Long ago, in September, 1963, in fact, I started my first teaching job. I didn’t have a formal interview for the position. Heading home on the train for the Easter break in my last year at college, I happened to share a compartment with Mr. Elvet Thomas, one of my teachers when I was in grammar school, and, now, the newly appointed headmaster of Trinity Fields Secondary School in Stafford.
He said he was looking for a science teacher—did I want the job? Mmm, yes, yes, please, Mr. Thomas! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Sir!!
Thus, without further ado, I was appointed as a science teacher at Trinity Fields. The school, like all secondary modern schools of the time, was for students aged between 11 and 15, all of whom had failed the national 11+ examination 1, and thus seen to be undeserving of an academic education.
The day before school started for the new academic year, I was given my teaching responsibilities. I was Form Teacher for 1C, which meant, I was told, that I took the morning register for attendance, checked who wanted school lunch, and met with the class again before dismissal at the end of the day.
After taking my class to morning school assembly, I was to teach the bottom classes in each of the four years (1C, 2C, 3C and 4C). The Head of the Science Department gave me the textbook, pointing out the science topics I was to cover. “Not to worry,” he said. “When they take the Leaving Test at 15, only mathematics, reading and writing are tested. It’s a pity but science isn’t considered that important. Nevertheless, make it good, John Paull, make it interesting.”
The following day I began my teaching career. Well, teaching is perhaps too grand a word. It would be more honest to say that I began to be paid for standing daily in front of loads of bored adolescents, opening a well-thumbed science text book—then, scribbling key science words on the blackboard to be copied into their science notebooks. I didn’t know how to make science interesting.
My science-teaching pattern was straightforward. The kids came in, I welcomed them, they took their seats, opened their science journals, and waited as I read from the science textbook. I then wrote the key science information on the board and the pupils, using their best handwriting, copied my notes. Nothing to it, really.
What follows. then, is is the description of one significant thing that happened during my first and very challenging year, especially with Class 3C:
Thirteen year-old Tiger always sat alone at the back of the science lab. As he was always looking for trouble (and he was really good at finding it), he was, to put it mildly, a pain in the ***. Tiger made my Class 3C science lessons a joke. School didn’t interest him and my science didn’t engage him. His dad had told him that he’d have a job with him as a bricklayer on the building sites when he was 15, so, hey, why should he ‘do his best’ in school? What was the point of it all?
My monthly science topics certainly didn’t interest Tiger. Well, to be honest, they didn’t interest me very much, either. When I read from the science textbook about Gases, or, Density, Tiger would roll his eyes, run his fingers through his greasy hair, scratch his head, and interfere with anyone sitting close to him. His science notebook was filled with dirty pictures and rude scribbles. Occasionally, on his really bad days, especially when it was raining outside, Tiger would shout that he was fed up with school and very fed up with boring science.
‘Science is borin’…..flippin’ borin’
Nothing I did in my science lessons (which, to be honest, wasn’t much) made any connection to Tiger’s life experience or appealed to his sense of curiosity. The science I read from the textbook was irrelevant to his world—especially, I suppose, the way I presented it. To be honest, the science didn’t interest anyone in the class, including me.
Most of the boys and girls did, though, sit politely through each lesson. They spent their time scribbling and drawing in their science writing books, often whispering to each other, probably gossiping about Tiger. The boys, though, waited for Tiger to stir the pot.
The days, weeks and months dragged by.
In the first week of Spring thank goodness, the miracle of miracles happened—a big, BIG change for the better came over my teaching. Tiger, of all people, and a small garden spider, were my divine inspirations.
Walking back from shopping for the weekend food, I spotted the most beautiful orb-web spider sitting in her intricate silky web in the black currant bush outside the steps leading to my flat. Surprised to see one so early in the year, I fetched a jar, popped her inside, and took her upstairs.
The spider reminded me of when I was a kid and my dad and I found some garden spiders in a cluster of webs at the back of our house. I kept two or three of them in a jam jar tucked under the bed—quickly learning that you don’t keep spiders together because they eat each other. Looking after the survivor was really fascinating, though. Keeping her safe and well fed with flies and moths had made me feel good, especially when she deposited an egg sac for me on her silky web. Later, I released the babes and the mother back to the garden which, really, was their best home—much better than a jam jar.
