39 Years on the Chalkface


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March 11th 2019
Published: March 11th 2019
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39 Years on the Chalkface

It’s been a wonderful life!

My career as a school teacher began in 1975 and ended in 2017. Since then I’ve been teaching privately and subbing for teachers who are sick or otherwise absent. Here are the statistics of my school career:

1975-85: Old Swinford Hospital (OSH), Stourbridge, UK

1985-91: British International School (BISC), Cairo

1991-95: International School of Tanganyika (IST), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

1996-97: St Andrews School, Buenos Aires

1998-2000: International School of Monagas, Maturin, Venezuela

2001-06: International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC), Vietnam

2007-09: Lincoln International School, Accra, Ghana

2009-12: American International School (AIS), Ho Chi Minh City

2012-16: Renaissance International School (RISS), Ho Chi Minh City

2016-17: International School of Ho Chi Minh City

That adds up to 39 years on the chalkface. It could have been longer, but I had a 6-month break between Tanzania and Buenos Aires (where the school year begins in January), a 6-month break between B. Aires and Venezuela (because the Argentine school year finishes in December), a whole year off between Venezuela and Vietnam and another year-long sabbatical after my first stint at ISHCMC.

Now I will reflect on my school career and give pen portraits of the various schools.

I've written extensively about Old Swinford Hospital elsewhere. It was a boys’ school in the small West Midlands town of Stourbridge, and I was a boarding master for 7 out of the 10 years I worked there. I spent far too long in this virtually all-male establishment, but at least I managed to break free of it – unlike many teachers who spent their entire careers there. Leaving OSH in 1985 and going to Cairo was a gamble at the time, but now I regard it as possibly the most important decision I've ever taken.

The British International School of Cairo (BISC) was a revelation after all those dreary years at OSH. I was teaching girls for the first time. My classes were small compared to OSH. I felt valued and at ease. I was living outside of England for the first time in a vibrant and safe city with travel opportunities galore. My social life was sensational compared to Stourbridge - no end of drinks, parties, quizzes, dinners, restaurant outings and holidays. Visiting the historical sites of Egypt – the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel and so on – was a dream come true. I often thought of my old Dad, who would have loved Egypt but who, because of his economic and social circumstances, was doomed to a life of hard work and little travel. Definitely one of my top three jobs – along with Dar es Salaam and HCMC.

I left Cairo because I wanted to experience another country. In particular, I wanted to experience sub-Saharan Africa. My career plan was to use my qualifications as an English teacher to travel the world. But how could my next port of call, Dar es Salaam, top Cairo? Well, it was just as good but in different ways. I started playing chess again, after a hiatus of many years, and in 1991 became the Tanzanian National Champion. A week later I trekked to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Zanzibar was a boat ride away from Dar, and I often spent my weekend there; in the early 1990's it was an unspoilt, delectable place. I went on safaris and saw all the animals. I became a bird-watcher again; if the animals were in short supply on a particular day, there were always birds to admire. I’ll never forget the carmine bee-eaters, the ground hornbills and the ostriches. My life was rich both outside and inside school. For the first time I was in a large English department with an excellent leader, and my teaching skills improved.

In my fourth year at IST I decided that after 20 years on the chalkface I deserved a break. I would return to my native Reading and have a rest. I had money in the bank, so I would enjoy myself for a year before taking a new job. That was the plan anyway. Back in Reading, living in the family house that had hitherto been rented out, I very quickly became bored. I missed living in the tropics. I missed the social life of international schools. Then I had a brainwave. The South American school cycle was from January to December, so why not apply for a job in South America beginning in January? I interviewed for an English post at St Andrews School in Buenos Aires and got it.

My two years at St Andrews were a mixed bag. I did not enjoy the teaching, because the Argentinian students were a rowdy bunch. In my first lesson one class asked me two questions: what did I think of Maradona’s “hand of God” goal against England and what was my opinion of the Malvinas (Falklands)? I replied that Maradona’s second goal, after his "hand of god" goal, was a masterpiece and that England’s ownership of some small islands off the Argentina coast was absurd – answers which pleased my audience and made me, for a short time anyway, quite popular. But, on the whole, I had a torrid time in class. Chess was my salvation in Buenos Aires. I enjoyed running the school chess club, and outside of school I played in two big tournaments sponsored by the Clarin newspaper. And then there were the holidays. I travelled to Chile, Brazil and Peru and fulfilled a lifelong ambition by watching whales – right whales – in the Atlantic Ocean off Puerto Madryn.

I was physically exhausted after two years of trying, and failing, to tame the students of St Andrews, so I baled out in December 2007 and returned to Reading. The plan was to inhabit my house for six months before starting another job in August.

