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The lost art of old-school teaching


THE art teacher rasped: ‘As you have utterly failed to unify these dark tones, how are you going to manage the half tone correctly?’

Useless to try to explain, and she was not likely to listen to any excuses. Later she returned briefly and stood by my easel.

‘What are these?’ I tried to explain that in trying to find the correct half tone I’d discovered a second colour which looked better.

‘So now you’ve got two of them?’ she said witheringly. Behind us I could feel discomfort and relief from the other students: after all, if she was having a go at me she wasn’t lambasting them.

It was my second day at a portrait painting summer school, held in one of our public schools. The 18th century building used as a studio matched the traditional methods we were trying to acquire, and the style of teaching.

Perhaps I got on the wrong side of ‘Madame’, our teacher, when I asked if she could help me open a bottle of oil. ‘I cannot be bothered with that,’ she snapped, singling me out as a particular idiot. Like most of her eight students I quickly avoided talking to her. If you asked a question you had to be careful that she had finished answering before you added any response. Speak too early and you’d get a sneering, ‘It’s hardly worth my answering you if you insist on speaking at the same time.’

I also heard her say, ‘I explained that to you on the first day!’ She was decidedly of the ‘I will say this only once’ school, which certainly focused the mind. Throughout the week we slogged away in the studio, curtains half-drawn to preserve an even northern light. At lunch times we commiserated. ‘Don’t worry, she says that to everyone.’ ‘Did you hear what she said to X?’

We’d laugh, somewhat uneasily. It wasn’t pleasant but we all recognised, even those almost too scared to put any paint down at all, how much Madame knew, and how much we were learning from her. Techniques were hammered into us from 9am until late afternoon, and no one was ever late back from lunch.

Madame was one of the old-style teachers some of us remember from the 1960s, almost all gone from state schools by the 80s, obsessively in love with their subject. Their only aim was to impart that precious knowledge to their pupils. They had no other job, certainly not pedagogical concerns. Any weaknesses, mental or physical, had to be left outside the classroom door. Throughout the week Madame never uttered a word of encouragement.

It’s amusing and a bit bizarre to think that you get this type of teaching now only in adult education. Children get none of it. The National Education Union recently recommended use of ‘positive affirmation’ at all times and warned teachers to ‘avoid sarcasm at all costs’.

Our accommodation was in the school and the impression left by the absent scholars was one of fragility. The rooms were hot as only one tiny window could be opened in case a child defenestrated itself. In the canteen we were not allowed fruit juice as it rots youthful teeth. In the communal kitchen a chart showed photos of young faces. It’s rare to see any photos of schoolchildren these days as endless permission has to be sought to take them, but these were the faces of pupils with allergies: peanuts, wheat, mustard, milk, soya, nuts, eggs.

It was more like a convalescent home than a school, and I was reminded of a very different era last week, listening to Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O! on BBC Radio 4 Extra, an episode first heard in 1961. Edwards the irascible headmaster has been summoned to court after being reported by a boy for excessive use of corporal punishment. For a pupil to do that was considered hilarious and preposterous, and the beleaguered headmaster finds himself in a world of ‘conniving school boys and dim coppers’.

Reference is made to another case brought to court after a boy received eight strokes of the cane ‘for persistent slacking’.

‘Eight? I don’t start counting until I get to double figures,’ counters Edwards.

That kind of banter, probably now illegal from any teacher, was the cheerful side of a world which could be very dark. In the marble foyer of the school a photo from 1948 showed boys lined up before the headmaster, looking terrified. One of them was standing to attention. I’m not asking for a return to that world of deference which often amounted to cringing fear, but to have abolished all of that vertical culture in favour of horizontal ‘child-centredness’ has not benefited us educationally, and children are hardly any happier.

Other countries have managed to maintain a healthy respect for teachers, and schools would surely benefit from a return to real education reflecting the real world; learning without kindness, provided by a variety of teachers, some friendly, some not. The criterion for employing teachers should be their passion for knowledge.

I was satisfied with the painting I took home. Friends say it is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s not exactly the way I want to paint; too refined and inexpressive for my taste, but the techniques I’ve learned are extremely valuable. I have reached another level in my skill as a painter, which is exactly what I wanted. The idea that teachers have to be agreeable and empathetic is mistaken. Sometimes we need scathing tyrants to keep us on our toes or, to use a neologism, push us out of our comfort zone. What worthwhile, creative thing, apart from sex, was ever achieved in comfort?

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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