I took the newly caught spider to school the following Monday, put her in a large bell jar with a little soil, some greenery, a branch, and a couple of small silverfish insects. I set the spider home on a small table at the back of the science laboratory, out of direct sunshine.
The following day, I was thrilled when I saw a silk egg sac dangling from near the center of the spider’s orb web. Smiling, and thinking back to when I was a kid, I knew it was going to be a dead good day. Sensing the spider was hungry, I found another small silverfish darting around the base of my desk, unscrewed the top of the spider home, and, with apologies to the poor little thing, put the small creature on the web. Immediately, the spider came running towards her prey. I sat and watched, fascinated by the process, until Tiger’s class came through the door, breaking the atmosphere by noisily throwing their satchels under their stools.
Here we go, I thought. Sorry, spider, I gotta go. I got up quickly, pushing the spider home to one side. The kids were ready for yet another particularly dull science lesson (all chalk and talk, then reading and writing, and no ‘hands-on’ science investigation). They looked bored before I even started.
Then Tiger came through the door, late. He had a real mean look on his face. Crikey, I thought to myself, I think I’m in for a real treat today! When I asked him where he’d been, Tiger stared at the floor, kicked a piece of scrap paper, and mumbled he’d been sent to the Headmaster’s office because, he said, “I was caught looking frew a dirty book, sir. ‘fore school started. Not fair.”
Smirking, I felt nosey—I wanted to know more about what had happened. “Who caught you?’ I asked, thinking ‘Tiger, serve you right!’ Tiger’s tone changed, and he looked across the room at me, and shouted loudly:
“Mr. Jelbert, you know, Mr. Paull, P.E. teacher, he looks at us lads in the yard through his ‘scope from the class upstairs. He saw me. Looking at pictures. You know. Dirty pictures. Weren’t my book, though, Mr. Paull. It’s Fatty White’s. ’E shows me every day. It’s them pictures I try to draw in me science book. Now Mr. Thomas has it. Fatty’ll murder me. I’ve got to go back to the boss’s office after school. And I’ll get whacked. I’ll get six, I know I will.”
Looking sulky and angry, Tiger turned and went to his usual spot at the back of the classroom, close to where I’d put the spider.
The class was more restless than usual. And now, I thought, I have to teach, well, read about the science of carbon dioxide.
Thank you, Tiger.
As I was writing on the blackboard, asking the pupils to open up their journals and copy my notes, there was a loud shout of “CHRIST! Friggin’ ‘ell!” from the back of the room. Startled, I looked across the lab. Everyone in class turned their heads to see what was going on. What did we see? Tiger, of course! There was Tiger, standing up and pointing his index finger and thumb at the bell jar. The sulky look had gone. His eyes were wide open.
‘F*# ‘ell! Look! Mr. Paull, Mr. Paull, there’s a spider ‘ere! It’s killing a creepy-crawly! It’s f*^** killing it! Look!!!” I raised my hand. ”Tiger, that’s enough! Watch your language!”
“Mr. Paull, Mr. Paull, I can’t f*ing believe it. Look at THAT! The spider, f*+** great!!”
Tight-lipped, I told him to sit down, leave the spider alone, and get out his science journal. NOW!!
Tiger totally ignored me. The spider eating her lunch, of course, was, for Tiger, far more interesting than my science -reading lesson. I turned to the class, and tried to settle everyone down. “C’mon. Everybody! Never mind Tiger. He’s just having a moment. Get on with your writing. C’mon everybody, it’s no big deal.”
Yeah, right! Of course it was a big deal! Tiger swearing loudly was much more captivating than my science-reading and writing lesson for the class. “Wassup wiv Tiger, Mr. Paull?” asked Michael, suppressing a giggle. Turning to the rest of the class, he said, ‘“’e sick or summat?” Everyone laughed. That did it—everyone now was restless. I had no choice but to give in. “Go on, then, everyone, take a look. Two at a time. Go and see what Tiger’s getting excited about—go and see what’s in the jar—then get back to your seats.”
They didn’t need telling twice. Everyone rushed to join Tiger at the back of the room He pointed to the jar which got everyone chattering excitedly about the spider—excited chatter was something I had never heard in one of my science lessons. “Ain’t never seen a spider like that! What is it? Wos it doin’?” asked one pupil.
