Some months ago my wife and I were out for lunch with a gentleman from our church. His name is Fred. My wife knows him quite well through her voluntary work, however this was the first time I had really spent time getting to know him. Fred, now well into his eighties, was in his time a craftsman, a joiner, a coffin maker, and, eventually, a teacher.
As both my wife and I have been in education, our discussion that day turned quite quickly to teaching. And so it was that we ended up talking about Fred's "remedial class" over a mid-week discount carvery at the local pub. It's his favourite, "Keeps me going all week for a fiver." he says.
Fred is clearly keen to discuss his time as a teacher, and it is obvious that he still takes a lot of pleasure and professional pride in his work. I, on the other hand, am much less keen on the topic of conversation. My inner historian is always looking out for the educational prejudices to emerge, especially from someone who taught during the progressive, Piaget-inspired 60s and 70s. As the conversation turns to how Fred was given the task of getting his "remedial" class reading, I am in a somewhat sceptical frame of mind.
"Nothing I could do," he explains picking up his half of mild, "could persuade these kids to pick up a book and read. And the head just wanted me to buy a load more books, as if that would solve the problem. It was no good having more books, they already had them and wouldn't read them."
As he digs into his roast potatoes, he drops into a little aside. Once, in the early days, he tells us, he set up a reading corner at one side of the classroom and the children wouldn't even go near it; they skirted around the books like there was some sort of invisible barrier there. "I realised that they didn't hate books," he says "they were scared of them." This was his lightbulb moment.
He has stopped eating his food now, his beef and Yorkshires sit untouched on the plate, he is too deeply engaged in his story. "The head thought I'd gone mad!" He explains, as he tells us how he took all the books out of his classroom an replaced them with alphabet and basic word cards he knocked up in his workshop.
"I took every book out of that class and locked them in cupboards. The only books in there were on my desk."
Each day he would get the boys to do a little practice of the key words and vocabulary, ten minutes here, ten minutes there. He then goes on to tell us that he stopped forcing the boys to bring (or refuse to bring) a reading book with them each day. Instead, he brought in his own books and stories to read to them; everything from football scores to ghost stories, newspapers to novels.
At this point I am deep within my own prejudices. A little part of my brain says "typical 60s approach to teaching - if they can't do it, don't bother. This is just writing off a group of kids completely." There is some silence as we tackle our meals. In my head I am already judging this story and this man as a teacher. "All sounds a bit progressive" I think as I wonder how I might tackle the issue of soft prejudice with our octogenarian companion. The discussion goes elsewhere.
Before long, my wife and I have admitted defeat at the mound of food in front of us. We sit back and peruse the dessert menus which a waitress has brought over. Fred meanwhile is stoically trenching on. Cutting each piece of beef, each stem of broccoli to just the right size before loading his fork. I sit and watch, and wait.
Just when it seems Fred will not go back to his story, he picks it up again.
"So do you know what happened with those boys who were scared of reading?" He asks?
"No. How did they get on?" I reply. "Did you ever get them to read some proper books?" I wonder if he detects the tone in that question "proper books". If he does, he doesn't rise to it, but continues with the tale. Three months into his "no books" regime, Fred explains how he began to change his approach. Increasingly he would read quietly whilst the class were working, smiling at a good story, making interested noises. Increasingly the students would ask "What's so funny sir?" Or "What you reading sir?"
"I knew I had them then you see" he explains. "I was getting them to see that you could enjoy books. I wanted them to know that they were worth reading, worth spending time with."
The boys were increasingly enjoying being read to, and now seemed more interested, but despite all of this, he still couldn't get the children to pick up a book themselves. He tried again to put books in a reading corner, but the same forcefield effect seemed to occur. So he continued with the flash cards and the words builders and the class reading, and the modelled reading. Meanwhile I continue to muse on the 'soft bigotry' of the approach.
The waitress is now bustling to and fro, replacing our plates with steaming bowls of sticky toffee pudding. Fred has declined the pudding, opting instead to finish off the last of his main meal. As the waitress busys herself, the tone of his story changes. Up until this point, Fred has sympathised with the difficulties the boys faced with reading, he has explained the allowances and modifications he has made to guide them towards enjoying books.
"Of course," he says, around a mouthful of Yorkshire pudding, "they had to be pushed out of the nest eventually."
"One day, about May time, I asked one of the boys to get the reading books" he continues. Now he drops into a dialogue, taking on the parts of both himself and the boys in the class
"Here Jenkins, go and get that pile of reading books from the store cupboard for me"
"I aren't reading a book, sir!"
"I'm not asking you to, just go and get them and bring them here."
Despite his protestations, the boy is made to collect the pile of books from the cupboard they have been locked in for months. He carries them back like some sort of nuclear device, carefully and at arms' length, depositing them gingerly on his teacher's desk. Fred explains how he picks up one of the books and, with the boy still stood there, waiting to be dismissed, opens it and begins reading through. Some moments pass as he pores over each page. Suddenly the boy pipes up in his broad Bradford accent, "Bloody hell! I can read some of those words, sir."
"Oh really?" Comes the reply? "Which ones can you read?"
Over the next few minutes the boy reads some of the book to his teacher as the rest of the class slowly start to pay attention and look on.
"By the end of the day" Fred says, "we'd read that book. The whole class. They'd finally got over their fear of words."
Fred is now beaming as he tells us how he was able to introduce books back into the class from that point. By the end of the year, he had achieved seemingly impossible and had this "remedial" class reading for knowledge and, more importantly, for pleasure. The pride he feels here is palpable, and even fifty years on I feel some of it too. This was clearly a turning point for some of those boys, and it all started from an approach with which I might have had very little truck.
We settle the bill (he paid incidentally) and I leave the pub, somewhat humbled, and definitely a little wiser.
Incidentally, the restaurant do a lovely macaroni and broccoli cheese as a side to the roast - you really should try it.