I started teaching at Craigroyston in Edinburgh in 1973.  After 38 years in education, I retired at the weekend as a head teacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre.
Teaching has enriched my life beyond anything I might have imagined when I entered it.  I have taught thousands of young people and loved the vast bulk of them.  I have coaxed the weak and unwilling.  Some have not survived.  At least three of my former students took their own lives in states of loneliness, fear and desperation.  I taught some who fought and suffered in Northern Ireland, in the Falklands, in Iraq, in Afghanistan.  I have met others, huddled in blankets, begging on the streets, embarrassed that I’ve stumbled on their shame.  I have known countless young people who have not achieved their potential and have asked what more I might have done to have avoided that.  I have also known wonderful youngsters who have left school and entered work, study or stardom and who have looked back with pride and gratitude to their school days.
My career has been spent, almost entirely, in schools serving two of the poorest areas of Edinburgh and in what was euphemistically called ‘special’ education.  I am part of the generation which entered teaching at the time of comprehensivisation.  We were ourselves working class kids, given an opportunity in an age of change.   We committed ourselves to creating a fairer education system, one which did not condemn two thirds of youngsters to failure at age eleven.  We believed that with the right relationships and curriculum and by starting from where our learners were, we could improve learning for everyone, and not merely for a minority.  When we entered teaching, when the baby boom children required a vastly expanded system, when the archaic selective system taught the same curriculum as it had before the Great War, and when the older generation of teachers saw change as chaos, we had to invent a curriculum as we delivered it.
I know that our generation of teachers ejected a few valuable babies with the historic bathwater.  Some things we got wrong.  (I remain, among other idiosyncrasies, an enthusiast for the teaching of grammar.)  Yet we require some reconciliation of the tension between change and continuity, in school terms between developing engaging methods and protecting core content.  I’ve never shied from the seeming contradiction between being a liberal in methods and a conservative in content.
I am proud to have played some part in changing Scottish education.  Schools today are overwhelmingly different from those when I was a pupil.  As my present career draws to a close, what I value most are the relationships.
On the evening I started to draft this article, I received a message from a recent former student.  “I see the School has changed a lot, everyone is looking much smarter in the Uniform.   I’d also like to thank you for everything you and the school offered me such as the Columba 1400 experience and visiting South Africa and the numerous other opportunities you gave me. I think if it had not been for me attending Wester Hailes Education Centre things would be a lot different for me, I definitely wouldn’t be as confident as I am and it made the move from School to College so much easier.”
I liked what he said but also the fact that he contacted his old head teacher to say it.  I certainly had no desire after leaving school in the late 60s to contact my former head.  Relationships are warmer and kindlier today.  It is accepted by most that no successful learning or teaching can occur if the relationships are fundamentally wrong yet in schools, as in most institutions, relationships often will go awry but today we seek to mend them.
What I most dislike today are the limitations placed on teachers by a system over-concerned with measurement and protecting backs.  I had a photo on my desk of a dozen youngsters in shorts running into a loch.  It was 1988, a warm spring evening.  We had just arrived at Rowardennan for a residential week.  Dinner over, another teacher and I took the kids for a walk.  The sun shone.  All was well with the world.  One youngster had the marvellous idea of a swim.  “Can we just jump in?”  My colleague, a PE teacher, knew the youngsters’ capacities.  We looked at each other and smiled.  “Go on,” we said, and jumped into the loch with them.  Our very informal, but professionally informed, risk assessment had taken ten seconds.  We were all out of the freezing water a minute later but what a joy!  Today, had I done that I would be on a disciplinary for failing to have completed a formal risk assessment.
And measurement?  It measures the measurable – no more.  My school was recently inspected.  We had been congratulated on the excellent behaviour and relationships but the Inspectors could not resist mentioning that our exclusions had increased: not hugely but increased.   Statistics, they were what mattered, not the behaviour, not the relationships, but the statistics.  We insisted that we excluded only where we had to do so in the best interests of good behaviour and quality relationships.  They had observed the behaviour and the relationships but because these things were not measurable they were under-valued.
I also fear the public sector’s new managerial culture, concerned with number-crunching, ‘impacts’ and expressing itself in clichés.  There is something seriously wrong when COSLA, the collective body for Scotland’s councils, can state that: ‘the primary role for a teacher should not be to teach children but should be articulated in terms of ensuring the development, well-being, and safety of children.  This is the primary role that teachers should share with other children’s services professionals.’
I regret leaving my colleagues to cope with reduced school budgets arising from national economic problems.  I regret leaving our students and their community but nothing endures but change and it’s my time to change.
 
This article was first published in Scottish Review on 19 August 2011: http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexWood159.shtml

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