There was one teacher at my secondary school who liked putting his tongue in my ear.
That might not have been a bad thing. A tongue in the air can be a pleasant experience. Especially with someone you love.
But this was different. This was a teacher. Someone who should have known better than to put his tongue into a little boy’s ear.
I wasn’t so little, I was 15. But little enough to deserve being treated with care and respect. And he, aged 40 something, was old enough to know better.
If not by his age, then by his profession. He should have learned that putting one’s tongue in another person’s ear is something that’s reserved for intimate relations. And this was not an intimate relation. At least it shouldn’t have been.
As our PE teacher, he attended the changing rooms. Yes, he watched boys getting undressed and dress in gym kit ready for the PE lesson. He also watched us getting showered and dried after the PE lesson. He was a diligent teacher, he never took his eyes off us.
There was always a sense of tension in the PE lessons. There was something that didn’t feel right. And teachers are the ones who teach you what is right and wrong. This felt wrong.
He had his favourites. There was one boy he liked, a lot. He would let him shower in the PE teacher’s private changing room. We thought it was strange, but this boy, the biggest and most mature of the year group, never said no to the offer of showering in private. Showering his privates, in the PE master’s private shower.
I have no idea what the PE teacher got up to in his private changing room with the biggest boy in the year. But later, as an adult, I can imagine although I do not want to.
The abuse continued for years. Beginning slowly with a hand on the shoulder, or a hand on the arm to attract attention. It escalated slowly to a touch on the hand, a touch on the bum.
And then whenever he called, “Richards. Come here!”, I did as I was told. He was after all the teacher, and one is supposed to obey teachers. Even when it seems strange. Even when it felt wrong.
He would whisper in my ear, sometimes words of encouragement, sometimes words of correction, sometimes his tongue.
To anyone looking, the PE teacher was after all only giving me instructions, correction, or encouragement. Or was he?
Perhaps everyone got the same treatment? But I doubt it.
At school, reputation is everything. You might think it’s grades. It is not. They only count when you leave school. Whilst you are at school is your reputation that counts. My reputation was rapidly becoming “The one who lets the PE teacher touch him“. For every moment that I did not respond negatively, react or refuse to be touched, opinion grew that I must “like it”.
What chance had I then, a puny 15-year-old who seemed to have the most delectable ears, to say against the growing opinion that I was ‘a pouf’? Perhaps my lack of resistance was construed as encouragement?
However, even if I was the most encouraging 15-year-old boy on the planet, a normal teacher would’ve refrained from having stuck his tongue in my ear. Wouldn’t he?
And, I had to wonder if I did like it. Because I never said no. Not in any final way. I just squirmed. I think he liked that. I think it was part of his enjoyment to make me squirm.
He didn’t stop until I left school. I never called him on it. He was never called on it. Not by anybody. Not whilst I was at school.
Later, about five years later after I had completed my University degree and the Post Graduate Certificate in Education, I was ready to start work as a teacher. I returned to my old Secondary school and asked if I could teach there.
Some of my old teachers were still teaching there. Same old men and women that I had referred to as ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’m’ for seven years. Just a little greyer. Happy to see me. Glad that I had chosen such a noble profession.
And guess who else was there? Yes, the PE teacher. Now teaching Maths. His hair was thinning, his face was gaunt. He saw me, and knew that I could end his career with one word.
But I did not speak.
The Music teacher was a Welshman. I have nothing against the Welsh people, not at all. This is just how I remember him.
He was short. We were not. We were changing from little boys to be 6 foot tall men. The Music teacher wasn’t 6 foot tall. That might account for his difficulty in managing a class where the majority of the boys/men were taller than he.
He used to shout. He had a shrill voice. I think we liked to wind him up so that we could hear his shrill Welsh voice yelling at us to “Be-have”, to “An-swer the ques-tion”, “Boyz, stop fooling a-round.”
In his music lessons he would teach us Composition. Our task was to compose a piece of music which he would then play on the piano so that everyone could hear what we had composed. We were not Composers. We had no idea how to compose a piece of music that would be worth being played on a piano.
