Outside my comfort zone (2) – Slippered for not backing a book…

The story so far – your humble blogger has been persuaded to make a speech at his grammar school Old Boys’ Dinner. He has had grave second thoughts about his choice of topic, which is an ‘amusing’ categorization of teachers into three types. After a reasonable start to his speech, he finds it necessary to quieten down a noisy member of the audience. As a result, the audience is now on his side.

“Where was I?” I asked aloud. “Oh yes, I wanted to talk about some of the teachers at Salford Grammar School that I remember for different reasons.”

I was suddenly aware of the magical effect that silencing ex-Manchester City reserve midfielder Paul Calder (not his real name) had had on the audience. They were now looking at me with a mixture of surprise and admiration on their faces.

The committee chairman’s introduction had clearly made them think I was a Southern Softy – I mean, who in their right mind would leave Salford/ Manchester to go and live in LONDON, for goodness sake??? And why on earth would a Manchester City fan like me choose to be a season ticket holder at FULHAM???

The fact that I also wrote books ‘for teachers and people in China’ seemed to have confirmed my soft status.

But this Southern Softy had made the most belligerent person in the room shut up. People were clearly thinking – maybe this Wilson lad is harder than he looks.

Editor’s note – no, he isn’t.

Shutting up a heckler only buys you a small amount of time, however. I carried on, aware that I somehow had to keep their attention during the remainder of the speech.

‘A bit like inmates of a prison,’ I said, ‘you can divide teachers into three categories.’

This got a bigger laugh than I had expected.

‘Category A teachers,’ I continued, ‘are ones that you like. You walk into the classroom and you think that things are going to be OK. They won’t ask you anything that’s too difficult, and the atmosphere will be all right.’

I went on the talk about a history teacher who fell into this category. His name was Bob Watt and he was a fervent Manchester United fan. It was always painfully easy to divert him from his lesson plan to talk about football, especially on a Monday morning.

Bob would walk in and say: ‘Right, settle down. Now … the Civil War….’

Someone, usually me, would reply: ‘Talking of the Civil War, sir, were you at the City-United game on Saturday?’

This would lead to a twenty-minute diversion into the state of the First Division and United’s chances of winning it, which were usually quite good. This was, after all, the era of Best, Law and Charlton.

Goodness knows what the boys in the class who didn’t like football made of those classes.

Fortunately, Bob Watt’s other skill was an ability to predict which questions would come up in the History exam. He was always right, O-level and A-level. Despite the amount of time we spent talking about football, everyone passed History.

‘The second Category of teacher, Category B, were the ones who, let’s not beat about the bush, scared you,’ I continued. ‘When you walked into the classroom, you were a bit frightened. Category B teachers poured sarcasm on you if you made a mistake – which frankly is a dreadful way to deal with teenagers – and there was always a risk of punishment. Now … I won’t mention his name, but there was a music teacher —‘

About three people in the audience shouted out a name. It was indeed the man I was thinking of. I suppose my attempt to talk about him anonymously had been doomed to failure.

‘As I said, I won’t name him,’ I continued, trying to suppress a smile.

More people shouted out his name.

A bit of background: at the time that I was at grammar school, teachers were still allowed to administer corporal punishment to pupils. Serious punishment meant the cane, and less serious meant the slipper – usually an old gym shoe.

Bend down and think of England, lads…

Music teacher Mr Sharples (not his real name) was an enthusiastic exponent of this method of creating harmony in the classroom.

I told the Old Boys the story of my second day in his class.

On the first day, Sharples had given us all a book and told us to go home and ‘back’ it. For anyone unfamiliar with this notion, the idea was to put some brown paper on the back of the book and sellotape it carefully, thereby protecting the cover and making the book useable by the next intake of pupils.

The problem was I hadn’t heard him tell us to back the book. I was probably day-dreaming. So when he asked us if we had all backed our books, I looked puzzled. However, a quick look round the room revealed that almost everyone in the class had done as they had been told.

‘Wilson, did you back your book?’

He didn’t really need to ask that. It was clear my book wasn’t backed.

‘No, sir.’

‘Why not?’

I decided against using the day-dreaming excuse.

‘I forgot, sir.’

‘Go and stand in that corner.’

