Wednesday 6 March 2019

School Visits by Paul May

It’s World Book Day this week. All over the UK and, who knows, maybe all over the world, children’s authors are abandoning their typewriters and keyboards and pens and paper in order to spend hours in trains and cars and hotel rooms and airbnbs and, eventually, in schools.  

Many of those authors will be heading for Primary Schools.  I know a bit about Primary Schools.  I was a teacher in several of them for more than thirty years, and when I hear authors tell their stories of how they've been treated on their visits, from the wonderful to the horrific, I am never surprised.  So, especially for those of you who are new to the experience of school visits, here are a few thoughts.

Let’s assume that you have read the Society of Authors guide for authors visiting schools and libraries, and have helpfully pointed whoever is arranging your visit to the guide for schools organising an author visit.  Let’s not assume they have read that guide!  It may be that the person arranging the visit is a passionate fan of children’s literature, perhaps even of your work, and they have told everyone in the school you are coming and they are all equally enthusiastic.  The children will all have been reading your books and will be brimming over with excitement and anticipation.  There might be banners, flowers, champagne on the table in the staff room . . .

But it may also be that a poor young NQT who has not yet learned how to say 'no' has had the job dumped on them out of the blue, two weeks before WBD. They have never read your books and possibly had never heard of you until a colleague or friend said, ‘Oh, you could try X.  I’ve heard they sometimes visit schools.’  In this case probably most of the children will not have read your books either, and the staff will definitely never have heard of you, but they might be glad of a few minutes to catch up with their marking or data-entry, which they will do while you are doing whatever it is you do with their class. The teaching assistants will probably see this as a chance for a chat, too.   

This, I think, is the most annoying thing of all, but it might make you feel better to know that they do it to supply teachers too, routinely, and even, occasionally, to 'proper' teachers.  Which reminds me of the day when I was covering a Year 4 class for a colleague.  I'd dismissed the children at the end of the day when a woman dressed all in black, dripping with gold jewellery, and sporting bleached blond hair and a deep orange tanning-studio tan stormed into the classroom demanding to speak to the teacher.  'I'm the teacher,' I said.  She paused, then looked me over very slowly from head to foot and then back up to my head again, taking in slightly untidy hair, open-necked shirt and not-very-shiny shoes. 'You're not a proper teacher,' she told me.  This may be why teachers all wear lanyards nowadays.

Illustration by Thomas Henry from William Holds the Stage 

I think Richmal Crompton must have visited a few schools in her time. William fans among you may remember this, from William Holds the Stage.   

“It was an old boy of William’s school, called Mr Welbecker, who with well-intentioned but mistaken enthusiasm offered a prize to the form that should act a scene from Shakespeare most successfully . . . The headmaster and the staff received his offer with conventional gratitude but without enthusiasm.  Several senior members of the staff were heard to express a wish that that fool Welbecker could have the trouble of organizing the thing himself, adding that he jolly well wouldn’t do it more than once.  The junior staff expressed this more forcibly by saying that the blighter ought to be hung.”

Unfortunately William’s class, IIIA, are without a teacher on the morning Mr Welbecker arrives unannounced in school ‘armed with innumerable copies of his article on Shakespeare,’ and offering to give a lecture to the school.  The headmaster suggests that Mr Welbecker give his lecture to IIIA.

“ ‘It’s young Brown and that set,’ murmured the second master warningly.  The headmaster’s expression brightened still further.  So might a man look who was sending his bitterest enemy unarmed and unsuspecting into a lion’s den. 

‘Splendid!’ he said heartily, ‘splendid!  I’m sure they’ll find your lecture most interesting, Welbecker.  Good morning.  I hope to see you, of course, before you go.’

Richmal Crompton had definitely visited schools herself.  This headmaster will almost certainly be in a meeting when the author leaves.  She proceeds to demonstrate how not to talk to a young audience.

“A sudden silence—a silence of interest and surprise—greeted the entry of Mr Welbecker into the classroom of IIIA.