At the end of some minutes of composition, he would collect our music note books and begin to play our compositions one by one. He would almost always mock what had been written, playing it exactly as it was written, note-by-painful-note, written by an amateur desperate to write something, anything.
Often the review of our compositions would result in a tinkling on the piano followed by the word “Rub-bish!” and our notebooks being thrown across the room one by one, flapping their pages as they went. And landing in a pile on the floor.
We would sit and hear our work being rubbished. It did nothing positive for our self-confidence.
We would also play music. He will show us the score on the music stand and let us choose an instrument to play. I always chose percussion, because it was the easiest. He knew that, and would mock my choice. He would mock everybody’s choices. There were very few natural musicians in the class.
He would conduct, we would play. He would shout “Rub-bish”. It was his magic word.
We would also sing, like a choir. Not a choir of angels. A choir of teenage boys, whose voices were breaking. Often breaking mid sentence. We would sing, squawk, pretend to sing, all the time trying desperately not to get caught. He was onto us and our miming strategy. He would walk along the choir listening to each boy in turn. Turning a mocking ear to those who were singing silently in order to protect their dignity. He would shout, “Lou-der!”. But that didn’t help.
I can safely say that any intention that I had to become a musician was thoroughly quashed by those music lessons. I can honestly say that any musician’s soul that might have lived within me, died.
Perhaps that was his intention, perhaps he couldn’t stand the competition?
I loved my woodwork teacher. He was a big man, slow, gentle and forgiving.
In Woodwork, we had to practice joining wood in different ways. We learned to use a variety of tools: saws, chisels, drills and sandpaper. Lots of sandpaper. I spent hours in my Woodwork lessons sanding pieces of wood.
Each lesson, the woodwork teacher would demonstrate how to use a tool, how to make a joint, the tenon, the mitre, the dovetail. We learned about using screws, crossheads, counter-sunks cheese heads and black Japans.
He knew his job. He was a carpenter right down to his fingertips. So was my father.
I spent many summer weeks working with my father building front porches and garden fences, putting up walls, putting up ceilings, putting in doors and removing and renovating windows.
I was excellent at woodwork. I knew the names of every single tool and how to care for them. I knew the names of all the screws, nails, and fixings. I even knew all the names of the joints that we were being taught in Woodwork lessons. I had used them all summer long and they were as familiar to me as the fingers on my hand.
Every Woodwork lesson quickly progressed the projects that I was working on, whether it was a bench hook for woodworking, a chopping board for the kitchen, a handle to put on a knife, or something to put the breakfast toast in.
Many of these items became birthday and Christmas presents for the family. They could see how well I was progressing in Woodwork. My father was very proud that his first-born son was bringing home high quality items that were also useful.
Even though I succeeded at the many projects during the term, it was the final exam in June that would determine whether or not I would pass.
There was no theory exam. It was only a practical exam. All that was required was to look at the instructions, measure up the wood, cut to size and assemble. The joint was simple; a dovetailed, half-lap mitre, and it was to be a press-fit joint that did not use glue. I knew how to do this, like I knew how to tie my shoelaces.
On the day of examination, I stood by my bench and ignored the simple instructions. For the next four hours I did nothing.
The woodwork teacher, bound by the rules and ethics of the examination board, was unable to help me. He did, on several occasions, come over to my workplace and give me a very strange look. Here was his favourite, most capable student throwing away the exam. He knew he couldn’t speak to me but his eyes wept volumes. He was confused, and frustrated because he could not interfere or intervene in my inaction.
A month or two before, on my 16th birthday, my father had presented me with his idea that I should join his company and work for him. All I needed to do was to pass my Woodwork exam and I would have a job for life.
The French teacher tried so hard to make me speak French. We got off to a good start, learning some kind of code. English words were coded into other French-looking words. I learned to spell those words, including all the accents.
Then he began writing out a kind of chart that showed how verbs change form depending on the person they were related to. This was a step too far. Too much French.
I had no idea why we had to learn French, and so I was making it difficult for myself to understand what he had written in the chart. I certainly could not memorise it, despite many homework being set with that goal.
