Cymru Culture

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Steve Lamb - On Probation

(September 01, 2017)

On Probation

In the early seventies newly appointed teachers tended to be university graduates who had subsequently followed a one year teaching course or those who had a Certificate of Education from a teacher training college. On appointment it was mandatory to complete a ‘probationary’ period of a year successfully before your status as a qualified teacher was confirmed. A small number of teachers, in grammar schools in the main, were graduates but had not trained specifically to be teachers and they had to serve a two year probationary period. It was expected that in the course of the probation the inexperienced teachers would be observed and judged as to their effectiveness or otherwise by local education authority officers. If the judgement was unsatisfactory then probation might be extended or time called on an unpromising career.

I had had no teacher training as my entry into the profession had been almost accidental. When I received confirmation of appointment I also learned the fine detail of my status including early notice of ad hoc visits from the English Advisor for the county. In fact there was only one lesson observation that took place in the course of two years of teaching as a probationer. It took place in the summer term close to the end of my first year. I wasn’t observed teaching English in the grammar school where I was based and it wasn’t conducted by an English Advisor. I was assessed teaching maths to 30 eleven year olds in the nearby secondary modern school.

On that bright summer morning our lesson was in the tower block of what was called the modern wing. It was a standard classroom with desks arranged in two blocks of four rows of four seats. The teacher’s desk faced the aisle down the centre of the room. It was an RE room ordinarily and maps of the Holy Land and scenes from the New Testament were pinned to the large notice boards on two of the walls. A bank of windows looking out onto the school yard and a row of blackboards completed the picture. Our topic that day was geometry and the class was settling as I handed out sheets of graph paper. We had been learning about different shapes and their properties for a number of weeks and our work was coming to an end. The routine was that I would give them graph paper and they would draw vertical and horizontal axes and number them in order to be able to plot coordinates. They were used to this task but even so there were pupils without sharpened pencils and rulers who had to be organised so I was busily moving around the room dealing with practicalities when the door opened behind me. A grey haired, red faced man in a suit and carrying a leather briefcase was being ushered in by the school secretary. Mrs Thomas looked panic stricken, stuttered ‘inspector’ and bustled out with no more explanation. The boys and girls paused and pinned the intruder with suspicious eyes – ‘inspector’? Was he the police and if so why? I could see youthful imagination accelerating.

No, no: I’m not an inspector. I’m Mr Hughes from the county to observe your lesson. I’ll just sit at the back if I may.’

30 necks swivelled and all eyes followed him as he passed me, edged his way down the narrow aisle and then pushed along the back row to the corner by the window. It is odd how the entry of a stranger, an observer, can change the dynamics of a classroom. Teachers can one moment be strutting before their usual audience confident in their authority and ability but like a punctured balloon that confidence can soon deflate. Nevertheless, with eyes down he busied himself with a file he pulled from his briefcase and a fountain pen and I tried to restart the lesson.

I had told my class weeks ago that coordinate geometry was just like a kind of bingo and they accepted that as a good game for us to play. I called out 4 sets of coordinates and they had to plot them and label a,b,c,d. Pupils swapped papers and volunteers came to the front to demonstrate correct plotting on the board before the next stage of the lesson which was to draw lines from a to b to c and so on. This Wednesday they had drawn parallelograms or at least most had except for the two who had labelled wrongly and had to explain away angular, toppled-over figure eights. It was a busy lesson and the visitor was soon forgotten as the class moved on to use their rulers and protractors to discover the characteristics of the parallelogram: opposite angles equal; opposite sides equal length; internal angles add to 360 degrees and more. Not all pupils discovered all there was to find but they had grown used to working like Sherlock Holmes and enjoying their discoveries. For the conclusion we labelled the shape, formalised the properties identified and corrected any misunderstandings. The bell sounded as pupils were already packing their things away and the class went off to morning break clearly pleased with themselves. I was left with the advisor.

Ah Mr Lamb, I’ve got your name right haven’t I?” He went on quickly as I nodded, “Thank you for that lesson. Your class seem to be enjoying the subject. I have to warn you this is not my subject area. Truthfully I expected to see you teaching English in the grammar school.” He waved in the direction of the red brick building standing proudly 200 yards away. “I’m the advisor for history and economics but I’m currently picking up some of the English work while we’re waiting for the appointment of two new officers. Given that you’re not a maths teacher and I have no expertise either, how do you feel about your lesson?”

I was at a loss to know how to answer. I was always happy if my lessons went something like the way I had intended. That didn’t sound too professional so I left it unsaid. I didn’t have a professional vocabulary to use in any analysis. I never thought of effectiveness or maximising pupil progress. I just thought of successfully occupying young minds. I didn’t say that either so I just stuttered something about not being sure.

Well, I have made some notes so shall we go over them? I won’t be more than a few moments because I’m sure there will be more relevant visits in the future. First of all these boys and girls are not that clever you know. They did not pass the eleven plus still you are using a vocabulary which I am sure they find confusing.”

I’m sorry. What do you mean? Have you any examples?”

Yes, of course, the main example is the word parallelogram. Surely it would be enough to describe it as like a squashed square…..”

His feedback did not improve and he departed for his next appointment before the end of break. I heard no more about the lesson. I received no written report and neither did the school and that was the only visit I received during my probation.

A year later as the summer term was drawing to a close on the first year in the life of the new comprehensive school, pupils from one of my classes arrived for a lesson in great excitement.

Sir, sir – there’s a Rolls Royce in the yard. Really sir, it’s like the Queen’s.”

Before I could ask any questions my name was called from the door and the deputy head said I was go to the head teacher’s study immediately and he would look after my class while I was away. I started to tell him what they were to do but he just ushered me on my way.

Thinking that something dreadful had happened I hurried up two flights of stairs and trotted across the form five area to the main office. The head’s door was wide open and he was standing at the office window pointing across to the old grammar school buildings and explaining a point to a visitor. I tapped on the door and they turned.

Mr Lamb, good, come in and close the door. This is Mr Jenkins from the county. He is here to conduct a review of the success of our reorganisation and the establishment of the new school. That does not concern you directly but he has also brought news which does concern you. Mr Jenkins.”

An urbane gentleman in a three piece dark suit stepped forward and shook my hand. When he spoke it was in a cultured and authoritative manner: “Mr Lamb it gives me great pleasure to inform you that you have concluded your period of professional probation in a satisfactory manner and you will soon have that confirmed in writing. On behalf of the county I wish you well.”

Thank you Mr Lamb, that will be all,” said the head as he gestured me towards the door and I walked away a fully qualified teacher – even if I had no idea how the qualification had been secured. It turned out that the Rolls Royce had been driven by the visitor and that was of far more interest to the staffroom than my newly secured professional status.

Steve Lamb, September 2017

Steve Lamb's new novel, Search, is serlialised in Cymru Culture.
Chapters 1 and two of Search are linked here.

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:

     The school disco; June 2017
Exams, then and now; March 2017
The rugby tour
; December 2016
The sponsored walk
; September 2016
A typical day
; June 2016

The school eisteddfod; March 2016
The school play; December 2015
Corridor duty; September 2015
End of an era; June 2015
Teacher training; March 2015
"... the best thing that happened to me in school"; December 2014
The punishment; September 2014
The interview; June 2014

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people. 

Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine

Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2017

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