‘Now boys,’ he said breezily, ‘I want to give you a little talk about Shakespeare, and I want you to ask me questions freely, because I’m—er—well, I’m what you might call an expert on the subject.  I’ve written a little book . . . It isn’t everyone who can write a book, you know, is it?’

‘I’ve written a book,’ put in William nonchalantly.”

For anyone who hasn’t encountered this story, which is in William the Pirate, I recommend seeking out Martin Jarvis’s reading on Just William: Volume 3 (BBC).  I remember listening to the tape one sunny afternoon while driving around Los Angeles with five children and three adults all laughing so hard we had to pull the car over so we could recover. 

The thing to remember when you go into a school is that, as with any organisation, there is stuff going on that you know nothing about. When there is no tea/coffee/mug for visitors there has probably been some terrible row over tea money, or dishwashing.  When the staff seem unhelpful or rude it may be that they see the parachuting-in of a visiting author as an implicit (or explicit) criticism from the management of their (allegedly) dull and unimaginative teaching.  This happened to me when an ex-colleague who had been appointed head of a large, failing school, booked me to do an author visit just as she attempted to introduce new approaches to lesson-planning, assessment, behaviour management—you name it.  The teachers were not welcoming.  I definitely felt I had been sent 'unsuspecting into a lion’s den'.

I have also committed one of Mr Welbecker’s errors.  After I retired I was doing a bit of supply teaching and happened to mention to a class that I had written books.  “My dad writes books,” one of the children told me.  I probably said something like, ‘Who’s your dad, then?’  I won’t tell you who his dad was, but he was about as famous as an author gets.

Schools are very odd places, and there are inevitably all kinds of cliques and rivalries and antagonisms going on.  But there is an important clue to let you know what you are in for.  You can tell a lot about a school by the greeting you get from the office staff when you walk through the door. No half-decent headteacher would allow the first encounter parents and visitors have to be with a surly, grumpy, unfriendly, impatient person.  

So, if you arrive at your school to be greeted by a cheerful, friendly smile from the office staff, and they’re expecting you and they look after you like royalty, you’ll probably have a great time.  If they have no idea who you are and make you feel you’re just one more burden they have to put up with, then watch out!

And if you want to know more about the internal workings of the English Primary School you cannot do better than to read The Harpole Report by J L Carr, first published in 1972.  It may be dated in some ways, but it also somehow gets to the heart of what goes on.  And it’s very funny. The story is told from many points of view.  As the blurb on the back says; 'Everyone in the school system has something to write about, not least the school caretaker.'

One of the narrators has this to say on the first page: 'As I have put this business into some sort of order, my sympathy and admiration has warmed not only to several of those caught up in it, but to others unknown to me; isolated little bands, here and there clinging to scarcely tenable positions amidst the dust of battle in the front lines of English Education.'  

Good luck with all those visits.  I will most likely be on my allotment!

Paul May's website is here.  He also has a blog about education, bicycles, trees and various other things called AS IN THE LONG AGO.


Lynne Benton said...

Great post, Paul! Having been a regular teacher, supply teacher and visiting author myself (not to mention a William fan!) I can identify with much of what you say. However, I must say that the last school visit I did was so fantastic that I'm tempted to go out on a high rather than risk spoiling the memory of what a visit could be like. Good luck to all those out there this week!

Susan Price said...

I've never been a teacher but, as a realist, I've always supposed that author visits are arranged much as Paul describes, with all the political scheming, point scoring and dumping on youngsters who can't say no. I never expect anyone to have heard of me or read my books.
But on the whole, I've had a good time in schools - and I expect to do tomorrow and Friday, when I visit primary schools.
Good luck to everyone out there, diving in and out of classrooms!

Paul May said...

School visits can be great. I was even taken out to lunch by a headteacher once and I didn't have to pay for it either! And the kids, of course, are always (almost always) wonderful.