I refused to speak French out loud. Especially in front of my classmates. I couldn’t understand why they were suddenly so bloody capable of speaking La belle Français.
Some lessons were based on audio cassettes, with dialogues. We were supposed to listen and say what was going on. I could hardly hear any words at all.
Some lessons were based on books, with dialogues. We were supposed to act out the scenes in French. Not bloody likely. I am not so easily fooled.
My performance in these French lessons was in stark contrast to my performance in Maths lessons, in Science lessons and in Woodwork lessons. Here, I was a difficult student, and intelligent enough to make life very difficult for the French teacher.
I knew I could pretend not to understand. He would tell me again, teach me again. I knew I could pronounce the word incorrectly (with a very English accent) because he would encourage me to speak it differently, to copy his pronunciation.
But they never told me why I should learn French. They told me that I should learn French, and it was important. But I never understood the importance.
Whether it was the French teacher or my parents who came up with the idea, I do not know, but we did get a French student come to stay with the family.
I ran. I hid. I ignored the poor girl for all the months she was with us. She spoke English of course, with a French accent of course, but I steadfastly refused to speak English or French with her.
Footnote: I moved to Sweden aged 30. It took me a couple of years to learn to speak Swedish. My work for thirty years has been in English and Swedish. I coach in Swedish.
My Sixth form Maths teacher had a wonderful way of bringing out the best in us. The Sixth form was two additional years after compulsory education before University.
We were now adults, and were to be treated as adults not children. The approach of the teachers in general was to include us in the design and implementation of our lessons.
In many Maths lessons, there was a focus on one problem at the time. The whole class would focus on a problem and we would try to solve it together. This teacher’s approach was to draw out the best of us by asking open-ended questions.
Whenever we gave an answer he asked what our thinking was. Whenever we gave a wrong answer he asked us what our thinking was. We discovered any errors we had made and corrected ourselves.
There were traditional lessons where new concepts were taught, new diagrams were displayed, new applications were made of methods we had learned. But when it came to problems he was the Ringmaster and we were his performing animals.
He drew out the best of us with open ended questions, nonjudgement, and curiosity about our thinking.
He was like a Maths Coach.
What I loved about Physics lessons was that you got to do experiments.
What I loved about the physics teacher was that she let us experiment, really experiment.
One day, after we had been learning about Young’s Modulus - which is about the stretchability of metals in particular - my classmate and I made excellent use of a worm that we had found.
In the Young’s Modulus experiment, a sample of the metal to be stretched, in the classroom example usually 10 or 20 cm long and a few millimetres thick, is suspended on a retort stand between a clamp and an adjustable weight. To the adjustable weight would be added additional weights and the increasing length of the metal sample would be measured each time.
A graph of the extension over time would be used to calculate the Young’s Modulus of the copper wire, steel wire, elastic band et cetera.
My classmate and I decided to perform a Young’s Modulus experiment on the worm. Perhaps I should interject here that the worm was dead. It had been washed in detergent by another student. It may have died a horrible death but when we found it, it was clearly dead. It looked like a thin strip of leather.
When the physics teacher came into the room and saw that we were stretching a worm she was initially horrified.
My classmate and I were able to convince her of the scientific viability of a Young’s Modulus test for this poor unfortunate worm.
She chose to take us seriously in our scientific endeavours. She questioned us thoroughly on our choice of material, the fixing method, the choice of the weights to add, our measuring system for time and length.
Her questions were answered with the greatest of sincerity which was in strong contrast to the silent imaginary screams of the stretched worm.
What I appreciated most about the physics teacher was that she took our childlike curiosity, our adolescent playfulness and our budding scientific so seriously. She did not harshly judge us for our naughtiness, instead she respected the young scientists that we were becoming.
My friend and I became two of the best scientists in the class. Our experiments were always well thought out, immaculately designed and fully written up in the proper scientific way.
I always got top marks in science in fact on one test I gained 106%. It’s a mystery to me to this day.
The fact that I still remember it shows how important it was.
And still is.
