A 90s primary school classroom, male teacher with beard, short-sleeved shirt and walk shorts.
Tim Heath, teaching at Newton School (Photo: Supplied)

Walk shorts and dreams: Oh, to be a teacher in the 90s

Linda Burgess finds a kindred spirit in Tim Heath’s memoir, The Accidental Teacher.

Not far into Tim Heath’s book, I was thinking how much fun he’d be to sit next to at a dinner party. No tensions there: I’d be sitting next to him pretty much agreeing on everything. By this stage in both of our lives I suspect we’ve got past looking for a fight. The thrill of a hot-blooded argument has quietly, thoroughly, dissipated. 

Does the other side have its defenders? I look forward to reading a review of this book which takes exception to this liberal, education-obsessed ex-teacher. As an ex-teacher myself, I look back, as he does, and think how teaching should attract people with philosophies, ideals, and not so much a love of children as a true interest in them. People who laugh at their jokes. And, it should attract a range of people so all children can meet at least one person a bit like them in the classroom. Quite apart from cultural differences, some children thrive with extroverts, others with quieter types. Also, like Heath, I remember, in my early 20s, teaching girls not much younger than myself, and looking at two impossibly elderly women in the staffroom – both around 50 – who not only complained incessantly about the job but who were criminally unkind to the students. What they both were was totally fed-up. Watching them, I decided not to be teaching at their age. Three decades later, when I knew if I had to remind another 13-year-old to put the date at the top of the page I’d go insane, I quit.

Portrait of a senior man, bearded, glasses, looking warm and kind, straight to camera.

(Photo: Jane Ussher)

Heath’s career was an interesting one. Like many others, he went into teaching because it meant getting paid for being at university. Oh, the olden days. The children he went on to teach may or may not have identified with a man in crimplene walk shorts – now there’s a fashion that should never have been allowed to happen – long socks, and a tie. Even at the time, it could be difficult to distinguish between a primary school teacher and a Social Credit voter. And like many others who finally found the classroom and the staffroom all a bit much, he finished his teaching career working at the Correspondence School.

Heath is an anecdotalist, an accomplished teller of his own stories. I sensed practised lines that he is clearly delighted to use, and why wouldn’t he, when they’re as good as “I don’t know if you have ever kissed someone who’s just bitten an octopus. It is a very special experience, but not an easy one to organise”? Chronologically told, this memoir spends time reflecting on both specific and general educational issues. He’s not the first teacher to admit that actually he really doesn’t know how to teach a child to read. He compares learning to read with learning to speak. Children learn the latter at their own pace, encouraged often by their delighted parents, who are amused rather than judgmental when they make mistakes. “We are different,” he writes, “when it comes to reading. There are expectations, errors are pounced on, and there is the sense that their child must hurry lest they fall behind their peers.” This took me back to being at the swimming pool with women friends. Our son had recently started school and one of the mothers said, clearly proudly, that her son was already on to Hungry Lambs. I had no idea what she was talking about, though it plainly involved a competition of sorts.

We go with Heath through his teaching career, and skip across the surface of his personal life. He spends two years in the rural isolation of the Ureweras, loving the lifestyle but not the loneliness. He teaches in Sāmoa, and his recollections of this time – in which he found love, had children, then lost his wife to cancer – are particularly notable for the honesty of his telling. His tone is reflective; there are things he admires and things he is less enthused about. He is more rueful than judgmental. Confronted with the vigorous use of corporal punishment, at first he forbids it in his school, then he comes to terms with reality:

The first part of this journey was to rid myself of the ideas and ideals I had developed in the New Zealand education system, with its luxury of being able to stipulate “free, secular and compulsory”. None of those things prevailed here. Families paid a significant percentage of their meagre income for their children to go to school and this sacrifice was loaded with expectations. Religion pervaded all aspects of the school day, from the morning assembly to the perceived need for punishment.

I like Heath’s tone. The writing, always vigorous, strengthens as he gets to the heart of the matter. There’s a point at which he moves from being an anecdotalist to a philosopher. It’s when he becomes principal at Newton School in Grey Lynn (a school, coincidentally, that two of my grandchildren attended – after his time there, but with discernible evidence of his time there) that the telling of his story comes alive.

Photo of primary school kids playing cricket with those yellow plastic bat and wickets, a school playing field, a teacher in walk shorts

Girls’ cricket, 1994, feat walk shorts (Photo: Supplied)

This could be because he’s considering the wider scale: this was his opportunity to put his educational philosophy into practice. He was interested in the total scope of a school, not just what happened in the classroom. In charge of a school which was worryingly close to the noisy motorway, he engaged his imagination and the help of others to plant the bare steep bank that went down to the motorway. Now the school is a leafy oasis. With a large percentage of the students being Māori or Pasifika, he set about making the school a place for them. It’s a given that he wanted every child to read, write and add things up to the very best of their ability: he also had a strong belief that kids should spend a good part of the day racing round outside. The children were encouraged to garden – I still laugh at the memory of my grandson, aged about eight, coming home from school saying he was exhausted, he’d been gardening all afternoon.  

As Heath was making enlightened changes, education itself was changing. I was reminded of how I felt in the depressing time in which encouraging students to love language and literature became less important than endless apparently pointless assessments. It still infuriates and saddens me. To sum it up in two words: King Lear. Kids love Shakespeare, oddly enough because there’s so much for them to identify with. But, along with poetry – both of these frighten some teachers – it’s going, going, gone.

A genuine pedagogist, he writes at reasonable length about the need children have to progress at their own pace, and how many things are just as important as, say, knowing the times table. Though they should know that, too, mainly because it’s useful. Again, he’s honest – not everyone, colleagues and parents, agree with his way of doing things. And he wanders tactfully and tantalisingly around the finding of personal happiness. All women readers could well want more. All writers of memoir will recognise potentially dangerous ground. 

Classic class photo setup but with teachers, it's 1997 so the clothes are rad; an array of interesting characters

Teachers of 1997; Heath is front and centre (Photo: Supplied)

Like many idealists, he’s doomed to disappointment. Intermediates continue to exist, even though many believe that the junior high school model, with four years rather than two, is a better model. Yep, dinner party companion, I agree. If, in a Covid-19 world, dinner parties still exist, that is. Bureaucrats continue to be in charge of education, kids don’t always respond to what idealists see as best practice. Conservative colleagues, unrepentant little shits, pushy parents, wear you down. When I finished this supremely engaging book, I felt strangely sad. There was barely a thing he said about teaching, about education, that I didn’t agree with. Oh well. Finally, I guess, most kids muddle on through. It’s a shame, though, that they have to. 

The Accidental Teacher: The joys, ambitions, ideals, stuff-ups and heartaches of a teaching life, by Tim Heath (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available from Unity books Auckland and Wellington.




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