One of the girls, Diane, said the spider was so beautiful. “Can I look at it, sir? Please? Can I get a maggy glass from the drawer?” she asked. I thought for a moment. Why not? Sounds like a good idea. T’is science time, after all. I nodded. Diane fetched a magnifying glass and peered through it.
“It’s great.” She looked up at me. “Can I draw it, sir? Please? In me science book?”
“Of course.” I said. “Use your pencil, not your pen. Oh, don’t, though, draw it in your science book. That’s for science. Here, there’s a piece of scrap-paper on my desk you can use!” Dianne looked at me, and asked, drily, “Aren’t spiders science, Mr. Paull?” “’Course, Dianne” I replied. “Sorry. Do it, drawing, oh, go on, put it in your science journal.” Then the teacher bit in me added, “Don’t forget to put the date at the top…..”
The idea caught on and a few more of the class said they wanted to draw the spider, sitting in her web, clasping the poor silverfish. Defeated, I told everyone to close the science textbooks.
“Draw the spider, go on, everyone! In your journals.”
Tiger did not draw the spider in his journal, though. He sat very still, ignoring me and everyone else, eyes staring at the jar, watching the spider, mesmerized.
The science hour went by quickly, every minute focused on looking at the spider and swapping stories about spiders they’d seen around the backs of their homes.
Tiger stayed behind after class for a few minutes, and, with a warm grin and an impish twinkle in his eye, asked me where I’d found the spider. When I told him, he said,
“The spider’s great, sir, ain’t it great? You like ‘em? Spiders? They’re brill, ain’t they?” He looked up at me.
“Sorry I swore, sir, sorry. Won’t do it again. ‘Onest!! Sorry I din’t do anyfing in me science book. Can’t draw, anyway, you know. Scabby drawer.”
“Well,” I said, using a quiet voice, “I think you can draw, Tiger, but the pictures you draw in your science book are rude, you know.” Tiger smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and then said he was going to get some spiders of his own as soon as he got home. “Good, but now get off to your next class. Don’t be late,” I said. “Oh, and don’t forget to see the Headmaster, Mr. Thomas…and be sure to give the book back to your friend.”
That night, I couldn’t put the spider episode out of my head. The kids really had a ball, drawing and talking about spiders.
The next day, Tiger was waiting for me, outside the staff room, before school started. He had that Tiger impish smile on his face again.
“Hey, Mr. P…Boss let me off. He believed me. Anyway, it really weren’t my book. Didn’t get whacked.” He took a jam jar out of his satchel. “Look, Mr. P…Got some spidos. Found ‘em, Mr. Paull, found ‘em. There were stacks of ‘em. Tiny ‘uns. Babs, I think, ain’t they? I got free or four. Like yours. Can I keep them in the lab, Mr. Paull? Go on! Can I? Next to yours?”
Then, he added: “Found out about ‘em, too, Mr. Paull. My dad knows what they are—they’re Garden Spiders, and they eat flies and stuff!” He looked up at me. “You know what? You’re ok, Mr. Paull! Sorry, sorry, I swore. Won’t bovver you agen, ‘onest.”
“Thank you, Tiger, thank you. I appreciate that.” I said. “I’m sorry you swore, too. Come with me. Let’s get some jars for those spiders.”
Then, I added, “Hey, no more naked girls in your science book, ok?” “Promise, no more. I promise.” said Tiger. We went to the science lab and I gave him four small jars, telling him that spiders can’t live together without paralyzing and eating each other. “Make a home for each one, ok? Quick, now, school’s starting soon. Go to your form room. Oh, and you can tell your class what you know about spiders, ok? Then take them home and set them free, ok?”
When his class came later in the morning for science, Tiger stood sheepishly at the front of the room, by the blackboard, the four jars in front of him. Some of the boys nudged other, curious as to why Tiger was standing at the front.
Tiger held up a jar. He then told a very respectful, quiet, surprised, and very attentive audience what he had learned about spiders. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was fascinated to see how Tiger caught everyone’s attention with his excited, twitchy, body movements. Tiger had at last discovered something in my science period that made him feel that wonderful, inside-your-head glow when the brain is alive and alert. His classmates felt it, too.
