work

The classrooms are gloomy, plaster crumbles from the walls, the roof leaks—this is a Primary school in central London. Despite these conditions, a teacher derives satisfaction from the children’s absorption in learning in the stimulating atmosphere of an unstreamed class. A teacher for five years, h.r. is 26, unmarried, and lives close to the Primary school where she has been teaching since 1962.

When I first started teaching English in a dockside Secondary Modern, I desperately shut myself in the grey toilet, between classes, to escape the school’s oppressive institutional atmosphere. The headmistress tried to tie us up with rules—‘all cloakrooms to be kept locked during lessons’—the inspectors connived, the staff were apathetic and the kids submissive or, more usually, aridly and impotently hostile. I sat in the toilet to escape the rules, the copies of First Aid to English which had to be kept on the kids’ desks for the benefit of the headmistress while we struggled through Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the quiet exchange of knitting patterns and gardening tips in the staffroom, and lcc stamped on everything, even on the flimsy beige toilet roll.

When I was at school myself I used to sit imprisoned, envying the people outside who moved about the streets freely, on buses, through parks, able to taste things, it seemed to me, while I was being submitted to a process designed to take the taste of things away. When later it became apparent that learning need not mean this, that the footnotes to Hamlet could enrich the play instead of dehydrating it, I decided to become a teacher.

But all the time I taught in Secondary schools, Modern and Comprehensive, I really wanted to be on the bus outside. Everything seemed to operate against establishing an atmosphere and relationship in which the kids could become involved in their work. Bells rang, a class of kids filed into a room not theirs to a more or less successful encounter with words for half an hour. They were there and I was out in front, or else I would move among them awkwardly, bumping into their dufflebags, peering over their shoulders at stilted little paragraphs on what I took to be important teenage experiences. Of course, sometimes it was better, when a poem would become meaningful, a boy would come into his own in an improvised scene of a juvenile court, girls would care about being Cousins and Gaitskell at the Labour Party conference, and I would allow myself to feel that perhaps these people were going to be less willing victims, might even be able to control their environment or, at any rate, participate in things. But it was just words, we were confined in a school, and there was another unrelated class for both of us in five minutes time. The kids who survived school as far as gce didn’t even seem to want things to have any meaning. When, in preparation for the précis I said, ‘reduce this appreciation of Duke Ellington to a piece suitable for a record sleeve’, they were suspiciously, reluctantly dutiful. ‘Can’t we have an ordinary exercise, Miss?’