xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Jungle Training for a Graduate Teacher

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Jungle Training for a Graduate Teacher

There has been talk recently by some education reformers that we need to upgrade and improve out teacher training processes.The implication is that we are not getting quality candidates and the quality of our graduate teachers is somehow lacking. So far nobody has produced any evidence to support this.

I have been involved in mentoring trainee teachers for the last eleven years.They call them Pre Service Teachers these days, which makes me think of motor vehicles.On the whole I am pleasantly surprised at how competent and enthusiastic our graduate teachers are. Some of them are outstanding. They are certainly far better equipped for teaching than I was when I graduated from Graylands’ Teachers College all those years ago.

As mentioned in an earlier blog (Education Reform or Teacher Bashing, March 15, 2013), I became concerned during my course at Graylands College because, although I was having a great social life, I was not very confident about taking charge of a class, which in those days consisted of fifty or sixty lively young people. Fortunately, Graylands’ College Principal, Dr Neil Traylen, assured all of us nervous student teachers that graduation would enable us to go into our own classes and then we would learn how to be teachers. Wise words, indeed.These days, of course, all graduate teachers are much more formally monitored and mentored in their early teaching career. Of course, at Graylands I did learn much more than I thought I had, which stood me in good stead when I did take on my very first teaching role.

This is the story of some of the things that happened to me in my first three years of teaching, as I developed the teaching skills and the survival skills so necessary for effective teaching to occur.

I arrived at Bunbury Central School one Monday afternoon in the early April of 1958, fresh out my stint of National Service in the 3rd Field Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery. My job in the army had been to sit in a seat on a 25 pounder gun and pull the pin that fired explosive projectiles towards the enemy. Or, in my case, towards any vessels of the Fantasian Navy lurking out in Gage Roads north of Rottnest. My life in the artillery had made me very fit. Unfortunately, it also had an effect on my hearing which did not become a major problem until I reached middle age.

Upon my arrival at the school, the Acting Principal, Mr George Lloyd, informed me that I would be teaching the Grade 4 class. Their current teacher was Mrs Aileen Mouritz. Mrs Mouritz was a battle hardened veteran of many tough teaching campaigns. She exercised extremely strong discipline and achieved very high standards. Based on my recent army experience, I soon realised that she would have made an excellent Regimental Sergeant Major.

She was also a very caring lady who took a motherly interest in me and helped me a great deal in those early days. In fact she was instrumental in arranging my accommodation at her friend Mrs Flanigan’s boarding house on my very first afternoon in Bunbury.

I certainly needed a great deal of help with my teaching. My time at Graylands Teachers College had not really equipped me for a teaching career. I wished I had paid closer attention to my lecturers and been less involved in student affairs and the exciting social swirl of campus life in that dawning of the rock and roll era. My Elvis Presley impersonations were not going to be a lot of help in the classroom.

The 54 children in the Year 4 class seemed pleased to see me. My strongest memory of that first week of teaching is of how tiring it all was. I had finished my days in the artillery in a fairly high state of physical fitness, but after three days of full time teaching I was absolutely exhausted.I had found out what all teachers soon discover. Teaching and being responsible for a class full of lively youngsters can be physically and mentally debilitating.

The staff at Bunbury Central were a great bunch and went out of their way to help me. During May, however, they began to talk about the return from Long Service Leave of the Principal, Mr John Larson. At first I did not worry about this forthcoming staffing change very much. After all, life was good. I was enjoying being in charge of “my” class. Mr Larson wasn’t due back until July. The school was running like clockwork. What difference I mused, could the arrival of Mr Larson make.

I was soon to find out that one man can make a huge difference.

May disappeared and June gave way to July. I noticed the staff becoming more and more preoccupied. Mr Larson’s impending arrival was like the count down to D-Day. The cheerful and indefatigable George Lloyd and the helpful and imperturbable Bill Sloan began to tell me, at length, how my life would change quite dramatically when Mr Larson returned. They seemed to enjoy doing this.