I went and stood in the corner.

Sharples’ beady eyes looked for another victim.

‘Flanagan, you don’t appear to have backed your book, either.’

Pete Flanagan (his real name) was a great guy to have in the class. He was an expert storyteller and, amongst other things, he seemed to know more about American cars than anyone apart from Henry Ford. Pete wasn’t the type to fall back on the lame ‘I forgot’ reason for having an unbacked book. He launched into a detailed explanation of the complex reasons why his book wasn’t backed.

‘Well, sir, it’s like this, sir,’ he began. “Me dad drove me home from school, and I put the book in the back of the car. The next morning, me dad off to Grimsby with me book in the back of the car, sir…..’

Pete went on at some length until Sharples eventually stopped him.

‘Go and stand in that corner.’ He indicated a different corner.

What a bloody nerve, I remember thinking. Pete Flanagan had made up a cock and bull story and he was going to get away with it.

By the time Sharples had rounded up all the guilty boys, there were five people in the ‘I forgot’ corner and two in the ‘other excuses’ corner. He went to his drawer and took out a mouldy gym shoe. He looked at the five of us with memory loss syndrome.

‘Bend down.’

He didn’t indicate whether we should all bend down at the same time, or one at a time. No one was brave enough to ask what the system was. We all turned to the wall and bent down. It must have looked hilarious to the rest of the class, but no one was laughing.

Sharples walked down the line of offered posteriors and whacked each one once. We stood up and went back to our seats, where eventually the stinging sensation went away.

He then went to the other corner, where Pete Flanagan and the other story-teller were standing. They bent down, and both received two whacks for their troubles. So much for creativity.

As I reached the end of the story, there were a lot of nodding heads in the audience of old boys and I was struck as I had been many times before by the full implications of an education system which allows teachers to physically attack pupils in this way. It’s an absolute disgrace that it should have been allowed. And for not putting a piece of brown paper on a book!

Later, when all the speeches had been made, I mingled with the assembled old boys. Lively discussions were going on everywhere. They all had stories to tell of canings and slipperings for absurdly trivial, or even non-existent, misdemeanors. Clearly the experience of this bizarre punishment ritual remained firmly entrenched in their minds. Some of them wanted to complain about fifty-year-old injustices.

Two or three of them told even more dramatic stories about Sharples, describing him in ways that I don’t wish to repeat now, whether he’s dead or alive.

This is the hornets’ nest I stirred up with a mildy amusing story about being slippered.

Is this relevant to teachers and teaching today when corporal punishment isn’t permitted? I think maybe it is.

Even without the threat of corporal punishment, there are STILL many ways that teachers can have a negative effect on vulnerable teenagers. Teachers whose modus operandi centres around victimisation, belittling, sarcasm and exerting the power of their position.

Or am I wrong? Are all teachers in the twenty-first century above such damaging ways of teaching? I hope so.

Please leave a comment one way or the other.

PS1 The third category of teachers are the ones who had no positive or negative effect on you and who you have completely forgotten.

PS2 When I told my daughter Rowan that I had been ‘slippered for not backing a book’, she replied: ‘I don’t understand any part of that sentence.’ Her Irish husband asked: ‘Is it something to do with a betting syndicate on the horses?’  


25 thoughts on “Outside my comfort zone (2) – Slippered for not backing a book…

  1. Great story, Ken. (as an aside, I think the new trend is to slipper teachers who don’t back books, looking at the anti dogme blogs coming out. Worst of all, it seems to be type 3 teachers who aspire to be type 2 by attacking type 1.)

    I am glad you extended it. Controlling a classroom with snarkiness is about as effective as controlling a car by honking the horn.

    1. ‘Controlling a classroom with snarkiness is about as effective as controlling a car by honking the horn’ is my … um… simile of the week … is it a simile? Or just a comparison – or a comparative metaphor? Help! The older I get, the less I know!

      1. As…adj…as …

        That is exactly the thing you want to have Michael Swan visiting the blog for. Let’s call it the equitative, not because it is, but because then someone will jump in to correct us.

        (according to, my dictionary, equitative means of or dealing with horses.)

      2. Funny you should say that – when I did my ELTons speech, I couldn’t decide if I should say ‘The ELTons is…’ or ‘The ELTons are …’. Mike Swan was sitting right in front of me, so I asked him. The great man said ‘are’.

