

 

The first primary school I went to visit was so different from what I remembered about St. Paul’s Junior School. I sat in the back of the classroom [2] for the whole morning. The children sat in groups around circular tables, not in rows of desks.  There was a table standing square in the middle of the room. Resting on a sheet of back paper was a bird’s egg, some tree leaves and two rocks.

 

Written on a large white card were the words:

 

OUR NATURE TABLE

CAN YOU FIND OUT WHAT THESE ARE?

USE OUR BOOKS of KNOWLEDGE on the BOOKSHELF.

 

The teacher talked about the bird’s egg and the tree leaves, reminding me of Mr. Jones and those wonderful Wednesday afternoons at St. Paul’s Junior School.

“Right,” he said, “this morning, there’s maths, writing, and science on the nature table.”

“Off you go.”

 

The children fetched their resources, sat in groups of four, and began working - writing, doing their maths, and drawing and researching the objects in books.

The teacher moved around the room, sitting and helping individual children.

 

I couldn’t wait to get back to college to tell everyone what I had seen.

Like me, some of the student teachers were quite surprised by actually observing first hand the fundamental changes in the teaching style that encouraged children to work together in small groups to learn basic mathematics, for example, using mathematical resources. Kids, it appeared to all of us, seemed really content and enjoying what they were doing. The tone of the lively discussion was best summed up when someone said loudly,

 

“This new way works.”

“Kids behaved themselves even when not sitting up straight in their chairs, in rows – it was great.”

“Liked the idea of group work and sitting around tables.”

The kids I saw were really doing some really difficult maths problems.”

“Working together, with equipment, it seemed to work.”

 

Half-way through the second term I experienced my first teaching practice in Great Glen Primary School. The teaching practice lasted three weeks. I loved every minute of it. From my first day, I was fascinated by how easy the teacher, Mr. Turner, made it look. I was intrigued by the way he set up his classroom and organized the children into small groups. I felt honored when he included me as a co-teacher when he felt it appropriate

 

One playtime, Mr. Turner asked me if I knew anything about fossils. This was my moment. I took my OXO tin from my pocket, opened it, and held my amber in my hand. I was taken aback at his reaction:

“Show the kids. They’ll love it.”

Really? I thought. What do I tell them?

 

When playtime ended, I stood as tall as I could in front of the class and nervously showed the children my OXO tin. Slowly opening it, I talked about my fifth birthday when I combed the beach with my father. The story appeared to fascinate the children. When I’d finished speaking, their questions came thick and fast.

 

 “You found that?”

“What’s the tin?”

“What is it?”

“ Where did you find it?”

“How much is amber worth?”

“Did your mum and dad take you walking every weekend?”

 

When I ran out of steam, Mr. Turner stepped in, winked at me, and showed an ammonite to the class, told everyone where he’d found it, and then placed it on the nature table.

 

“OK,” he said, as he began to write on the blackboard.

 “Take out your writing books. I want you to draw and write about Mr. Paull’s amber - and my ammonite. See what you can find out about them from our reference books.”

 

As I sat and helped some of the children with the assignment, I couldn’t help thinking that teaching was a wonderful job. And so easy - especially if you had a wishing rock and a beautiful piece of amber.

 

 



[1] Principals who are also classroom teachers

[2] Fifth grade.

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