I attended the CIS job fair in London in February, and Ian Rysdale, whom I knew from IST, gave me an English position at his school in Maturin, Venezuela. When I arrived, the school had a tiny student population. It was an American-owned oil school, and the American oil-men were pulling out of Venezuela fast because of Chavez and the rock-bottom price of oil. School was easy, if rather boring. I amused myself by writing poems and stories, mainly about the dire Headmaster who followed Rysdale. The highlight of my time in Maturin was visiting the West Indies, where I feasted on cricket. I witnessed Brian Lara defeat Australia almost single-handed in the Barbados Test of 1999, and in 2000, at Sabina Park, Jamaica, I saw Courtney Walsh overtake Kapil Dev’s world-record haul of Test wickets.

I then decided to take a whole year off, so I returned to Reading and reinhabited my house.

The plan now was to work in the Far East. I had spent time in Europe, Africa and South America, so only one continent was left (there being no international schools in Antarctica). At the CIS job fair in February 2001 I was offered several jobs, but my heart was set on Ho Chi Minh City. After a ridiculously easy interview, Sean O’Maonaigh offered me a job at ISHCMC and I accepted.

I stayed at ISHCMC for five very happy years. I loved the downtown beer and restaurant scene in HCMC; I bought hundreds of dirt-cheap jazz CD’s; I loved Vietnamese women; I loved travelling in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand; I loved working in the school. I founded a chess club and organized school tournaments twice a year. In the end I became slightly jaded and, after five years, felt I needed a change. This time I would not return to Reading – I had done that three times already and been rather bored each time. No, this time I would stay in HCMC and enjoy myself.

During my sabbatical year I lived with my girlfriend Thuy in a cosy apartment near Cho Ba Chieu and had two never-to-be-forgotten holidays. Reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything had fired my interest in volcanoes, so I flew to Indonesia where I visited the site of Krakatoa and climbed Tambora (which, in 1815, was the greatest volcanic eruption in recorded history). My other great holiday was in the Philippines, where I climbed a volcano, Mount Mayon, and swam with the world’s largest fishes – whale sharks - at Donsol.

I attended the CIS Bangkok job fair in February. I wanted to stay in South East Asia and was disappointed to find nothing that suited me. I wanted to work again soon, so I took a job in Ghana. I had thoroughly enjoyed myself in East Africa, so West Africa was bound to be the same - or so I thought. I also wanted to test my feelings for Thuy, my long-time Vietnamese girlfriend, and for Vietnam itself. When I went to Ghana, would I pine for Thuy and Vietnam?

Ghana was a flop. Quite a good school but in a bad place. Accra was very disappointing compared to Dar es Salaam. Playing chess and watching international football games kept me sane. I flew to Vietnam every winter and summer holiday to be with Thuy, whom I missed.

On one of these flights I got talking to a stranger, Dr Mark Uerkvitz, Headmaster of the American International School in HCMC. He gave me his card and invited me to apply for a job at his school. I interviewed on Skype and was duly appointed.

It was great to be back in HCMC with Thuy. We had a nice apartment in District 5, not far from the school. The school was poorly administered, but the students were fine. In my third year, an ogre became Headmaster and I had to leave. I wanted to stay in HCMC, but there seemed to be no job for me. Then, in May 2012, a job suddenly popped up for Head of English at the Renaissance School in District 7. I interviewed and got it. The salary was better than at AIS, and the school was superior in many respects. I had fallen on my feet!

My first two years at Renaissance were fine, but then an ogre - different from the other one - was appointed Headmaster. We loathed each other, so I resigned as Head of English but stayed on as a humble teacher. The new Head of English was a consummate twerp, so I baled out of Renaissance at the end of my fourth year.

I was now 64 (a chess board), and finding a new job might prove difficult because of my antiquity. Then I had a stroke of luck. Matthew Szweda, whom I'd worked with in Accra, was teaching at ISHCMC, and he heard they urgently needed a replacement for a sick English teacher. This was during the summer holidays, as I recall. I interviewed and was accepted on a one-year local contract, which did not include the accommodation allowance I was used to getting as part of my overseas contract. I asked the Head if he could give me the allowance because I wanted to relocate from District 1 to be able to teach at ISHCMC in District 2. He granted me the allowance, which added an extra $1000 to my monthly salary. In the end I never moved from District I, preferring to stay put in our nice apartment and commute each day through the tunnel to ISHCMC.

My year at ISHCMC – my 6th there in total - was a good one, but neither the school nor I had any desire to extend my contract. I was short of ready cash, and the plan now was to return to Reading and sell my house.

I left Thuy for the two months it took me to complete the house sale. Mission accomplished, I returned to HCMC with cash in the bank.

Since then I've bought an apartment in District 2, from where I do supply teaching and private tutoring. My career as a school teacher is, barring something unforeseen, well and truly over. I am now semi-retired, content to work short hours, spending the rest of my time writing blogs like this, playing chess online, reading books, listening to music, watching old movies, meeting friends, going for the occasional holiday. I'm rarely bored.