Eventually the fateful day arrived. Mrs Flannigan’s boarding house was by the estuary in Stirling Street and I enjoyed walking to school each day. As I turned the corner into Arthur St I saw a figure standing imperiously on the footpath in front of the main school entry. It was the figure of a man dressed in a dark suit, he had a shock of red hair, an aggressive red beard and a blood red tie which let everybody know that he was back and he was in charge.Mr Larson knew all about power dressing thirty years before Dr Joe Braysich coined the phrase. I had about 50 metres to walk to the school entrance. I shortened my stride, gulped several times and practised in my mind what I would say when I reached him. About half way along the street my short supply of courage evaporated completely. I did a swift right turn into the playground through a small side gate, entered the school through the back door and sought the safety of my classroom.

In the army they would have called it desertion in the face of the enemy. I didn’t care. I felt safe. Maybe Mr Larson wouldn’t bother with me. After all, he must have a lot of work to catch up on after his six months' long service leave.

Then the classroom door opened.It was my red haired, red bearded, red tied nemesis.

“Good morning. You must be Mr Bourke” said Mr Larson as he shook my hand. I smiled and nodded. Then came the words I had been dreading.

“Your timetable says that you are having Handwriting at 11-00am. I’ll be in to see you take that lesson.” With that he wheeled around and left me wondering why on earth I had ever decided to become a teacher.

Well, he did come in at 11.00 A.M. and watched me teaching. He watched me for about three minutes. Then he took charge. Obviously my teaching methods and my standards were well below Mr Larson's expectations. Mr Larson took over and commenced a writing lesson that continued for the rest of the day.

On the morning of the second day he extended the writing and printing lessons to mathematics and the children produced pages of numerals and the algorithms for the four rules of number.. He insisted that the children must not use rulers.“A waste of time,” said Mr Larson as he demonstrated how he could draw perfectly straight lines and even perfect circles without any ruler or blackboard compass. He had a very distinctive way of printing and numbering. Each letter or number was broken into segments.I did not realise at the time but twenty years later Mr Larson's stylistic printing would be remarkably similar to the digital lettering and numbers that appeared on calculators and computers.The children had to rule their maths and all the other ruling up in their pads by freehand. At the end of the second day my Year 4 children were the fastest, neatest and best writers, printers and freehand rulers in the western world.

Mr Larson also insisted that I look at and initial each child’s pad page before they turned to a new one. If any work was unsatisfactory the child had to repeat it. In fact, I continued to follow this regime throughout my teaching career. No child could ever say that I did not give them feedback. No parent (or principal or district inspector) could ever say that I did not provide evidence of my close perusal of the child's performance and progress. Of course with 50 or 60 children in the class it was hard to see every child’s page, especially during cursive writing lessons, but I did it. Mr Larson’s influence on me was very strong and quite permanent.

Satisfied that my abysmal teaching standards had now been raised, Mr Larson eventually left my room mid way through the second day. Over the next two and a half years he made many, many visits to my classroom to ensure that my standards remained high. He did not give me a lot of praise, apart from an occasional smile. He just had an expectation that my teaching would always be up to his high standards.Mr Larson must have been reasonably pleased with my teaching by the end of my first year. In early December he informed that next year I would be teaching Grade 5B.

"But, Mr Larson, that means I'll be teaching the same children that I have this year," I quickly pointed out.

"Well, you haven't done them any harm, have you?" he replied.

"Well, no, I don't think so."

"Good. That's settled then"

Actually those 54 Grade Fours and Fives were a great bunch. They all knew that I was a first year teacher and made allowances. They also quickly realised it was always in their best interests to laugh at my jokes, compliment me on my singing and applaud my circus tricks, such as throwing a piece of chalk in the air and catching it in my shirt pocket! They were my receptive, captive audience.I quickly realised that I really enjoyed teaching.In fact couldn't wait to get into my classroom each morning. Thanks to Mr Larson, Deputy Princial, George Lloyd, and several other staff members, I was actually starting to acquire some reasonably effective teaching skills and actually enjoyed organising and planning my teaching programmes and noting the gradual improvement in even the weakest students. Over the years I have always been happier with the small gains made by the weaker children as opposed to the brighter children who made great improvements, often despite my teaching.

