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March 10, 2003
Teachers with status in the real world

Well, I'm back from the depths of Kent, and I did learn a lot of use to writing for this. However, I'm afraid I made a mistake about the "Assistant Head" bit. I was muddling my friend up with another of my friends. I don't know why I did this, but I did. Sorry to you all, and especially to him if he ever gets to read this.

As it happens, my friend's relatively low place on the teacher pecking order had a direct bearing on one of the many interesting things he told me, which is that boys behave well or badly according to the status of their teacher on the teacher pecking order. "Authority" is not something that you can just whistle up with some clever body language, or not completely anyway; it is also a function of your true place in the world, of how much clout you have with the other males who matter. So a new teacher is almost certainly fair game, no matter how much "charisma" he may have, or think he has.

Question. How much does clout in the "real world" - clout outside the world of the school - count for anything, in the eyes of these teenage boys, as they size up their prey and wonder whether to launch a pack attack?

After that posh prep school I went to, I went on to another posh private school (or a "public" school, as we Brits so confusingly call these places), a school called Marlborough. I mention this partly to impress everyone, of course. It's about damn time it started to count for something that I went to one of these places. But I do have a point. Which is: that Marlborough was full of teachers (or "masters" as they were called) with "real world" clout, and often of the particular sorts that most impress teenage boys, such as sporting prowess.

I was taught English by a man called Dennis Silk, whom I remember with fondness because he was the first teacher I can recall who seemed genuinely to enjoy the things I wrote. But more to my point, this Dennis Silk was a star cricketer. He made centuries in the Oxford v. Cambridge cricket matches (at a time when the standard of Oxbridge cricket was a lot higher than it is now), and he even captained an England touring team, to New Zealand. He wasn't the absolute cream of the crop, be he was pretty close to it. Later he became the President of the MCC. Non-cricket enthusiasts won't grasp all the detail of that, but my point is, we Marlburians did.

Another of my teachers was a man called Kempson, who taught me non-Euclidian geometry, or who tried to. I can't say I remember much in the way of non-Euclidian geometry, but I do vividly recall the immense merriment this man used to take in getting us to understand what it was all about, if only temporarily. And this Mr Kempson was, in a former life, a member of the 1935 Everest Expedition. (This was the expedition which included George Mallory, who, many people believe, did actually conquer Everest but who sadly died in the vicinity of the summit before anything could be proved, if there was anything to prove. Mountaineers still debate this, I believe.)

[UPDATE: Wrong. I've since learned that Mallory died on a previous expedition, in, I think, 1924. Apologies Luckily this doesn't affect the point I'm making.]

There were plenty of other alpha males of this sort at Marlborough, teaching history and geography, maths and physics, reading the lessons in chapel, coaching sports teams, and generally keeping their eyes on things. I don't know for sure exactly how much difference it made to school discipline, because I can't compare matters with how they might have been in the absence of such people. But I'm pretty sure it did make a difference. I reckon these people kept us in order far more efficaciously than a staff would have that consisted only of non-alphas in corduroy jackets who knew nothing but the subjects they taught and had done nothing with their adult lives except teach them.

I guess your average bog standard (as the unlovely British phrase goes) secondary school doesn't contain many people like this. I've often thought that all those clapped out rock stars who now sit about in their mansions dreaming of making hit parade comebacks might make excellent school teachers. They have a been-there done-that atmosphere about them that might make a real contribution to the general willingness of boys to follow the lead that the schools are trying to impose upon them. Ah well.

This is not a posting about whether "imposing" on boys is a good or a bad thing. But I will now say that in my opinion a culture in which teenage boys are not in any way imposed upon by grown-up men is a culture which will have problems.

I'm not a voluntarist and a libertarian about education because I think that adult authority doesn't matter. I think that adult authority is, other things being equal, a very good thing. As I will, I'm sure, be arguing, in any follow-up pieces (besides this I mean) that I may manage to my earlier one entitled What is authority?, that the voluntary principle and authority go hand in hand extremely well. But authority and the voluntarism aren't the same thing, and places like Marlborough prove that you can have plenty of the first without a huge amount of the second.

This nugget of wisdom about status and how it relates to school discipline was by no means the only one that I acquired from my friend the Kent school teacher. I'm thinking now that I'll make the conversations we had into my theme of the week here. He knows who he is. My thanks to him for his wisdom, to say nothing of his hospitality.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
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