Looking back on my teaching career, I’ve seen education progress from the Dark Ages into the brave new world of today. There have been seismic changes in terms of discipline, meetings, accountability, bureaucracy, professional development and technology.

Corporal punishment – such a feature of my years at Old Swinford – is now, thank god, a thing of the past. It was abolished in the UK in 1986, the year after I went to Cairo, and in all my overseas schools it was unheard of.

In 1975, when I began at Old Swinford, teachers were left alone to do much as they pleased. After the probationary year, there was no accountability – no classroom inspections, no self-assessments, no questions to answer about one’s performance. My room was my domain, where I was trusted to deliver the goods. We were judged mainly by our ‘O’ and ‘A’ level results, but there was never a formal inquest when an exam class performed badly. Some of the teachers at Old Swinford were hopeless, but they were under no pressure to improve and so carried on deadening the minds of the young until they retired or went elsewhere. A far cry from today, when a teacher is under intense scrutiny all of the time.

In 1975 meetings were rare – just the occasional general staff meeting to debate policy and fix the calendar. Students were never mentioned. And there were no departmental meetings or workshops. By contrast, at my last school, ISHCMC in Vietnam, there were at least three meetings a week – a Monday morning whole-school briefing, an English meeting and a PD session - and regular workshops.

There was no bureaucracy in 1975. Teachers were not compelled to submit formal lesson plans. Writing a school report was a breeze – just a line or two handwritten on a single sheet that was passed round from teacher to teacher. (Woe betide the teacher who messed up; the whole report sheet would then have to be redone.) One Maths teacher used to write “Satisfactory work and progress” for most of his students. There was literally no paperwork to submit apart from this. Nowadays bureaucracy has gone mad; teachers are forever filling in forms and submitting lesson plans. I have heard it said that teachers today are judged as much for how they present themselves in writing as for their actual classroom performance.

There was no PD (professional development) back in 1975. Teachers rarely got together with other teachers to compare teaching strategies. Nowadays PD is de rigueur - an intrinsic part of the job.

In 1975, before the invention of computers and the internet, there was no classroom technology beyond a TV and a video player. In the 70’s I would occasionally wheel in the school TV and show my class a Roald Dahl short story or a Shakespeare play. There was no electronic photocopying then (at least not available to us teachers) – just a primitive banda machine that churned out purple-ink sheets. After a session on the banda machine, my fingers used to be stained purple, as if I’d been picking blackberries. There was no whiteboard on which to project images or instructions – just a blackboard and sticks of chalk. By contrast, classrooms in 2019 are dominated by computers, smartphones and internet technology, and teachers have websites where they post lessons and information for their students to access.

There is no doubt that teachers today are more accountable, better trained and better equipped than in 1975, when it was possible for piss-poor, bone idle sadists to get away with murder. However, the pressures on teachers today, especially in the UK, are enormous, and the profession is no longer considered attractive (although teaching in overseas international schools is pretty good in my opinion).

Which do I prefer: the Dark Ages of teaching in 1975 or the brave new world of today? Well, there is something to be said for both. These days it’s difficult to do your own thing in the classroom; one is working as part of a team, everybody teaching the same book or topic, and I miss the freedom I once had to choose my own books and topics. I resent the high emphasis placed today on bureaucracy and meetings but have to admit that, in 1975, things were scandalously lax. I recognize the value of modern technology in the classroom but sometimes feel that today’s students are over-dependent on machines. Instead of talking to one another, instead of asking the teacher questions, instead of writing in an exercise book, instead of reading paper books, they rely on computers and smartphones for everything. I often wonder how they would fare if Google and computer technology suddenly disappeared.

Now let me say something about my teaching philosophy. What have I learnt after 39 years on the chalkface?

Well, having a good relationship with one’s classes is essential. A class is not a single entity but a collection of individuals. A teacher must strive to understand and take an interest in every individual in his class. Finding out that a particular boy supports Manchester United and then chatting to him about last night’s match may well have a knock-on effect when it comes to school work. If a student feels the teacher is not interested in him as a person, he will underachieve. Conversely, if a student likes a teacher, then he will work hard in order to please the teacher.

I've always liked the following quotation from J. M. Hutchins: My idea of education is to unsettle the minds of the young and inflame their intellects.” I used to stick this on my classroom door or wall as a reminder of what I ought to be doing. As an English teacher, I believe I have far greater scope than, say, a Maths teacher. Any reading, any writing, any speaking is relevant to learning English. While a Maths teacher must, perforce, teach the rudiments of mathematics, usually from one textbook, an English teacher can use whatever materials he likes. The choice of reading material is almost infinite. So is the choice of topics for speaking and writing. Whether I do a module based on President Trump or Vietnam or World War 1 or music or chicken farming doesn’t matter so long as the students are engaged and are improving their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. An English teacher, I believe, is privileged in that he can expand his students’ knowledge of the world at the same time as teaching English.