I did impress Mr Larson late in my first year. I purchased a tape recorder, basically to use with the many poor readers in my class. Tape recorders were reasonably new in Western Australia at that time. I had heard myself on tape at teachers college and shuddered everytime the tape was replayed to highlight again some mistake I had made. I figured children would feel the same way, so I had them read a paragraph or two into the tape and then replayed it while they re-read the passage again. We did this several times. As I expected, the children concentrated hard, improved their word recognition and quickly picked up the correct pronunciation.I also used to record class debates which impressed Mr Larson a great deal. He even mentioned at a staff meeting how I had spent my own money(99 pounds = $198) to purchase what he thought was a very valuable teaching aid. Later on he even purchased one for the school.

The District Inspector, Mr John Mack, also used to drop into my room from time to time. He was a gentle man, very interested in education and in how I was settling in. Mr Mack was also very interested in fishing. I am sure he came in to see how my teaching was progressing, but we also had long chats about fishing and other things. He took a deep interest in the various mussels, snails, gambusia and other water creatures living in the large class aquarium that I had built myself out of glass panels and a wonderful new adhesive called “Araldite”. I had built the aquarium after a visit to Bunbury by Dr Vincent Serventy and a young Dr Harry Butler. They enthused us all with their interest and knowledge about wild life.They even told me how easy it was to build an aquarium.

Mr Mack’s visits were always pleasant affairs. He would come to my room unannounced, but always politely knocking on my door and enquiring, “Mr Bourke, may I please come in?”

Of course I always said that he could come in, though I wondered what would have happened one day if I had said “NO”.

On the other hand, Mr Larson’s visits were always quite stressful for me, though, in retrospect, he no doubt thought he was being very helpful. Mr Larson had a well earned reputation as a strong disciplinarian. After all, it was said, he had been a Petty Officer on a British warship and ran his school the same way. As far as I was concerned he seemed to always be throwing me off the deep end.

As the youngest, least experienced (and most timid) staff member, I don’t know whether he did this to broaden my experience and build up my self confidence or just to keep me busy and out of the way when important school functions were on.On sports day he got me to look after the hot dog and cool drink stall. Never having had any experience in the bulk catering business I asked his advice.

“How many drinks, buns and sausages should I order, Mr Larson?”

“Well, I’ll leave that up to you....but try not to have too many left over.” Very helpful, but I got the message. I had given me the job, now I was expected to do it. Not only do it, but do it exceedingly well. If not, Mr Larson would not be happy. That was always enough incentive for me to do my very best.

Later on he made me the chief distribution officer for the films that came from the Audio Visual Branch in Perth. Each term a bundle of educational films would arrive on the Australind. I would place four films in six different bakelite cases bearing the names of the four state schools and two Catholic schools in the Bunbury area. After two weeks the films would be returned to Bunbury Central School. I had to rewind them, splice up any repairs, transfer the films to the next school’s case and dispatch them once more. I felt like Cecil B. DeMille.

In those days you could not graduate as a teacher unless you had a certificate to say you were qualified to operate a Bell and Howell projector. One day Mr Larson came to my room and told me that the Beaurepaire Tyre Company in Bunbury were going to run a series of staff training meetings. They were going to hire the school's projector. Mr Larson said that they could do so, but he wanted a school staff member to operate the projector. He looked at me and said, "You won't mind showing the films for them, will you Mr Bourke?"

It sounded like a command from on high and I told Mr Larson I'd be delighted to do the job. It was a pretty good job too. The films, usually of a humorous nature showed various ways to improve sales or customer relations and lasted about forty minutes, after which the Beaurepaire staff were invited to partake of refreshments, including beer and wine. Naturally, I was invited to partake, which I did with great gusto.On one occasion I showed the Beaurepaire company's remarkable documentary film of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The manager also made it very worhwhile by giving me five pounds($10) each night for my efforts. Quite, a tidy sum in 1959.

