I can’t actually pinpoint when I realized I was becoming a teacher. I know my old headmaster at school suggested the career, but the thought of reiterating the teachers I had experienced turned my stomach. No, I’m not like them, and I don’t want to be them, I thought at the time. So I went to Paris instead, and soaked up the revolutionary atmosphere of 1967-68. I became a student – not a teacher.
Yet, three years later I was back in France, working as an assistant in a French lycée technique. Teaching, I realized then, demanded a very special kind of person. As an assistant, I didn’t have the teacher’s responsibility. But I was surprised at the attitude of the students (15-16-year-olds) both towards what they were supposed to learn and towards the teachers. Teachers were treated with limited respect at the best of times, but at least the younger ones were treated as ‘potes’, ‘friends’, as if older brothers or sisters. The teacher had to ‘act’ in a manner that fitted the perceptions of the school students: then he or she might succeed in getting some teaching done in the gaps in between.
I saw it with one young teacher who was sometimes my ‘guide’: she had a good relationship with the students, laughing at their jokes (even at the distasteful ones), genuinely interested in their life-stories and the problems of their social lives, politely declining to pass judgement on other teachers. What’s more, she seemed to know all the pop music that was fashionable at the time, and even managed to relate it to what she was intending to teach. It was never like that in my classes. I was supposed to teach some English, but since the students had little or no English, and absolutely no desire to learn, our relationship in English was limited to the few pop songs we shared, motorbikes (about which I knew nothing, but pretended otherwise), and ritualistic jibes about the demerits of English rugby and occasionally football. She, on the other hand, was one of those teachers who thrived on the upbringing side of educating. And when a potentially serious accident occurred in the class that I was supposed to be taking (I was late!), she took over and handled the whole incident with serene unflustered brilliance. The lad was taken to the hospital to get patched up. The teacher then calmly filled in all the accident declaration forms together with the student witnesses.
I was only an unqualified assistant, but this experience in France allowed the idea of teacher to germinate in me. The young teacher was an inspiration, so very different it seemed from the stuffiness I had met at school. Yet it was to turn out different for me.