  2. Just like your daughter I wouldn’t have understood the title of your post had I not read it – a great way to hook the audience. And without seeing Matt’s comment above I would’ve indeed thought it had something to do with being anti-Dogme 🙂
    For some reason I remember mainly old battle-axes that would fit the first category. I wonder if they are the ones who have the most profound effect… hmm

    1. The first or the second? The second category are the ones that you’re afraid of. The fact is most of us get through the experience and can look back and laugh. People who were regularly humiliated or alarmed in some way by teachers probably can’t.

  3. Great story! I think I prefered Part 1 where the hero asks the villain to cork it! Joking…lol
    I’m old enough to remember corporal punishment being practiced at my school (disgrace indeed…) and angelic enough to never have experienced it (which is why I think I’m going through belated puberty…).
    Thought-provoking moment: Category A Ts were liked and remembered and probably did a good job, Category B were remembered, but not liked…but still…did students learn whatever it is the Ts were teaching? Category C, seems neutral and no one remembers those Ts, but still did they teach their subject matter effectively? What is it that matters? And to whom? I’ll sleep on it…it’s late…:)

    1. That’s a fair point, Dina. And of course there’s the possibility that the teachers you don’t remember are good teachers, trying to be non-interventionist and letting you work things out for yourself. I was aware at the time that I wouldn’t have made such a heavy-handed division if my audience had been ELT professionals. 😛

  4. Delicious reading, Ken. Would’ve like to see the way you enchanted the audience. Best from Paris! -brad

    1. Hi Brad – yes, I have now discovered that ‘enchanting the audience’ involves identifying the chief troublemaker and delivering a coruscating put-down. Why did I never think of this before??

  5. This post did strike a chord with my own time at secondary school. I was on the other side of the Pennines – I imagine a few years after you – and got the stick from several teachers. We suffered a deputy headteacher who doled out punishment with two instruments of torture – a cane that he called the “Tickler” for minor misdemeanours and a billiard cue he named the “Persuader” for the more serious ones. Needless to say, he was a Category B teacher. He would have been locked up if he did that today but obviously we can’t go falling into the trap of judging the past with the standards of today now, can we?
    Near the top of my favourite teacher list of that time (probably joint 1st place) was my French/German teacher, a definite Category A, who would tell us at least once every lesson to “Keep it Short and Simple” – we should resist the temptation to try and translate complicated structures from our native language into the foreign language we were learning by finding an easier way around the obstacle. Thanks to him, I am now able to bore my own young adult students with this excellent piece of advice!
    Going back to your point about 21st Century teachers, victimisation, belittling and sarcasm have not yet been made illegal and can be more harmful than Ticklers and Persuaders. So, like “Narcissistic Pervert” Managers who drive workers to depression and worse, I believe Category B teachers still have a future.
    Thanks for this interesting post, Ken.
    PS. I was first drawn to this post (via Google Reader) because I genuinely understood that you had refused to endorse (back) an ELT book and that you had received a proverbial rap on the knuckles! I found that very intriguing.

    1. Hopefully, an incidental side effect of blog-world and the wider world of social media – certainly for educators – is the way people can feel they are not alone, they are part of a group of like-minded people. I really do hope this is true for humanistic, caring teaching.

  6. Hi Ken-Sensei!

    Great read – thank-you!

    BTW, Ken! At JALT 2011, you mentioned getting the best students in class at the start of the year on your side by letting them know that they are doing really well, and encouraging them to keep that behaviour up. I tried it this year, asking three or four to be my assistants.

    It really got the students’ eyes smiling to be praised (tho one was a bit confused at praise).

    Thank-you for the teaching tip !!

    Best regards,

  7. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/05/french-schools-pupils-feel-worthless
    Did you ever read this article in the Guardian ? From my experience, it’s still very true.

    It takes a great deal of learner training to change the attitudes of French students who have been through secondary and then very selective schools before engineering school.

    I loved your story, which was a very true description of my time in a northern Grammar school (perhaps a bit before …) Of course the girls weren’t caned, we just got detentions and lots of ‘lines’ !!! I haven’t heard the expression ‘back your book’ for a long time, especially as I’m living in France. I think most of the students were invisible to the music teacher, apart from the small group who took music lessons outside class and found music easy …..