When Mr Larson told me I was to be in charge of the hot dog and drink stall for the big interschool athletic carnival at Hands Oval, I took it as a great vote of confidence in my earlier efforts at the Faction Carnival.The fact is that he gave me jobs that made me think about all the factors to be considered, I had to deal directly with local business people, I had to take risks (“Try not to have too many left over!” ) and I had to co-ordinate the efforts of a lot of parent and student helpers. I started to develop more confidence when speaking to local businesses.

The interschool sports stall was a great success. I sold out of all stock just before the presentation ceremony. I took Mr Larson's lack of complaint as loud praise. When he asked me to do the same job for the Annual Carols night I knew that I had done extremely well. I felt very happy and proud of myself.

In most schools the food and drink stalls would have been run by the hard working ladies of the school’s P & C. Association. At Bunbury Central the P & C didn’t seem to be a very active body at that time.We used to have assemblies each Tuesday in the central hall area, which doubled up as badminton court. One Tuesday Mr Larson regaled the 300 strong throng about the fact that only six parents had attended the previous night’s P&C meeting.

“Six people,” he fumed. We all winced. This was not going to be one of those assemblies that reflected The School Creed, which said in part, "This is our school, let the rooms be full of contentment. Let love abide here..." This was a fire breathing assembly with Mr Larson whipping himself up into a high state of moral indignation at recalcitrant parents.

“Only six people. I sent out a written invitation (in the newsletter) to all parents. Not one of them, not one, had the common courtesy to send their apologies. In future, I expect a note of apology from any parents who do not attend the P & C meetings.”

The next month's P&C meeting he went through the same procedure at the assembly. He had a portable blackboard listing the various classes from Years 4A, $B up to 7A and 7B. He wrote down how many parents from each class had attended and how many had sent in written apologies.

Altogether, he had 12 at that meeting and 15 written apologies. It’s true! Parents wrote apology notes. After two months, attendance at the P & C meeting was up around 30 and reached a peak of about 65 by the middle of Term 2. It was amazing to think that Mr Larson had so much power over people....most of those who couldn’t go to the meetings sent notes of apology.

The problem now, though, was that with 60 or so parents at the P & C meeting, some people began to ask Mr Larson questions about the school’s procedures, policies and financial arrangements. This he definitely did not like. The assembly blackboard disappeared and P & C meeting numbers quickly dropped back to the acquiescent 6 or 7 people. To me it had been a revelation. I was awed by the strength of Mr Larson's will and his ability to achieve whatever he wanted. Amazing.

I mentioned the Carols Night. These were the ultimate highlight of the Bunbury Central School year. They were presented in the Bunbury Railway Institute and naturally enough Mr Larson took complete control of the Junior Choir (Grades 4/5) and Senior Choir (grades 6/7)...and all other aspects of the evening. Except the food and drink counter. He left that to me.

Mr Larson's choir technique was unique. He demanded, and naturally obtained, absolute attention at all times. I remember on several occasions he got me, on cue, to tip over a large, heavy jarrah stool while the choir were in full song in the hall. There would be a tremendous crash, windows would rattle and dust would rise like thick smoke from the floorboards in the hall. But every eye remained on his conducting hands and every mouth sang sweet and true and never missed a beat.

On other occasions he had two or three non-singers rush noisily into the hall, race around the piano and out again. Not one singer was brave enough to take their eyes off Mr Larson. Their attention never wavered. He was the maestro!

To many, Mr Larson may have been seen as a stern and uncompromising man. The epitome of the strong leader. No doubt he was, but I can recall two incidents where he showed himself to be generous and compassionate and possessed of a quirky sense of humour.

It was after the Carols night of 1960. The staff had gone to the home of the new Deputy Principal, Des Wroth, to talk of the success of the night and to enjoy some well earned refreshments. After about half an hour Mr Larson showed up. Very unusual. Mr Larson rarely attended the staff's  after party gatherings for concerts or sports carnivals. Not only that, he produced a bottle of good quality whiskey and enquired if we knew how to play a game called Cardinal Puff, a game he said he had played in the navy.