My Secondary school maths teacher knew the value of setting work that was relevant to his students needs. Yes we did have a book, a very large book filled with hundreds and hundreds of questions and problems to solve. But he chose which questions we would answer according to our ability and interest.
Those students who seemed less able or less interested, were only required to answer the questions at the beginning of the chapter. These were mostly repetitious and required only simple reasoning to solve.
The next level of questions were more demanding and required multiple skills to solve. I was glad to be amongst the students who were given the most challenging problems.
The fact that he would automatically issue me and a few of my classmates with the juiciest problems in the book and said that we did not need to chew our way through repetitive exercises, encouraged me to think that I was good at Mathematics.
I dived into those problems using all my skills in Mathematics to solve them.
I also recall that he would allow us to work in small groups, dividing up the chapter between us so that we would get all the questions answered. Some classmates in the group would tackle the easier questions at the beginning of the chapter whilst I and my ‘anointed few’ got on with the real work.
I felt that I had earned this position, and I was determined to keep it. I was aware that several other students in the class were also capable in Mathematics, and it was my job to make sure that I was more capable than they were.
On occasion, the Maths teacher would be called on to deal with an issue outside the classroom. The fact that he had already divided the class into groups, and the groups were dividing the work according to their ability and interest, we knew what to do. Strangely enough, we needed less help when he was not in the room.
I suspect that he knew this, and perhaps the issue that was being solved outside the room was in fact a smoke break, or a coffee break. Either way he did a good job as a teacher in convincing me that I could teach myself, and my classmates and that I was an excellent Mathematician.
And I suspect that I learned more about teaching a class from this Maths teacher than any other teacher when I was learning to teach.
My English teacher was an odd character. He loved to perform in front of the class.
The way he got me into Reading was to read aloud from a book. We had English lessons almost every day. On Friday afternoons, he would spend most of the lesson simply reading from “the Hobbit” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”, or whatever other book had been set that year.
He did all the voices, and it was like listening to a radio play.
I believe that some of my beautiful English intonation stems from this teacher and his use of the English language.
I know the way I teach English to adults is based on the way he taught me.
The way he got me into Writing was to simply give a title and say, “Keep writing until you’re done”.
I loved writing. I wrote with a fountain pen. Actually a cartridge pen. I used to begin the essay with a blue cartridge, and swap to a green one when I felt I was halfway through the story, and swap back to the blue one when I thought I was coming near the end. In that way, the text started off blue and gradually changed to green and then back to blue again whilst I wrote.
Whenever the English teacher gave out an essay title, he would also give me a new workbook with a wink, saying “You will probably need this”.
I felt the challenge of filling a 30 page workbook for every essay that I wrote. It was a pleasure to deliver on his challenge.
I can’t for the life of me remember him teaching vocabulary. I can’t remember any charts or diagrams showing parts of the English grammar.
I do remember a day when punctuation was taught.
I also remember him correcting my work with a red pen, a fountain pen.
I always looked forward to getting his marks on my work.
When I was eleven years old, there was a test in the UK, called the “Eleven Plus” which determined whether you would be sent to a Grammar School, a Technical School or a Secondary Modern School.
That was the way it was.
Since I loved Art and was not good at Maths, in Primary School, it was a surprise that I was sent to the Technical School.
It just happened.
And these stories in rainbow shades from light to dark, tell something of what happened there:
The English Teacher
The Maths Teacher
The Physics Teacher
The Sixth Form Maths Teacher
The Woodwork Teacher
The French Teacher
The Music Teacher
The PE Teacher
Hmm, which did you choose first?
About the Author
Martin Richards has taught Mathematics to teenagers and English to adults for thirty years.
He is now a Certified Life Coach and has recently completed an assignment from the Swedish Education Authority where he coached Primary and Secondary teachers and headteachers.
Martin’s Life Mission is to develop the potential of the Education System to its fullest.
Martin Richards works, written in July 2020, include:
Martin’s books and works can be read in advance on his website and bought as paperbacks and e-books from www.amazon.com/author/coach-martin-richards
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I am a teacher, a business-owner, a public speaker, a coach and an author.