May 05, 2003
John Washington – a life in teaching

Last Friday I had supper with my friend John Washington. He is nearing retirement now, and has spent his working life teaching, under various acronymic headings, handicrafts, woodwork, that kind of thing. Craft. CDT. Which stands for ... he did tell me, but I've forgotten. Craft and design technology? I should pay more attention. Anyway, he teaches children to make things, and to do things, rather than merely to know things.

You expect such teachers to be big, muscular, sergeant-majorish types with a passion for craftsmanship, yes, but also with a corresponding disdain for more intellectual pursuits. John is a dapper little man, with a degree in African history, who spent time teaching English as a foreign language when teaching handicrafts in the ever less handicraft-friendly British school system became too dispiriting for him. But he's now back doing what he seems to do best, at Ibstock Place School, in Roehampton, in the south western suburbs of London.

I have know John for some years now, because he quite often attends my last-Friday-of-the-month evenings – a gentle and modest presence. I started this blog partly as an excuse to meet with people like John and get to know them better, by picking their brains about their work, and if the evening I spent with John is anything to go by my plan is starting to work really well.

People don't always like to talk about their work. They want a change. They don't want to have to give a free slice of what they get paid to do during the day. They don't want to be criticised for the sins of their professional brethren. They are anxious not to to appear boring and obsessive. But my questions don't seem to cause such grief as this. What do you do? How do you do it? What do you see as its purpose? How has it changed over the years? I like to think that being asked things like this by someone who is truly interested (or why would I be doing this?) is not so bad. Besides which, a lifetime of good work, such as I believe John's life to have been, is something that ought to be celebrated.

John didn't seem to mind our conversation. But it was nevertheless tinged with a certain melancholy. Craftsmanship of John's sort is dying out in the England of now, and John himself is something of a dying breed. At one point in our evening John drew my attention to the table we were sitting at, in the cheap restaurant where we were eating. He pointed out that whereas not so very long ago this table would have been made in England by a carpenter, it was now probably made in China in a factory, and only assembled here. As a consequence, although the government talks much about the "need to encourage creativity" of just the sort that John himself really does encourage, its heart isn't really now in it, and the same now goes for more and more schools. Machines and workshop equipment are being steadily sold off.

Sad though this may be, it does make sense to me. In the world as it is now, the balance of relevance has shifted away from being able to make a bookshelf and towards being able to decypher the instructions for assembling some bookshelves, and maybe to make a living translating such instructions into serviceable English. Carpentry is just another technology that used to be important, but isn't so important now. Important, maybe, but not so important. It's melancholy, but there it is.

But if John's sort of teaching does completely die out, something valuable will die out with it. When aswering the what's it for question, he spoke not only of teaching people how to make themselves tables and bookshelves and thus save having to buy expensive rubbish at B&Q, but also of the happiness that comes of having accomplished something, or having created something. So, John, part of what you are doing is making children happy? Yes, he said.

Like almost all teachers nowadays, John worries about discipline, and about the shocking behaviour of the worst behaved of the children he remembers. He told me how he once asked a man who worked in an office: "When was the last time someone held their face inches from yours and told you very loudly to fuck off?" For teachers, that's a regular occurrence nowadays.

I know what my child liberationist friends will say. Put children in unruly prison and don't be surprised if they behave like unruly prisoners. But as prison officers go, John Washington strikes me as the sort who combines the firmness and discipline of the scary Scottish one in Porridge with the kindness of the kind one. My further guess is that there are many men, more perhaps that he realises, who remember him with fondness and gratitude. I haven't watched him teach, and maybe when he does he's transformed into Genghis Khan with a power drill, but my guess would be not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:22 PM
Category: Technology