“Spiders, “ he said, “ are dead good. Look at this one. It’s a beaut.”
He held up one of the jars.
“Guess what I found out…Spiders suck their food after they’ve crushed and made watery…ain’t only the gals that make silk…the fella spiders make silk, too, but only when they’re young…then they stop and go looking for a spider girl-friend. They mate on the web…sometimes the gals kill and eat the fella…some spiders chase after stuff they want to eat.”
I was taken aback by how much he knew, thinking: “Where did he learn that from, then? All from his dad? It weren’t, for sure, from me in science lessons.” He’d really done his homework. This was Tiger’s golden moment.
Tiger told his audience that, if anyone wanted to watch, he was going to release the spiders and their eggs in the school garden at lunchtime.
“They’re goin’ to die soon, oferwise, y’know, and the eggs will ‘atch soon, right, Mr. Paull?”
When he’d finished, everyone clapped.“Any questions for Tiger?”I asked. The hands went up, and Tiger was asked a million questions, some of which he could answer.
Almost everyone turned up at lunchtime to see Tiger release the spiders.
That night I checked my spider’s identity in a spider book, learning that it was Meta segmentata, a common garden species related to the garden spider. Its courtship routine was different, though. The male, I read, drives off other male suitors, but doesn’t advance towards the female until an insect is caught on the female’s web. Both spiders then move towards the struggling insect. The male’s front legs are larger than the female and he uses them to push the female away from the insect. He then gift-wraps the prey. As the female tucks into her dinner, the male wraps silk around her legs and then mates with her.
The following day, I went to school early in the morning, an hour or so before the official start of the day, and went to the science storeroom. I gathered a box full of bones and mounted spiders and insects, microscopes, racks of test tubes, flasks, and other scientific equipment. I set them out in the science lab and then rearranged the stools.
When Tiger’s class came through the door, the boys and girls noticed what I had done and looked at my displays of science equipment.
“Hey,” said one, “look….look at all this science stuff……..and hey, look, we ain’t sitting alone. He’s put us in groups.” He turned to me. “Mornin’, sir, this stuff looks great. Can we touch it?”
Tiger showed me a picture he’d drawn at home of the beautiful orb-web spider.
“Hey, you did it. You drew your spider. You can draw, see?” I said. Tiger smiled. “Can I glue it on the cover of my science journal, Mr. Paull?” “OK,” I said, “but first let me rip out those inappropriate doodles, ok?”
I started off the lesson by pointing to the specimens I’d found in the cupboard and then sharing the spider snippet with everyone. I couldn’t believe the effect it had—the kids were enthralled. I was very struck with the ensuing class conversations and how the class listened when Tiger had something to say. When talking and learning about spiders, the pupils were very animated, commenting and asking good questions.
“Tomorrow, “ I said, at the end of the lesson (which flew by), “we’ll do that again, ok? See if you have anything that links to our lesson topic, you know, insects and stuff. You don’t have to stand at the front and share. You can share your stuff with me privately, if that’s what you’d rather do. You can draw and write about them in your science journals.” “Great,” said Diane, “Like bein’ a proper scientist. S’dead good!” “Oh,” I said, “leave your journals. Let me have a look at them tonight. You’ll get ‘em back in the morning.”
That night, I opened up their journals, the pages of the day filled with spider and insect pictures, facts and questions. Even Tiger’s…
Hey, it dawned on me. Why was I such a twerp? I had learned, by sheer luck, what motivated and engaged my most challenging, disruptive pupil: observing and studying a small spider. It was, in fact, an incredible teachable moment. I had learned the importance of arousing curiosity, of engagement…I had seen HOW students learn best.
The next day, and for days after, kids brought in all sorts to show me, and each other…and, for the first time, I felt like a teacher.
It was THE first ‘Come on, John Paull, be a REAL teacher. Be professional. Earn your pension.’ wake-up call. Now I KNEW how to teach science!!
Well, at least I KNEW how to teach science in a way that I, and my kids, enjoyed.
A life-changing experience, for the better. From Tiger, of all people.
Thank you, Tiger. Bless your cotton socks. Thank you, spider!!
(Excerpt from: Through My Eyes—on becoming a teacher. John Paull 2012.) To read more of John Paull’s work visit: MyWishingRock.blogspot.com