We said we had never heard of it. He gave a slight smile and explained the rules. There was no question about it. We were going to play Cardinal Puff. It is a bit too complicated to explain here, but the game involves one player doing a series of actions before having a sip of beer. The second player has to repeat the actions exactly or pay the penalty. The penalty was to drink a shot of scotch whisky in one gulp. In those days the legal drinking age was 21. I was 21 and I knew my way around a glass of beer or three. Whisky was a different matter. I’d had some in national service. It had tasted like turpentine.

Anyhow, we commenced to play this game and I was particularly bad at it. In fact I was hopeless and Mr Larson's grin became wider and wider as he caught me out, invited me to drink my penalty and then poured an even more generous portion of the devil brew for the next time. After a lengthy period of sipping beer and swilling whisky I rose unsteadily to my feet and said I was going to the toilet.

I remember little else of the evening.

Later that night Des Wroth found me stretched out across the floor of his back verandah. Dave Ashcroft, another great teacher at Bunbury Central, drove me home and walked me down the drive to the flat that we shared. He did this with great difficulty as I kept bumping into the walls of the driveway....even though they were 8 metres apart.

The next day was the last day of school. The sunlight came crashing into my bedroom and I awoke, relieved to find I was still alive and sorry to realise how painful living could be. Dave suggested that I stay home and said he would look after my class....we didn’t have relief teachers in those days. I was tempted. But pride and fear forced me to get up. I knew Mr Larson would be expecting me to show up, in spite of my massive, self inflicted injuries.

There were 63 children in my Year 7B class. They all turned up on that last day. I sat at my desk. If anyone wanted proof that there was life after death, then I was Exhibit A. I sat holding my head between my hands and tried to look as if I was reading a book. On the last day of school children brought cards and board games to play. There was a fair bit of noise. As far as I was concerned a butterfly flying past would have made a fair bit of noise.

It was then that the compassionate Mr Larson arrived.The architect of my downfall on the previous evening, briskly entered the room and said, "Boys and girls you will need to work very quietly today. Mr Bourke, even though he is quite ill, has come to school to be with you on break-up day. Please do not make any noise!” I felt as if I had just been awarded the Victoria Cross. Of course, no child dared to disobey one of Mr Larson's commands. Peace reigned in the room and by lunchtime I was feeling almost human.

That was my last day at Bunbury Central School. In 1961 I taught at Koongamia, east of Midland.In December 1961 I resigned from the education department and set off on a three year trip around the world. In 1962 Bunbury Central School was closed and a new school opened in Lovegrove Avenue.

In 1995 I was invited back to Bunbury to help the school celebrate 100 years of education. I was surprised and delighted to find that Mr Larson was still alive, though he was very elderly and quite frail. I was even more delighted by the fact that he still recognised me and talked about my time at “his” school.

I also caught up with the current school principal, Hugh Beckingham. Hugh had been on the staff with me in Mr Larson’s era. Hugh had invited me down to speak at the formal celebratory dinner at the Lord Forrest Hotel on the Saturday night. As part of my speech I referred to Mr Larson and the episode with Cardinal Puff and the whisky.

When I resumed my seat, Hugh informed me, with a very cheeky smile, that John Larson had planned that entire whiskey drinking event and that he had enlisted Hugh’s help with Cardinal Puff to ensure that my last evening as a staff member of Bunbury Central school would finish in my total inebriated destruction.

I remember my early teaching days in Bunbury, the extremely helpful staff and the children I taught with great affection. In hindsight, I am particularly grateful to Mr Larson for those three years of “Jungle Training” that he gave me. It certainly provided me with teaching techniques and survival skills that set me up for the many challenges and booby traps that lay ahead in a very happy career in schools over the next forty years.

Mr Larson died in 2000.

Vale, Mr Larson ... and thank you.

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