    1. Uuufff… that article is very strong, isn’t it? I do think it’s dangerous to criticise the education system of a country where you are some kind of guest worker. Have any French teachers come out to agree with him??

  8. A wonderful follow-up to Part 1, Ken. Thank you, you write so simply and yet so vividly. I loved the PS. about “type 3 teachers” – which/who, having been taken in by the slippering anecdote, we had all forgotten.

    Yes, disgraceful that any form of teacher-student bullying should be allowed to exist. I was lucky, but several classmates were tormented for years by teachers at my school – more verbally than physically.

    “backing a book” – my first thoughts were clicking on a “like” button in Facebook, Amazon or wherever.

  9. Hello,

    The Top 100 Language Lovers 2012 competition hosted by the bab.la language portal and the Lexiophiles language blog has started and your blog has been nominated in the category language learning blogs. Congratulations! The nomination period goes until May 13th. Feel free to spread the word among other bloggers writing about languages or to suggest one blog yourself.
    For further information on the Top 100 Language Lovers 2011 competition, visit http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/top-100-language-lovers-2012-nominate-your-favourite-now

    Best wishes,
    Stefanie for the bab.la and Lexiophiles team

  10. Re : On achève bien les écoliers.
    @Ken, I have never seen or heard any comments in protest of Peter Gumbel’s views and the book was well publicised. It certainly reflects my experience of French education, even though my own children went through through the system and did very well. I am now seeing my grandchildren in ‘maternelle’ and primary school and I feel sorry that a generation later there has been little change. I still see a lack of creativity and I feel it’s still very much a system for children who ‘do well’.

  11. Hi Ken,

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I think you bring up a really important point about abuse of power in the classroom. And it’s not just with teenagers! The thing that really bugs me about it is that I don’t think teachers really realise the effect it has on their students. Of course every teacher has had students that are frustrating, whether it is a student who is constantly disruptive, defiant or just doesn’t back his book (tee hee). But we are the authority in the classroom and taking out our frustrations on students can create a vicious cycle of negativity and hate.

    1. Hi Meghan, welcome to the blog!

      yes, there are terrible students in the world, to be sure… but like all educational groups – gifted children, bad teachers, well-paid ELT specialists 😛 – they are in a minority. Rotten students can annoy and frustrate a number of teachers and then they’re gone. Bad teachers continue to ruin the confidence of young people for generations.

  12. Hi,

    A retired teacher centerarian put it this way: ” “Since I can remember, there have always been three kinds of teachers,” she said. “One group was just born to teach. A second group was born and should not teach. A third group should never have been born at all”.

    I recently had my students blog to respond to this maxim: There are no bad students, only bad teachers. Surprisingly, many blamed lazy students.

    But I think this student’s response sums up both this maxim and your question on what abuse is happening now: “I think that’s true. If the teacher acts good and teaches good there won’t be any problem. If the lessons are boring, it’s normal that students can behave badly. Why should even a student behave bad when he is having fun and learning something?” ( Grade 7)

    So, I really believe that if kids don’t absolutely adore coming to school, can’t learn at there own pace, within their own interests, and aren’t prepared for the future, it is a kind of abuse.

    1. Oooh, well that’s a rather strong definition of abuse – more likely one of boredom or frustration, which are not health-threatening. But any teaching method that demeans or belittles the student, particularly a young learner still finding out about themselves, that IS a form of abuse.

  13. It is not just boredom. Overloading them with read/write worksheets, a larded curriculum that teachers have to speed through….

    But since you were really talking about verbal and physical abuse I would say teachers yelling at kids. When we first moved here my daughter who didn’t speak a word of Turkish started 2nd grade. After two weeks of going off on her own happily she no longer wanted to go to school. Why? The teacher was always screaming at some kids in the class.

    Yelling not frowned upon here so much, and kids are conditioned to that, so it works.

  14. I’ve already written in Facebook that it was wise to speak on the topic that can’t be forgotten, no matter how long ago you finished school. We usually remember some embarrassing situations we were involved in. You have next 40 years to relax before you give a new fresh and vital topic for discussion!

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