The most enjoyable part of English teaching for me has always been the literature. I have taught many different books in my career – novels, short stories, plays and poetry. Some of them I could teach over and over again until the end of time, because they are so nuanced, so beautifully written. Choosing the right books to teach can be tricky. The teacher must strike a balance between what he enjoys and what he thinks the students will enjoy. There is no point teaching a ‘masterpiece’ if the students do not like it. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which I have taught several times, falls into this category. Here then are my personal teaching favourites - books that I never tire of and which, in my experience, generally work with classes:

Novels: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Boyne), The Outsiders (S.E.Hinton), The Hunger Games (Collins), Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck), Animal Farm (Orwell), Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Taylor)

Short Stories: The Landlady (Dahl), Lamb to the Slaughter (Dahl), The Fun They Had (Asimov), Mysteries of the Heart (Nigel Hinton), Examination Day (Slesar),

Plays: An Inspector Calls (Priestley), Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare), Macbeth (Shakespeare), A Streetcar Named Desire (T.Williams), Death of a Salesman (Miller), A Doll's House (Ibsen), A Modern Faust (radio play - Scannell)

Poems: A Case of Murder (Scannell), The Lesson (McGough), Jabberwocky (Carroll), Funeral Blues (Auden), Dulce et Decorum Est (Owen), Mirror (Plath)

Reflecting on my 39 years as a school teacher, I have few regrets. My biggest mistake was spending 10 years – my twenties - at a boys’ school in England. It seemed like a cushy number at the time, a very fine teaching job, but I was naïve in those days. I knew nothing about the delights of living and working overseas. What changed my life was a holiday in Morocco in 1974. This was the first time I had ventured outside of Europe, and it felt wonderful. Was I really going to spend the rest of my career at Old Swinford, like some of those decrepit old farts? Why not try for a job overseas, somewhere warm and exotic like Morocco?

And so it came to pass that I went to Cairo, and my life changed.

It’s been a wonderful life. I’ve seen the world, living in seven (counting the UK) countries, visiting many others (67 to date), sampling different cultures, making dozens of friends along the way. I can honestly say that there are few places or sights on this planet that I have wanted to see and have not seen. I've climbed over the Himalayas (that was in Kashmir in 1987). I've scaled the Great Pyramid twice. I've seen the Taj Mahal twice. I've visited Victoria Falls twice (for me the greatest of all natural wonders). I've seen Machu Picchu and the Inca ruins around Cuzco. I've been on safari in Tanzania and seen herds of elephant and prides of lions. I've flown to the Galapagos. I've marvelled at Angkor Wat and the other Khmer temples in Cambodia. The list goes on. I am a lucky man. My education and my job have enabled me to gad around the globe.

In case you have formed the impression that I'm some sort of educational tourist, using my job as a vehicle for world travel, let me put the record straight. I've been a serious teacher in every school I’ve worked at. I believe in giving value for money. I remember the words of Mrs McFaul, my supervisor in Stourbridge during my probationary year. She suggested that I should treat every student as if he were my own son. “How would you feel if your son attended a school where the English teacher was lazy and disorganized?” Corny as these words may sound, they stuck with me throughout my career. I always aimed to correct written work instantly and return it to my students the very next lesson. I always had a lesson plan, either in my head or jotted down. I chose my books carefully with student enjoyment in mind. I felt bad after delivering a lacklustre lesson or receiving negative feedback from a student. I believe that I worked hard during my 39 years on the chalkface. It was my good fortune to be single and unencumbered for so long; it gave me the freedom to globetrot to my heart’s content, and I took full advantage.

Now that I’m married to Thuy, my longtime Vietnamese sweetheart, my globe-trotting days are over. I will probably never return to Blighty, and I doubt if I will set foot outside Asia. There are plenty of interesting places for me to visit close to HCMC. And then there is my teaching, which I take as seriously as ever. Tutoring students one to one is very satisfying. I can teach them pure English without having to genuflect before the bullshit gobbledygook that is part and parcel of modern education, without having to attend pointless meetings, without having to submit lesson plans, without having to deliver content that is thrust upon me and which I do not like. I am free to draw on my long experience, on my repertoire of smash-hit lessons, on my teaching documents amassed over the years and stored on my computer; yes, I am free to teach more or less as I like - just as in good old bad old 1975! The wheel has turned full circle. I sometimes miss the cut and thrust of daily school, but my new life is interesting and rewarding. Yes, it’s been a wonderful life, and it’s far from over yet!

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16th June 2020

A few words of appreciation
I enjoyed your summation of a career and life in international education. And many of your conclusions mirror my own.

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